Cuban Music is Hot! Hot! Hot!

Will Jesse, Dan, and Monica Finally Make It In Havana?

Francis Vale

All Cohiba's are not created equal. For the uninitiated, Cohiba is the name of a great Cuban cigar. Unfortunately, all things Cubano are legally off-limits to American citizens. The U.S. State Department has had a long-standing trade embargo plus travel restrictions on this Caribbean country, one of an almost extinct breed of Communist systems. Naturally, this strict Cuban embargo has brought out the very best in some stateside business people. For example, General Cigar, displaying a virtuoso performance of we're-all-out-of-original-marketing-ideas, is selling cigars in America with the Cohiba name. This is apparently legal, but what's Cohiba supposed to do, come to the U.S. and market their products against General Cigar? Those dumb Americanos who think they're buying a real Cuban Cohiba cigar are being woefully mislead by their own illegal desires. (Do you think Tripp slipped Monica some of these Cohiba wannabe's to help trap Bill?)

"This is not the real thing, dear" also applies to Salsa -- Not the sauce, Monica, the music. Most popular Salsa is just a tough New York City attitude about how to jam Cuban music. Cuban cigars also happen to rank first in illicit stuff smuggled through NYC airports. But puffing on Cubans is not the same as smokin' some Salsa. If you want real Salsa, you must go to the land of its musical origin, Cuba. For many of you out there, the genius and attraction of Cuban music and its incredible artists might be old news. You could have already bought and played a zillion times the Grammy award winning "Buena Vista Social Club" album [World Circuit], produced by Ry Cooder.

The Buena Vista recording is a nostalgic tip of the hat to a group of old masters of Cuban Son, the original wellspring of today's Salsa. The slow to mid-tempo Son is of Afro-Cuban origin, and sprang up in Eastern Cuba at the turn of the century. Like ragtime in the U.S., Son spliced European elements into its African roots. Another megaton Cuban missile hit in the U.S. was "Live in New York", featuring the 1992 blow-the-doors-off performance of Los Munequitos de Matanzas [Qbadisc].This CD featured traditional Rhumba (rumba) music, which was a huge American and European ballroom dance craze back in the 1930's. (How do you pronounce Xavier Cougat, anyway?) Rhumba is closer in tempo to Son than to mambo, a much more up-beat Afro-Cuban dance music. And in the late 1990's, the Cuban musica scene is once again very up-tempo -- It's hot, hot, hot!

It's just too bad that for so long Cuba-under-Castro music carried such a big payload of political baggage when it was launched towards American shores. Especially if it landed in Miami-Dade County Florida, home to a large number of pissed off Cuban exiles that still remember the Bay of Pigs was no beach party. These still-angry-at-JFK Cubanos got the County to pass an ordinance that forbids it from doing business with Cuba, or with anybody else who does the devil's business with the Land Of Fidel. This Castro-castrating restriction even goes so far as to ban Cuban musicians from playing on Miami radio! The tangled political plots down in Dade can be wierder than an Oliver Stone flick. Not too mention the various CIA plots to knock Castro off. In 1963, the CIA tried to poison Fidel with a chocolate milk shake! Altogether, the CIA failed eight different times to kill El Supremo sweet tooth. (Maybe Fidel switched to Nutrasweet.)

Some South Floridians' anti-Fidel emotions can get a little out of control. Down in this land of ozone-stripped carcinogens, a Little Havana restaurant was firebombed in 1996 in protest of its plans for bringing in Cuban actress-singer Rosita Fornes. At least we didn't blow up Buddy Holly (or did somebody?) when anti-rock and roll sentiments were rampaging through the U.S. during the 1950's. Fortunately, things seem to be loosening up somewhat down in Dade, and Cuban musicians can apparently perform there now without wearing asbestos suits.

Blue Note is one record label making a concerted effort to get some new Cuban music into American's hands. However, their new Cuban program got off to a shaky start, like with Jane Bunnett's remarkable CD, "Chamalongo." This album was originally supposed to have been put out by Sony, but Sony dropped this excellent album like a hot plantain right after President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton bill into law several years ago. Like Sony, Blue Note also made early promises to Bunnett about footing the Chamalongo production bill, but this famous jazz label was similarly spooked by the scary specter of Senators Jesse Helms and Dan Burton.

When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, these two guys are pretty frightening characters. Helms-Burton created an incredibly crazy predicament for the Canadian Bunnet and everybody else residing outside the U.S. who suddenly discovered they had run afoul of this new law. Clinton would probably never have signed this global police dog legislation, were it not for a highly unusual set of circumstances. This junkyard mutt was pushed through Congress in 1996, just prior to Cuba's muy mas macho military ruthlessly slaughtering a group of escaping exiles. Some courageous Cuban fighter pilots blew the refugees' small defenseless plane right out of the sky as it was frantically fleeing to Florida.

This really ugly incident made huge national news in the U.S. The resulting media talking head frenzy played right into the hands of the virulently anti-Castro lobby down in Miami. Clinton was backed into a media-hyped corner, and subsequently signed this meshugga thing into being. So thanks to a small but highly politically charged group of South Floridians, and to two sunbaked Senators with half-cooked policies, America is now legally bound to punish any country on the planet that does business with Cuba. (How do you spell global trade war?) Did anybody bother to think about this crazy law's potentially devastating consequences to the American economy? Well, if you're out of a job that's one sure way Helms and Burton can keep you from buying Cuban music CDs!

Jesse and Dan are apparently clueless that if there is anything a dictator loves more than absolute power, it's having his country vilified by a big outside enemy. There is nothing like stoking the fires of mass paranoia for gaining one more excuse to tighten the political thumbscrews. In the end, it's the population that suffers and not decrepit despots like Fidel. But what does logic have to do with any of this, anyway?

Fortunately for Americans, they don't have to suffer from a lack of great Cuban music. The embargo imposed by the U.S. State Department embargo left a loophole, since widened by several court rulings, that allowed for cultural exchange programs. So long as the performing artist is not rightfully paid for his or her hard work (anything new in that?), Cuban musicians can do gigs in the U.S. Rather amazingly, a number of these ninety miles south of Key West artists have jumped at the chance to come play their extraordinary music in the U.S., despite the often attendant humiliation, intimidation, and their getting FBI checks but no paychecks.

But even then, only those artists on the Cuban government's approved list get to travel abroad; that is, the Havana bureaucrats are reasonably sure they won't jump off the nearest stage and defect. And although these artists aren't supposed to be paid while working in the U.S., word is that the more well known acts get generous "travel expenses." But that's still no solace. The revenue-needy Cuban Government agencies that arrange and manage these "cultural" tours apparently take most of the bands' "travel" money. Regular performance income made by artists in Cuban-friendly countries also gets whacked with a fat government tax. Finally, the impresarios managing these travelling acts get their nicely large cut. When Joseph Heller wrote "Catch 22", he must have had suffering Cuban musicians in mind.

While Blue Note and other American record companies cannot legally produce new recordings by Cuban artists, they are at least allowed to license and distribute material from third-country labels. So, two years late, Blue Note eventually got Jane Bunnett's now self-financed Chamalongo out on the street. This is a really good thing, because one, Bunnett is a superb jazz saxophonist and flutist, and two, Chamalongo is really good music making. The album's title cut is a head-bobbing foray into Afro-Cuban ritual Santeria music, a sound whose ancient West African rhythms have had a significant influence on Cuban music as a whole. Remarkably, the Chamalongo piece comes across in a totally modern way, yet still manages to capture and evoke the deeply buried roots of this music.

For centuries, an infamous seaport in the West African Gulf of Benin was the wretched epicenter of the slave trade to the Americas. A group of slaves comprised of the Nigeria and Dahomeyan Yoruba people were shipped to Cuba (almost certainly through Benin), where they became known as the Lucumi. As it happens, the ancestral cradle of Voodoo is also in Benin, a West African country that sits between Togo and Nigeria. From Benin, Voodoo spread into other countries in the region. And so it transpired that Voodoo was also shipped from The Gulf of Benin to the Caribbean, and into many other parts of the New World. In Cuba, the Lucumi transformed Voodoo into Santeria.

Santeria is but one of several spiritual descendants of Vodun, or Voodoo. It is a religion many thousands of years old that still flourishes today in many parts of the world. Just in West Africa, Voodoo currently has over fifty million followers. Voodoo is a rich, valid, religion, and not some Hollywood-conjured set of hocus-pocus images, like Fidel gleefully sticking Nine Inch Nails into a wax effigy of Jesse Helms. At the religious core of Voodoo is the belief that nature and natural forces are brought to life and are controlled by divinities and spirits. Voodoo is therefore an animistic religion. When in an ecstatic trance state, or via appropriate rituals, believers enter into communication with these spirits and thereby seek divine intervention in their lives.

The Lucumi simply superimposed the Catholic saints and theology of their Cuban slave masters upon the spiritual beliefs of their native homeland. The merging of Voodoo and Christian beliefs produced Santeria. This deft maneuver kept the ancestral Yoruba cultural identity alive -- as well as the Lucumi, for how could their intolerant slave masters find fault with such apparently proper Christian worship?

The same superimposing of Christian beliefs upon Voodoo happened almost everywhere in the New World that the peoples of West Africa were shipped as slaves. Thus, various dialects of the orally passed-down Voodoo tradition are practiced today in many different places. In Jamaica it is known as Obeah, as Vodu in Haiti, as Umbanda and Candomble in Brazil, as Hoodoo in southern parts of the United States, and as Santeria in Cuba. The Santeria offshoot is also practiced in Puerto Rico and in a number of big cities throughout the U.S. West African Voodoo and its various descendents are rich, if rarely seen parts of America's multicultural fabric.

However, one has to wonder if Voodoo's influence on American culture is not "visible" in other ways. Afro-American jazz was heavily influenced by Christian gospel music. When the early slaves first began incorporating gospel music into their Christian worship in the U.S., were the still fresh rhythms of West African Voodoo chants also included? Or did Voodoo's descendent down in the Deep South, Hoodoo, find its own musical way into jazz while this new genre was still being formulated? If either occurred, then modern jazz owes part of its musical richness to ancient Voodoo, just as Lucumi Santeria chants have influenced music making in Cuba today, like in Chamalongo.

Bunnett's work in Chamalongo is as vibrant as palm trees dizzily dancing in a wild tropical wind. She blows in with one skyrocketing riff after another. The album's music is filled with dynamic rhythms and a highly complex pattern of vocals (sung on several cuts with lilting passion by the late diva, Merceditas Valdes), flute, piano, trumpet (played by Bunnett's partner, Larry Cramer), bass, drums, and percussion. Chamalongo is a stirring, exotic brew of Afro-Cuban rhythm and Afro-American jazz. It just moves. So move off your ass and go buy it.

It makes me crazy to think that the absolutely incredible Cuban pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdes could have been declared contraband to American ears. (Can you imagine old Cigarette boats loaded to the gunwales with Valdes recordings, smoking their oily way here from Cuba?) Valdes is often touted as being one of the world's greatest pianists, period. For once, the hype does justice to reality. This guy makes the ivories come alive in ways you never thought possible.

For almost three decades, Valdes has been making the keys dance to his towering passion, virtuosity, and intellect. The notes simply pour out of him in a musical torrent. Listener resistance is futile. A great Blue Note CD on which to hear this jazz maestro at work is "Bele Bele en la Habana." Exotic whiffs of Tatum, Evans, Tyner, and even Cecil Taylor are all in there, but Valdes is no slave to imitation. He simply uses the great jazz piano tradition explored and developed by others for his own artistic launching pad. Chucho then blasts off into his own musical space.

His style is truly distinct, and once you have heard Valdes play, you will never mistake him for anyone else at the keyboard. The lower registers just roll over under his flying hands, while the upper registers get a special kind of finger massage. Both ends of the keyboard are then summed together in a stunning, incredible musical exposition. Chuco's work is alternately explosive, introspective, improvisational, and always incredibly rhythmic.

Irakere, the group backing up Valdes on Bele Bele, jams together like a non-stop, high-octane music-making machine. As in Bunett's Chamalongo, Irakere incorporates Lucumi rhythms into its Afro-Cuban music, a genre that also includes Abakua, Ararra, bata, and yaka drums. Valdes and Irakere also work jazz and jazz/rock fusion into their exotic musical mix. Bele Bele is a shake and bake blitz of incredible musica. This CD is a must have.

And where would this Cuban music overview be without a little Salsa to spice up the mix? I'll be first to admit that Salsa was not my favorite musical genre to spend serious time with. It was fun to dance to but to actually sit and just listen? Sorry, boring and repetitious. But then I heard Cuban Salsa. Whoa! This Salsa is even great for just listening -- although the body frantically wants to get up and move. This is not mindless boom-boom-boom music. Cuban Salsa has substance, soul, rhythm, and drive with purpose. Like "Te Pone La Cabeza Mal" by Juan Formell and Los Van Van. The members of Los Van Van are the Grateful Dead of the Cuban music scene. Los Van Van has been jamming away before faithful audiences since the 1960's. Juan Formell created the Songo style that gleefully makes a mad Cuisinart mix of funk, rock, and Cuban percussion. This album lays down firm fan instructions: Shake your weary bones, grab a partner, and dance away the day's tired bullshit.

Cuban Salsa like Te Pone is a revelation. The lyrics, performances, and orchestration are all first rate. It also has wit and style. And it's great driving music. Slap some silvery Salsa discs into the CD changer, crank down the car windows, and cruise phat. Cuban Salsa may even change your choice of who you hang with. If he/she doesn't move to Cuban Salsa, call the undertaker because they're likely dead.

Or call a medico to see if the musically comatose patient can be revived. Of course, this means dialing 911 for Manuel Gonzales Hermandez, otherwise known as Manolin, el medico de las Salsa. He's a former MD/psychiatrist down in Havana who turned musician in 1994. His songs now top the Havana charts. (If Castro says you must be crazy not to love his paradise on earth, who's to argue?) This medico's spirited treatment cleans out bad Salsa arteries. So grab the CD crash cart and lay on "De Buena Fe". If this doctor's soul stirring Salsa doesn't bring the patient back to his senses, then all hope is lost. In some ways, De Buena Fe is a less harder driving album than Te Pone, but it's no less smart in style or presentation. Both of these CDs are really good tropical medicine for your Yanqui overtimed-to-death spirit.

Finally, if you can't bring yourself to believe that Helms and Burton don't have your best interests at heart, then at least spring for one good Cuban music sampler CD. Otherwise, you'll never know what you missed. Try "Cuba Now", a really fine collection of musical hits by several highly gifted Cuban artists. Los Van Van is on there, as is Manolin and Adalberto Alvarez y Son Son. And NG La Banda is also featured, the band that arguably started the whole 1990's Cuban music craze with its hard edged, street smart, jazz/funk style.

If your musical soul is in danger of being held captive to bad music, then play the Cuba Now cut, "Soy Todo" by Los Van Van. This song is a plea by Mayito, one of Havana's hottest young singers, to Orula, the supreme god of Santeria, to help him. By track's end, you too may become a believer in the unique Cuban sound. And then absolutely play "Somos Lo Maximo" by Manolin, the Salsa MD. This brassy, funky, hard-charging song on Cuba Now is a great example of timba, the Havana word for swing. By this CD's end, if you're still clueless about today's Cuban music scene, hang it up, muchacho. Go back to listening to your old Eagles' LPs.

So buy a bunch of these great Cuban music CDs, like the ones listed below. Then mix yourself a tall, cold Cuba Libre, kick back, crank up the volume, and drink to that jammin' day when Cuba is free at last. Maybe then all those sun-dried Dade County Cubanos will turn on their old Philco radios again and loosen up their musical sphincters. Meanwhile, when you're deep into your fourth rum cocktail, perhaps your well lubricated mind will also slip into a fantasy about Helms and Burton getting caught with Monica on a secret love junket to Havana's liberated beaches, and aye, aye, aye! This frightening threesome discovering the pleasures of a real Cohiba.

Time for another Cuba Libre!

A Cuban Music Sampler

Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana
Blue Note [7 2438-23684 A?2/7]

Various Artists
Cuba Now
Hemisphere/Metro Blue [7 2434-93156-2/4]

Manolin, el medico de la Salsa
De Buena Fe
Metro Blue/Blue Note [7 2438-21306-2/8]

Tony Martinez
La Habana Vive
Blue Jacket Entertainment [BJAC 00065-5026-2

Joe Lovano & Gonzalo Rubalcaba
Flying Colors
Blue Note [7 2438-56092-2]

Paquito D'Rivera and The United Nations Orchestra
Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, May 14, 1997
Blue Jacket Entertainment [00065-1003-2] Note: HDCD

Chucho Valdes
Bele Bele en la Habana
Blue Note [7 2438-23082-2]

Juan Formell Y los Van Van
Te Pone La Cabeza Mala
Metro Blue/Blue Note [7 2438-21307-2 7]

Copyright 1998, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved


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