The Power of Cuban Music

Jay Moore research at
Mon Dec 18 13:11:41 MST 2000

Embargo or No, Cuban Music Reaches U.S. Eardrums

Story Filed: Monday, December 18, 2000 10:53 AM EST
NEW YORK (Reuters) - If you Americans bring your guns to Havana, a Cuban
culture minister once said, we will retaliate with guns, but if you bring
music we will retaliate with music.

Armando Hart's warning was aimed at Bruce Lundvall, now head of Blue Note
jazz records, who nearly three decades ago was a Columbia records executive
courting jazz musicians in Cuba.

The setting in those pioneering days was a secluded beach house where
Lundvall, who had just arrived, was offered mojitos -- sweet, potent rum
cocktails -- while some of the machine gun-toting guards watched a baseball
game on television.

Lundvall, now a major champion of Cuban music, chuckled as he recalled the
tense moment during one of his first visits to Cuba in the early 1970s, when
he heard talents such as Irakere, a band featuring pianist Chucho Valdes.

Irakere was eventually signed to his record label and his many visits to the
island included helping assemble Havana Jam, a jazz festival organized by
Columbia Records with the Cuban government. Decades later, in his office on
Park Avenue South, Lundvall remains amazed about Cuba's talented musicians:
``Here is this island 90 miles away with this rich culture.''

He is among many who recognize the power of a sensuous music that has
enjoyed growing popularity since ``The Buena Vista Social Club,'' the
Academy award-nominated documentary directed by Wim Wenders, and a crop of
record releases featuring musicians from Cuba.

This is one export from Cuba that has survived the U.S. trade embargo and
Lundvall does not expect it to disappear any time soon. After all, he
reasoned, ``there is a real substance to this music. Any music of substance
will last a long time.''

According to the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Havana-born drummer Chano
Pozo's September 1947 concert with Dizzy Gillespie at Carnegie Hall may have
been the first serious attempt to mix elements of jazz and Latin music.

Gillespie, a trumpeter and bandleader born in South Carolina, may have first
been influenced by Cuban music when he worked for the Afro Cuban band of
Alberto Socarras, a flutist from Manzanillo Cuba, and in Cab Calloway's
band, where he met Mario Bauza, a Havana-born trumpeter.

``There were some Cuban immigrants in the late '40s who came to New York and
some of them started working with the jazz bands -- for example, Mario Bauza
and Chico O'Farrill,'' Afro-Cuban All Stars band leader Juan de Marcos
Gonzalez told Reuters.

``The main thing happened in 1940, I think, when Cuban conga player Chano
Pozo came to America to work with Dizzy Gillespie's band. They wrote several
compositions together and the most famous is called 'Manteca.' That's a
classic of the bebop (style) of the time. Even now, Cuban music is very
influenced by jazz and jazz is very influenced by Cuban music.''

But Marshall Stearns's historical appraisal, ``The Story of Jazz,'' suggests
the mixture of Cuban music and U.S. jazz may have occurred earlier in New
Orleans when Creole music used a rumba rhythm or in the style of pianist
Jelly Roll Morton.

The proximity of New Orleans to Havana is not lost on Joe Boyd, a producer
and executive at Hannibal Records and the new Ryko Latino label. It should
be expected that musical ideas would be traded between the two ports, he
told Reuters.

In liner notes to his label's recent release, ``Cubanismo in New Orleans:
Mardi Gras Mambo,'' Boyd recalled that a New Orleans marching band sent to
Cuba in the Spanish-American War to play for U.S. soldiers returned with new
musical ideas. ``Most of the world's popular dance music can trace its
lineage back to either New Orleans or Havana,'' Boyd said in his liner

Duke Ellington would incorporate some of the Latin Beat in his 1937
composition ``Caravan,'' which Chucho Valdes recorded on his album
``Briyumba Palo Congo,'' highlighting its Afro-Cuban roots. And Henry
Mancini would take Afro-Cuban rhythms and use them for his music soundtrack
to Orson Welles' ``Touch of Evil,'' where they helped shape the 1958
detective film's own rhythm.

Cuban music's clave, a five-beat cycle that includes a beat that is implicit
but not played, continues to infect U.S. music. Nowhere was that more
evident than the latest Grammy Awards, where Latin music was embraced with
much fanfare. On stage, among them, was Cuban pianist Valdes conjuring some

The Cuban rhythms never really disappeared but their recent re-emergence can
be attributed to the popularity of ``Buena Vista Social Club,'' a Grammy
Award-winning record by Cuban musicians. The recording with sales of several
million and a documentary film about its musicians attracted audiences all
over the world. U.S. and European radios playing the music transfixed
listeners with a hidden envelope that had just been opened.

Its success prompted record labels to scour their vaults for forgotten
master tapes or rush out to snap up Cuban musicians. One such collection,
from Columbia Records, featuring Desi Arnaz, focuses on Cuban music between
1909 and 1951.

Record executives also credit loosened restrictions allowing musicians from
Cuba such as Juan de Marcos Gonzalez to visit the United States -- a big
change from 1979 when U.S. musicians such as Stan Getz and Billy Joel flew
to Havana Jam in an unmarked jet to dodge protests from the Cuban American

``In a way, Cuba is unique because it is outside of the commercial music
world ... caught in a time warp,'' said Boyd.

Tommy LiPuma, chairman of Verve Music Group who has worked with a wide range
of jazz musicians, is considering signing a Cuban band that combines Cuba's
traditional styles and a modern sounding techno style. He recalled how 17-,
18- and 19-year-old musicians wowed him with a single-minded focus and

``The horn players there were playing lines in unison, flawlessly. Music is
their life. They don't have any distractions like Nintendo.''

Boyd, who has served as producer for a diverse range of artists such as Eric
Clapton, Pink Floyd and Nick Drake, said the rush by many U.S. record labels
to issue Cuban music is one of the trends that often grip the industry. ``I
think it is probably the typical music industry fashion. There's going to be
overkill,'' he said, while adding that Cuban music has been ''established as
part of the world's aural landscape.''

Much of the Cuban music embraced in America is of an older generation that
is ``running from the future because the future doesn't look so great,'' he
said. And slicker modern recordings made in Cuba today may not attract these

``The (U.S.) middle class is fleeing modernity. People buy these records for
the same reason they want to go to a quaint fishing village. They want a
feeling of authenticity.''

Record executives and producers said they were unsure what Cuba's music
would sound like if it had remained capitalist.

Much of the music embraced today is like opening an Egyptian tomb, Boyd
said. And LiPuma said for many listeners today's Cuban music ``probably
sounds fresh and untainted. You get the sense things here (the United
States) are so redundant.''

Some record executives believe Cuban music may be a passing fad. But LiPuma
said, ``from my perspective, I don't think it is played out. I don't think
this is going away. There is just too much talent there to go away.'

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