Journey to Produce Music in Cuba Under The Radar

Journey to Produce Music in Cuba By J. Plunky Branch I decided to take the opportunity to travel to Cuba to conduct research in my professional field, Africa and African-American Music History. I spent several weeks making contacts, gathering information and developing plans to go the island and document the music there as it exists today and as it relates to the history of Black music in the Americas. I would take my digital recording studio equipment, video camera, other gadgets and my son, Jamiah along with me for an 11-day excursion, research, production and performing junket that would be both memorable and rewarding. Here is my journal kept on my laptop during the trip. I share the information and observations with you in the hopes that you will benefit from my experiences, be piqued by my insights and enjoy the adventure… Tuesday, 4/10/01- 3:10am: On the train to New York. Unbelievable beginning to a remarkable experience. We left Richmond yesterday morning at the end of a two-week whirlwind of activity consisting of preparations for this trip to Cuba while continuing my ongoing activities of recording in my studio, doing gigs in schools and keeping up my personal relationships. Going to Cuba was not something that has always been on my life’s itinerary. Friends of mine had been suggesting and inviting me to accompany them or to go and perform in an annual jazz festival or to be supportive of various organized activities aimed at loosening the 40-year-old U.S. embargo. I had considered going to Cuba, but my schedule, my finances and the political pressures always combined to make the trip impractical. Now, here I am on a train going to New York, where I’m planning to change to a train to Montreal, Canada, where I will spend most of one night and then take a plane to Havana tomorrow morning. I am traveling with my 19-year-old son, Jamiah, who has never been out of the country and never been on a plane. I suspect that this trip will change his life’s view and be indelibly etched into his memory bank. In fact, we had to leave Richmond at 11:00 AM yesterday in order to come to DC to pick up his passport which we had to expedite by coming up to DC on last Friday. So, we spent an active and leisurely afternoon in DC after going to the passport office, then driving out into Rockville, MD to pick up some Sony Beta Cam video tapes and then killing time in Georgetown. While waiting for Jamiah to do some shopping I bought a little book on traveling to Cuba and it looks like a wonderful, maybe magical, place to go and do research into the music of Africa in the Americas. It also looks like a great place to vacation. Tuesday, 4/10, 11:20 AM: On the train out of Albany New York Though I thought that once we were on the train out of New York, we would just have a straight shot to Montreal, we, in fact, had to change trains. Moving our considerable load of baggage is proving to be a demanding production unto itself. We have six parcels to transport: one fat brief case which includes the laptop; one shoulder-strapped saxophone case holding both the alto and the soprano saxes; one flight case for the Roland VS 1680 digital portable recording studio; a box of Sony Beta Cam video tapes; one over-stuffed, over-weight clothes bag; and one oversized flight case containing microphones, wires, video camera, hard drives, batteries, tapes and all things technical. We have so much stuff that at every juncture I have to wonder if A.) Jamiah and I will be able to handle it all; and, B.) The authorities will let us board with it all. But so far so good. In my mind, the preparations and initiation of this excursion has been viewed as an endless series of minor hurdles that have to be leapt and minor challenges that have to be met head-on or gotten around in some way or another. Early on in the process it was just the hurdle of getting to the point that I wanted to go. A very important challenge had to do with reconciling the political situation revolving around Cuba and the implications of working within the U.S. government restrictions on travel to the island. While I am a child of the sixties and a rebel at heart, it is another matter to take risk with resources and your time when you are 53 years old and have a family and business associates and music mates who all depend on your expertise and your being on hand to hold it all together. Then there was the myriad of things that had to be done to allow Jamiah to go with me. Jamiah is on probation for a misdemeanor offense, so we had to get his probation officer to agree to allow Jamiah to leave the country. By the time we got over that hurdle, there was just enough time to expedite his passport application, but only by going to the passport office in Washington, DC. Yes, Jamiah would be going with me. His going will be a giant step forward in his training in business, in his development as a man and in his knowing the world as it exists. Jamiah’s going with me to Cuba would also be important to me as a father trying to pass something on to his son. In addition to him being a videographer, a budding hip-hop beat-master and percussionist, Jamiah is important on this trip because I certainly could not be carrying all this stuff to Cuba without his being my chief baggage handler and roadie. It is just past noon and we are barreling northward; through Saratoga Springs, NY, across fields and forests of melting snow; north toward the border with Canada. I don’t know what to expect regarding customs and immigration into Canada but I have considered getting into Canada with all that we are transporting to be one the few remaining hurdles to jump. When we do get into Canada with all this stuff, then we’ll have to get a hotel; get from the hotel to the airport at 4:45 AM tomorrow morning,, and then the last hurdle: getting on the plane to Havana. Last night before leaving Washington, DC I took Jamiah to the train station at 1:10 AM. The plan was for me to leave him and all the baggage at the train station while I drove out to the edge of town to leave the car at an old friend’s house, then take a cab or Metro back to the train station to make the 3:00AM train. Before leaving Jamiah at the station I thought about asking one of the taxi drivers there to follow me out to my friend’s and bring me back to the station, but then I thought that that might be expensive, paying two fares. So I noted the phone numbers on a couple of the cabs there and figured that I’d call for a cab to meet me out there on the edge of town. Well, out on the edge of town, I called the numbers and the best I could do was to be on hold for 15 minutes before being told that it would be a 30-40 minute wait for them to get me a cab. After parking the car and waiting 30 minutes, I called back to the cab dispatcher and after waiting on hold for 12 minutes I was told that they still hadn’t located any of their drivers who were out in my region. So I decided that I would do better driving around to find a cab myself, or in the worst case scenario, driving back downtown to the train station and paying whatever the cost to park for two weeks near the station. I started driving back downtown and spent a frustrating 15 minutes looking for a cab that wasn’t off duty. Beginning to get a little worried, I decided to head back out toward my friend’s house. As I’m speeding up I-295, I spot a taxi about to come on the highway. I speed up even more and flag him down. (It was more like I blocked his entry onto the highway.) The cabby agreed to follow me to my friend’s and take me to the train station. On the way back downtown to the train station, I learn that the cab driver has invested $60,000 in studio equipment for his son. And his son is looking for a saxophonist to do some recording on several projects that he is working on. I gave the driver one of my CD’s and my card to have his son contact me when I return, but I was more grateful for the lift to the station than the synchronicity of the music production hook-up. I made the train and now I’m on my third train, passing through snowy mountains and lakes in upstate New York or Vermont. I have enjoyed a lunch of pizza, turkey Caesar salad, white wine spritzer and a large chocolate chip cookie, and all is right with the world. Jamiah has no trouble sleeping and sometimes I wish I had that knack. Thursday, 4/12- 8:AM in my apartment room in Havana: It has been an eventful 36 hours since I sat at this laptop to notate what’s going on. We did get into Canada without a hitch. The Canadian customs agents boarded the train, checked documents, asked questions, but checked no baggage that I saw, and after an hour, the train moved on. When we got to Montreal, we took a cab out to a Best Western Motel right across from the airport. And though Jamiah wanted to go out and do something in Montreal, because it was Tuesday night and not much was happening in the city and because I was just a little tired from all the travel and preparations, we stayed in the room and ordered Chinese food. I went to bed around 10:30 PM but awoke hourly, being concerned about over-sleeping, even though I had asked for a wake-up call at 3:40AM. I got up at 3:30, showered and we took the shuttle bus to the airport, arriving there at 4:20 to pick up our tickets. The travel agent didn’t show up until 5:30, but we got the tickets and boarded the plane without hassle. It was a beautiful day for Jamiah’s first plane ride: sunny and bright with just a few clouds to offer perspective and depth of field. After takeoff, he slept most of the way there. Our first glimpses of Havana from the air revealed that the city sprawls, empties into the sea and has the flatland topography of the typical coastal urban area. We landed, went through customs and immigration with only a slight delay with a question raised about the box of Sony Beta Cam tapes. But when I said that I was a musician here to record, they immediately apologized and let us go into the main terminal and into Cuba. Skipper was not there to meet us! Well, we were early. We had to wait about on hour for him to show up, but in his defense, he had been told that the plane would arrive at 11:45. We took a car and a cab into and across Havana to our apartment. The city had the look and feel of the tropical third world but with a cleanliness and bustle and energy that is refreshing. The people are a good-looking rainbow of shades. Our apartment is at the edge of a part of town and is across the street from the water and a monument. It is clean, nicely appointed, with two bedrooms and a maid. It will also cost twice as much as I had budgeted. We also hire a car and driver for the duration of the stay and I shell out half the money I have with me and I will wait to speak with Skipper about what I have and how it will be apportioned until am to be reimbursed. After dropping off our luggage, we head to the film institute to meet the director and film crew for Skipper’s film, “Why.” The film Institute training school is a government agency, which teaches students the art of filmmaking. The students will make propaganda and regular programs for Cuban television and films for distribution to other Latin American countries. (When we arrived I had a scare when my Canon GL-1 camera “ate” the first tape we put in it and then would not load subsequent tapes that we tried. But it turned out that the camera had accumulated some condensation from the flight and the humidity here in Havana.) We had lunch across the street from the film institute and discussed the film project with the director and assistant director. After lunch we were joined by trombonist Craig Harris, one of the musicians in Cuba to do a recording with David Murray for a French Canadian record label. We all went with Craig to have his lunch at the Casa de la Musica, which was directly across the park from the film institute. Craig had arrived in Havana three days earlier and had already gotten a feel for the place and he had already been meeting some of the Cuban musicians who were going to participate in David Murray’s session. And Craig had already been out to hear some of the tremendous music that goes on in this city. We went back to the film institute where we watched some video about Bata drumming and the Santiera religion and we talked about the amazing quality and quantity of Cuban music and musicians. Craig is an engaging and smile-inducing conversationalist and we had an enjoyable afternoon hanging out. At 5:00 PM we went back across the park to the Casa de la Musica for a club/concert by one of the most popular local bands playing salsa at it’s hottest. People started buying tickets at 4:00PM for the 5 o’clock show. When arrived at 5:15 the place was already crowded. The show opened with a Shango dancer who did fire eating, sword dancing and lifting a table with a girl seated on it with his teeth. Then the band ripped it up for two hours non-stop. Hot salsa, hot young bodies gyrating, in a hot, hot hot happening! And Skipper says this kind of thing goes on everyday around that time at places all over the country. Hot music in the afternoon. Then later, hot music in the night at these same clubs. Hot music and hot hips gyrating in African circles, fast, slow, up and down, round and round; mesmerizing… Thursday, 4/12 - 9:00PM - Back at our Apartment It was a full day but an up and down day. An interesting day in that we got some interesting things done but at the same time a day of some frustration for Skipper because he wanted things to move along more directly and expeditiously. We got up and showered and got out of our place by 9:30AM. We rode around with Skipper and Carlos, our driver, to a couple of places trying to get things moving by prodding government officials along so that they would see our commitment to getting the music and ultimately the film produced. Skipper was also trying to impress upon everyone that the American Musicians are here and here only for a limited period of time, so that now was the time when the recordings have to be made. According to Skipper there is a Cuban mentality that holds the belief that all meaningful things have to proceed in an orderly and prescribed way and that way must pass through and be administered by the party bureaucrats. Bureaucrats by nature are not innovators or boat rockers and they guard their own turf and sense of importance. They tend to defer to other bureaucrats, particularly those of higher stature. We were supposed to meet with a music producer who would be assigned to work with me and get me anything and anyone we would need in order to get my recordings done. We never did see that person today. We did go see Salome, a Santiera priestess and local block representative in her neighborhood, which is deep in one of the deep barrios in Havana. We had to look for her place but we did find it, a small, one bedroom second story walk up into folklorica. Her living room was a non-descript, dingy ghetto place that could be anywhere in the Third World. Very sparsely furnished with a sofa, wooden chair and table and not much else. The whole apartment and terrace were as poor as any I have ever been in, but there was no revulsion and even a certain invitingness about the place. Salome is a very large woman; the type you describe by spreading your arms wide apart. She spoke very little English and Skipper, who knew her, communicated as best he could, that we wanted to see her shrine to the Santiera spirits; that I wanted some information about her religion; and that we wanted a blessing concerning the project. She ushered us into her bedroom and showed us her shrine which was like a closet filled with a cornucopia of artifacts, whatnots, knickknacks, beads, necklaces, figurines, feathers, hairs and whatevers… She spoke to us in Spanish about Yemaya, Shango, Obatala & Ogun. She said a prayer over Skipper and then one blessing Jamiah and me. Jamiah videotaped the proceedings. We then moved out on the terrace where she showed us an animal skin nailed to a board, an egg cracked on a hand written note, and other items which had once been living but now were sacrifices to the Saints. Skipper spoke with her about arranging for us to come and record some musicians and part of a religious ceremony. A neighbor who spoke English was summoned so the negotiations and arrangements could be understood. She said that she would try to arrange a party or event where three Bata drummers and a singer would come and play and we would record them. This will happen on Monday if the musicians are available. Then on next Wednesday we can come to a religious ceremony and record all the things that go on outside the ceremony, but not the most sacred, secret portions that go on inside. It should be very interesting when we do these things. Setting up digital recording equipment at a party within the confines of Salom’s tiny el barrios apartment will be technically challenging and it will represent an incongruence of modern technology meeting ancient folklore. And it could be artistically and musically unbelievably rewarding. The rest of the afternoon was spent trying to make connections with people and discussing the theoretics of what we are trying to do. We took our meals at Skipper’s apartment. He has a small place in the hood and he has a woman who takes care of his place and cooks for him. She fixed black beans and salads for lunch and later she fixed chicken for Jamiah. At 5:00 PM we went back to the Casa de la Musica to hear another hot salsa band and to witness more of the hot dancing. The crowd today was different from yesterday, a little older and slightly more traditional somehow in their taste, but no less exuberant in their response to the music and the setting. The Casa de la Musica is a night club space by any other name. It has a great sound system, a large stage with a raised platform at the rear for the horn section, and the club boasts adequate professional stage lights and mirror balls for atmosphere throughout. It is a really nice place and would function anywhere in the world. Here in Cuba it is one of the places that makes the national phenomenon of music as an exhilarating release, music as recreational highlight of the day, music as emotional high, a reality here. It’s like the whole city has a thank-God-it’s-Friday party every day. And oh the women! Oh the bodies! And oh the shaking that goes on! Salsa Africanized at the hip! Rhythmic and counter-rhythmic sensuality in motion. The music, the dance, the energy - it’s what changes day into evening in Havana. Saturday morning, 4/14 - 9:30 AM - In bed at the Apartment Yesterday was another experience in Havana. In the end it was an eye opening, almost mind blowing set of realizations that may have drastically changed my perspective of music in Cuba and what it can mean for the people here but also the potential power of this music to be a force in dynamic changes that may be underway in the world of music. Certainly as of this morning I am changed. My notions of what I do and will do with music and in music have been altered. Plunky’s music, band, productions, careers and record company possibilities and goals may never be the same. And maybe this is why I have been led to come here. I almost can’t remember how yesterday started… Oh yes, we got an 8:00 AM wake-up call from Skipper. Jamiah and I did a little bit of exercising and had juice, fruit and coffee prepared by our maid. Then we got Carlos, the driver that Skipper hired for the week and whose apartment we have rented, drove us over the Skipper’s place where we had a long meeting with Dennis, a local musician whose band we had seen at the Casa de la Musica the evening before. Dennis has agreed to work on the music for Skipper’s film and we were meeting with Dennis to discuss the specific arrangements for us to do some recording with him this week. Also at Skipper’s was Marika, a young European music student from Holland who is a fan of Dennis who we met the evening before after Dennis’ gig. Marika, who will serve as a translator for us, is blond, not hard to look at, adventuresome and is well traveled for her 26 years. The meeting with Dennis is very productive. He has already written and arranged some music for the film and he is eager to work with us. We decide that we will record his band at a gig next Tuesday and, possibly again at another gig at the Casa de la Musica next Thursday. I suggest that we will record him doing some solo guitar and singing of the songs that he has composed for the film so that we will have some of the songs in more than one setting and mood for the film score and for the CD. Over lunch we discuss many things, including finding other hip-hop, folkloric, salsa and rumba musicians to work with. Dennis and Marika will be very helpful with this because they really know the music scene in Havana. We also discuss some of the details of setting up to record in the clubs and other places. And we discussed the business and politics of we are doing. Craig Harris came over with a couple of young guys and a good lunch was enjoyed by all. Food is expensive and a real concern for the working class people in Cuba and sharing food is a real friendship builder here. We decide that we should all go over to my place so that Dennis can see my recording equipment. On the way to my place I decide to have Denis go get his guitar so that I could do some recording right then. We do just that, setting up the Roland VS1680 and we ended up recording three beautiful songs with Dennis singing and accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. I played some soprano sax on a couple of tracks and I think that Dennis was impressed with the music and the quality of the recording we made. The apartment is all marble, stone and plaster, so the acoustics have a nice, natural reverb; and although we had to contend with traffic passing by outside, we were able to record some beautiful and poignant music. After the recording session we piled six of us (minus Jamiah) into Carlos’ small car to take Dennis home for his band’s rehearsal. We went to el barrios and found the band all set up in a yard surrounded on three sides by the walls of two-story tenements. The whole group was in place: five horns, two keyboards, drummer, three percussionists, bass and soundman plus assorted roadies, friends and observers. The band consists of young players with good chops and obviously schooled in music. I listen to three songs and I am impressed with the intricacies of the horn arrangements, the attention to detail, the tightness of the rhythms and the professionalism found in this ghetto setting. I am amazed at the musicianship, the seriousness of the pursuit of the groove and the importance of music in Cuba. Just as Skipper and I are about to leave the rehearsal, Dennis indicates that he wants me to sit in with the band on tenor sax. So I am given the sax player’s horn and we jam hard on the changes for “Autumn Leaves” in salsa and swing. We had a ball and everyone was all smiles as we left. We were in the same neighborhood as the Salome the Santeria priestess and Skipper had to stop by there to discuss the arrangements for the “party” on Monday when we will record the Santiera musicians. Going up the pitch-black stairway up to her apartment is like ascending up into another world. But it is in no way foreboding. She is so very friendly and inviting. The arrangements are confirmed for 6:00 PM Monday, three drummers and a singer, an hour and half, food rum, people and we get to record it. Later that night I went to hear Jose Luiz Cortez and his band at the Casa de la Musica. Fantastic! Stupendous! Marvelous! One of the best bands I have ever seen! Hot, spicy, energetic, super musicianship, super chops, super tight! I am just knocked out by the combination of musicianship and energy! Tightness and grooviness. These guys were terrible! The cover charge was $15 as compared to $5, or even $2 that is sometimes the case. This band was worth the difference. Every musician was world class. Each one was a virtuoso of classical or jazz proportions, yet they played together in the context of this partying, grooving atmosphere. I am blown away. I could live here! Between the music, the bodies, the energy, the climate. In a world where governments would exist only to provide for the distribution of goods and services equitably, for the general welfare of it’s own people and not have to be concerned with defense, I think Havana would be paradise for me. African and American. Music with rhythms and energy - moving the people. Tropical weather with perpetual breezes. People dancing at the close of the day and again at the close of the night. Who needs cable TV! I woke up this morning thinking of not trying to compete as a performing musician, but if I were to continue performing, then I should have a bigger band, with more musicians; and more rhythms and more energy. I have always loved expending maximum energy on stage, giving and receiving high energy to the crowd, the audience, and the people. I see that this energy is what some people are asking for in my music: the high energy that has been there since my beginnings and that has recently been a little sublimated by the smoothness of corporate US radio and the influence of musicians in my band who have day jobs and complain about how long my sets are. I woke up thinking about recording and producing the music here in Cuba. It is a hot commodity on the world music scene, and rightfully so. There are many issues to be dealt with, politically, socially and musically, but there is great potential in the timing and Skipper’s solid Cuban contacts. I woke up thinking about music here being a tremendous force for social change. Cuba may be the most musical place on the planet! It is certainly among the best places for hot music anywhere. It has an abundance of talent and its society has continued an African tradition of music being accorded a significant place in the culture. And Cuba’s modern history has conspired to allow music to be a stress reliever, a source of national pride, an ingrained part of the social dynamic and social life, and an economic generator. Cuban music may be one of its chief exports and one of its great ambassadorial resources. Cuban music may be one of my great life changers. Easter Sunday morning, 10:AM - Mi Casa Skipper called to see if we’re awake and to see if I went out last night. I did go back to the Casa de la Musica to hear Manolito’s band, another one of the best salsa bands in Cuba. They were as good as advertised, with strong rhythms, really interesting orchestral arrangements and a unique instrumentation, with a string section consisting of a cello and two violins added to the usual compliment of horn section, two keyboards, four percussionists and four lead singers. I went to the club alone and ran into Marika, who was there dancing and hanging out with the musicians. She said that she had collected the names of several rappers and musicians who were interested in our project. I also met Ronald, who had picked up Michael Kenny, another one of Skipper’s friends, from the airport. We talked about Cuba, the music, the project, and at the end of the evening Ronald gave me a lift home. Earlier in the day yesterday we learned that we would not be able to do the party and record the Santiera musicians at Salome’s place, after all, because the drummers were going to do a gig in Martinique. I was disappointed because I was really looking forward to recording and being part of that happening. But Skipper said he had another possibility, so we had Carlos drive us to Guanabacoa, a deep Afro-Cuban ghetto, where he had a friend. Jamiah and Siul, our new, very fluent translator was with us and we all enjoyed our drive across Havana to the other side of the docks, to a section of the city that had rough, barely paved roads, horses, pigs, and the appearance of a shanty town. When we got to the compound of his friend, Skipper was greeted warmly by all, from the elders to the smallest children. We arranged to have a small party in order to record some music there that very evening. We left there to go looking for an extension cord and three-pronged adapter plug and to go past David Murray’s place to see if he and Craig would want to come hang out in the ghetto and see the happenings. Then we went back to my place to gather up the recording and video equipment and headed back out to the little recording session, a 30-minute drive away. When we got there, we set up the recording studio in the yard, which was enclosed by the walls of the small apartments in the compound. It was almost a miniature rural setting that included a pig oinking, a pigeon coop, two small dogs, one daschun and one mongrel with it’s left eye hanging out, assorted family members and children in a small yard that had a small creek running through the back. Jamiah and I placed five microphones in strategic places, got the video camera loaded and we were ready to roll. Skipper broke out the rum and soon our little recording session party was underway. We had two old conga drums, claves, a cowbell and five or six men doing unpolished chanting. Later a young boy brought his trumpet and another came in with a snare drum and a rusty cymbal, which he set up on an overturned bicycle frame. The music was basic rumba. The rhythms had their moments of magic, but the singing was very unpolished and loose. I think that there was a lot of hesitation and uneasiness caused by the presence of all the equipment, which is more than understandable. There is what my friend, Kevin Teasley, calls “red light syndrome,” where musicians of all levels of expertise go through some amounts of stress and tightening of the nerves when the recording light goes on and the engineer says, “tapes rolling!” Carlos made another trip across town and brought back David and five other people in his entourage including two European women, one of whom is a photographer from Geneva traveling with him. They all came in and added an incongruent international and high tech flavor to the tiny informal yard party in the ghetto. A couple of times I joined in the music on my soprano sax and a good time was had by all. After the recording session ended, we disassembled the equipment. Tables and chairs were set up and we all ate dinner and drank some homemade rum. Music on the little stereo included Kool & the Gang, Mariah Carey and Earth Wind & Fire; and after the meal when the salsa played, there was even some dancing and beginning lessons in doing the salsa. David Murray even asked me to do a cameo appearance on his recording session coming up next week. I am honored. He says that he would be a fool not to take advantage of my services since I’m here. I am a bit concerned because there would then be two parallel heavy schedules to fulfill and my priority has to be doing the recordings for Skipper’s project. I am not sure that I need any more pressures at this point, but still working with David and the super musicians that he is assembling for his sessions would be really something! Skipper talked about it in his morning phone call and he thinks that if my energy can handle it, then I should go for it. He thinks it’s a tremendous opportunity and that I’ll just have to rest when I get back home. Sunday night, 10:00 PM in my room. This morning I stayed in until 12 noon when we dashed over the Skipper’s place to pick him up to go to a cultural festivity on a special street in a downtown neighborhood. When we got there we found a block turned into a work of art by a renowned artist, Salvadore. His paintings covered every wall like graffiti and his sculptures were everywhere along the tiny street. He had a shrine to the saint Ogun and an indoor gallery of his works as well. He has donated his public works on this block to the people and on different days there are programs for children or art classes and various cultural activities. On Sundays there is a rumba festival and percussion and dancing groups come there to perform free for the people. When we arrived, there were throngs of people jammed into the center of the street, which was really about the width of a wide alley. There was a covered shed under which the drummers and singers and dancers performed. The event was a neighborhood and an international affair with people from Havana intermingled with people who were obviously tourist from anywhere. People were watching and listening to a rumba group drumming and chanting and the crowd was closer than shoulder to shoulder. What should have been aisles were jammed with bodies trying to closer or to move through. Cameras, tape and video recorders were capturing much of the goings-on, but I am not sure there was anyway to capture even a majority of what was there in that alleyway: polyrhythmic conga drums and shekeres with heavy chanting, people dancing or swaying or listening or looking at art and each other, a kaleidescope of colors painted on everything, more people standing on the sculptures, on benches, on balconies of rainbowed tenement buildings, all mixed together in the heat of the hottest day yet here in Havana. We videoed, took digital pictures and recorded audio on minidisk and still most of the stuff passed on out into the universe uncaptured and free to all eternity. We sent Carlos, the driver back to the apartment to pick up my horns so that I could play with the next group scheduled to perform. It was Rumba Morenga, an all women’s rumba group. They sang and played the drums, shakers, claves and bells and they excited the crowd with their energy. I did play my soprano with them, but I have to agree with Jamiah who thought it was not one of my better performances. The women sang with the micro-tones of African chants and I could not get in tune with them. But once again the crowd seemed to enjoy my playing and we grooved together in the moments that were ours. Sometimes the event and the facts and effects of the moment are more important than the resulting particulars and artifacts. After we left, we saw Hamiet Bluiett sitting on a porch. Amazing! He was in from New York to do the David Murray session and he was waiting for his ride to the rehearsal. We stopped the car and talked to him and his wife and said we would see him later. When Skipper wanted to rest I made the tactical error of going back to my place and then to his place to eat rather than going to Dennis’ group rehearsal and/or to David Murray’s big band rehearsal. I was disappointed and a little depressed after missing those. I really should have gone to the big band session with all the big name musicians. It was my opportunity to scope out what was going to be deal with that and my week coming up is looking more like I won’t have a lot of time to be with that crew as much as I might like, so today’s time should not have been missed. I should have gone on to the rehearsals myself with or without Skipper or anyone else. I blew it and I hope that I can make that up to myself. I went to shoot some video scenes of me playing at a couple of monuments and by the sea in our neighborhood; then to shoot some pool with Jamiah and Carlos; and then I came here to write this. Jamiah went back over to Skipper’s to check out more food and some young chicks. I’m staying in tonight. I hope that this trip is like freshman college courses for Jamiah. This “semester” with me in Cuba he is taking: political science, video journalism, world economics and musical anthropology. I think that he sees it as just an interesting vacation, sometimes resenting that he has to video tape the proceedings rather than just checking out the sights and trying to get into something. Jamiah is so interested in being cool that he doesn’t want to have to be burdened with the camera bag or my horn case. He’d rather hang out with Carlos than attend cultural events and he’d rather play with the little kids than to sit in on business meetings. But I am sure that he is learning a lot and that he’ll remember and benefit from this trip for years to come. Monday, evening - 8:15 PM Back at my place. Today I got up early (because I went to bed early last night) and did my yoga on the cold marble floor. We had an early meeting with the Vice-president of the Music Association and though we got there early, we had to wait an hour or so before we actually got in to meet with him. Skipper, David Murray, Craig Harris, Siul, the translator and I met with the Vice-President and his assistant and discussed Skipper’s project and how the film, the music and the musicians might be used as a weapon against the U.S. blockage and for better cultural relations between the two countries. We talked about what the institution could do for us this week, i.e. securing a studio or room to be used as a studio for recording and helping us contact musicians to be recorded this week. But we also talked about the prospects for long term relationships and projects that would create ongoing work. David Murray suggested that one thing that would have great impact would be working with instrument manufacturers to provide instruments and repair services; and the Vice-President was excited by that prospect. He said that there are 44 groups (marching bands, orchestras, concert groups, etc) in the Havana area and instruments are scarce and those that are available have “been here since Columbus.” He talked about other projects that have been initiated in the past. One was called Music Bridges, in which composers from the two countries were paired together to create joint collaborative works. The project was successful and some of the compositions were innovative and interesting, but when the project was finished there was no mechanism in place for any continuation of interaction. We concluded by agreeing that this proposed long-term, relationship-building program was worthwhile and should be pursued. We said that the next step was to put a proposal together so that the Vice-President could carry it forward for approval by the appropriate ministry. After that meeting I went back to pick up my horns and Jamiah to go to David Murray’s big band rehearsal for his recording sessions to start on tomorrow. Jamiah and I were among the first to arrive. The studio was old but well equipped. The sessions would be recorded on two-inch analogue tape. The recording room is a large enough space to record the 18-piece big band and it is acoustically deadened so that it should be a really good recording. The musicians are some of the best in Havana. All of them have great chops and are great sight-readers. David has been working on the compositions and the arrangements for quite a while and he has worked with two well-known Cuba composers for a week to incorporate the rhythms and feelings of Cuban music into his works. This big band sounds really good playing the charts. I did get to play soprano on one piece and my lack of recent experience reading music charts was really apparent to me. I got through the chart but not like the other cats. They sight read it better than I would have played it after a week’s practice. I enjoyed being at the rehearsal and was impressed with the whole production, from top to bottom. I think the recording should be very successful. Skipper and I spent some of the evening taking about things. The project, the budget, family and friendship histories were all topics on the agenda. We talked about my relationship with Jamiah and about our own relationships with our fathers and male friends. We reminisced about the past and projected some future possibilities. And I realize that we are still learning life’s lessons, from our successes and our mistakes. It also dawned on me that releasing Cuban music recordings might fit quite nicely on my own record label, especially since I recently acquired Black Fire Records and now have a catalogue of 25 albums. Some new Cuban artists and releases might be right on time! Tuesday Morning - 7:30 AM in bed at mi casa. Yesterday Jamiah said he was homesick. And I can dig it. Like Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home!” As long as you are busy going from one thing to the next and you don’t have time to think about it, wanting to be home is less an issue. Oh yeah, you think about the people you love and those you work with. You mentally visit projects and habits you’d be doing if you were back in Kansas or Virginia or New York, but it doesn’t turn into the pangs of pain until you have too many quiet moments strung together and your thoughts drift into the twilight zone of visualizing what you’d rather be doing; and you remember where you’d rather be doing it. Home is wherever you’d really rather be right now and where you’d rather be for the long term and, as George Carlin would say, home is where you leave your stuff. I don’t know if Cuba would ever be my home. Though one night here, at the Casa de la Musica when I was in the heat of the Cortez band’s set, and the music and the hips were pumping, I had the thought, “This is where I want to be, maybe forever!” But it’s easy to want to be in the heat of a good, hot moment. Easy to forget about politics and loved ones who are somewhere else, until the quiet moments of reflection turn into prayers and the prayers turn into visions of heaven and peace. And those things all ways are centered where you have your love - home. Wednesday morning in my bed at mi casa. Yesterday was a day that we came here to have. After I did my yoga for the morning, I got Jamiah up and we went with Carlos to pick up Skipper to run a couple of errands and then we were ready to go to the film director’s house located in a small seaside town 20 miles outside Havana. The drive was interesting in that I was our first highway trip since we got here. The coastal town was sparsely populated with beach goers and small shops, and houses of various descriptions. The beach was the most dominant feature, with its azure water, palm trees, blue sky and wonderful Caribbean flavored sights and sounds added to the general landscape. This beach town was the kind of place that you would describe as idyllic. After going out to a wonderful little pizza restaurant that boasts a real Italian-style, brick pizza oven and fresh vegetables grown right there on the premises, we went to the beach for a swim. Jamiah, Skipper and I in the clear, warm waters of the Caribbean Ocean. Palm trees, bikinis, quaint shoreline houses and relaxing dreams of this being the life. We drove back to Havana and after dropping off Skipper and Jamiah and picking up my recording equipment, I went down to the Café Cantanta where Dennis & Swing would be performing at 11:00 PM. Although I was worried that I would be late, I had a short wait outside the club before I and Dennis’ band could get in to set up for sound check. Once inside, I worked with the house sound engineer and got my recording gear set up and ready in about an hour. Then I went back home to shower, rest for half an hour, dress, pick up Jamiah and leave for the gig. On the way back to the club I stopped by the studio where David Murray’s big band was recording to assure that David, Craig, and Hamiet were going to come to the club and jam after their recording session ended around midnight. This night was what we came to Cuba to do: capture some of the magic of the musicians from Cuba interacting with musicians from the U.S. and I have been a little apprehensive about it all day. I just hoped that all would go well technically and artistically. And it did! In fact, the gig went exceptionally well. The club is located the basement of the national theater and it is quite nice, with an adequate stage, a dance floor, and really good sound and light systems. There was a tight first set with Dennis’ band and half way through it David, Craig and Hamiet came in from their recording session. Then after the break Denis conducted his band and directed a jam session with all of the American horn players and Cuban musicians taking flight in an extended salsa-jazz version of “Autumn Leaves.” We played it inside and out: David’s big toned tenor sax, Bluiett’s even bigger baritone sound, Craig’s scatting trombone and my little soprano sax all soaring, dipping, swooping, screaming and singing together and then into a series of extended solos. It was quite a descargas, a mega-jam, a 30-minute free wheeling whirlwind of musical energy! And we got it all recorded in digital quality sound and video! It was a winner. It was a slam dunk night. And everybody had a great time. It was Black fire in Cuba! Wednesday Afternoon - 2:30 PM I’m in my room for a moment having gotten up early to speak to Skipper, who called to talk about how hot the music and the happening was last night. We did get a room in the Karl Marx Theater for the rest of the week to use as our studio space. Now we’ll have to contact musicians to come through and record. We don’t have Carlos the driver and his car this morning so I don’t know how much we’ll get done today. I did light yoga and listened to the recordings from last night. As I suspected the Dennis’ band’s first set was tighter and more “even” and made for a better recording than did the jamming second set, but all in all it was pretty decent. I took a cab to Hotel Cohiba to use the Internet for an hour. The Internet connection is painfully slow but I am thankful to have access to my email at all. It is cloudy, quite breezy and chilly today, in contrast to the warm sunny days we’ve been having since we got here. Suddenly, Skipper just showed up at my door and said we’re taking the equipment to the Karl Marx theater to set up to record, so off we go. Wednesday night, 10:00 PM Back home to rest a bit. We did go to set up in the theater. When we arrived, Rumba Morenga, the all female group who performed on Sunday at the artist’s street festival, was already there waiting for us. The Karl Marx Theater is undergoing renovation, so we entered through the first floor lobby which a construction zone. The room we will be using is a medium-sized, smooth stone hall with a wooden stage. It is dusty and in the process of being renovated too. The security man and the electrician are helpful in getting the small things that I need and after a short while I am ready to begin recording the women. Most of theater’s audio-visual equipment is in use in a production in the main concert hall, so they only have one microphone stand and one microphone for me. I use chairs for microphone stands and large paintings as baffles to try and get some separation between the percussion and the vocals. The women are very effective in performing their songs and they are excited to listen back to the recordings after each take. We get a pretty good sound for the recording and I experiment with different techniques, effects and microphone placements. We were able to get five or six good songs recorded, including one percussion instrumental, five songs of percussion with vocals and one song with percussion and two tracks of me playing saxophones. Marika came and said that she had contacted some of the rappers and they would be coming as well. A little while later, six rappers did show up and they listened to the last part of the women rumba group’s session. Skipper spoke with the rappers about his project and its purposes and then I spoke to them about the recording process and artistic considerations and possibilities. They decided that they wanted to record with us. We did get to record one rap song by a two-man group. They had music tracks on CD’s that they brought with them so I was able to record the tracks directly into the VS1680 and they did their raps flawlessly, straight through, without a hitch, twice, non-stop. It went well. The other group didn’t have their tracks CD with them, so we called it a day, packed up and left. Jamiah, Michael Kenny, Siul, the translator and Skipper went to Skipper’s for dinner. Then Jamiah and I came back here to rest a bit. I am supposed to meet Marika at Zorro y Cuevo jazz café to meet the owner and to meet some other musicians for the recording project. This is also the club at which another group invited us to jam with them on tomorrow night, so I will get to check out the place as well. Ronald called and said that he would come by and pick me up, so it looks like I’m good to go. Just time for a 20-minute meditation/rest. Thursday morning - 8:30 AM Skipper called to start my day. I am tired from being out late last night and tired facing another long day recording today. Ronald did take me down to the Zorro y Cuevo jazz café and we met Marika at the door. After some moments of talking to the club manager and his not understanding Marika’s information about the project, we were admitted. The club owner was thinking that we were coming to try to film in the club. He said he had not been able to understand Marika speaking on the phone in English and Spanish, so he was a little confused. But he knew Craig Harris had been to the club to jam, so once he got it straight that I was one of the musicians who had been invited to jam tomorrow night, then everything was cool. The Zorro el Cuevo club is a small jazz place. Its size lends itself to more intimacy and closer involvement with the music. Last night the band was led by an older musician who used to be in the group, Irekere. The music was very engaging and quite varied. The instrumentation included the leader and a young cat on percussion, which included bata drums; plus three horns, drums, bass, keyboards and electric guitar. They played a number of styles and flowed from salsa to jazz to blues, to funk, to traditional folklorica, sometimes segueing between several genres in one arrangement. The young percussionist was great! After the set Marika introduced me to him (his name is Emiel Lazo) and we talked to him about coming to the theater to record on tomorrow or Friday. Also I spoke with the keyboardist who invited me to sit in with his group tomorrow night at Zorro el Cuevo and he said that he would come by the theater to check out the recording session too. Ronald introduced me to Ellen, a friend of Skipper’s who works for Pastors for Peace. Ellen was with U. S. Congressman Wynn from Prince Georges County Maryland. I sat down with them and had a drink and a brief conversation with them. Ellen is into jazz and a long time fan of the music. The congressman is here in Cuba on a brief fact finding mission. I am amazed at how many people are on the streets downtown late on a weeknight. So many clubs and restaurants open, so much music, so much nightlife. And Ronald confirms that it is always this way and I wonder if not having cable TV and so many other home entertainment options is one of the reasons that live music and hanging out is so popular in Havana? One thing is for sure, the rhythms of the drum are a big factor in the music here. I have to see if I can get a thumbnail sketch of the history of the music in Cuba. I will ask the musicians. Now to shower and head over to the Karl Marx Theater to record all day. There is a percussion festival that starts at 5:00 PM and then, David Murray’s session going on from 4:00 PM to midnight, and then the jam at Zorro el Cuevo. So much music, so little time! Thursday Night/Friday morning, 2:23 AM, mi casa again. “If musicians were kings, there would be no borders.” That’s my quote for today. I did go to the Karl Marx Theater at 10:00 AM; right on schedule. When I got there the women of Rumba Morena, the group we recorded yesterday, were already there, waiting for me. I left Jamiah in bed because once again he hung out until the wee hours, so I had to set up all by myself. Well, the electrician and the security man for the theater did help some, and so did the ladies. I spent the first hour letting the women listen to what they had recorded the day before, while I made dubs onto a minidisk. Then we shot some video of the women dancing to one of the pieces we had recorded. Marika came and so did Emiel Lazo, the young conga drummer that I saw with the band at Zorro y Cuevo last night. I immediately set up to record him because the solo I saw him do at the club was so mean, I knew that anything I could get of his playing on a recording would be a great piece of music for the film track. And indeed it was! Emiel recorded an eight-minute conga solo that was too terrible! And he is 17 years old! After that, we recorded him playing congas backing up the women doing a chant and we also recorded a piece with him and me on soprano sax. While we were doing that some of the rappers came in. The two-man rap group I recorded yesterday came in with the mother of one of them. I finished up working on what I was doing with the conga drummer. While the rappers were waiting for me to get with them, I was thinking that the mother had come to check out what we doing with her son and maybe to make inquiries about the business we were conducting with her boy. Oh but no: it turns out that her son had told her about the project and she, the mother, had written a rap about the embargo last night and they had come hoping to record it today! So the next thing we did was set up to record them doing that rap song. The process was that we used a track from a CD for groove and tempo and they rapped using that as their backup music. We intend to replace that with music that Jamiah and others will produce back in the states. After I recorded the rappers, I recorded two tracks of the young conga drummer onto the song and when I get back home and put some other music with it I think it will be a hot rap song about the blockade. “What’s your name/ It’s blockade/ You kill children everyday/ That’s bullshit, Man/ Not my way!“ We recorded another rapper doing a piece about the revolution and by that time, it was approaching 6:00 PM so we packed up to leave. It was a very interesting day of recording with the Rumba Moreno women interacting with Emiel, the 17-year-old conga virtuoso and the rappers. I also video taped an interview with the women and the conga drummer about the history of the music and rhythms in Cuba. And I even got footage of Emiel Lazo demonstrating the basic rumba rhythms on congas. It was a full day of producing in our theater hall; very gratifying artistically and also because I had the sense that we are accomplishing our mission. After going to Skipper’s to eat dinner, Jamiah and I took a cab back here to rest. Ronald called and said that he was coming over to introduce me to an older musician, Alfredo, a percussionist who has been performing professionally with his family group, Papines, for 40 years. Their group is a four-piece percussion ensemble and they travel all over the world. Tonight they performed at a festival of Cuban percussion going on in Havana this week. My conversation with Alfredo was very stimulating and refreshing. He has performed with many great musicians over the years and his brother performed with Nat King Cole when he came to record in Cuba. Talking to Alfredo was a brief history lesson that I wish I had video taped. It was Alfredo who said, “If musicians were kings, there would be no borders.” After Alfredo left, Ronald drove me to the Zorro y Cueva jazz café where I have been invited to jam with the group Bambaleo, led by keyboardist Lazaro Valdes. We picked up Marika on the way to the club and she wanted to go by and pick up Dennis. When we got to the club it was abuzz with musicians and patrons. A group playing straight-ahead jazz performed first and later Bambaleo went on. Lazaro Valdes is an innovative keyboardist and his group plays high-energy fusion. I did get to sit in on one number and although I didn’t think my playing was so great, people including the club owner seemed quite impressed. I gave the club owner one of my CD’s and he said that he’d play it on his weekly jazz show on the radio here in Havana. At 2:00AM when we left the club, downtown Havana was still active. Michael Kenny wanted to go to the Casa de la Musica but I had Ronald drop me off at mi casa. It is past 3:00 AM as I finish making these notes on my laptop and go to bed. I will get about five hours sleep and get up to do my last full day’s work today, Friday. Keeping this journal is a form of discipline. I am not so sure that it is not also a form of vanity to think that everything that I do is so great it should be documented on tape and in writing. But nevertheless, other musicians and people in general might benefit from learning of these experiences. And even though this late night note taking takes time, energy and discipline, it may be easier to do it right now than to wait and try to do it when I get back home, because there, I will have so much work to do, catching up the my affairs there plus organizing and producing what I have amassed here and doing the ongoing gigging and record business that I must do to earn a living. So onward, upward, got to keep on keeping on. Unto to whom much is given, much is required; and I have been given so very much…. Friday night on my bed early - 11:30 PM Today was the last full day of work for the week. Thank God it was Friday! And it was our last full day in Havana. I got up did a miniature yoga session and went to the Hotel Corhiba to retrieve my email. Then I came back here to the apartment and took a taxi to the Karl Marx Theater with my recording equipment and my saxophones. I was moving very lethargically this morning. My energy was low and my body just would not move out of first gear. I wondered if I might be sick, but it turned out to be nothing move than the residual effect of a couple of drinks and too much cigarette smoke and too much work and staying up late and not eating at the proper times to get the energy flowing this morning. Skipper arrived after I set up but none of the rappers who were supposed to start at 11:00 AM got there before 12 noon, so Skipper and I had a chance to talk. We agreed that it seems like there is the potential of some really great things happening here, musically, politically, commercially and humanitarianly. But there is a tremendous amount of work to be done if that potential is to be realized. I didn’t think about that this morning, but right now, it may be too much work for me: grants to be written, business plans to develop, correspondence to write, CD’s to be mixed, trips to and from Cuba, legal wrangling, marketing to be done, etc. But it is exciting as well. The rappers came in and we listened and made dubs of some of what was recorded yesterday. Telma, a female poet came in and Skipper said that she was a strong rapper, so I eagerly pressed her to do a rap for us. The only sound track she had to rap over was something that already had her rapping on it, so I recorded her rapping to that for tempo and then had her do it again so that I had two tracks of her doubling herself. As with most of the other raps we have been recording, the intention is to take the raps back to the States and put other beats and music to the raps. But Telma’s rap was something special. It was a poem/rap that was actually a kind of prayer to the Orisha’s about her life, her love, her struggles and pain. Then I asked if she could do the poem again set to a rumba beat and she said that she would try it. I cued up the rumba chant that the female group Rumba Morenga had done with Emiel Lazo yesterday. When Telma heard the track she broke out into a broad smile and said she couldn’t do it. But with a little coaxing she did and it turned out to be so bad! It was mad wild! Because here was a girl doing a poem-prayer to the Orishas over a rumba beat and females chanting to the same Orishas. Too cold! Next I had Telma improvised a derivative poem over a track of Emiel on congas and my soprano sax and that came out great too! Then we recorded another male rapper, Alexia, doing a poem about revolution. I thought his delivery was sometimes slightly off time but I also don’t speak Spanish. I thought that his tracks that he brought in was a little distorted; but we are going to put new music to most of these raps anyway, so that was not a big thing. When we were finishing up the rap things the two young saxophone players who were at the Zorro y Cuevo Jazz Café last night came in. But by 1:30 PM they were still the only musicians who had come, though we were expecting several others. We considered taking a break for lunch and coming back in an hour to see if any other instrumentalists would show up. Then I thought that I had better record something with just us three horns and if no one else showed up then I just call it quits. So Skipper took the rappers and the ladies from Rumba Morenga, who were there again hanging out, to his house for food. Marika and the horn players stayed. We spent about a half-hour working out some free wheeling musical ideas for saxophone trio. The two young guys were good jazz students, with commendable experience and really nice tones on their axes. They looked liked they were not sure if I wasn’t a bit off my rocker with some of the things I was having them try; but in the end they began to hear and get a feel for what we would be doing. Jamiah came in, having walked from the apartment, so he could assist by starting and stopping the recording device. We recorded three pieces. First we did an impressionistic piece consisting of the three saxes improvising over a set of chord changes that I charged the alto sax player to come up with. Next we did a slow blues that started out over blues chord changes and slowly evolved to a free state. And last we did a “salsa” piece with the tenor, alto and soprano saxes each holding a rhythmic part. This last piece was most interesting. As we were listening back to the tracks, the other people got back from lunch at Skipper’s. I thought about calling it a day, but I heard the tenor saxophonist humming a bass line to the salsa sax piece while it was playing back so I asked him to let me record his voice bass for the track. It was fun sounding, so I got the three ladies from Rumba Morenga to do a three-part voice percussion track. While they were doing their thing, Emiel, the terrible young conga player came in, so I asked him to do a conga part with his voice on another track. Then I added a track by the rapper who did the revolution rap to the mix. And lastly I got poetess Telma to do her thing, which was the final touch. It was salsa made from saxes and voices. As each layer had been added, the sound track sounded more and more like a Cuban paella or a gumbo and each new performance was greeted by smiles and applause by all the young people there. It was a lot of fun and actually pretty incredible both in terms of how it all came together and how it sounded. Skipper came in and I let him hear it and he was knocked out by what we had done. He said he thought Jimmy Gray (founder of Black fire Records who died last year) was somewhere up there smiling down on us. Black Fire! Skipper then assembled everyone and gave a wonderful little speech about the project and what we had accomplished in the three days we worked there. He also talked about being “cultural warriors” and thanked everyone for being supportive and giving so much of themselves. I spoke to the group, than