December was a month for music and more in Havana! First the International Jazz Festival (read more about it in Heaven in Havana) blew into town. Dance-wise, bands that might have been otherwise touring were home for the holidays. Los Van Van, Bambaleo and Manolito held free outdoor concerts at La Plaza de la Revolucion. Friends and I found out that Mayito, one of the vocalists with Los Van Van, had been in a car accident after this concert. We heard this from our taxi driver! Hey, news travels in many ways in Havana. After making phone calls the next day, it was good to know Mayito had not suffered any injuries but the word was his car was in bad shape. The band is busy recording a new CD, so keep your ears and eyes open for one out on the market later this year. I caught up with Pedro 'Pupi' Cedroso before a Los Van Van recording session for an interview. Stay tuned. As luck would have it, Changuito was also there and had time for an interview. More words and praises from Changuito in an interview. Pedrito Calvo has also recorded his own CD. Though they will be on the East Coast in the spring, we won't hear Los Van Van until the fall. Well, maybe there are some cheap tickets to the East Coast...
Jesus Alemañy was in from England so Cubanismo was busy rehearsing every day. I dropped by a few times in Centro Havana to say hello and hear them at work. As usual, impossible to stand still while they play. Their latest CD,'Reencarnacion' came out during their tour last year so there wasn't much chance to play a lot of the newer material. When they return to the States this spring, you'll hear a lot from that CD. They'll be here in late March. Look for an interview with Rolo Martinez, the famed sonero currently working with the band.
Pablo Menendez and Mezcla were busy rehearsing for their now regular gigs Friday and Saturday nights at La Casa de Infuciones in Havana Vieja. A beautiful coffeehouse venue, Mezcla packs enthusiastic crowds for listening and dancing. Lots of guest musicians drop by. One week it was Jesus Valdes and Oscar Sanchez. The next week it was famed cajon and bata maestro Pancho Quinto and cantante 'El Negro'. You can get a latte or cappuccino too! Mezcla should make it to the US this fall. Hear from Pablo Menedez in an interview in the near future.
Geraldo Piloto and Klimax returned from playing in Cien Fuegos. They will be touring in Europe again this spring. It would be nice to catch them here, but nothing has been set up. I missed hearing them at the Jazz Festival. Watch for an interview with Piloto.
Bobby Carcasses is working away with his ensemble, which includes son Robertico Carcasses. Just in from Europe was Yosvanni Terry to round out a group rehearsal with his sax. Read an interview with Bobby Carcasses .
I have to say that whether I was walking on the street, at the Jazz Festival or visiting someone, I ran into Don Pancho Terry all the time! This chekere master is in high demand. We might find him back here along with Columna B again this summer.
Inspite of a very tight schedule, I was squeezed in for a visit and interview with Juan de Marcos. He is working on at least four recording projects at one time. The Afro Cuba All Stars should be back our way later this year. There will be more from Juan de Marcos in an upcoming interview.
I also visited with famed montunero Pio Leiva. This vibrant 81-year-old will be out on tour again this year with Maraca and with the Afro Cuba All Stars. Pio Leiva has a lot to say in an interview to be posted shortly.
Maraca y Otro Vision were jammin' at the Jazz Festival. They will be busy with a new recording out of France later this year. Expect a visit from them in the spring or summer.
Another famed sonera busy at work is Teresa Caturla. Her energy and grace added much to the Afro Cuba All Stars this past tour. She also directs Las D'Aida. Yes, there will be an interview with Teresa Caturla up very soon!
Since one can not just pop in for a short visit while in Havana, so went one of my last afternoons in the house of sonero Ibrahim Ferrer, recently of Afro Cuba All Star and Buena Vista Social Club fame. He and his family have moved to a nice flat in Centro Havana. He is also working on a new recording project. Unfortunately, there was not enough time for an interview. Maybe when the Afro Cuba All Stars make it here later this year.
Sonero Felix Valoy, also recently of Afro Cuba All Stars fame, was on hand at the Jazz Festival. He is working with Juan de Marcos on a new recording project. We were supposed to meet for an interview, but, well, that is how it goes in Havana: you never know what might happen one day to the next.
The club scene...
Often, I found myself dancing more at people's homes than in clubs. They were a bit pricey or just not the place to be. The famous Palacio de la Salsa was still closed when I left. Casa de la Musica in the Playa neighborhood had music at least four evenings a week. This club is rather like an auditorium but without the usual seats. Tables and chairs are set up and the band is way up there on the stage. One Wednesday I heard Halia (formerly of Bambaleo) and her band Azucar y Negra. Her vocals are the best thing about that band. I arrived poised to hear Rojitas (formerly with Cubanismo) only to find he had just finished. It was only 1AM! Most clubs will be open until 3 or 4 AM, and there are always places that stay open to 6 AM if you want more. No matter. I left and headed out to La Cecilia in Miramar. There, a few nights a week, on a lovely outdoor stage, one of the young, all female bands, Las Chicas del Sol played and sang their hearts out. I kept missing Sexteto Habanero for traditional son at Casa del Amistad in Vedado. Next time. UNIAC, close by, has rumbas and more on Wednesday afternoons. They also feature Saturday evenings of boloeros. Remember that things are always subject to change, so it is a good idea to call first to see who is playing that evening.
Café Cantante has salsa on Saturday nights and late Thrusday afternoons. Again, other musical and dance opportunities presented themselves and I never made it there. Every night was good to hear jazz at La Zorra y El Cuervo in the Vedado neighborhood. The club stays open to 3 or 4 AM, so you can't arrive too late. I caught Oscar Valdes and his group Inside Fly, with Jazek Manzana, a young trumpet prodigy. Bobby Carcasses and his ensemble played another night, as did Chucho Valdes. This club is downstairs, small but a great place to hang out. Again, you never know who might show up to play with the showcased band.
Sunday afternoons offer outdoor rumba at Callejon de Hamel in Centro Havana. This alleyway has beautiful murals painted by the artist who lives above. Here, regulars such as Clave y Guaquanco play to a packed crowded of listeners and dancers. Two dancers from Los Muñuiquitos de Matanzas arrived to dazzle the crowd one Sunday. During the Jazz Festival, many of the performing artists made their way over to play such as Giovanni Hidalgo, Changuito, El Pele and El Negro.
One of the best rumbas I made it to was at the house of some friends. Pancho Quinto and vocalist El Negro were there as were members of Yoruba Anodaba. I found the less formal a setting, the better the music and dancing seemed to be. Then again, I like that down home atmosphere and that is what I found a lot of while in Havana.
I was able to track down two of the magazine offices and editors that write about musica Cubana. One was at the office of Mili Ernesto, of the magazine Tropicana Internacional. This journal is in Spanish and English. Unfortunately, they had some tough times and did not publish much this past year. They do expect to be back on the scene very soon. They have distribution offices all over the world and are looking into setting one up in Canada, so we here in the US would actually be able to subscribe. You can check out a little about them at this web site.
Salsa Cubana is another music magazine. Their latest issue was coming out the day after I left. Their articles are in Spanish and you they can be seen on-line .I believe you can subscribe.
Plans have been made to receive regular updates directly from Havana as far as the music scene goes. Whever you go, you are never far from music in Havana. Check back for updates.
Article and photos © 1999 by Julia Sewell