Politics divides, but jazz unites.
—Ronell Johnson, Preservation Hall Jazz Band trombonist.
The Havana Jazz Festival is probably best-known as the place where Dizzy Gillespie first heard Irakere, whose members Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval would defect to the U.S. not long after. Chucho Valdés remained behind, but eventually found his fame as well. Although he didn’t appear at the festival (the 34th) this year, the piano great Valdés was given the title of festival Artistic Director in the 1990s.
Havana is impossibly and famously atmospheric: the thousands of rattling ’50s-era Chevys and awful Soviet-era Ladas that serve as taxis, the fragrant cigar smoke, men arguing loudly about baseball in the parks, music everywhere and in every aspect of life. The American mafia’s casinos and legendary dance clubs and hotels still remain—the Capri, Hotel Nacional, Deauville, Riviera, Tropicana—and only add to the crumbling city’s charm.
Fans who travel on the pricey tours (one of the few ways for most Americans to visit legally, besides on a cruise ship) are treated with an enormous roster of talent to choose from each January. And dancing to the free street salsa bands scattered throughout city parks is oftentimes just as amazing as seeing the headliner acts in the hotels and theaters. It may come as a surprise that musicians are not paid for appearances, even though ticket prices are very high by Cuban standards.
Despite the haphazard way of life in Havana, the jazz festival concerts start exactly on time and are fairly well run.
There are musicians like Arturo O’Farrill (son of Cuban great Chico) who can’t get enough of travel to Cuba, and has gone many times over the decades since his first visit. The pianist/bandleader often returns to draw inspiration from the great well of Afro-Cuban rhythms. This year O’Farrill realized “my life’s dream, an almost-religious experience” to play in Santiago, on stage with Afro-Cuban folkloric legends Muñequitos de Matanzas and Conga Los Hoyos. Both groups are as close to the ancient sources of African culture in the Americas as it gets; Conga played their hubcaps and other repurposed objects-turned-instruments at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in 2017. Formed in a Matanzas bar in the 1950s, the Muñequitos are the most famous rumba group from the island. “To play with the two groups, It was among the high points of my life,” O’Farrill says, recalling the intense concert.
He is not at all shy about his disgust for the U.S. embargo, either, which he calls “criminal,” an easy case to make when you learn how much suffering it has caused in Cuba.
O’Farrill once said that Cuba and America got divorced in 1960, but we are still madly in love. To the question “Should we remarry?” he says “Absolutely!” He adds that “to discard a country because their politics don’t align with ours, that’s the crime.”
The 100th anniversary of the birth of Cuba’s greatest singer, Benny Moré, was feted in a festival tribute concert of master musicians on Thursday night. Bobby Carcassés sang, Ernán López-Nussa (an uncle of the great musical López-Nussa family in Havana) played piano, and Barbarito Torres of Buena Vista fame played laud, with other guests. The most exciting popular music band in Cuba, Cimafunk, also performed, one of the few groups to mix American old-school funk with timba. They played a wild outdoor concert the night before, yet another life-altering experience.
At the huge art and performance space, Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Cuban-born drummer Dafnis Prieto was a perfect excuse to take in a memorable show. Another was saxophonist/chekere/composer Yosvany Terry, whose latest record, Ancestral Memories, contains a swinging ode to New Orleans, “The French Quarter.” There also on Saturday was a lecture by the spectacularly gifted pianist Harold López-Nussa, one of the growing number of musicians who are now permitted to tour outside and return to Cuba. One memorable night concert was the López-Nussa Trio featuring harmonica player Gregoire Maret and percussionist Pedrito Martinez.
The Preservation Hall band visited again this year, with a Thursday appearance at the Hotel Nacional, former residence of Cuban Mafioso boss Meyer Lansky. It was yet another evening lineup that could hardly have been more filled with artistry: singer Joss Stone, Septeto Santiaguero and Yosvany Terry. Preservation Hall are repeat visitors to the island, as their 2018 documentary A Tuba to Cuba attests. Preservation Hall Jazz Band leader Ben Jaffe, leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band mentioned how “Cuba evokes the full spectrum of emotions, the extremes, complete joy and total sadness. It’s something you have to experience. There’s so much beauty in Cuba and there’s also an air of pain.” Preservation Hall Jazz Band also performed in Santiago “it’s more New Orleans than New Orleans” Jaffe adds. “There’s a conga tradition similar to our social aid and pleasure club tradition. Each conga club also is a group, and when they strike up, everyone comes out and marches along. It’s just like being in the 7th Ward, and as soon as you hear music you start looking for the parade.”
Roberto Fonseca led the closing night’s open jam with many talented women singers, including a cameo of Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuondo. The largely foreign audience left late, elated, carrying memories of those incredible sights and sounds with them, until the next visit to the island.
Cubans who will be represented at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this year include Septeto Santiaguero, performing on Saturday, April 27; and Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez, performing on Saturday, May 4.