There is music everywhere in New Orleans just like here in Cuba,” said pianist and composer Roberto Carcassés by phone while sitting in a park in his hometown of Havana. “It’s the same combination of African and European and all kinds of races and cultures.”
Cuban rhythms will fill the air as the multi-talented Carcassés and the Cuban-born members of his all-star band—drummer Oliver Valdes and bassist Nester de Prado, plus percussionist Cesar Bacaro—who presently lives in New Orleans—perform at multiple shows during early November. The musical “invasion” begins with the pianist’s residency and performance at the University of New Orleans where he will hold a workshop for students and perform at the college’s popular Jazz at the Sandbar series on Wednesday, November 6.
A graduate of Havana’s prestigious National School of Arts, Carcassés has previously led workshops including time spent in the classroom at Stanford University. He says that he doesn’t prepare lessons, rather he just shares his experience. “Something I think is central is freedom, to push the boundaries and try to do something different, something new,” he explains. “My experience is the combination of my love of music and my love of freedom and for work. Music is something you have to work, you have to practice all the time and keep getting richer.”
The group moves over to Snug Harbor on Thursday, November 7: a show that will include Roberto’s father, Bobby Carcassés, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who is renowned for his scatting. “Dad is a very important person in Cuba and someone who really fought to develop the blending of jazz and Cuban music,” Roberto says, adding that his father will play flugelhorn with his quartet. “I worked with him always, since I started playing jazz and started playing good, though I wasn’t a member of his band. My father is like me, we are all the time listening to each other; we are interacting, like asking and responding.”
The jazz ensemble, which Carcassés describes as a “wild quartet,” will perform original material, classic American modern jazz tunes and material from Cuban composers. When Roberto is at the keyboard, Cuba is never very far away.
In New Orleans, musicians tend to mix things up, with many artists turning up in a variety of bands and playing a variety of genres more often than in most locales. It’s truly a music community. With the 2001 formation of the contemporary, co-operative ensemble Interactivo, which is directed by Carcassés and performs at the New Orleans Jazz Market on Friday, November 8, this philosophy also prevails.
“When I created Interactivo that’s what I was trying to do,” says Carcassés of the collaborative ensemble’s free-flowing membership. “There was a different mentality [in Cuba] that people had to belong to one group. People in Interactivo don’t feel obligated to be in the band and do nothing else.”
For Friday’s Interactivo show, Carcassés’ quartet will be joined by jazz poet and rapper Telmary. “She’s amazing,” Carcassés declares. “She didn’t study music, she started rapping naturally. When she raps she talks about love and social issues.” The group will also expand with the addition of New Orleans trombonist Christopher Butcher and tuba player Steve Glenn.
“The difference between Interactivo and the quartet is that we fly more,” Carcassés says. “When you play for people to dance, you really have to make them dance.” He explains that one or two numbers might be jazz-based to give the musicians the opportunity to improvise, though much of the repertoire will be song-based so that people can sing along.
“To be a Cuban is many things and many contradictions,” Carcassés says.
“Cuban music is always open to influences. You can bring to Cuban music different sounds and different ways of playing and combine it with anything—with tango, with funk, mariachi and European music. That’s something that makes Cuban music develop all the time. That’s why Cuban music is always evolving.”
“I feel like I’m a home when I’m in New Orleans,” Carcassés says with sincerity. “I enjoy it every time I go—every time is different.”
Putting a Cuban-flavored topper on the month is the return to Tipitina’s on Thursday, November 14 of the hot young vocalist Cimafunk, who tore the place up last spring. Born Erik Rodriguez in the rural town of Pinar del Rio, Cimafunk brings it on strong with his Afro-Cuban funk and showmanship to match. Cimafunk’s name was inspired the Cimarrones, slaves who escaped plantations and founded their own settlements, and his hard-core devotion to funk. Declared one of Billboard’s 10 top artists to watch in 2019 and making the charts with his infectious “Me Voy,” Cimafunk has also played with Interactivo though, as Carcassés explains, he’s been so in demand his activity with the band has been scarce of late. Big Chief Juan Pardo of the Golden Comanche Mardi Gras Indians, who boasts Cuban heritage, will be a special guest at Cimafunk’s show that will include performances by the New Breed Brass Band and students from the Trombone Shorty Academy.