Habana Hoy: The New Sound of Cuban Music
UK based Cuban musician Eliane Correa kicks off her new column on the current Cuban music scene with a review of Cuban fusión exponents Interactivo at the Bertolt Brecht theatre in Havana
It’s late Autumn in Havana and the temperature has dropped fifteen degrees in twenty-four hours. The ‘tropical pace’ has been replaced by crossed arms, tense shoulders and speedy walking. After sunset, the usually crowded Avenue G, meeting place of Havana’s ‘alternative’ youth, is almost deserted. Apparently, there’s a music venue/theatre called Bertold Brecht just around the corner, and the entrance is 50 pesos: affordable for Cubans, whether they have tourist friends or not. It’s quiet outside the building, and I’m starting to think I should never have gone anywhere past my living room.
The door opens and a blast of laughter, chatter, smoke and Bob Marley proves me wrong. The Brecht is packed full of the randomest possible mix of people: students, famous musicians, drunkards, a few grannies, university lecturers, punk teenagers, the National Contemporary Ballet, the builders who were painting the outside of my block last spring and even a political figure (I’m not going to tell you who). So this is where they’re all hiding.
10.45pm: people keep flowing in. I wonder where they’re going to fit. Rodney Barreto, the twenty-few drumkit prodigy, is having a laugh with Julito Padrón, long-term top Cuban trumpeter, and Robertico Carcassés, Interactivo bandleader and pianist, who can direct the band with one hand and produce the tastiest riffs with the other whilst talking to the audience and dancing around.
The stage lights come on, the chairs start folding and everyone’s smiling like little kids on Christmas morning. Robertico, Rodney and the bassist, who looks fifteen but plays like he’s got an extra pair of hands, start developing a mid-tempo swinging jazz piece. Jazz is great, but isn’t Interactivo the band that reinvented Cuban fusión music?
Julito Padrón waves towards the saxophones, trombones and trumpets who are chatting in a corner of the room. All six of them squish up in front of the three microphones, laughing and chatting. A young, shabby-looking teenager strolls onto the stage with an electric guitar, accompanied by two gorgeous mixed race girls armed with minor percussion instruments dancing their way towards the microphones.
The crowd cheers, girls take off their jackets and pile up their handbags, everyone stands up. The horns get in position like they’re about to have a race, and as Robertico lifts his hand and counts in the first song, a character dressed entirely in red with matching skiing gloves and sunglasses, a half-pint glass full of rum and a lit cigarette (this is a non-smoking venue) stumbles onto the microphone and shouts: “Buenas noches!”.
The beat drops into a syncopated rumba funk; Robertico’s trademark messed-up rhodes salsa patterns, Rodney’s fiery hits and the horns’ complex jazzy lines invade the venue. The crowd goes wild. This is Interactivo as we know it- musically impressive, full of flavour and most of all, it sounds exactly like what Havana is today: it’s Cuban in all its splendour, but it knows about the rest of the world and it plays around with it.
The audience sing the song word by word, including the trumpet interjections. Interactivo’s songs, faithful to Cuban tradition, have two parts: the first part is written out and well-organised; this is where the verses are. Then the song hits what is called the montuno: a short vocal chorus and simple chord sequence on top of which vocalists and instrumentalists can improvise freely. It’s when the montuno comes in that people throw their hands in the air and their hips to the sides, shout-sing the chorus and generally get joyful and disorderly.
Francis, who has taken off half his clothes (not the gloves) and is now exposing his hairy, wobbly stomach to the audience, sings an improvisation about my drunken neighbour’s suggestive dancing; as a result, she steps on stage, puts on his sunglasses and dances with him with one leg around his waist. Francis sings: “I’m a blast-blast-blast-blast-blast!” as most of the band giggle away.
It’s probably about 40 degrees celsius and I’m catching up with all the passive smoking I haven’t done in England - if Francis smokes, so can the audience-, everybody looks like they’re having the time of their lives, the grannies are dancing with the punk kids and the builders are handing out beers to the university lecturers, and I wonder how it’s possible that people abroad still think Cuban music is old guys with cigars and bongos belting out sixty-year-old tunes, when we have this.
So what is Cuban music? Is it a quintet playing the Buena Vista Social Club classics in a luxury hotel full of smiling, mojito-sipping pink faces? Is it the Chan Chan and the Cuarto de Tula? Or is it the Timba bands that revived Cuban “salsa” music in the nineties, such as Los Van Van and La Charanga Habanera, known in London among salsa connoisseurs and Cuban immigrants’ close friends?
Or the thriving hip-hop scene of Havana; the Superior Institute of Arts’s twenty-year-old students leaving Wynton Marsalis open-mouthed and wide-eyed with their level of virtuosity; is it the soulful voices of Diana Fuentes, Danay Hernández, Haydee Milanés?
Is it the strident voices of black rumberos accompanied by a dozen percussion instruments on full throttle, or the temperature generated by Interactivo no matter when or where? Traditional music may be the foundation of today’s Cuban music, but have we stopped to think of what we’re missing?