Soundtracking the Resistance - Discussing U.S./Cuban Relations with Havana Maestros

Bridging the Straits of Florida

Aug 11, 2017 By Stephen Mayne Web Exclusive
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This week we have renowned Cuban musicians discussing everything from their recent collaborative album covering American songs, to the political relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, plus elsewhere we update on the specter of nuclear war, Russia raids, climate change activism, and the death of a legend. 

The Big Event

Named after a famous members' club that closed in the 1940s, Buena Vista Social Club brought Cuban music to millions through a Grammy award winning album in 1997 and an Oscar nominated documentary about the group in 1999. But Cuban music didn't begin with this project, nor did it end afterwards.

A big part of the reasoning behind the decision to unite legendary Cuban musicians was a desire to bring their music to American audiences. Sales from the 1997 record demonstrate appetite exists, but influence doesn't only go one way. This year, Havana Maestros, a group including musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club, plus several new names, came together to release AmeriCuba in May, a collection of Cuban covers of American songs. Reworked tracks from the likes of Otis Redding, Ben E. King, and Missy Elliott are all included across an addictively rhythmic record.

Album arranger Emilio Vega, piano virtuoso Emilio Morales, and Buena Vista Social Club founding member Barbarito Torres joined us to discuss the new project, the benefits of cross-border collaboration, and the state of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Stephen Mayne (Under the Radar): How have things changed for Cuban music since the Buena Vista Social Club project?

Emilio Morales (Havana Maestros): The Buena Vista Social Club opened doors for Cuban Musicians like we had never seen. The band touched so many people worldwide and to this day it offers us possibilities that we would never have had. The Buena Vista Social club gave the chance for so many bands, like Havana Maestros, to succeed.  

What does the opportunity to collaborate and perform internationally bring to music?

Barbarito Torres (Havana Maestros): The opportunity gives so many great things. For example, the musicians in Havana Maestros are all very select musicians. Emilio Vega is truly a maestro of music in this country, an incredible arranger, composer, and producer. There's Harold Lopéz Nussa, one of the great pianists in Cuba from the younger generation. There is Emilio Morales, from my generation, or Robertico Garcia, one of the best trumpet players in the country, or Amadito Valdés, my lifelong friend. There are just so many great musicians.... Andres Cuayo, amazing percussionist and amazing person. They are all excellent musicians!

What does it bring to your music specifically?

Torres: Without this connection we would have never had the chance to do this very interesting project, because it uses the original singers of the songs, but adds Cuban instrumentation, very traditional instruments like mine, the lute. Our music is varied and always somehow related to yours [American music], so it was very interesting to undertake this project and capture it on a record. 

What made you choose these American tracks and artists?

Vega: As musical director and orchestrator of this great band and album, it is fascinating to work through the fusion of American and traditional Cuban music. I believe that American music and Cuban music have many wonderful things in common. At many points there are convergences of their unique beauty on this album. Cuban music is very rich rhythmically and American music has other, lovely musical richness. We tried many, many songs and found the ones that worked best. That is why I think this album and the performances by these great maestros have created such fruitful results.

What has American music meant to you? 

Morales: I have always been inspired by the great musicians of American jazz. I know all my friends and band mates would agree. American and Cuban jazz have inspired each other for generations. Without that connection we would not be where we are today. 

What impact do you hope the record will have?

Emilio Vega (Havana Maestros): I hope that our music, which is so unique and truly has the best of both the American and Cuban feel, not only gives people worldwide joy, but also continues to unite all cultures. 

The relationship between the U.S. and Cuba has undergone some dramatic changes recently-what effect has this had in Cuba?

Morales: I see people concerned, but honestly... life goes on in Cuba. Cuba will remain Cuba and the changes now from the U.S. do not affect that statement. 

What changes would you like to see in the way the U.S. and Cuba interact politically?

Morales: Of course we all want to see the U.S. and Cuba connect the way they did in the past, but we believe that in the end an even better connection will be made. For me and for Havana Maestros in general, our music speaks to people on both sides of the water. 

How optimistic do you feel about the future of the relationship?

Vega: I am hopeful that all will work out and that maybe our music can help bring us all together. 

www.havanamaestros.com

What's Going On

North Korea is threatening Guam, and President Trump is threatening "fire and fury" after the latest conflagration with Kim Jong-un's regime. Or to give the quote it's full airing, he would meet nuclear provocations with "fire and fury, and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen before." Just in case anyone might read ambiguity, he also asserted the U.S. nuclear arsenal is "far stronger and more powerful than ever before." North Korea is a threat, and an extremely difficult one to deal with, but Trump needs to be careful. He risks painting the U.S. into a corner. Acting could lead to atrocious consequences, and not acting now runs the risk of making U.S. power look like little more than posturing. These are dangerous times.

Of course, while that's going on, the Russia probe continues at full pace. We now know former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had his home raided by the FBI on July 26. A wide-ranging search warrant sent the agents off with records to add to special counsel Robert Mueller's deepening investigation. And lest we forget, it could be Grand Jury time in the not-to-distant future. 

Speak Up!

The Pathway to Paris climate change initiative has announced a stellar list of acts to play its Concert to Fight Climate Change. The event at New York's Carnegie Hall, scheduled for November 5, has the likes of Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, and Cat Power all lined up. Not everyone in America is so keen to walk away from climate change commitments.

It's easier to speak up in some parts of the world than others though. Saudi TV host, actor, and singer Abdallah Al Shahani has been arrested at a music festival in Saudi Arabia according to reports. His crime, apparently, is dabbing. The dance has been banned due to supposed drug connotations.

Song of the Week: Glen Campbell - "Wichita Lineman"

Country legend Glen Campbell, who died this week aged 81, was not in line with the majority of our contributors here, supporting Ronald Reagan and a certain brand of do-it-yourself conservatism. However, he also voted Democrat depending on circumstances, and was not virulent in his views in a time when bipartisanship could still exist. Really though, he was a great songwriter, as this all-time classic proves. And remembering that is more than enough reason to make it song of the week.

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