La Música Está Vivo Y Bien En La Habana (Music Is Alive And Well In Havana)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - by Jimmy Tawater

When I was 10 years of age there were 15 minute television shows in the afternoon before the news. One of those shows was "Xavier Cugat with Abbe Lane".  This show was my first taste of Latin music and I was hooked.  Loved it when Desi Arnaz would have a musical clip in "I Love Lucy". Don’t laugh!  

It was difficult to hear Latin Music in the Chattanooga area while growing up.  Occasionally, Luther Massengale would play a Latin tune on his morning show and “Dave the Rave” Oliver of WMFS (now known as WNOO) would play Ray Charles’ “Frenesi” or “One Mint Julep” on the “Chicken Shack” program in the afternoons.

Time rolled on and BAM! Out of the West came Carlos Santana.  Carlos Santana brought the Latin/Afro-Cuban feel into the mainstream by fusing it with rock.  I said “feel”.  Yep.  Dearly loved the feel and the undeniable soul and still do. But was the sound authentic?  No screaming trumpets?  No trombones?  Where were the constant octave/unison piano licks?  What was a B-3 doing in there?

“Oye Como Va” was my pick of the Santana crop and after reading the writer credit under the title which read:  “Tito Puente”, it was like striking gold!  This discovery has led to extensive collection of Tito’s work.  The dreams of visiting the country of origin of this genre began with discovering Tito.

Here is a brief treatise on the fulfillment of that dream:
Our group of 10 travelers to Cuba shared common interests in the art, culture and music of the Cuban people. Our cultural excursion was guided by the capable talents of Abel Valdes, a Cuban national and Ariel Gonzales a Cuban-American citizen of Miami who is originally from Havana. At our orientation Ariel asked each of us why we wanted to visit Cuba.  Y’all know my answer.  When I answered, “The music”, both Abel and Ariel looked at each other and grinned.  They knew what a dose we were in for!

Our guides were greeted like long lost sons in every neighborhood, restaurant, bar, art gallery, gas station, barber shop, church, bar and museum we visited;.  It was so cool to get to know these two guys.

The journey into the music began at breakfast at the hotel: Piano player supreme.

At lunch, or on our afternoon cultural excursion, we would have Cuban mambo bands; or, a trio or a duo and ALWAYS with some type of percussion.  At one lunch stop we were treated to a young male singer accompanied by a guitar player and an alto sax player.  The singer was shaking a small, egg shaped maraca in his palm.  Got to have percussion of some sort! .The guitar player was playing an Ibanez George Benson model through a small 5 watt Marshall amp.  Other than that, there was NO sound system, no microphone or P/A for the singer or sax player.  None was needed.  Amazing!  We could hear everything well.  These guys are music students at the University.  According to our guide, their tuition is free.  

Each evening during cocktail hour at the hotel, the guests were treated to the performance of         “D’ Amores Son” an all-female Mambo band.  Beginning at the dinner hour of 7:00 PM another all-female group, a different one each night, would take over until closing.

Monday’s lunch hour at El Figaro Restaurant had a trio playing that consisted of acoustic guitar, bongos and trumpet.  Of course, the guitar player sang extremely well  and…….no microphone.  No P/A system.  These guys called themselves “Los Padrinos de Cuba” (The Cuban Partners) and when the guitar player announced, in English, that the next tune was a Platters tune for the ladies, I couldn’t help but begin to sing along at the table. The fellow noticed right away and motioned me up.  WOW!  Did I go up?   Well hell yes I went up!  Just one mojito was all it took! We had a ball!  He would sing a verse while I sang the harmony and then we would switch.  The sweat poured off me like rain water.  He was cool as a cucumber. Then all of us fellow travelers were allowed to sign our names on the wall of El Figaro dining room with a Sharpie provided by the owner of the restaurant.  Did I say “owner”?  Yes I did.  According to our guide, all restaurants in Cuba that are not part of a hotel are privately owned by Cuban citizens.

In St. Francis Park on Tuesday I had the privilege of jamming with the musicians playing in the park. "Oye Como Va, mi ritmo? Bueno pa' goza! Mulatta!" I thought I had died and woke up in the bosom of St. Francis hisself!  (Note to editor: the incorrect grammar of “hisself” is for emphasis) . The muchacho that loaned me his guitar ran my phone video. 

The highlight of the entire trip’s experience was.....wait for it..........THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB! Yiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!!!! Two trumpets, Trombone, bongo player, conga player, timbale player, bass player, broom player, plate player, stick player, kitchen sink player, fork player, hub cap player, coin jingler, soda straw player, comb player, sand block shuffler, fish bone scratcher and keyboard plus four male vocals, two female vocals; and, as an extra added male vocal feature:  Senior Ignacio! 98 years old! Plus:  A female dancer and a male dancer (uh…neither being  98 years old).  O.K., O.K., I may have exaggerated a bit on the description of the percussion ensemble but you get the point.  

Fellow musicians, singers and performers please note:  Only the vocals had microphones through a very small P/A.  No problem.  

Now go to WikiPedia and read about the Buena Vista Social Club.  I wish that Barbara and so many of my friends and fellow musicians could have enjoyed this experience with me. It was so good.

For now it is, “Hasta que nos encontremos de Nuevo, La Habana.  Adios por ahora”  (Good bye for now, Havana.  Until we meet again.) 

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