Cuba (Latin #1)

…And I thought Ghana was the Shit.


First of all the weather is gorgeous. Second my host family is so nice. Third my teacher is great and we can communicate just fine.


I speak just enough Spanish to get around and I feel I am learning more by the day. Phone conversations are challenging but not insurmountably so. Most of the people I’ve met are very patient with me and I have a housemate from Japan who speaks great English and can help me out if I really need anything.


Internet is insanely slow and a little hard to find. At first this really freaked me out but now I love it. The government rations wifi connection. Instead of being regulated by “data”—which is kind of a weird idea already—internet coverage is regulated by time and location. Public parks mostly have coverage but it is so slow that you can’t make calls and you have to be very intentional about what you spend your internet time on. This is really good because it means that I put a wall around my internet time and I am all the more immersed in this language and culture. I plan out exactly what I want to do online (like this post) and do it in a lovely outdoor setting and then I leave so the emails and the calls can’t find me or interrupt me. This is probably the last time in my life that I will be able to disconnect like this and I am relishing it.


That being said communism is a bear and while I am mostly insulated from it I get little tastes here and there. Before I learned to use the good ol’ black market I tried to buy an internet card through the government vendor. I waited in line for an hour and then the mob by the door was literally shoved away by a man with a club and I had to get back in line… because I was in the line for Cubans and not for tourists... and the tourist line was even longer. The other day I asked the guard at the university why he missed work one day and he told me that he was at the grocery store.


I eat most of my meals in the house where I am hosted by a lovely retired couple who can only be described as “delightful.” The father of the house Rudolfo literally drives to the countryside to pick up fresh fruit for his kids, wife, my housemate and I. He describes growing up in revolutionary Cuba with the same frustration that my teacher does.


My teacher lives in an apartment on the 20th floor of a building in Havanna central. From his windows you can see a 360 view of the whole city. He says that when he went on tour up until the 90s he had to get a saxophone in the country that he was visiting because the government wouldn’t let him back In the country with one because it epitomizes American music which was banned… but there is also a statue of John Lennon here that Castro put up because he though “Imagine” was pro-communist so it seems contradiction is rife with La Revolucion.


My practice room is a huge soccer stadium in the university where I have a nice shady oning and I watch the dudes practice soccer while I shed and they are serious. Very cool to see the different ages progress.  This stadium also has an amazing view.


It’s a place where I often feel like I’m getting the best of both worlds.


I’m comfortable but not lethargic.


The music is foundational but not rudimentary.


The music is familiar but not obvious


When I practice I am never lonely but always by myself.


Everyone notices me but nobody bothers me.


People are interested in the saxophone but not in stealing it from me.




This is the first place I’ve been besides Thailand that people from the West go to on vacation. And I can see why. It just feels great to be out on the street here. My first few days I just took these hours long runs because I just wanted to see it all and I didn’t mind getting lost.


All this being said it’s not perfect. It took me 4 hours to get out of the airport because they lost my bag. They gave me internet cards there but those had expired a year ago. I went to the place I planned to take drum and dance classes and found out the whole group is on tour now. The Spanish class I though would start last week actually started today… Neither of these is a total setback because I had a little more time to explore the city and get oriented. I was just excited about this particular group because I know a little of their music.




My teacher is way into “Tumbaos” which is not a particular groove as I used to think but is just a word for “riff” or “lick.” These idiomatic phrases define the different styles from different parts of Cuba and even other parts of the Carribean and Latin America that influenced Cuba. One nice exercise he does is one of us plays the tumbao and the other solos over it. It’s actually pretty hard to but the engine of the music like that.


These phrases are repetitive and require a great deal of clarity in tone, rhythm, and most importantly articulation which Javier calls “diction.” What gets me about all this is that Gary was obsessed with articulation too but was not as into teaching as Javier is. Javier is a great classical sax player too and he is showing me something that Gary would do but didn’t demonstrate explicitly.


What I gather from the things Javier demonstrates is that the articulation is what justifies the sort of metered rubato that is present in jazz and Cuban popular music.

Because we’re borrowing most of our melodic content from rubato Europoean sources and playing it in a semi-metronomic Afcricanish framework, melodic instrumentalists have a challenging tightrope to walk: On the one hand you could play right in the center of the beat all the time and that would keep make the time flow happen more homogeneously. But it wouldn’t properly weight the harmonic information that you’re delivering which is unequal. So your articulation as it relates to the style you’re playing in gives the ear the sense that you are playing right along with the rhythm section even if the actual lengths of your notes are elastic and aren’t always “in time.” Might sound a little esoteric but it helps me think about something that I think seperates the good from the great.


These guys play notes short. I’ve been to some shows and they just don’t hold their eight notes as long and in some ways that’s harder because you have to have a clearer sound and a crisper attack and your note makes more of a statement on the beat then if you’re slurring most of the time. Javier calls me out for playing too many notes and using “sound effects.”


Thinking about these tumbaos makes me think more about the rhythmic vocabulary in jazz. I have found myself returning to Sidney Bechet, Charlie Christian, and Benney Goodman recordings that I haven’t listened to since high school. The currency in these recordings is more in riffs and less in lines compared the music that came 10-20 years later. Charlie Parker and Bud Powell filled in a lot of gaps that I didn’t really think of as gaps before.


Again language arises from culture. I lucked out that I was born in the US because just like the English language the jazz vocabulary is some of the most esoteric, dense, contradictory, vast. verbose, and counterintuitive stuff out there. But then again we could all be speaking Tamil and it would be even harder so who knows what’s best.


I’m just about done with the Miles biography and man was that guy a jerk... Cat could play though, he could tip…


I think I will look back on these weeks as some of the happiest of my whole life. To anyone reading, I’m sorry I’m not in touch directly but you are in my thoughts and I can’t wait to see you in person in just a few weeks!