Cuba, Son (My Song #2)

Another really nice week. Tons of concerts and I’ve started the Spanish class which is fun. It strikes me that I have been out of the college setting for a while. Being back in that type of environment makes me realize how much more effective my learning has been now that it is more self-directed. Many of the things that have made this year hard have been the same things that are making me a better musician. Most notably understanding and pursuing with greater clarity and efficiency exactly what I want. That being said the classroom environment is great for language acquisition in a way that studying on my own is not. I’m the only US person in the whole program (around 100-150) as far as I can tell. Tons of Japanese and Chinese people, and an exchange program from Angola. Very cool people and it’s good because we need to talk in Spanish to communicate. Sure I could be practicing during that time but hanging out with other extranos who are trying to make the most of their time here means I find out about all kinds of music and dance opportunities that I never would know about otherwise. Plus it’s nice to be abroad but still not feel lonely all the time.


I thought it would be fun to just describe each concert I went to this week and what it makes me think about music:


“El Zorro y el Cuervo” self-proclaimed Latin jazz show by Roberto Francesco. Although these are Cuban musicians who spent most of their formative years in Havanna with restricted access to American music the influence of Tony, Herbie, and Ron is equally if not more obvious to me than the influence of people Chucho Valdes, Cachao, and Tito Puente. Granted I know much less about that music and probably can’t see the influence as clearly. My teacher played on this gig but in my opinion he was out of place in this band. He is 61 and no one else in this band can be over 40. His vibe onstage is totally geeky while the rest of the band oozes some modern jazz cool. Most importantly he very obviously has not studied the jazz tradition in the way that any of the other members have. The same qualities that made him strange on this gig also made him way more effective as a teacher to me. He is basically a classical player. He plays great clarinet and great flute and he can play the mess out of the saxophone and he has a great beat. That being said he played a lot of stuff that sounds “out of time” to me in a way that the rest of the band didn’t. I know from working with him that his polyrhythmic sense is much more mature than mine so I have to wonder why I hear him playing stuff that sounds so sophomoric? I think it’s because of the way the rest of the band is playing. I think that the way I hear time and they way they hear time is much more “filled in.” by this I mean that the hours I have spent cultivating the skill to spontaneously concieve harmonically logical streams of eigth notes have permanently altered my sense of time flow. And it has for them too. I distinctly remember when an older student at East High Evan White told me that “eigth notes are your jazz currency.” He has a point and it has important bearing on this music. Also the relationship of jazz melody to European classical melody has become more distant than Cuban melody. Perhaps because improvisation has become more abstract and prolonged in the American tradition. I’m realizing all these Cuban woodwind guys, Cesar Lopez, Jorge Luis, Vicente Viana, Paquito and Tito D’Riviera, all of them are great classical players as much if not more as they are improvisers.


Salsa Dance party with Michael Blanco. This was so fun and a fifth of what it would cost in the US. I was with this Berliner who has been here a few months and says he doesn’t like to salsa dance even though he goes to clubs all the time. He said he has trouble knowing what to do. It’s because the dance is so structured and technical. For me that makes it easier and less mmm… sexually intimidating, socially risky, and musically predictable. Not to say I don’t like dancing normally… Interesting to think about how this relates to improvisational techniques relating to intuition versus education, and structure verses freedom. Does this make me nerdy? Are these pants too tight? I can’t hear what your saying this room is too loud!


Obini Bata at Museo Casa de Africa. Very hip. All female drum and dance group with great dancing, set changes, and costume changes. They used mics for the voices and not the drums. The music and many of the dance moves are identical to Ewe songs but this amplification choice totally reversed the sonic hierarchy. Either way is fine. They put on a great show and had members the audience dance including me. I was the only male they asked to dance and that made me feel proud and confused. Maybe they saw me tapping clave on my leg or looking at them win inappropriate ardor. This music and performance style made me think of Matt Dibiase’s project and how this stuff is so related.


Havanna String orchestra featuring Javier Zalba (my teacher). Beautiful concert in a gorgeous old church in Havanna Vieja. Had a piece based on some Argentinian tango rhythms and some originals by my teacher. Contained some improvisation for sax over orchestral accompaniment. Kind of out of place in my opinion but interesting to hear that live and without a jazz rhythm section. Cadenzas have a lot of notes sometimes but are still articulated with more variety that most notey jazz passages.


Three back to back traditional rhumba concerts in the Vedado. This was also great and featured a second all-female group. Not sure if this is a trend I’m not hip to. These bands also amplified voices and not drums. I don’t think I like it mainly because they are still singing so loud which they don’t need to do anymore because that is what a microphone is for is to do that for you so you don’t need to sing so loud why would you buy one and use it if you are just going to do the same loud thing you were doing? Anyway… two of these bands play every week and I think I will be going every time from now on. The rhumba clave and son clave are actually way way more different than I thought before. Mainly in the way that rhumba clave can fit in a triplet or duple context and the way it will switch within a song, which is super awesome and totally non-notatable. Maybe son does this too though I don’t know. The second beat of the 2-side in rhumba is almost always late which is more of this invertible swing thing I’ve been thinking about as it relates to claves/bell patterns. My new catchphrase is “cyclic syncopation is positional information.” I know. It’s stuck in year head for the rest of the day. So catchy... After three hours I was hearing everything with a clave underneath it which I think is good. And interesting—its sort of a similar process to translating all my English thoughts to Spanish while I’m half asleep. Still cant conjugate for shit. Preterito.


People are also racist here but not so bad. The Spanish influence is different than the French or English. Better outfits. Seems like there’s still big inequality but if anyone is really rich they leave Cuba so the people here don’t have as much economically motivated resentment and mistrust of one another. Everybody looks really sharp but I don’t think I can rock tight white skinny jeans and shaved eyebrows. But I also couldn’t really rock the veeshti or kurta so hopefully I can just wear a sweater.


I’d like to amend my previous statement about Miles. He was a person who refused to compromise in his music or in his personal life. That leads to a lot of decisions that I wouldn’t make—like yelling at his son when he played trumpet, seeing many women at the same time without communicating with them, and acting violently towards friends, colleagues, and strangers. At the same time he was a person who felt that he needed to fight constantly for what he wanted in a way that I never have. All of those personal qualities are inextricably linked with his music, which is undeniably some of the best ever made. Of course I’m not like Miles but I can’t just write him off as a jerk.


I got a haircut and I knew it would be nothing like the picture I showed him but I decided to do it anyway. For the first few hours I was totally embarrassed but now I kind of like it. In the words of Miles: “sometimes I look in the mirror and go ‘Damn Miles (max?) you are a handsome Motherfucker!’”