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Thursday, January 22, 2004
Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Quemador

On the streets of Havana today, it is possible to buy the new Manolito y su Trabuco CD for a mere five dollars. Four, if you're willing to bargain. But this CD hasn't been released yet. It's not available in any stores.

You can buy a CD that contains all of Los Van Van's new tunes, along with seven or eight cuts from their last live record. These songs are not yet officially released. Vendors offered me everything from Paulito FG's latest to Charanga Habanera, or if I was in the mood for something more traditional, the complete catalog of Polo Montañez.

What's the deal? You guessed it, these are pirated, bootleged discos. And while it may seem like a bonanza to the timba fanatic, it's going to be a huge problem for the Cuban music industry.

This is not just happening in La Habana, mind you. A year ago, walking the Plaza Del Sol in Madrid, I was amazed to see hundreds of street merchants, mostly from Senegal, offering all sorts of pirated goods. I saw this years ago in Venice, but back then, it was mostly cheap knock-offs of Gucci bags and designer sunglasses. This time, it seemed as though most of the trade was in pirated CDs and DVDs.

The music industry as a whole has posted reduced sales for the last few years, and while most of the noise they make is about CD burners and file sharing, they know that piracy is at least, if not more responsible for dwindling sales (for the purposes of this post, we won't discuss the quality of recent pop music right now).

The giants of the biz, Sony, BMG, Universal, etc., have all laid off hundreds of employees, and the industry as a whole is consolidating even more in an effort to keep profits up. In Spain, almost all of the CDs I saw for sale in the streets were by big name top 40 artists, the Britney Spears, Nelly, Limp Bizkit types.

Most people buying a bootleg of these artists don't feel too guilty, because they assume these stars are filthy rich, the labels are rich, and so on. But what happens when this phenomenon affects a small fringe market like Cuban music?

Other than the Buena Vista Social Club records, no modern Cuban artist today has a deal with any of the major labels. 98% of them don't even enjoy distribution from the major labels; thus explaining why it's so damn hard to find their records. The records are produced by small, independent labels that operate on a shoestring budget, and they are lucky just to break even. Most of them lose money on their work.

Even the Cuban state-owned labels such as Egrem and Bis operate with a budget far below what would be considered normal in the rest of the world, and even in a socialist country, I imagine attention is paid to the bottom line. I've also heard that Abdala's Unicornio label is deep in the red.

These piratas could be the end of recorded Cuban music as we know it. If no one can even break even, let alone make a buck or two, who is going to put up the bread to make new CDs? Who is going to pay the musicians, the arrangers, the studio, the engineers, the graphic designer, the fabricating plant, and the artist?

There's no way to deal with the piratas themselves. I watched the police in Madrid play cat-and-mouse with them for over an hour that day in the Plaza. It was like a game: cops would appear, the Africans would gather up their goods and take off running, and stand across the street waiting for the cops to leave. Then, five minutes later, they'd be back in business. The younger ones seemed to enjoy the drama of it all.

The only solution is to either not purchase pirated CDs, or if you do, then to treat the purchase as a cheap demo to see if it's an album you'd like to own. After all, the bootlegs are just CD-Rs with really badly scanned covers, and are often made with less than stellar source material and equipment. It's a poor substitute for the real thing. CD-Rs are a fragile medium, highly prone to scratches, and depending on the way they're made, can sound pretty lousy.

If you want to keep having a fresh supply of new Cuban music, support it by buying the REAL THING. And, it goes without saying that this applies to Mamborama CDs as Well!
Saturday, January 17, 2004
About the comments thingy: apparently while I was gone, the hosting service for the comments went belly-up, so for a few days all the comments disappeared. But another company, Haloscan, took over their accounts, and now the comments feature is back, with all the former comments restored.

By the way, if you want to comment, be aware that the email and web boxes in the comments window are optional--you don't have to put your email if you don't want to, and I don't harvest email addresses hates spam as much as you do.
Well, I'm sorry to say that I'm writing this post from my home in California. All good things must pass, and three weeks in La Habana is way too short, although I would probably find three months there too short as well.

My last couple of days in Cuba were consumed with a frenzy of fiestas thrown for me by my friends, and music whenever I could get to it after the fiestas.

Wednesday night after dinner at David Bencuomo's house we headed over to La Zorra for Hermanos Arango, a great new group that is playing music unlike anything I've ever heard. There are no drums, but five percussionists who mainly play batá, along with piano, bass, two horns and two singers. The music is the most successful integration of traditional Cuban folkloric music and jazz that I've ever heard, and it is FUNKY!

They were so good that the next night I went to hear them again at Delirio Habanero after a day long fiesta and dominoes session at the house of Hector, AKA Melón, the live sound engineer for Trabuco.

Feliciano invited me to sit in with them on their version of Dizzy Gillespie's Manteca, and I had a ball, although I would have played better if I hadn't been drinking rum at Melón's house for nine hours. No hay café at Delirio Habanero.

Later that night, around 1:30 in the morning, I made my way over to the Turquino were Bamboleo were playing. Lázaro invited me to sit in, but I stuck to playing fills on the teclado, because by that time I was in no shape to take over the tumbao.

Yesterday, I had a long three hour lunch with El Indio, his wife and Marcos Crego at the Casaron de 17 where the house specialty is killer arroz con pollo. Then, all too soon, it was time to head to the airport, and today I'm undergoing extreme culture shock being back in el Yuma. All in all, another great trip. Hope you enjoyed the reports.
Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Yesterday, there was an impromptu listening party at Geraldo Piloto's house to hear the new Klimax CD. More about that in a minute.

On Monday, I went over to David Bencomo's house and hung out with him until it was time to go to Casa de la Musica for his gig with Trabuco. There was a surplus of rum for some reason, both at David's house and at the gig. I love the Casa de la musica in Miramar. I always run into a thousand friends there, and it's always a party atmosphere. For some reason, Manolito was about an hour late. I joked with the guys that maybe we'd have to do "Bill y su Trabuco," but just then Manolito showed up, and band fired up and rocked the place as usual.

Afterwards, I needed about three cafecitos to shake off the rum, because my friend Pablo Menéndez was playing with his group Mezcla at La Zorra Y El Cuervo. Lázarito Valdéz of Bamboleo was hanging out, and he and I took turns sitting in. All in all, I didn't get to bed until five in the morning.

The TV show that I had been interviewed for, Piso 6, had aired while I was at Manolito's gig, and towards the end of the evening, I kept running into people who had seen me on the show. My fifteen minutes of fame, Cuban style. Ja ja ja!

Yesterday, I made another fruitless trip to Manolito's house to try to hear his new album, but he wasn't home. Marcos came and picked me up and we went to eat at a Chinese restaurant in the Barrio Chino that served three cuisines: Criolla, Chino, and Italiano. I highly recommend the Pizza Chang, specialty of the house, a huge pizza loaded with shrimp, lobster and garlic. Yum. We took what we couldn't eat (it was too much) back to Marcos' house, and he played me a demo that he was making for ex-Trabuco/Klimax singer Calunga. It looks as though Calunga may be joining Buena Vista Social Club, and Marcos is doing arrangements on three tunes. They're modern salsa, not the traditional Son that most people associate with that name. Juan DeMarcos isn't involved, and I don't know who else is in the group, but it won't be anywhere near the same band that most people associate with that name, because all of the principals who are still alive have splintered off and formed their own groups.

Around 8:00 we headed over to Piloto's house. Eduardo Mora (bassist with Trabuco), Juan Carlos (singer for Klimax) and Calunga were there. I showed Piloto Jimmy Branly's book so he could see what Jimmy was up to in the States, and we listened to some of the examples from the CD that accompanies the book. Piloto was very interested in it, and asked Marcos to make him a copy of it before he gives it to Jimmy's profesor, Roberto Concepción.

Then it was time to listen to Klimax. Piloto just got back from Spain a couple of days ago where he had been mixing and mastering the record. It was recorded with ProTools, and the sound quality is excellent. And the music is smoking. It's a little different for a Klimax CD; it's their most commercial venture yet, there are lots of invitados from Robertón of Van Van to Cubanito 20.02 to Calunga and more. This record has a lot of surprises to it, but it's unmistakably Klimax, very inventive and creative, and I think that people will find this one more accessible than the others. I'm anxious to listen to it again, to let it sink in, but on first listening, I was blown away. Highly recomended. No, I don't know when it will be released.

Tonight, I'll be listening to Feliciano Arango's group at La Zorra. I invited David and his wife to go with me, because they invited me over for dinner tonight. Should be a good time...
Monday, January 12, 2004
Well, David Alfaro was playing so strong last night, I didn´t even want to ask to sit in. Man, I´m not in the same league as this guy. But I got to see and hear Julio Padron, the guy who plays the trumpet solo on La gata loca, who was glad to see me. David did ask me to sit in, but they took too long of a break, and the manager turned on the house lights and shut the place down early. Next time...

This afternoon it´s a matinee with Manolito y su Trabuco, who have been in Columbia for a week. After that, quien sabe?
Sunday, January 11, 2004
Yesterday, I visited the grave of the maestro Rubén Gonzaléz to pay my respects. The Cemetario Colón is like a miniature city in itself, and it took awhile to find it, but I did. I told him that he will always live on in his recordings, and we won't forget him. Gracias por la musica, maestro!

That night was a real Chinese fire drill at first. The plan was to go hear Pupy at La Tropical. Osiris, the keyboard player told me to meet him at his house at 8:30, and we'd go there together. When I got to Osiris' house, he was nowhere to be found, so I grabbed a peso taxi and headed over to La Tropical. Upon arrival, I was told that another band was playing, because one of Pupy's singers was ill. "Which one, Mandy?," I asked. "No, Pepe." Well, because this is La Habana, it was no problem, I only had to choose between Charanga Habanera or Los Van Van. I opted for Van Van, and grabbed another cab to Centro Habana.

Just before they started, imagine my surprise when I ran into Pepe and his wife. I told him what the manager of the Tropical told me, and he thought that was hilarious. The Pupy concert was cancelled because of a transportation problem--no one was sick--the manager was just saving face.

Van Van played extremely well--they are just now starting to really get it back together after all the changes, and they kicked some major ass. The new bass player is finally starting to settle down, but he still needs to lay off the cafecitos before he plays. They did all the new tunes and the standard stuff that they've been doing for the last couple of years. Alexander Abreu, the monster Cuban trumpet player, sat in and played a long, extended solo on Soy todo that literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Sadly, the new tunes seem to have squeezed Te pone la cabeza mala off the song list, but that's the way it goes.

Today is shaping up to be a triple-header. I went to the rumba at Callejon de Hamel, and afterwards went for dinner at Leonel's house. He's the director of the group now. After packing ourselves with picadillo de res, arroz con frijoles negroes, yucca y ensalada, we headed over to Casa de la Musica Galiano for a matinee of Charanga Forever.

They sounded really, really good, and the place was stuffed, all the people knew all the words to the songs, and they put on a great show. There were a couple of Canadian girls that we had met at the rumba, and we told them that they should go to the Charanga Forever show to hear some really good timba. "What's Timba," they asked. "It's sort of like salsa on steriods," I replied. After about four tunes, they said they were going to go over to the Hotel Nacional for a show by what is billed as the "Compay Segundo" Orquesta. "No, no, no, you know that Compay passed away, don't you?" They did, but they thought that they were going to see Buena Vista Social Club. They wanted to hear the "real" Cuban music. I winced. "THIS is the real Cuban music! NOW!" God bless them...

In a couple of hours, I'll be switching gears for some incredible jazz at La Zorra y El Cuervo. Julito Padrón is playing with pianista David Alfaro's group. I'll probably be too tired to sit in, but I know I'll hear some incredible jazz--these guys are monster players.
Friday, January 09, 2004
Bueno. Here's the latest. On Wednesday, I was interviewed on Cuban TV on the show Piso 6, which is the equivilent of Entertainment Tonight down here. Why these things happen to me here is a mystery to me, but they do. It airs on Monday. In el Yuma, nobody thinks what I'm doing is very interesting, and it's hard to get any media coverage, but down here, the Cubans are excited that a Norteamericano is making Cuban music. It was fun. They interviewed me at the Hotel Panorama, where there was a nice Yamaha grand piano, and I played solo piano after the interview. I played an improvisation that started out obscure jazz, moved into a straight ahead blues, and ended with a Cuban tumbao.

Afterwards, the crew gave me a lift to Casa de la Musica Miramar for a matinee of Bamboleo. The place was completely full, and they weren't letting anyone else in. I stood outside for twenty minutes trying every line I had on the security guards, but it wasn't until I caught the eye of Bamboleo's manager that I was allowed in. The group was smoking as always, and they played some new tunes, including a balada that featured Tanya (which brought the house down, although they didn't dance to it), and a new Cha cha cha, which was the first time I've ever heard Bamboleo play that style. If you've heard the Cha cha chas of Klimax, or the tune "Oye Mamborama" from our new album, you'll have an idea of what it was like. Young Cubans don't generally like to dance Cha cha cha, so I was surprised to see them play it at a matinee where the audience was nearly 100% Cuban.

Yesterday, it was the other side of Bamboleo, the splinter group Azucar Negra. If you've been following the latest, you probably know that Bamboleo stole the charasmatic singer Tanya from Azucar Negra. No problem, because the director, Leonel Limonata, found a new singer that is amazing. Everyone compares Haila to Celia Cruz, but for me, this woman (whose name I didn't catch, even though she told it to me when the disco music was blaring), is the new Celia Cruz. She's amazing. The group sounded great.

Today, I hung out with Pablo Menendez of Mezcla all afternoon. We went to my favorite restaurant, El Palenque, and talked all afternoon. Pablo is very interesting to me, because he's an American that has been living and playing music in Cuba for over thirty years. I told him, "I want to be like you when I grow up." Ja ja ja!

Afterwards, I went to a matinee of a group led by the son of the leader of Orquesta Reve, because they were billed as a Changui group. I don't know anything about Changui, except that it's funky, so I wanted to go, but they were playing more or less the same kind of thing that every group plays, and I think that only one tune really represented Changui. They were good, mind you, their style was similar to Adalberto Avarez, a mix of Son and elements of salsa and timba, but I was looking to expand my vocabulary a bit. Nonetheless, I enjoyed hearing them.

After I get done typing up this thing, I'm back at the Casa de la Musica for Pupy y Los que son, son. Tomorrow, I have to chooose between Los Van Van or Pupy at La Tropical. I'm conflicted, because it will probably be the last chance I have to hear Van Van on this trip, but I haven't been to La Tropical since the first time I came to Cuba, almost four years ago, since they've been closed for repairs. Vamos a ver...
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
Not much to post today--the first of the week things slow down on the night life scene. Last night I just relaxed and watched the comedies and tragedies being played out between the turistas and the Cubans at Cafe Sofia, an open-air bar in Vedado. It's always interesting. The clientele is half tourists and half cubans, and makes for an interesting mix. They have a Son band that plays at irregular hours, and the tourists don't understand that the band is just playing for tips, and to sell CDs. They sit there grooving, and sing along with Guantanamera, but when the band passes the hat, they shoo them away like they were flies. A couple of times I got into some tourist's faces, and shamed them into tipping the band. La vida para los musicos es dificil todo el mundo!

Yesterday, I spent the entire day at Marcos Crego's house helping him make an opening tune for Gardi. Gardi had a tape of Luis Miguel's opening theme, and wanted something similar, so Marcos and I put something together for him with Marcos' computer and keyboard. And why was I helping, you might ask? Gardi wanted it to sound Americano! Ja ja ja! Que cosa!

Today, I'm off to the matinee of Bamboleo at Casa de la Musica Miramar, and I have no idea what happens after that. I need to find out who's playing when and where. Pupy will be back at Galiano on Thursday, so I'll definitely make that.

Stay tuned...
Monday, January 05, 2004
THE place to be Saturday night was Casa de la Musica Galiano for Pupy y los que son, son. But more about that later. Earlier in the day, I went there for the matinee of Gardi y su grupo and Cubanito 20.02. Gardi seems to be looking for the Marc Anthony market. Not my cup of tea, but the musicianship in his group is excellent. They've only had eight gigs so far, and sound very good. My friend Marcos Crego plays monstruous timba tumbaos with them. After they finished, Marcos and I sat and listened to as much of Cubanito 20.02 as we could stand, which wasn't very much. It's a shame that the only thing that gets through the bloqueo is Rap, because it's getting way too popular down here. The people in the Casa went nuts for these guys, they knew all the words, but for me, I was completely unimpressed. Again, not my cup of tea.

Later, Marcos and I went for Chinese food in the barrio chino, and then later, I was back at the Casa de la Musica for Pupy. Pupy sat me down at his table along with Changuito and a couple of guys from Germany that may want to produce a European tour for Mamborama.

The place was packed, and every musician that wasn't working was there. Nearly half of Van Van were in the house. The new bass player for Van Van and Cucurucho sat in, as well as the great trompetista Alexander Abreu. Roberto Van Van was there, but didn't get up to sing for unknown reasons, despite my encouragement. He says his solo disc "es una sorpresa," and will be out in March.

Pupy played all the usual great stuff, and a killer version of Azucar that rocked like you wouldn't believe. A great night. Bueno, bueno.

Yesterday I went to the rumba at Callejon de Hamel, and hooked up with Iroso Obba, the rumba group that I produced a live CD for last year. They improvised a rumba in my honor, singing, "Beel, Beel, Beel!" Ja JA! Big fun.

Then last night, I was feeling the urge to play and my friend Peruchin Jr. was playing at La Zorra Y El Cuervo, one of the main jazz clubs down here. He wouldn't let me leave the piano, and I played the whole gig, and had a ball.

Today Marcos woke me up at the ungodly hour of eleven in the morning to take me to a rehearsal of Feliciano Arango's new jazz group, Los Hermanos Arango. This group blew me away. They do a fusion of jazz and rumba and bata, that is like nothing I've ever heard. Imagine putting Weather Report and the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional in a blender and you'll get an idea, but you need to hear it to believe it. No drummer, just bata, congas, cajon and palitos. Three bata players, in fact. Marcos Crego plays piano, of course Feliciano is on bass (he was the monster bass player from NG La Banda, if you don't know him), tenor sax and trumpet. Awesome group.

After the rehearsal, Feliciano and Marcos and I spent the entire afternoon talking music over a bottle of Scotch. It turns out that Feliciano had been at La Zorra last night and heard me play. He wants me to come back and spend a whole day at his house for a descarga (jam session). Besides being the best bass player in the world (he makes Jaco Pastorious look like a beginner), he's also incredibly warm and friendly.

And saludos a la chica japonesa Chaco, la charanguera! I just got an email from her--she's back in Japan, and was sorry to leave. I know this feeling very well. The post-Cuba depression is always an ordeal.

More news as it happens. Stay tuned...
Saturday, January 03, 2004
OK. Here's the latest.

On the first of January, both Casas de la musica are dark, because EVERY group in Habana is playin free concerts all over Habana. I went to Manolito's gig in Marianao, but I could have seen Los Van Van, Charanga Habanera, you name it. Even Ibrahim Ferrer and Omanda Portuondo had a concert with Orquesta Aragón.

But it's best to go to the concert where you have some connections, or you'll be in the teeming horde of Cubans in the street. Manolito had to stop the band three times to get the crowd to settle down. I couldn't see what was going on, but I assume people were fighting. I had a primo seat at the back of the stage, and three of my friends said they saw me on television the next day.

My sources tell me that at the Charanga Habanera concert, the musicians had a print-out of the awards, and they were flipping out over the awards they won. They even played Nube Pasajera in honor of its being named Best Timba Song. It was probably the first time they played it live for years!

Yesterday, I spent the day with Marcos Crego and his wife, and last night I went to the Turquino for Bamboleo. Tanya of Azucar Negra is singing with them now, and she is great for the group. What a strong voice and stage presence she has. One of the singers has left (I think he's with Pupy now, but I could be wrong), so now they work with three singers. The conguero and two of the horn players were new, but good, and the timbalero and drummer are the same ferocious monsters. Lázarito plays with three keyboards now: one stacked above the piano, and the third to his right.

He invited me to play, and I took over the tumbao for a couple of minutes so he could re-fuel himself with rum. Then he took over the piano for a section, and then when the tumbao resumed, he put me on the teclado on his right, so we were playing together. Big, big fun! Adrenaline like you wouldn't believe. I played another tune with them, just playing fills on the teclado with a clavinet sound. He says they are going to record a live album next.

Today, after I finish this post, I'm heading over to Casa de la musica Galiano for a matinee with Gardi y su Grupo, the new group that my buddy Marcos is pianista for. It's a double bill with Cubanito 20.02, the latest rap sensation down here. Then tonight, it's Pupy y Los Que Son, Son at the same place. It's going to be a long, but music-filled day.

Having a wonderful time, wish you were here!
Thursday, January 01, 2004
Happy new year!

There hasn't been a lot going on the last couple of days. Monday, I was going to go with Trabuco to Veradero, but after waiting for the gua gua (bus) for a couple hours, manolito showed up and said there was a problem with the gua gua. who knows what that meant. the gua gua was broken, or someone forgot to charter it, ay, cuba. manolito frantically lined up two private cars for the group, and piled the musicos in his car, so there obviously wasn't room for me. I hooked up with a friend instead, and we got righteously borracho at Las Bulerias on calle L.

Tuesday night I hooked up with Holger from Cuba Chevere, and we went to the jazz cafe where Chispa had a jazz gig. they sounded great, played all kinds of stuff, from fusion to bebop to covers of kool and the gang! jajaja! the place was jumping. I sat in with them along with the timbalero from Bamboleo, and actually managed to play quite well in spite of the fact that I haven't had time to touch a piano in the last three weeks, and was semi-inebriated at the time.

Last night, New Year's Eve, all the music was for the high rollers. for $120, you get Los Van Van, Issac and dinner at the hotel occidental. Pupy and Buena Fe are at the Turquino for a mere $100. So I went to a fiesta at David Bencomo's (flautista for Manolito) house, and had a great time. David makes everyone listen to the entire Mamborama CD every time I go over there--he loves the record. Great food, good people and demasiado rum.

Today, Manolito y su Trabuco has an open air gig in Mariano, and Friday I have to choose between Klimax or Bamboleo. Saturday is Pupy y los que son, son at Casa de la Musica Galiano. Stay tuned...


Mamborama news and the world of Cuban music, accompanied by occasional self-indulgence.

Extensive Cuba trip report now online.

Here's an online scrapbook of photos of La Habana and some of the recording sessions for the new album.

August 2003 / September 2003 / October 2003 / November 2003 / December 2003 / January 2004 / February 2004 / March 2004 / April 2004 / May 2004 / June 2004 / July 2004 / August 2004 / September 2004 / October 2004 / February 2005 / April 2005 / June 2005 / December 2005 / March 2006 / April 2006 /

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