by Bill Wolfer
My obsession with Cuban music started at a concert
at the Bellyup Tavern in San Diego. Or did it? That night, the music
I heard affected me in a most profound way. In other words, it blew
But since then, I've come to believe that there's
an explanation for why it affected me so deeply. I discovered that
I'd been to Cuba before I was even born. When my mother was pregnant
with me, she and my father were on vacation in Miami. This was before
the revolution and the ensuing embargo, and there were regular ferries
that you could drive your car onto and be in Havana a short time
later. Wouldn't that be nice now? So my parents decided to spend
a few days in Havana. They went to the famed Tropicana. I think
I must have heard the music, listening through my belly-button window.
Why else would it grab me and not let go when I encountered it so
many years later? The musical director of the Tropicana at this
time was the great pianist Bebo Valdés. And the group that
I heard that night at the Bellyup Tavern? It was Irakére,
led by none other than Bebo's son, Chucho Valdés! How's that
for strange but true?
Driving back that night, I decided that I wanted
to learn how to play this music. This started me on a quest that
has taken me to Cuba four times, and a whole lot of wood shedding
and study. It's also made me a lot of new friends all over the world,
and especially in La Habana.
We started out rehearsing in the Palm Springs
area with musicians that I knew. Drummer Alan Diaz was the only
Cuban in the group. Alan played with Sergio Mendez for ten years,
and plays Brazilian music brilliantly, but we were all learning
how to play Cuban. We started gigging in Palm Springs, and I started
writing tunes for the group. When we finally had enough songs of
our own, we played a concert in Palm Desert just playing our own
material. The audience response was great, and I decided that night
that it was time to record a CD.
Before we started recording, I went to Havana
to study and listen to the top groups down there. I fell in love
with Cuba and the Cuban people and made friends with most of the
musicians that woulnd up playing on Entre La Habana Y El Yuma
on that first trip. Marcos Crego, pianist for Klimax showed me some
important concepts as did Manolito Simonet.
Afer I got back, I enlisted the help of Nengue
Hernandez for the CD. Nengue is an amazing encyclopedia ofCuban
percussion who plays everything. I originally asked him to play
timbales, but he didn't approve of my choice of conguero, so he
said he would play congas and bring in Jimmy Branly to play timbales.
The first time I met Jimmy was the first day of recording Night
of the Living Mambo. I told him and Nengue both to feel free to
make suggestions and "Cubanize" the tunes. They were great,
and they played their asses off.
The album was well received, and became an underground
hit in Italy. From there, it spread to Zurich and Spain and the
Netherlands. We were invited to play two big festivals in 2002,
but the offers were contingent on our already being in Europe touring,
so that didn't happen. Still, I was encouraged by this unexpected
success to pursue another album.
By the time I returned to Havana the second time
in May of last year, I was toying with the idea of recording down
there. I asked El Indio and some of the guys from Manolito Y SU
Trabuco if they would consider recording with me if I could work
it out. The answer was "Sí, como no?" So the following
December I recorded six of the tunes for the new album, and then
completed the rest in Los Angeles with the amazing Cuban musicians
that live there. The result is Entre La Habana Y El Yuma,
an album I'm extremely pleased with. I think it's the best thing
I've ever recorded.
What's next? Too soon to say. There's talk of
a European tour, but only talk at this point. I don't know exactly
when I'll be going back to Cuba, only that I will. The obsession
with Cuban music remains as strong as ever, and I continue to study
and work with this amazing music.
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