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I’ve had this fantasy to record in Cuba for awhile now. It began during my first trip to Havana in April of 2000. Manolito Simonet invited me to hang out with him at Egrem Studios while he was producing a project there.

This is the old Egrem, in Centro, not the newer one in Miramar. Walking into that place, I had a feeling I’d only experienced once before in my life. It was as if you could feel the spirit of each and every musician that had ever laid tracks there, as though the place was full of ghosts. I’m not exactly sure when this studio was built, but it’s definitely been around since the early sixties, if not before. Every important Cuban record of the last fifty years or so was recorded there. Beny Moré, Peruchín, Celia Cruz, Orchesta Aragon, even Nat Cole had recorded in this room. If you’ve seen the Buena Vista Social Club movie, then you’ve seen the studio. They recorded there, too. You can get a good look at it when the camera goes circling around Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo as they sing Dos Gardenias. Try not to get dizzy.

And the other time I experienced this same feeling of a room still inhabited by the echoes of the music made there? It was when I went to Capital Records on Vine in Hollywood to get some mastering done. The engineer gave me a tour of the studio, and if you squinted, you could almost see Sinatra and Nelson Riddle or Count Basie working away.

But back to Egrem in 2000. Manolito was in there producing a record for them called Las Nuevas Estrellas De Aerito. I spent several afternoons hanging out there with Manolito and his musicians, watching them lay down tracks. Once, during a break, I sat down at the old nine foot Steinway and played. As I was playing, I realized who else had played this same piano: Lilí Martinez, Bebo Valdés and his son Chucho, Rubén Gonzalez, Peruchín, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Emiliano Salvador, probably even Nat Cole. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to record in Cuba, preferably at that studio. Yes, there are far better studios in Havana, but the vibe there has to be experienced to be believed. I started thinking about it while I was there. The console is a decent MCI, and the 24 track is a Studer. The microphone collection is wonderful—talk about vintage mics, they’ve got them. You can get a great sound in that room. I wouldn’t want to mix there, but for tracking, there’s no doubt that you can put down a clean signal on tape and get good sounds.

But Egrem’s rate was a bit out of my budget. It’s a fair rate, less than what you would pay for a comparable studio in the states, but doing these records independently means having to be very frugal with the recording budget.

So the idea was put into the “someday” folder. On my second trip to Havana, I was invited to one of Klimax’s rehearsals by my friend Marcos Crego, their piano player. They rehearse in this old theater that is on the second floor of a community building in Marianao, a suburb of Havana. The theater has a huge stage, and Klimax had their full sound crew there. Later that night, Marcos and I went over to Piloto’s house, where they were mixing some demos of some new Klimax tunes. I asked Marcos where they recorded them, and he said, “at the theater!” They had recorded there with two ADATs, and the sound quality was good! A light bulb went off in my mind. This was how I could record in Cuba on the cheap. If I bought myself some portable digital recording equipment with the money I had put aside for studio rentals for the next album, I could record anywhere I wanted to. I bounced the idea off of Marcos, and he said, “como no?” Why not, indeed.

next: getting ready >

Getting around Havana by taxi

There must be at least five or six different types of taxis in Havana. It can be pretty confusing at first, but read on, and you'll save some bucks when you're there.

The cream of the crop are the air-conditioned, metered tourist taxis. These range from brand new Mercedes to itty bitty Japanese subcompacts, and the rates on the meter generally increase with size and comfort of the car.

Still, they are relatively cheap compared to taxis in most large cities, and there are times when they will be cheaper than the unmetered taxis. You can go a long way for about three bucks.

Then there are the peso taxis. The black and yellow Russian bulit Ladas don't have meters, and generally will ask a foreigner for a fare in dollars. Feel free to negotiate, or refuse if you think it's too high. Late at night, coming out of the clubs, these guys ask exhorbitant rates from extranjeros, so just head straight for a metered taxi, or you're going to pay double. But, if you're traveling with Cuban friends, you might just be able to pay ten pesos, like the Habaneros do.

Taxi Colectivos are the huge lumbering behemoths that travel along fixed routes. The fare is fixed at ten pesos, but the deal is they travel from point to point like a bus, they won't take you door to door. They aren't supposed to take foreigners, and often will ask one for a dollar for the ride. This can still be a bargain, depending on the destination.

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