Sometimes you need to get folks to pay attention. And in old Havana, where the exquisite decay is compelling, a little 3d floor eatery, above, decorated their stairclimb in a way that got my attention. Not exactly archival. Then again a joy to see.
But hearing is the prime reason we’re in Cuba. A highlight surrounds the music of a young composer, pianist and bandleader, Roberto Carcassés who moves effortlessly from improvised jazz to straight ahead Latin pop. Roberto graciously allowed our group to visit him in his home where he performed and explained a bit about his music and workings as a musician in Cuba.
Mr. Carcassés has performed with Cuban percussionist Changuito and pianist Chucho Valdés, as well as American jazz artists Wynton Marsalis and George Benson, and has taught a Jazz Workshop at Stanford University. The treat here was a series of sensitive and swinging pieces backed by a small combo of drums, bass and trumpet. While Roberto began as a percussionist in Havana’s National School of Arts, his love became the piano. This school is highly competitive, and government support allows student to focus on their studies. The big surprise is that only classical music is taught- this from a country where Cuban folkloric, pop and jazz musics are, historically and today, some of the most influential forces in the world’s music.
Later that evening we were treated to another facet of Roberto’s musical life, his loose collective of like minded musicians, Interactivo. Taking the late-night stage at Theatro Bertolt Brecht, here Roberto performed a bandleader’s background role, as a revolving cast of featured singers offered a wide range of dance musics. The crowd was young, the singers magnetic, the band tight, the place jammed, the beers State subsidized at $1, and only a bigger dance floor was wanting.
Professionalism isn’t restricted to the concert stage in Havana, and nearly every bar, bistro and restaurant features a band, perhaps too intent on offering a Buena Vista familiar, but remarkably talented. Early in the day we heard Sol Y Son at La Bodequite del Medio, a restaurant famous for the many famous, or maybe just too many autographs on every inch of the walls. One surprise was Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” We heard this by many groups, maybe as often as “Guantanamera.” I guess it has that Latinette vibe like many of the Atlantic releases from the era, but probably more to do with the Prince Royce bachata version being a major tropical hit in 2010. In these parts it doesn’t hurt that the theme is solidarity.