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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Red Hot Travelogue: Two Nights in Havana

By Nick Schwartz-Hall



Last July, in preparation for the Red Hot + Cuba shows, I flew to Havana to do some advance work and meet the artists. Because of the embargo the US maintains against Cuba, even making phone calls and sending emails between Cuba and the US are tricky, much less negotiating a contract with an artist or even spending money. Still, it was an amazing and productive trip. We’re fortunate that our co-music directors, Andres Levin and CuCu Diamantes (who is originally Cuban), have visited Cuba over the last few years while making a movie, Amor Crónico, and they know many of the artists we are working with.




On our first night, in honor of the artists invited to BAM, Andres and CuCu organized a reception with the help of Otto Ermus, the country manager for Lloyds of London in Cuba. Lloyds' office is located in the back courtyard of the beautifully maintained old mansion in Havana, in contrast to the many picturesque (and not so picturesque) crumbling buildings there. The artists included Carlos Varela, Alexander Abreu, David Torrens, Kelvis Ochoa, Osdalgia, Migdalia, and Juana Bacallao, a 94-year old singer who told us of being discovered in the Havana casinos in the early 1940s by associates of Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. She sang a couple of songs in a sparkling blue gown and silver wig (she still has a remarkable voice and a sense of humor!). David, Osdalgia, Migdalia, and Kelvis all sang as well. Kelvis is a super-charming performer, literally with a twinkle in his eye, and most of the small number of guests and other singers joined in on his version of "Maria Elena."

Kelvis Ochoa

CuCu Diamantes, Osdalgia, and friends sing along with Kelvis

Among the evening's guests was Mariela Castro, Raoul’s daughter. She heads up an anti-homophobia, anti-AIDS NGO in Havana called Cenesex whose work BAM plans to support in keeping with the mission of the Red Hot shows at BAM and the Red Hot Organization.

The reception broke up at around 10pm—and then it was time to go out. Alexander Abreu and his amazing band, Havana d’Primera, were performing at Casa de la Musica, a nightclub in the Miramar district. They went on around 1am, but the place was jammed and hot, with people dancing non-stop. 

Alexander Abreu and Havana d'Primera at Casa de la Música


Once Alexander finished around 3:30am, we went around the corner and upstairs to Club Tun Tun to see Juan Luis Cortes ("El Tosco"), the legendary songwriter, performer, and flautist from Irakere and NG La Banda, who will also be in Red Hot + Cuba.

El Tosco at Club Tun Tun


The house was packed, and in a tighter, hotter room. Similar to Havana d’Primera, Tosco’s band features horns, a multi-part rhythm section, and an array of backup singer/dancers. The Tropicana's dancers had come over after work, so the crowd was still going strong. We finally got back to the hotel at 5:30am.

The following night we saw Kelvis with his band, with Kelvis—red hair flaring—on electric guitar. They  performed at an outdoor club called Don Cangrejo, also jammed with people dancing.

Seeing these bands and artists perform really brought home how dynamic and contemporary the music scene is in Havana. Alexander’s and Tosco’s bands have become the basis for the band we are imagining for the BAM shows: five or six horns, a four-part rhythm section (drums, percussionists, bass), guitar, keyboards, and back-up singers, all behind featured singers and musicians. Of course, BAM will also have singer/songwriter moments and boleros in quieter sections of the shows, but this will be a long way from the mellow sounds of Buena Vista Social Club. Still with a strong rhythmic basis and vocals, but packed with horns,  timba beats, and up tempos, with hardly a trace of nostalgia.

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