MIAMI - The many ways that Cuba’s music is isolated, by ocean, politics and tradition, create a kind of musical hothouse that often yields powerful results. But for the Cuban musicians playing the Global Cuba Fest this weekend, leaving their island has allowed them to flower, even as they maintain strong ties to home.
Alex Cuba, who lives in the small town of Smithers, British Columbia, a 14-hour drive north of Vancouver, has found success and fulfillment in isolation, freely blending Cuban “son” from his youth on the island with pop, rock and his own inspiration. Yosvany Terry, a celebrated jazz saxophonist, has put the music and traditions of his family’s Afro-Cuban religious practice together with the jazz he learned in Cuban conservatories and a decade of living and playing in New York City to create a celebrated project called “Ye-ee-gbe.”
Miami festival showcases ‘what Cubans are doing outside of Cuba'
“What makes this project distinctive is to create something that has influence from both worlds,” Terry says from his Harlem apartment. “The African world, with the aesthetic of Cuba, and here in the U.S.”
For Alex Cuba (real name Alex Puentes) being away from commercial pressures and cultural traditions has freed him. “It allows me to create without a model,” he says. “To create with complete freedom and put on the record what really lays on my soul.”
Organizers of the Global Cuba Fest, produced by the Miami Light Project and Fundarte, aim to showcase the variety and changes in Cuban music outside the island, as more artists migrate into temporary or permanent exile and begin to incorporate influences from their new homes with their roots. “It’s what Cubans are doing now outside of Cuba, and what they are doing with other musicians,” says Ever Chavez, director of Fundarte.
Last year’s festival was spread out over six weeks and took place at Spiegelworld, the cabaret/club extravaganza in Miami Beach, and primarily featured artists based in Miami. This year’s version is concentrated into a single weekend at the North Beach Bandshell, with two of the three acts from outside Miami. Cuba performs Saturday, and the festival closes Sunday with Terry and an ensemble of top Cuban and international jazz players in “Ye-de-gbe.”
Terry, who left Cuba for New York in 1999, began working on “Ye-de-gbe” (which means “with the approval of the spirits” in Fon, an ancient Dahomean language) in 2007, after receiving grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Stanford Jazz Workshop at Stanford University. But its roots are in Terry’s upbringing in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria; a number of people in his extended family are Santeria priests, singers or musicians. Terry’s maternal grandparents are from Haiti, and through them he was familiar with “arara,” a branch of Afro-Caribbean culture and religion rooted in the African country of Dahomey (now Benin).
Although he grew up with religious music, Terry, 37, focused on other kinds of expression, studying jazz and classical music in Cuban conservatories, and earning acclaim with the jazz group Columna B. It wasn’t until 1998, when he heard the group Afrocuba de Matanzas, which plays music from the “arara” tradition, that he was creatively inspired by the culture of his childhood.
“Even chants that I knew, like the one for Santeria god Chango, when I heard the way they would phrase the melody and interact with the drums, I said, wow, I thought I knew them but I’m hearing them in a whole different way,” Terry says.
He found it natural to bring “arara” together with the jazz he was playing in New York.
“The great thing about New York is that New York accepts who you are,” Terry says. “There are people here from everywhere. And after 10 years you feel like a New Yorker.”
He does not consider that a barrier to experimenting with his roots. “I consider myself a child of this Afro-Cuban tradition,” Terry says. “But it’s important that it’s in constant evolution. We have that commitment to keep the music and the culture moving forward, because it’s a live tradition that doesn’t stop. It’s meant to advance through the generations.”
Cuba’s musical and life journey has not been so carefully planned. Now 33, he grew up in Artemisa, a town west of Havana known for “guajiro” and” son” music (it is also the original home of trumpet player Arturo Sandoval), with a father who played traditional music and ran the local cultural center. But Cuba was drawn to American pop, idolizing Michael Jackson (he still sports a retro ‘70s-style Afro) and Willy Chirino, another artist who has excelled in mixing Cuban and American music.
In 1995, the 20-year-old Cuba was touring Canada, playing bass with his father’s band, when he noticed an attractive girl at their show in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. He asked a friend how to approach her in English. “And he said easy, go up to her and say I like you, do you like me? So I did that and she started laughing. And I said ‘why are you laughing?’ and she said ‘porque hablo espanol’ (‘because I speak Spanish’).
Within a year they were married, and Cuba found himself living in British Columbia. At first he aspired to play with a pop star like Alanis Morissette. Instead, for years he played Latin dance music with his brother, who also emigrated to Canada, as well as with other bands in various styles. But Cuba longed to do something of his own, to play music that incorporated the pop and rock he’d always loved, something more for listening than dancing. “I started feeling trapped,” he says. “People were requesting us only as a dance band. And my vision was to be a concert artist.”
Cuba began fulfilling his vision roughly around the time, five years ago, when he moved to Smithers, his wife’s hometown, with their three children. In the community of 5,000, where winter lasts from October to May, he began to blend Cuban “son,” pop, and rock into a lilting, captivatingly melodic and indefinable mix. “I had a hard time in interviews because people would say ‘what do you call your music?’” he says. “My manger finally said it’s Cuban soul rock. And now that’s where I live, where the music goes.”
Cuba’s first two solo albums, 2006’s “Humo de tabaco,” and 2007’s “Agua del pozo,” have both won a Juno Award, Canada’s top music prize, for Best World Music Album. He releases his records on his own label, and although it is more work, he is also happy not to have the commercial pressures that come with working with a record company.
“I think because I got these two powerful types of music and culture from an early age it set my soul to live anywhere,” he says. “I don’t have any regret that I left my country. Sometimes the house gets buried in snow. It can be so cold outside, and I can be writing the hottest tune on Earth. It all comes from the same place, as long as you feel true to yourself.”