LONG-DIS­TANCE LOVE AF­FAIR

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

THE West­ern tourists at the Casa de la Trova in San­ti­ago de Cuba can’t be­lieve their luck. On­stage, just me­tres from where they are sitting around ta­bles strewn with bot­tles of cola and Havana Club rum, a black­clad gui­tarist in a cow­boy hat is singing Chan Chan, the song made fa­mous by the Buena Vista So­cial Club. That this hap­pens to be the same singer who sang on the Buena Vis­tas’ best­selling Grammy-win­ning 1997 al­bum is, for most, fan­tasy made real.

‘‘ The feel­ings I have for you/ I can­not deny,’’ 65-year-old Eli­ades Ochoa croons in Span­ish, singing the words writ­ten by his com­padre Com­pay Se­gundo, and strum­ming the song’s trade­mark four chords. In­spired by its ir­re­sistible ro­man­ti­cism a few couples take to the dance floor; a mid­dle-aged blonde woman in a Che Gue­vara T-shirt stands and sings along loudly. Some­one strikes up a Co­hiba cigar from a box prob­a­bly bought in Havana, the sprawl­ing cap­i­tal on the other side of this 1250km-long Caribbean is­land and the first stop for most Cuba tours.

The tra­di­tional Cuban son of Ochoa and his band — think a com­bi­na­tion of Span­ish song and gui­tar and African rhythms and per­cus­sion — wafts over the colo­nial bal­cony and on to the streets, to where sim­i­larly tight-knit out­fits are per­form­ing in squares, tourist ho­tels and other mu­sic houses. In the Casa de La Mu­sica, a timba band is whip­ping West­ern salseros into a sweat. An AfroCuban rumba session is go­ing on in the Casa del Caribe. The pro­grammed beats of reg­gae­ton rule at the out­door La Cla­que­tta, where young Cubans in ly­cra and base­ball garb gy­rate in pairs.

Cuba’s rhythms are as di­verse as its melt­ing pot pop­u­la­tion, most of whom trace their an­ces­try to African slaves or Span­ish set­tlers, and all of whom love to dance. Pro­fes­sional dancers are groomed in state­backed bal­let schools and folk­loric com­pa­nies. Tal­ented mu­si­cians pour out of con­ser­va­to­ries. Cuba may shud­der un­der its own post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary weight, its build­ings may be crum­bling and derelict and its peo­ple strug­gling, but its artis­tic spirit is undi­min­ished.

With a trop­i­cal cli­mate and fab­u­lous beaches it’s no won­der, re­ally, why tourists have been de­scend­ing on Cuba since Chan Chan went strato­spheric. Cour­ses in per­cus­sion, drum­ming and Span­ish are thriv­ing. A world­wide boom in salsa has seen hordes tak­ing lessons from loose-limbed lo­cals who’ve been salsa-ing since they could walk. Mar­keted as a place of cigars and rum, vintage cars and big-bot­tomed women, last year this lovely, be­lea­guered coun­try wel­comed 2.5 mil­lion in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors. Many of these were Aus­tralian.

Get­ting to Cuba isn’t easy from Aus­tralia. While there are di­rect flights to the coun­try from Bri­tain, Europe, Canada and Mex­ico, any­body want­ing to fly there from the An­tipodes has to do so via one of these hubs as well (as must any­body in the US). But for those put off by the jour­ney and ex­pense, for Aus­tralia’s wide­spread com­mu­nity of Cuban ex­pats — for any­one, ba­si­cally, with an in­ter­est in mu­sic and dance — there’s a so­lu­tion. Since our love af­fair with Cuba was jump-started by the time­less sounds of the Buena Vista So­cial Club more than a decade ago, Cuba has been com­ing to us.

‘‘ Aus­tralian au­di­ences con­nect im­me­di­ately with Cuban mu­sic,’’ says Juan de Mar­cos Gon­za­lez, the band­leader, com­poser and ar­ranger of­ten de­scribed as Cuban mu­sic’s most im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary fig­ure. ‘‘ They seem to un­der­stand its au­then­tic­ity de­spite the cul­tural dif­fer­ences.

‘‘ It’s the same ev­ery­where,’’ he adds. ‘‘ I’ve seen peo­ple in east­ern Europe and cer­tain parts of Africa, peo­ple who’ve never heard the mu­sic be­fore, feel com­pelled to get up and fol­low the rhythm in their own way.’’

It was Gon­za­lez, a con­ser­va­tory-trained mu­si­cian (and doc­tor of en­gi­neer­ing) who had the idea for an all-star band of for­got­ten Cuban mas­ters and, af­ter team­ing up with Lon­don-based record com­pany World Cir­cuit and Amer­i­can gui­tarist Ry Cooder, went look­ing for them.

A Toda Cuba Le Gusta (Ev­ery­one in Cuba Loves It), the 1997 al­bum by Gon­za­lez’s 13-piece Afro-Cuban All­stars, paved the way for the twi­light star­dom of artists such as singer Ibrahim Fer­rer and pi­anist Ruben Gon­za­lez, both of whom re­leased al­bums un­der the Buena Vista banner.

Gon­za­lez re­mained a Buena Vista fix­ture for six years, tour­ing, di­rect­ing and pro­duc­ing be­tween play­ing with Sierra Maes­tra, the Grammy-win­ning son group he co-founded in 1978 to keep this Cuban folk mu­sic alive. The Mex­ico-based Gon­za­lez is per­form­ing again with the Afro-Cuban All­stars, who played WOMAde­laide in March (on a bill with the Cre­ole Choir of Cuba, who also toured), then en­ter­tained Bris­bane with their mix of styles: bolero and gua­jira, rumba, dan­zon and cha-cha-cha.

Last year’s Aus­tralian tour by Los Van Van, the sprawl­ing 20-piece orches­tra cum mu­sic academy known as the Rolling Stones of Cuba, saw au­di­ences out in force. Orquesta Buena Vista So­cial Club — fea­tur­ing lesser-known orig­i­nal mem­bers — graced the By­ron Bay Blues Fes­ti­val. WOMAde­laide au­di­ences cheered Eli­ades Ochoa (at the helm of World Cir­cuit su­per­group AfroCu­bism). Buena Vista diva Omara Por­tuondo, jazz pi­anist Roberto Fon­seca and Latin jazz god­fa­ther Chu­cho Valdes have all been here.

The boldly ti­tled Bal­let Revolu­cion, an am­bi­tious ex­trav­a­ganza with Aus­tralian pro­duc­ers and an all-Cuban cast, pre­mieres in Perth next month, then tours na­tion­ally. The Bar at Buena Vista, a savvy take on the orig­i­nal con­cept that fea­tures 93-year-old sonero Rey­naldo Creagh and Bris­bane-based Cuban dancer Eric Turro, is tour­ing Aus­tralia for the third time and is half­way through a seven-city sched­ule. (The hit show Lady Salsa, which toured Aus­tralia twice, ran for three months at the Gold Coast Casino in 2009.)

Gon­za­lez isn’t im­pressed with the BVSC hy­brids: ‘‘ The real Buena Vista So­cial Club ended with the deaths of the orig­i­nal fea­tured artists,’’ the ge­nial but out­spo­ken au­teur in­sists. ‘‘ It was great that it rein­tro­duced Cuban mu­sic to the world and brought it to the at­ten­tion of a wider au­di­ence. But it also be­came a mid­dle-class fash­ion and a lu­cra­tive busi­ness for world mu­sic pro­mot­ers, who made the sort of money they’d never make from tour­ing their usual bands.’’

The fad for all things Cuban ar­guably reached its peak in July 2000, when 40,000 peo­ple turned out to see the orig­i­nal Buena Vista So­cial Club per­form in Lon­don’s Hyde Park. ‘‘ The bub­ble has prob­a­bly burst for Cuban mu­sic in the UK and Europe,’’ says Andy Wood, di­rec­tor of UK-based Latin events pro­mot­ers Como No.

‘‘ Cuban dance has be­come hugely pop­u­lar,’’ Wood says. ‘‘ The Bal­let Na­cional hadn’t been to the UK for 20 years when it re­turned in 2006 and it’s now a reg­u­lar visi­tor. Danza Con­tem­po­ranea de Cuba is com­ing back next year. Con­structed dance projects like Havana Rakatan’’ — a crowd pleaser that tells the his­tory of Cuban mu­sic and dance and is in Syd­ney this month — ‘‘ do very well. It’s partly down to cy­cles of pro­mo­tion, and the fact Cuba is one of the great cul­tural cen­tres of the world.’’

Havana was Amer­ica’s play­ground in the first half of the 20th cen­tury. Cuban mu­sic sound­tracked Hol­ly­wood films. Cuban stars such as Beny More and Celia Cruz played the New York Pal­la­dium and in­ter­preted the Amer­i­can song­book. Mu­si­cians in­clud­ing Chano Pozo col­lab­o­rated with Amer­i­can jazzmen such as Dizzy Gille­spie. The Buena Vista So­cial Club — the Havana mem­bers club af­ter which the band was named — buzzed with mu­si­cal life.

The 1959 revo­lu­tion closed down venues and cut off con­tact; to­day’s mu­si­cians, while well ed­u­cated, are largely de­nied ac­cess to de­cent in­stru­ments, wages and places to play. Visit the Dis­ney­fied Old Havana or the beach re­sort of Va­radero and you’ll find tal­ented en­sem­bles play­ing for a pit­tance in lob­bies of ho­tels they’re for­bid­den en­try into. Even the Buena Vista crew play Va­radero once a month or so when they’re at home. If Cuban artists want to play abroad, if they want to keep cash­ing in on the BVSC brand, who can blame them?

‘‘ Not that [Cuban] mu­si­cians are prop­erly paid, es­pe­cially in Amer­ica,’’ Gon­za­lez says. ‘‘ The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­laxed the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion’s dra­co­nian re­stric­tions in re­gards to the cul­tural ex­change but lit­tle else. More than 40 en­sem­bles have been gig­ging across Amer­ica from the end of 2009 un­til now, and they only get a per diem. Amer­ica doesn’t want to be seen to sup­port ‘ Cas­tro’s dic­ta­tor­ship’.’’ Sim­i­larly, some Euro­pean pro­mot­ers have been known to take ad­van­tage of Cuba’s plethora of first­class mu­si­cians, only too aware many will ac­cept pal­try fees just for the chance to play. What, then, of pro­mot­ers in Aus­tralia?

‘‘ The Afro-Cuban All­stars are paid in­ter­na­tional rates wher­ever we play,’’ Gon­za­lez says. ‘‘ But then ev­ery­one in our line-up ei­ther owns an­other pass­port or cur­rently lives out­side the is­land.’’

That Cuba has man­aged to with­stand the US block­ade for 52 years is, of course, re­mark­able. But while West­ern vis­i­tors marvel at the pop­u­la­tion’s re­silience (‘‘Things are get­ting bet­ter step by step and at the end Cuba will re­cover,’’ Gon­za­lez reck­ons), Cubans get on with liv­ing their lives. For many that in­volves mak­ing art that ex­ists be­yond the tourist gaze.

‘‘ There’s more to my coun­try than cigars and rum, vintage cars and big-bot­tomed women,’’ says Ge­orges Ce­s­pedes, 31, a for­mer Danza Con­tem­po­ranea dancer who chore­ographed Mambo 3XX1, an elec­tro hiphop take on the mu­sic of Perez Prado, for the com­pany’s Bris­bane Fes­ti­val visit last year. ‘‘ My gen­er­a­tion has more colours and flavours than that. We like to make peo­ple think. Other­wise what’s the point?’’

His friend Car­los Acosta, with whom Ce­s­pedes co-chore­ographed two con­tem­po­rary dance pieces per­formed at the Lon­don Coli­seum last July, agrees.

‘‘ There’s an artis­tic revo­lu­tion wait­ing to hap­pen in Cuba,’’ says the Royal Bal­let prin­ci­pal, 38, who started his ca­reer with Bal­let Na­cional de Cuba, an­other Bris­bane Fes­ti­val head­liner last year.

‘‘ There are so many dif­fer­ent kinds of dances be­cause of the mes­tizo [mix] of peo­ple and be­cause the revo­lu­tion made arts and sports open to ev­ery­one.

‘‘ Dancers in Cuba know bal­let, mar­tial arts, capoiera, Afro-Cuban rhythms . . . When you put this all into a Caribbean set­ting it be­comes some­thing very spe­cial. There is a lot of col­lab­o­rat­ing go­ing on, which is some­thing that in­ter­ests me,’’ adds Acosta, who is in talks for an Aus­tralian sea­son in 2013. (He was a guest artist with the Aus­tralian Bal­let in 2008.) Artists have to keep mov­ing for­ward, wher­ever they hap­pen to be.’’

While Aus­tralian re­views for the col­lab­o­ra­tive Danza Con­tem­po­ranea were

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