The sounds of Cuba ring out

Two bands treat L.A. to the is­land na­tion’s styles

Los Angeles Times - - POP & HISS - By Randy Lewis randy.lewis@la­times.com

Cuban son en­sem­ble El Septeto San­ti­a­guero can tes­tify to the im­pact that recog­ni­tion from the U.S. record in­dus­try can have on even a well-es­tab­lished non-U.S. act.

While hav­ing formed in 1995, and since re­leas­ing eight al­bums and find­ing fame in its na­tive coun­try, not to men­tion tours of Canada, Latin Amer­ica and Europe, it took the group’s Latin Grammy Award in 2015 be­fore the band was able to land its first gig in the States.

“We con­sider that the U.S. is the big mar­ket, the main mar­ket that we want to reach,” El Septeto San­ti­a­guero founder Fer­nando De­war said in an in­ter­view re­cently, for which the group’s pro­ducer and man­ager, Alden Gon­za­lez Diaz, served as trans­la­tor.

El Septeto San­ti­a­guero is cur­rently on a 20-city tour that ar­rives in Los An­ge­les on Fri­day for a free con­cert that’s part of the sum­mer Grand Per­for­mances se­ries down­town.

“The U.S. is very im­por­tant for us, and we were try­ing for a long time for what we have now: the fa­cil­ity to play in the U.S.,” Diaz said.

That goal ap­pears to be shared by many Cuban mu­si­cians who in re­cent years have found it a bit eas­ier to land gigs in Amer­ica. One sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor has been the eas­ing of the long­stand­ing U.S. po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural em­bargo of Cuba, which dates to the 1959 revo­lu­tion that cul­mi­nated in Fidel Cas­tro’s takeover as pres­i­dent and his trans­for­ma­tion of the coun­try into a com­mu­nist regime.

“Cuban mu­si­cians see the U.S. as a nat­u­ral artis­tic en­vi­ron­ment, mainly for the mu­si­cal con­nec­tions that date back to the ’50s,” said Car­los Al­fonso, di­rec­tor of the long-run­ning Afro-Cuban jazz en­sem­ble Sin­te­sis, which will per­form Aug. 25 at the Ford Am­phithe­atre on a bill with Cuban trans­plant-vi­o­lin­ist Dayren San­tamaria and her L.A.-based band, Made in Cuba.

El Septeto San­ti­a­guero hails from San­ti­ago de Cuba on the far eastern end of the is­land na­tion, more than 500 miles from Ha­vana. The group scored its Latin Grammy in the tra­di­tional trop­i­cal Latin al­bum cat­e­gory for its 2015 work “Trib­uto a Los Com­padres: No Quiero Llanto.” The al­bum is a trib­ute to Los Com­padres, a duo that is one of Septeto San­ti­a­guero’s pre­de­ces­sors in the trova tra­di­tion — loosely, the Cuban strain of trou­ba­dour mu­sic.

Still, the group might not have made it here if for­mer Pres­i­dent Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion hadn’t moved to im­prove re­la­tions with the na­tion that sits 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Af­ter that shift be­gan, the band was in­vited to per­form last year at Lin­coln Cen­ter’s Mid­sum­mer Night Swing Fes­ti­val in New York — its first show in the U.S.

“We agree ab­so­lutely with the more open re­la­tion­ship be­tween Cuba and the U.S.,” De­war said. “It’s very im­por­tant that more av­er­age Amer­i­can peo­ple be able to travel to Cuba.”

Sin­te­sis’ Al­fonso sees that twoway street help­ing on both sides.

“Now the Amer­i­can tourists can see, or even bet­ter, touch the Cuban re­al­ity them­selves,” he said. “The peo­ple who come here might have some opin­ions about Cuba in­flu­enced by mass me­dia, but here they can re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate how the Cuban peo­ple are.”

Sin­te­sis, which formed in 1974, has made a num­ber of vis­its to the U.S. be­gin­ning in 1997 with its first trip north for per­for­mances in Whit­tier and Santa Mon­ica, and even recorded an al­bum, “Or­ishas,” in Cal­abasas. Sin­te­sis has been back spo­rad­i­cally — in 1999, 2001, 2012 and most re­cently in 2014.

The loos­en­ing of re­stric­tions in re­cent years has di­rectly af­fected Septeto San­ti­a­guero by mak­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with U.S. mu­si­cians more prac­ti­cal. New Or­leans jazz trum­peter Nicholas Pay­ton is one of many guest artists on the group’s new al­bum “Raiz,” from which the band is draw­ing on its cur­rent 3 1⁄2- week, 20date U.S. tour.

The group’s new al­bum high­lights the va­ri­ety of styles and sounds the band is ca­pa­ble of, in­clud­ing Afro-Cuban jazz and tra­di­tional Cuban son and salsa. There are also shades of hip-hop, dance­hall and trop­i­cal mu­sic of the Caribbean.

“We are try­ing to make the tra­di­tional mu­sic in­ter­est­ing for new gen­er­a­tions,” said Gon­za­lez Diaz. “Now in Cuba, most of the mu­sic the younger gen­er­a­tions lis­ten to is to­tally dif­fer­ent from the mu­sic we are do­ing. We don’t want to lose the tra­di­tions, and one of the ways to win this bat­tle is to make our mu­sic more rel­e­vant to young gen­er­a­tions.”

In San­ti­ago, which was the orig­i­nal cap­i­tal of Cuba be­fore it shifted to Ha­vana in the late 16th cen­tury, Septeto San­ti­a­guero plays venues both hum­ble and stately. It reg­u­larly per­forms on Tues­day nights at the Casa de La Trova, where res­i­dents of San­ti­ago gather to dance, drink and so­cial­ize.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s shift in pol­icy has im­posed lim­its in travel to Cuba, and there is a con­cern among artists that vis­it­ing the U.S. could once again be­come more dif­fi­cult.

“If ev­ery­thing that has been done changes, this of course will mean a huge step back­wards,” Al­fonso said.

“Each time you cap­ture for­eign sounds or el­e­ments and mix them with your mu­si­cal cul­ture with­out los­ing your roots, your essence, it’s a fantastic thing,” Al­fonso con­tin­ued. “This am­pli­fies your mu­sic, takes it to an­other level, a more uni­ver­sal level.”

Larisa Lopez

AFRO-CUBAN jazz en­sem­ble Sin­te­sis, formed in 1974, has made sev­eral vis­its to the U.S. over the years.

Be­low Blanco

EL SEPTETO SAN­TI­A­GUERO, now tour­ing in the U.S., won a Latin Grammy in 2015 in the tra­di­tional trop­i­cal Latin al­bum cat­e­gory.

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