Celebrating Jane Bunnett: Spirits of Havana’s 30th Anniversary

After dark they gather, the spirits of Havana. Is that a ghostly, but fatback-toned rapping down in the barrio where the great composer and percussionist Chano Pozo grew up? Who knows what shades are driving along the Malecón, that luminuos ribbon demarcating urban Havana and its Caribbean beaches, their wispy, evanescent hands on the steering wheels of fifties Chevies and Fords? Are Benny Moré and Arsenio Rodríguez, each in his own way a major architect of the Latin-pop now called salsa, sharing the worn vinyl of some retrofitted auto’s front seat? And over there, somewhere in the darkness where the old African rhythms call and the African Gods answer, who is the possessing spirit, who is the possessor? Cuba, still squeezed by a decades-long blockade and the collapse of the Soviet Union, may be short on food and other staples just now, but it has never been short of spirits. Or music.

Robert Palmer [1945-1997], introductory paragraph of his liner notes for Spirits of Havana

Jane Bunnett – Spirits of Havana, original Egrem/Denon Canada CD cover.

30 years ago, from September 27 to October 4, 1991, this remarkable album, Spirits of Havana, was recorded at the legendary Egrem/Areito Studios, located at Calle San Miguel No 410, Centro Habana, Havana, Cuba.

A Canadian-Cuban co-production between CBC Radio Variety Recordings and Egrem/Cuba, it was produced by legendary drummer Guillermo Barreto and Danny Greenspoon. The music recorded on Spirits of Havana was dedicated to the memory of Mr Barreto, who died suddenly in his home on December 14, 1991, just two months and ten days after the recording of the album.

This recording by Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer, partners in music and life, has been widely recognized as a groundbreaking project and highly praised for its many qualities. It received a Juno Award in Canada for Best Jazz Album of the Year in 1992. The All Music Guide cited Spirits of Havana as one of the top 300 jazz discs of all times, calling it “a pivotal album.”

Five years ago, in 2016, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the recording session, a [2-disc] commemorative Deluxe Edition was released. It included the original album [+ two unreleased bonus tracks], and the follow-up recording Chamalongo [+ one unreleased bonus track].

This year, 2021, on the 30th anniversary of Spirits of Havana, we at Latin Jazz Network celebrate, not only the album and its creators, but the great musicians who’ve been part of this journey, members of Jane Bunnett and The Spirits of Havana, one of the best Cuban/Canadian collaborative musical projects of all times. We’ve put together a compilation of excerpts from various writers, from liner notes, testimonials, with the wonderful photographs of Rick McGinnis.

Danilo Navas, web publisher, founder, webmaster and editor, latinjazznet.com

JANE BUNNETT – SPIRITS OF HAVANA
Featuring: Merceditas Valdés, Guillermo Barreto, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Frank Emilio Flynn, Hilario Durán, Grupo Yoruba Andabo.

Production: Guillermo Barreto and Danny Greenspoon
Executive Production: Lloyd Nishimura
Musical Direction: Guillermo Barreto and Larry Cramer
All arrangements by: Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer
Recorded at: Egrem/Areito 101 Studios in Havana, Cuba from September 27 to October 4, 1991
Engineered by: Doug Doctor in conjunction with Egrem crew
Art Direction: Stephen Fok
Photography: Rick McGinnis

Musicians on Spirits of Havana
Credits – Musicians on Spirits of Havana

Foreign producers were not coming to Cuba much in those days, so the two-year process of producing Spirits of Havana required some administrative groundbreaking. Bunnett recalls a Cuban bureaucratic bottleneck around admitting Yoruba Andabo to record in the studio, because some of the group’s members were legally classed not as professional musicians but as dockworkers. And indeed they were: dockworkers historically have constituted a social base for the rumba, tunneling into Cuban history via dance, drum, song and artisanship.

This was done, mind you, six years before Buena Vista Social Club put Cuban musical elders front and center. When that happened, it was in that same world-famous live room where everything from Cachao’s descargas to Spirits of Havana was recorded: Areito 101, the old Panart studio. But by the time Buena Vista came to town, both Guillermo Barreto and Merceditas Valdés were gone.

Barreto died shortly after this album was recorded. He was, as the late Robert Palmer described in his 1991 liner notes for Spirits of Havana, the key figure in recruiting and directing the cast of musicians who appear here, assembling the finest piquete a producer would ever need. Merceditas lived another five years, heartbroken from her loss and devastated when the US denied her a visa to sing in New York with Yoruba Andabo in 1993.

Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo

Jane Bunnett - Spirits of Havana
Jane Bunnett – Spirits of Havana – EGREM/DENON CAN 9011

A quarter-century ago, the release of Spirits of Havana was a major event, and it has not dated in the slightest since then… Many future North American collaborations would take place but this classic was one of the first and one of the very best. [March 2016]

Scott Yanow, author of Afro-Cuban Jazz, Jazz on Film, Jazz On Record 1917-76 and more

I met Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer around 1990 in Havana. The musical director of the project Guillermo Barreto and I worked together at Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna at that time and he hired me for the recording… I had a great time recording this project with both Jane and Larry, they were very nice, funny people and “down to earth,” also working with Merceditas Valdés, Guillermo Barreto, Yoruba Andabo and Ahmed Barroso was a very refreshing and unique experience. What I didn’t know was that this encounter would change the entire course of my life and my career in the future. Thanks to Jane, Larry and Spirits of Havana, I could move to Canada, start a new life with my family and connect with the Canadian music scene.

Hilario Durán, Cuban/Canadian pianist, composer, arranger, educator

Kieran Overs, Frank Emilio, Hilario Durán, Guillermo Barreto, Danny Greenspoon.
Kieran Overs, Hilario Durán, Frank Emilio, Guillermo Barreto, Danny Greenspoon.

Latin-jazz has produced more than its share of classics, from George Russell‘s Bird-meets-Stravinsky-in Havana composition “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop,” recorded by Dizzy in the forties, to Machito’s Kenya, mostly written and arranged by Mario Bauzá to feature Cannonball Adderley and other jazz luminaries and considered by Bauzá to be the idiom’s apex. Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana is an accomplishment worthy of a high place in the history of Latin-jazz fusion, but that’s a list it doesn’t really belong on.

“Our first intention was not to make a Latin-jazz fusion record,” Bunnett says recently. “There’s plenty of that going on, and I felt that, number one, it was the last thing Cuba needed. Number two, that’s never been a thing that I particularly like.” Note her priorities, first comes Cuba, second comes the personal predilections of Jane Bunnett. This album is about Cuba and Cuban music, from the carnival drum orchestras called comparsas to the conservatories to the dance floor, from the most virtuosic jazz improvising to the deep spirituality of The Santeria drumming and chants that call down the Orishas, the enduring African gods of the Yoruba diaspora. And while she has borrowed freely from past and present Cuban music, in all its staggering diversity, she has also given something back. Spirits of Havana is so singularly creative, it adds as much to the leading edge of Cuban musical thought as it does to the vocabulary and emotional resources of jazz. The album is, simply and profoundly, one of a kind.

Robert Palmer [1945-1997], excerpt from his liner notes for Spirits of Havana

Jane Bunnett, Larry Cramer, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Merceditas Valdés.

It’s been awhile since I spun these records. How fresh it still sounds today! Jane Bunnett’s playing is admirably forthright, the work of a musician with a magisterial control of both soprano saxophone and flute; playing that is tonally radiant and emotionally generous. Throughout, Bunnett plays with deep empathy for the music of Cuba and for the legendary musicians who have accompanied her on this journey. Just listen to the taut, swinging opening “Hymn” a profoundly beautiful opening that prefaces the orchestral Spirits of Havana; real brawn before the saxophonist engages her heart with some deeply expressed playing. It’s possibly some of her finest work, not only of that period, but even thereafter.

One of the classic tunes on Spirits of Havana will always be “G.M.S” [Gandinga, Mondongo, Sandunga] which was written by Frank Emilio Flynn, who also performed on it. Flynn is a master of an idiom he virtually pioneered, in which his Cuban soul was subsumed by the swing of Jazz. But it is Bunnett who captures your attention with a bewitching array of saxophone and flute summersaults; audacious, mischievous and unapologetically heart-on-sleeve.

Raul Da Gama, music writer, author of The Unfinished Score –
The Complete Works of Charles Mingus

Jane Bunnett & Merceditas Valdés
Merceditas Valdés with Jane Bunnett

Many years have passed but the impact of this project inspires us to continue to dig deeper. For years in the late ’80s we worked diligently on this dream with our patron saints, Guillermo Barreto and Merceditas Valdés. We are extremely grateful to them and all the musicians for helping us create a gem of a recording.

We persevered through extreme difficulties and joys, never really knowing where we would end up. There were many obstacles along the way that could have stopped the making of this recording but the music was the stronger force. Following our hearts and instincts the recording session finally came to be in 1991.

Spirits of Havana will always set the bar for any other recording endeavor of ours and will always be our firstborn in Cuba, a recording that we hold dear to our hearts.

Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer, Toronto, March 2016

Jane Bunnett & Larry Cramer
Jane Bunnett & Larry Cramer

I first met Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer at Havana’s Hotel Presidente one afternoon in February 1990, when they were putting together the forward-looking project that became the perfectly named album Spirits of Havana.

There, in the lobby of that fine old hotel, Jane and Larry introduced me to no less a pair of musical and spiritual eminences than Merceditas Valdés and Guillermo Barreto. I remember thinking how at ease the two couples seemed with each other, perhaps because of the symmetry of music and marriage between them.

Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo

Guillermo Barreto with Jane Bunnett
Guillermo Barreto with Jane Bunnett at the Egrem/Areito Studios in Havana, Cuba.

Jane’s biggest asset during the recording of Spirits of Havana was percussionist and arranger Guillermo Barreto. An insistent, cajoling chatterbox, he’d acquired the nickname “El Loro” [“The Parrot”] from singer Rita Montaner back in the ’50s. He’d shout and scowl, hammering out rhythms on the timbales to make a point, hell-bent on getting everyone on the same page. Like the studio and the street outside, he was a throwback to a time when recordings were live and nothing got fixed in the mix.

Rick McGinnis, photographer. Toronto, February 2016

He [Guillermo Barreto] was a great artist, teacher and a true friend whose spirit moved everyone who was fortunate enough to meet him. Without his total dedication from inception of this project 3 years ago… to hearing the final mix the day before he died, this project would not have been possible. His spirit, generosity and humour will be missed but never forgotten.

Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer, Toronto, 1992

Guillermo Barreto - Spirits of Havana
Guillermo Barreto at the Egrem/Areito Studios in Havana, Cuba.

If [Merceditas] Valdés is the album’s spiritual centre of gravity, the late Guillermo Barreto, who died after Spirits was completed, was the project’s guiding light, expediter, guardian of authenticity; in him, the many roads along which Cuban music has travelled converge and meet, becoming One. Barreto suggested and contacted musicians, provided both theorethical and practical guidance, helped shape the music, played timbales — whatever was necessary. Barreto has been a legend among Cuban musicians for decades. While Mario Bauzá presided over the New York-based encounter of Cuban music and American jazz and pop, Barreto played a somewhat comparable role in Cuba, organizing recorded jam sessions that are now prized collector’s items and producing more important recordings than anyone can remember.

Robert Palmer [1945-1997], excerpt from his liner notes for Spirits of Havana

Merceditas Valdés at the Areito Studios in Havana
Merceditas Valdés at the Egrem/Areito Studios in Havana, Cuba.

Merceditas became a star in the early ’40s singing Yoruba music on Havana radio. She was tiny in body, huge in spirit — Fernando Ortíz called her “Little Aché” — and deep with roots. Her husband, Guillermo, was one of the definitive stylists of Cuban timbal, and was the great Cuban drumset player during the heyday of jazz. He’d been a mainstay of the Tropicana’s glory years and appeared on recordings with his cousin Bebo Valdés, as well as with Frank Emilio Flynn in Los Amigos, and on Cachao‘s descargas, and lots more. I was so excited to meet them.

Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo

Jane Bunnett at the Areito Studios in Havana
Jane Bunnett at the Egrem/Areito Studios in Havana, Cuba.

Musicians who were up-and-coming when Spirits of Havana was recorded are now internationally recognized as masters. Yoruba Andabo founder Pancho Quinto [Francisco Hernández Mora] is gone, but his ahijado, Román Díaz, is now a respected and unique musical force in New York. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who was in the early days of a major international career breakout at the time Spirits of Havana was recorded, is now widely recognized as one of the world’s grandmasters, but he was already one of the world’s grandmasters when he electrified Larry Cramer’s tune “La Luna Arriba.”

Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo

Pancho Quinto - Spirits of Havana
Pancho Quinto with other members of Yoruba Andabo at the Egrem/Areito Studios in Havana, Cuba.

Jane and her husband Larry had asked me to come along with my cameras to document the making of their latest record. It was my first time in the country and I didn’t know what to expect, apart from the brutal humidity and a certain lack of tourist amenities. I was told to bring a lot of film, since it was unlikely that I’d be able to buy more on the island…

…The first thing I saw every morning when I walked to Areito Studios on Calle San Miguel from my hotel was the musicians hanging out on the street — a sight that had probably been common since Panart Records built their studios there in the late ’40s. Combined with the city around it, mostly preserved as it was around the time Fulgencio Batista fled, it had a time machine aspect; this was probably what Manhattan’s 42nd Street or RCA Studios on 24th was like when jazz was still pop music.

Rick McGinnis, photographer. Toronto, February 2016

Musicians outside Areito Studios in Havana
Musicians in Calle San Miguel, outside the Egrem/Areito Studios in Havana, Cuba.
Danilo Navas
Danilo Navas
Founder, Editor, Webmaster: Latin Jazz Network, World Music Report, Toronto Music Report. A passionate and committed communicator with a sensibility for the arts based in Toronto, Canada.

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