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Jazz Plaza 2020: Embracing the Culture of Jazz

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35 Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza 2020 De La Habana A Santiago - Opening Night: Tributo a Juan Formell y Los Van Van - Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama

Chapter one of our series: 35th Jazz Plaza International Festival in Havana

Featured photo of Brenda Navarrete by Danilo Navas – 35 Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza 2020 – Opening Night: Tributo a Juan Formell y Los Van Van

Culture – the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group – tells us everything about a civilisation. This is true of the culture of a particular moment in time as well as over extended progressions of time; years, decades and especially epochs. The establishment and development of this culture that occurs in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present and into the future also mandates the recording and sharing of these (various) culture(s) resulting in the most essential and memorable progression of human existence and events. And this is something to be celebrated with dedication and precision.

Jazz is an indelible part of Cuban culture because its song of freedom was sung ostensibly from the same score-sheet, so that it is now built into the cultural continuum

35 Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza De La Habana A Santiago
35 Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza 2020 De La Habana A Santiago – Official Poster

The pomp and circumstance at Jazz Plaza 2020 was not the only thing that reminded us to celebrate culture here in Havana, Cuba. Even without a carnival the comparsa is inevitable – almost de rigueur. On the narrow streets in Centro Habana, where we stayed, or in Habana Vieja (Old Havana), which we roamed by day and by night, the noise of music and the music of noise mingled delightfully and memorably. “Mira…” you heard as passersby called each other… The voices of men, women and children often called out loudly to others from the street or across beautiful balconies, atop colonnades and vendors on the street sang out their sales pitches battling manfully with Ladas – old and new – that honked and screamed down the narrow streets.

Peering at the musicians who filled the stage making glorious and thunderous music, batá, tumbadora and drum; bass, saxophone, trumpet and trombone; guitar and piano all battled to sing the song of freedom – the universal song of Jazz, sung here, in Havana in the dialect of Afro-Cubano, if I may be permitted to call it that. And yet it was so much more. Why… you may ask? Why separate it at all? What separates it and what brings all of the songful dialects together?

While the music of tradition belongs often enough (if not always) to a nation and it, of necessity, extols the glory of the Nation in its Nationhood, Jazz has metamorphosed into the music – an endless, evolving song, really – of a humanity free from the tyranny of slavery and oppression as it evolved from The Blues a century or so ago. It is true that Jazz was born of freed slaves, wrenched away from Mother Africa and abducted to The Americas. This diaspora of African slaves, often freed by blood as in Haiti and elsewhere flowered in an unique way.

The most musical expression of this freedom, was the freedom that put on the garb of melody, harmony and, especially rhythm – forever resisting slavery thereafter. While this new freedom, though coloured by its colonialism clothed itself in national culture, Jazz – ever the cultural guerrilla – tore through colonial borders uniting people so that it has now become one of the greatest voices of freedom. It appears to have united the brotherhood of man becoming a freedom best expressed in the Universal Song of Jazz, an expression of the universal culture of humanity in a continual state of redefining the past in the revolutionary present in order to prepare for the future.

XV Coloquio Internacional de Jazz Leonardo Acosta In Memoriam - Jazz Plaza 2020
XV Coloquio Internacional de Jazz Leonardo Acosta In Memoriam – Jazz Plaza 2020

You cannot evade “culture” in Cuba. It’s everywhere. Its meaning changes constantly – in every 1950’s American motor car, in the Ladas – old and new. Buildings absorb and radiate it. The people who live in them do too. It lives in the rhythm of their walking, their speaking, singing and because it has borne the enormous weight of the newest colonialism from just 90 miles across the sea, it has throbbed with the music of Jazz for more than a hundred years – almost as long as Jazz itself has lived not far away from its northern shores; from where the ambassadors of the music have broadcast their message of freedom. Jazz is an indelible part of Cuban culture because its song of freedom was sung ostensibly from the same score-sheet, so that it is now built into the cultural continuum.

The nurturing of this continuum and building upon it – sustaining and fortifying it – is what events such as Jazz Plaza 2020 are all about. We saw this especially, in the four-day, XV Coloquio Internacional de Jazz, held at Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) in Havana each day between January 15th and 19th. These events directed and curated by Neris González Bello were among the most edifying and enjoyable events of Jazz Plaza 2020 and with their mixture of panel discussions, presentations, film and musical encounters, were as enjoyable and memorable as the music itself. This Coloquio Internacional de Jazz was also – in a sense – presided over by the ghost of Leonardo Acosta. Though (not so happily) lesser-known as a musician, Acosta was a famous historian and author several books including the seminal one, Cubano Be Cubano Bop – One Hundred Years of Jazz in Cuba, He passed away at 83, in 2016.

Many more celebrations took place at several venues throughout Havana and Santiago de Cuba between January 14th to 19th, one more exciting and unforgettable than the other. More about this – including the explosive inaugural event at Teatro Nacional a bit later…

Fábrica de Arte Cubano FAC - El Vedado, La Habana, Cuba. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Fábrica de Arte Cubano FAC – El Vedado, La Habana, Cuba. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

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Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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1 Comment

  1. Tomas Pena

    Mar 22, 2020 at 10:28 pm

    Bravo! I look forward to reading the next installment.

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Tribute to the Masters

Tribute to the Masters: Mario Rivera

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Mario Rivera "El Comandante"

Mario Rivera was a gifted musician, composer and arranger that played more than 15 instruments, which included piano, vibraphone, drums, trumpet, timbales, congas, flute, and piccolo. But Rivera was known for how he kissed and caressed the tenor, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones. He could play all of the family of saxophones on a virtuosic level as a soloist and section player and was one of the very few saxophonists who also mastered of the flute in the Cuban charanga style. Unlike most musicians, Rivera played all these instruments at an exceedingly high level of musicianship. Rivera dominated the “straight- ahead” jazz and Latin Jazz, Salsa and many other genres.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante"
Mario Rivera “El Comandante”

Mario was born July 22, 1939 in Santo Domingo, The Dominican Republic. After he arrived in NYC in 1961, he worked with Puerto Rican vocalist Joe Valle. His most significant musical associations through the years include Tito Rodríguez (1963-65), The Machito Orchestra, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Típica 73, The George Coleman Octet, Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra, Slide Hampton’s Jazz Masters, the Afro Blue Band, Giovanni Hidalgo, Chico O’Farrill’s Orchestra and especially Tito Puente’s Orchestra and Latin Jazz Ensemble with whom he worked for on and off for decades.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante" the merengue-jazz - Guest: George Coleman - Groovin High
Mario Rivera “El Comandante” the merengue-jazz – Guest: George Coleman – Groovin High

Even though Rivera was one of the hardest working sidemen in the jazz and Latin music business he also led two groups of his own Salsa Refugees and The Mario Rivera Sextet. Although having appeared on virtually hundreds of recording, Mario recorded only one disc as a leader named after his sobriquet, “El Comandante.” It has fine examples of combinations of the native rhythm of his homeland, merengue from the Dominican Republic and jazz improvisation. Indeed it can be considered not only a tribute to his homeland and his mastery of jazz harmony but an homage also to one of his inspirations and yet another unsung hero, fellow Dominican saxophone master, Tavito Vásquez.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante" and "The Salsa Refugees" - Back row L-R: Mario Rivera, Andy González, Jorge Dalto, Jerry González, Papo Vázquez, Nicky Marrero - Bottom Row L-R: Elías Peguero, César Ozuna
Mario Rivera “El Comandante” and “The Salsa Refugees” – Back row L-R: Mario Rivera, Andy González, Jorge Dalto, Jerry González, Papo Vázquez, Nicky Marrero – Bottom Row L-R: Elías Peguero, César Ozuna

Rivera’s passing has been felt very hard in the Latin music and jazz community and he is sorely missed. But we have his stories, music recordings, photos, and videos to remember this grand musician because what he left us makes him truly immortal.


We leave the readers with these final thoughts from Mario himself: “In my case, the day becomes the night and the night becomes the day. There are no vehicles on the street; there are no sirens at night. There is nothing that could block the inspiration. My home is like a musical laboratory because I have to accomplish so many things, I have to learn to play so many instruments. I spend all of my free time at home, practicing like a maniac, refining my chops. This is why I play 24 instruments. When it comes to music, one must be actively militant. Music demands your entire attention and dedication. If a musician is not willing to make that commitment, he will end up floating on a sea of turds, along with the other idle and mediocre characters.”

Mario Rivera passed in August, 2007, may he play on.

Content source: James Nadal

Photos from the Facebook Tribute Page: Mario Rivera “el Comandante”

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