Jazz Plaza 2020: Embracing the Culture of Jazz

Beat-Route from Juan Formell to Bobby Carcassés

The musical programme for the 35th edition of Jazz Plaza began with an explosion as if from the nuclear corona of the sun. Around 6:30 pm the lights of Sala Covarrubias at Teatro Nacional went dark as the stage started to fill with musicians. First Dayramir González Vicet took his place at the concert grand and began to pick out the first notes of a song that would become the inaugural song of the Tribute to Juan Formell, leader of the greatest Cuban dance bands, Los Van Van.

Jazz Plaza 2020 - Tribute to Juan Formell
35 Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza 2020 – Tribute to Juan Formell and Los Van Van. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Formed in 1969 by Mr Formell, a bassist and one-time director of the charanga, Orquesta Revé, the bassist, composer and arranger steered a course for his new ensemble between the sounds of charanga and hard-driving rock music. The result of this unique fusion was something called songo.

What this extravagant musical production managed to do was to re-position the music of Los Van Van in today’s context

Songo incorporated rhythmic elements from folkloric rumba into popular dance music, and was a significant departure from the son montuno and mambo-based structure which had dominated popular music in Cuba since the 1940s. Blas Egües, the first drummer of Los Van Van invented the rhythmic idiom, but José Luis Quintana “Changuito” perfected it to an infectious art.

On the evening of January 14th, however, the young Cuban pianist Dayramir González was given charge of paying homage to Juan Formell and his unique music. He did so by beginning in traditional fashion by inviting musicians to congregate one by one – first in worship and then in riotous song – the kind that held us all rapt for a full hour and a half. We were called to worship as Brenda Navarrete sang the invocation to the Orishas, accompanying herself on with the wood that talks – the bàtás, played with (Los Van Van’s iconic) chachalokefún rhythm.

Pianist, Composer, Arranger Dayramir González Vicet
Pianist, Composer, Arranger Dayramir González Vicet. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

For all of us who were in the auditorium that evening, Juan Formell and Los Van Van came alive with the sound of song and thunder, as one musician after the next paid tribute to the master musician. One by one, they came and sang and played their way into the hearts of a grateful Formell family and audience gone stark raving mad with delight. The percussionists were the harbingers of Formell’s songo rhythm.

The music of the great (Los Van Van) band was set aflame by the pianist accompanied by the Camerata Romeu conducted by Zenaida Romeu. The elegant and powerful sound of the strings section of the Camerata was buffeted by reeds, brass and the almighty rhythms of the drums, timbales, tumbadoras and other percussion. A stream of eloquent instrumentalists and vocalists followed – Barbarito Torres (Buena Vista Social Club), Alain Pérez, Telmary, Hayla Ma. Mompié, El Lele, Mayito Rivera and Robertón, Mandy Cantero, Teresa Yanet, Arlenys, Luna Manzanares, David Blanco… while the members of Yoruba Andabo bolstered the already thunderous rhythm section.

What this extravagant musical production managed to do was to re-position the music of Los Van Van in today’s context. Thus we saw the music – music that once entertained and alleviated the condition of a people struggling under brutal economic and social embargo by invoking and activating the natural rhythms of the human psyche – we saw it all come to life again in a vivid and altogether grander setting on stage at Sala Covarrubias, Teatro Nacional. All of this was guided by the fresh mind and exuberant hands of Dayramir González together with some of the finest musicians in Cuba today.

Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza 2020 - Bobby Carcasses and Afrojazz
35 Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza 2020 – Bobby Carcasses and Afrojazz. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama

With just enough time to wolf down a quick sandwich, washed down with a chilled Cuban beer, we made a mad dash around the corner to the next performance at the Sala Avellaneda where, at 8:30pm the celebrated Bobby Carcassés and his ensemble took the stage to present his programme of Afrojazz.

Mr Carcassés is a trumpeter and flugelhorn player with a singular, burnished sound that cuts through the air like a medieval rapier. A dyed-in-the-wool bebopper, whose sense of humour spills over into his unique vocalastics – which combine the iconic mumbles invented by Clark Terry and the vocalese of Jon Hendricks, Mr Carcassés reminded us of his prowess as a composer who told tall tales punctuated by short bursts of elegant innuendos and chattering through the bell of his horn.

The seduction went on late into the night and Mr Carcassés’ elegant music was a perfect salve to put on the body that was still reverberating with the loud and boisterous songo rhythms of Los Van Van music from just an hour and a half or so before. It was hard to sleep that night and that would be our predicament for the next few days in Havana.

Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza 2020 - Bobby Carcasses
35 Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza 2020 – Bobby Carcassés Receiving Jazz Plaza Festival’s Award.
Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul da Gama
Raul Da Gama
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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