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Jazz Plaza 2020: The Celebration of Otherness

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Callejón de Hamel - La Habana, Cuba

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

Featured photo: Callejón de Hamel – La Habana, Cuba, by Danilo Navas

The legendary French philosopher noted for his work in phenomenology Paul Ricœur, wrote in his book Histoire et Vérité (Editions du Seuil, 1955; History and Truth, Northwestern University Press, 1965) no doubt in phenomenological terms: “When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently at the same time when we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly, be it illusory or real, we are threatened with destruction by our own discovery. Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an ‘other’ among others.” M Ricœur was speaking, of course, of something so elemental that it is often invisible to the naked eye; and sometimes even to the senses.

Every ‘other’, like a charged atomic particle, is drawn to an ‘other’. In music it is a harmonic note apposite to the one, or a beat opposed to the other.

“Outside of Africa, nowhere is this “code language” spoken and sung or chanted more frequently, with so much purity and with so much truth and honesty than in Cuba”

Even those who belong to a rare tribe of people with a keen eye on the African Diaspora – with 20/20 hindsight (and perspective), those awakened from the Age of Enlightenment to a revolutionary understanding of “otherness” – might sometimes find this incomprehensible. Unless of course they each seek true and respective “otherness” with a sense of Ubuntu. For ages, seeking with openness has come from encyclopaedic discourse to veneration of art. This has been and continues to be the route to this Enlightenment. You need only turn to Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Schweitzer and Thesiger… and especially Cheikh Anta Diop, Frantz Fanon… and musicians from Bartok to Bebo, Dizzy and Bird to Monk and Mingus

Bàtá drums on stage at Sala Covarrubias, Teatro Nacional. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Bàtá drums on stage at Sala Covarrubias, Teatro Nacional. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

That’s what Jazz – especially Jazz – has been a kind of musical epistolary between “others”, both facilitating and bringing together “others” into an unique Afrocentric Ubuntu, that every culture dreams of; that often cannot even be countenanced in the neo-colonial world around us. Not, at stages around the world, it would seem, though… and certainly not in Cuba, where it would seem revolution is alive, and where there seems to be no need for the bullhorn to right the proverbial course, but only the wood that talks… I refer, of course, to the Holy Grail of drums of Mother Africa: The Bàtá…

As an ancient owe from the Yoruba says:

“Àsotì ló ? je omó gbó enà”
(If your child understands your code language, it is because you both share the secret) §

Outside of Africa, nowhere is this “code language” spoken and sung or chanted more frequently, with so much purity and with so much truth and honesty than in Cuba. Hosting a celebration of a music that arouse out of Africa on the island has, to me, a very special significance. Walking the streets of Habana Bella I listened as it poured out in the pulsating of residential purification ceremonies and heard it and the message in the rolling thunder of performance after performance at Callejón de Hamel. We danced, skin to skin with manic joy, revelling under a blue sky in the sweetness of each other – that proverbial “other” that M Ricœur once thought of and which we see – but never think enough about – in museums of cultural history the world over.

And, of course, we saw it daily in the memorable hours spent at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. “You do very important work here,” I said to Neris González Bello during a break in the proceedings, one afternoon. I was listening, rapt, to Jose Dos Santos describing his own yeoman work on Cuban radio and television; writing on music and other cultural matters for Granma and (now) online too. Indeed they do important work in many forums, too much of which we never hear or speak about – but more about that bigotry later…

Both Neris González Bello and Victor Rodriguez, President of the Organising Committee for Jazz Plaza were responsible for the XV Coloquio Internacional de Jazz ‘Leonardo Acosta In Memoriam’ at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Miss González Bello was also the director responsible for the conception and coordination of everything that took place between January 15 and 19, 2020 at this exquisite venue. I suspect that she did much more with her army of staff and volunteers. She was modest about her involvement and demurred politely. Rightly so, perhaps, because it was the academics and artists who took over daily on whom the spotlight ought to have been shone.

Fabrica de Arte Cubano - Havana
Mural in front of the Cultural Centre Fábrica de Arte Cubano – La Habana. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

§ This Yoruba owe is from Isola (1982:44), from Ancient Text Messages of the Yoruba Bàtá Drum by Amanda Villepastour (Routledge, 2010, 2016)

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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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