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Jazz Plaza 2020: The Celebration of Otherness



Callejón de Hamel - La Habana, Cuba

XV Coloquio Internacional de Jazz ‘Leonardo Acosta In Memoriam’

For four days Fábrica de Arte was – as it ought to have been – our regular stopover each morning to stay in touch to get – and stay – in touch with our “otherness”. On January 16th it was time for Monk Boudreaux and the musicians of New Orleans – the young men and women of the Trombone Shorty Academy – together with Yaroldy Abreu, Cimafunk, Ned Sublette and others help us on our auspicious quest. Later it would be Victor Goines and Janio Abreu, Aruán Ortiz and Grete Skarpeid and so many more, of course…

XV Coloquio Internacional de Jazz at Fábrica de Arte Cubano
XV Coloquio Internacional de Jazz at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. La Habana. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

When you are unaware of your “otherness” you become insensitive to the brotherhood of manand yes, artists are hardest hit. The great Black musician and percussion-colourist Warren Smith described the experience of hurt with uncommon wisdom on his 1998 recording Cats Are Stealin’ My $hit (Mapleshade Records). Warren Smith was not referring metaphorically to the exchange that takes place when Jazz is played, but rather the hollowing out of body, mind and spirit of another that colonialism or the colonising of Jazz has resulted in. The time to make amends is always now. Unfortunately we will never have a Truth and Reconciliation Committee such as the one that Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela convened to address the human blight of the apartheid era.

“Otherness”… It is something that the artistic community in Cuba have known about and always loved even under the crushing weight of the Yankee Embargo. And it was something to be celebrated – and commended – as it unfolded day after day at Fábrica de Arte. As the ineffably wonderful Monk Boudreaux walked into the glow of the spotlight you knew something special was about to unfold, first with his epic history and then with the musical collision of “others” that followed.

Carlos Miyares - Tribute to Irakere
Carlos Miyares – Tribute to Irakere – Teatro Nacional, La Habana. Photo credit: Raul Da Gama

“For two magical hours, with eyes closed, it was possible to believe that the great Irakere itself was on stage once again”

The evening of January 15th was a very special day for us. This was special because we were reminded of the great contribution that the legendary group Irakere made to advancing Afro-Cuban Jazz. Founded, led and shaped almost single-handedly by the great Chucho Valdés, Irakere moved two great rivers of music – of Afro-Cuban and Afro-American Jazz – closer together. They were always of one source, it is true, but Irakere gave us a powerful reminder of this, just like Machito and Mario Bauzá did in the early 1950’s and others such as Tito Puente and Eddie and Charlie Palmieri subsequently did too. Of course it was the great Bebo Valdés, Chucho’s father who first opened the floodgates, but sadly Cuba does not seem to remember this very well.

And so at about 6:00 pm on January 15th at Sala Covarrubias, Teatro Nacional, we heard the name “Irakere” once again. With a sonic thunder-clap, the music of that great ensemble came alive once again, just as that of Juan Formell had done a day earlier. Carlos Miyares, a powerful tenor voice, brought together an equally powerful band and recalled the great spirits of Irakere. Joining him on stage for the magical ride were a galaxy of stars including saxophonist Germán Velazco, and the inimitable Mayquel González as well as guests such as magical pianists, Harold López-Nussa, Rolando Luna, the great Yaroldy Abreu together with Adel González, Rafael Paseiro, Alexander Abreu, Juan Carlos Rojas “El Peje” and vocalist Mandy Cantero. For two magical hours, with eyes closed, it was possible to believe that the great Irakere itself was on stage once again to ring in the evening of Day Two of Jazz Plaza 2020.

The 6:00 pm concert was followed, not long after, by another at 8:30 pm, at the Sala Avellaneda, which showcased the prodigiously gifted young Spanish musician, Andrea Motis, who sang in a lustrous voice, played trumpet and saxophone. This (first half) of the second concert was soon followed by another powerful reminder that the great Afro-Cuban Jazz tradition was thundering along. And this was largely due to a magnificent performance by Germán Velazco, César López, Alfred Thompson, Yamil Scherry and Evaristo Denis Baró, who together formed the all-powerful Cuban Sax Quintet. Their programme showcased the incredible energy of improvised music by an iconic woodwinds group that was equally at home with through-composed repertoire.

Cuban Sax Quintet at Teatro Nacional, La Habana
Cuban Sax Quintet performing at Teatro Nacional, La Habana. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

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