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In Conversation with Pianist, Composer Harold López-Nussa

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Harold López-Nussa
Pianist, Composer Harold López-Nussa - Photo by Paulo Vitale

Pianist and composer Harold López-Nussa has signed with Blue Note Records and today [Aug 25] is releasing his striking label debut Timba a la Americana, a vibrant album teeming with joy and pathos that was inspired by the pianist’s recent decision to leave his Cuban homeland and begin a new life in France. Produced by Michael League (Snarky Puppy), Timba a la Americana presents 10 dynamic new original compositions performed by a tight-knit band featuring harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret, Luques Curtis on bass, Bárbaro “Machito” Crespo on congas, and Harold’s brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa on drums.

I had the opportunity of talking with Harold López-Nussa about his new recording, the first one with the prestigious label Blue Note. Here is our conversation.

Danilo Navas: Let’s start with a key question, who is Harold López-Nussa in this new stage of his life? How would you define yourself?

Harold López-Nussa: It’s hard to say…

You are living in a transition period right now…

Yes, I think so… I need a little more time, I can tell you that it has not been easy. We made the decision to leave Cuba and settle in Toulouse, France with my family, I have two girls and my wife. And it has really been an adventure, I think enriching in every way, because it is about adapting to another culture, another language, another city, another way of functioning. I really believe that I have grown as a person, to say the least.

But previously you were coming and going…

Well, yes, spending time in France, but I had never really lived outside of Cuba completely. I have a very strong connection with France because my grandmother was French on her father’s side. So, well, when we decided to leave Cuba, France was like the place for my daughters to learn French, for me to keep that family heritage a bit. There are many good things in this new experience, but it has all that longing and melancholy that happens when you leave your country.

Let’s talk about Blue Note Records, your new family.

I’m really very happy and very proud to be able to release a record with Blue Note, which is a cool label that I’ve known since I was a kid. Prestigious, large, where all the great figures of jazz have been, it has followed the entire jazz movement from the beginning, and the development of more contemporary music. And really, I still don’t believe that I will have a record in their catalogue. The truth is that it has been an adventure. It’s also one of the nice things about being here, because I couldn’t have done it while I was in Cuba, because of the embargo, etc. So yeah, I’m really very happy about the opportunity.

I read about how you met Don Was, President of Blue Note, and Michael League, from Snarky Puppy. How did this whole process take place?

Yes, let’s see, Don Was, who is the President of Blue Note Records, I have known him for some years and we’ve been talking for a long time, because he has come to several of our concerts and has shown interest in doing something together, but now there was something a little more concrete, and well, with the fact that I am living here in France, that made everything easier, and we decided to move on to the next step. So I had the idea that someone would help me in the musical production, I didn’t want to take care of everything myself, as I almost always had, and Michael League, who is a bassist, founder of Snarky Puppy, etc., is my friend from years ago. I met him in Havana, he came to a concert of ours and we established a good relationship. He is a very good musician and a person who is very interested in learning, very curious about Cuban music, he is a great fan, he likes it a lot, he knows a lot, and we met recently at a festival here in Europe. Talking with him I realized that he was living in Barcelona and I was here in Toulouse, so we are relatively close. And from there, we stayed a little more connected, we agreed to see each other more often, he invited me to visit him in Barcelona and ideas came up from there… I have this thing, what if we work together and well, the three of us [Don, Michael and me] got together at Michael’s house in Barcelona. From there everything was born. We talked about music for two days, and we talked about what I had. I had several ideas for songs, recorded on my phone, a little bit of ideas rather, they weren’t songs, they were some ideas and from there everything arose and the truth is that it has been a long and beautiful and intense adventure.

Harold López-Nussa: Timba a la Americana
Harold López-Nussa: Timba a la Americana

Tell us a little more about Timba a la Americana, as a musical concept and how the structure of the album is taking place, and of course about the band, the other members…

Yes, look, the band is made up of Gregoire Maret on harmonica, he is a virtuoso on the instrument, he is incredible. Luques Curtis on double bass, my brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa on drums and Machito, Bárbaro “Machito” Crespo on percussion. As a quartet without “Machito”, we had toured the United States for a month just before I came to France.

So you already had a previous experience playing together…

Yes, and I was left with very good references from the tour, it really was super good, we understand each other very well musically, but we also share many things in common, and when the most concrete idea of recording arose, I wanted to do it with them. Michael League was the one who suggested having a percussionist, and it was a great idea, because I wanted to get away from what I had done before and experiment a little, and Michael wanted something that would bring us down to earth, that would be like the Cuban roots well present there in some way, and it’s precisely Machito who achieves that goal on the record, since he comes from the rumba, from the toques de Santos [bembé], he’s a musician that we call street musicians in Cuba, who knows the tradition, who is really original and I think he gave the album that deep touch of our most Afro-Cuban roots, which perhaps we, myself and my brother don’t have so much. It’s true that we have lived it and shared it and grew up listening to it, but we don’t come from a family in which that tradition is transmitted. In Cuba it is a patriarchal thing, you know? It comes from your dad, Machito’s dad was an exceptional rumbero, and that’s how it’s passed down from generation to generation. And then why the name of the album Timba a la Americana? because well, timba is the popular music that we make in Cuba today, it is the modern salsa that in Cuba we call timba, and American because there were several Americans, North Americans involved in the project.

And Machito is based in the United States? In New York?

No, Machito actually lives in Poland. But hey, the others come from the United States in some way. And the project kind of came up in the United States and it was that play on words. But also in Cuba we make something with guava, with the fruit we make a kind of paste, we cut it into pieces, put it together with cheese and it’s delicious. We call it timba, bread with timba, things with timba, we make a game out of that.

You have told me about “Machito”, what did the other members of the band contribute to the project?

Look, everyone really contributed a lot. First Michael and I were working on the music, for a couple of months. I went to his house a couple of times, then we constantly sent each other music, via WhatsApp or other applications via the internet, and we decided… I like this, we are going to change this, here we’re going to do this session. Later, when we tried the music with them it was incredible. Of course I like that the musicians contribute a lot, and Mike too. And you know? Each of them has a solid and strong personality. Luques Curtis is an incredible bass player who studied at Berklee College of Music, he has the language of jazz super incorporated. But besides that, he has a tumbao like nobody else, because that heritage he has is incredible, he plays with Eddie Palmieri… I told him he has a tumbao that many Cubans would like to have. So playing with him is a blessing. He is a rock, always there, it’s incredible, you can go wherever you want, he is there with you, and with incredible solidity.

My brother Ruy Adrián, well, he’s my favorite drummer. I’ve been playing with him my whole life. He also plays the piano, he is a very good pianist and I always say that there’s nothing like a pianist who can play drums like that.

Gregoire Maret, what can I tell you, he has experience, he is a virtuoso on his instrument, the harmonica. You know that the first time I saw him playing was here in France, precisely at a festival with Herbie Hancock, he’s played, you know, with everyone, Pat Metheny, Cassandra Wilson, what do I know, the list is huge and he’s a musician with a baggage as well and a language, on his very peculiar instrument.

Machito, who brings that folkloric touch, but also, all of them are musicians who listen a lot, who are very aware of what is happening, of what the other one does, who like to collaborate very much. So I also like that a lot, that interrelationship between the musicians, each of them really made a significant contribution.

I would like you to tell us a bit about the story behind the songs on this record. Have you already written them a while ago? Or were they created for this album?

Most of the songs were actually written for the record or in the process.

Harold López-Nussa: Timba a la Americana
Harold López-Nussa: Timba a la Americana

Track 1: Funky

Funky was an idea, a groove that I had in my head, that I had recorded on the phone, and that I called Funky. I remember when we were going to name it, I said to Michael, let’s name it Funky and he said no, but this is not funky. But hey, I replied, we don’t know precisely what it is but I have it there. Well, it has rumba, it has timba, it has a bit of everything. So it’s the first track on the album. I think that it offers a good overview of what comes next.

That’s right. By the way, how do you compose your music? What is your process? How do you come up with the songs?

They are almost always ideas that I record on the phone, there’s something there that I sing. I try to play it on the piano, but almost always these ideas come to me when I’m not at the piano, you know? I’m on a train, on a plane, walking. At the most unexpected moment, an idea like this comes to me and I record it, then I start listening, there are many things that I throw away, that are useless, and there are others that I think are good. Some of them work, others don’t. So yes, it is almost always like that.

Track 2: Cake a la Moda

That’s a game, it was a dessert in Cuba. There’s an ice cream parlor that unfortunately today has almost no ice cream, but years ago it was incredible, it’s called Coppelia, and they served cake with ice cream, it’s a remembrance of those times.

Track 3: Mal du Pays

It’s the homesickness of being away from home, from everything, that longing for your land, the colors, the food, the people, the ocean…

Track 4: Rat-a-Tat… It reminds me of that popular French dish, ratatouille.

That’s a song by Michael, it’s the only one written by him and that I arranged with my brother and Machito. And it was quite complicated, because we wanted to put it like a medium-powerful Cuban groove and it was a bit difficult because it had some… It’s not an amalgamation, but the groove is like moving in time and in Cuban music the groove is very syncopated, but always the same, the syncopation is always in the same place, well marked, so here that groove was moving and finding a rhythm that worked for it was not easy, but in the end I think we made it. And yes, it was something really new.

Track 5: Conga a la Americana

That song I wrote it for the band, and it was the first song I did when we were on tour. Precisely that tour we did before. I wrote some ideas based on the conga, which is a party genre that is played in the street, in the carnival. In Cuba there are two types of conga, one in the East and the other in the West. This is a bit more of the oriental conga, really like that, with that feeling.

Track 6: Afro en Toulouse

That’s an idea that occurred to me right here in front of where I live, there is like a canal where I usually do a little exercise, walk, run a little. And then one day that idea occurred to me, I remember that I stopped and recorded a kind of groove with the phone. And well, I think that the entire album is like my view of Cuba from here, from the outside, it is the same as a reference and a longing for the African thing. The Afro influence we have in Cuba.

Track 7: Tumba la Timba

This theme is inspired by the neighborhood where I grew up in Havana, which is San Leopoldo, in Centro Habana. It’s a neighborhood where there are many rumbas and in fact Machito played with a rumba group that rehearsed in the corner of my house. Of course, when they rehearsed, Machito was a child, and he didn’t play, I was a child too, but hey, in that group he played later, when he was older. This song is a bit of what I remember in my childhood there, of those toques de Santos, of the rumba that there was every week, that spectacular group, Clave y Guaguancó. The director lived 100 meters from my house and they rehearsed there all the time, so there was a party all the time in the street.

Track 8: Mamá

Yes, well, this is a topic that is several years old, written to my mother who I unfortunately lost some years ago in an accident. From an illness but accidental, like that, from one day to the next and well it’s a song to, you know, my Mom and all the Moms.

Have you recorded it before?

Yes, I had recorded it on one of my first albums.

Track 9: Tierra Mía

This is a song by my uncle, Ernán López-Nussa, who is also a pianist. It’s a song that I have always liked a lot and it seemed to me that it fit well into the repertoire of the album, and we made that version of it that really is one of the songs that I like the most, the way it turned out on the album, and my uncle loves it too. It’s like a kind of yambú, rumba, slow… and I like it a lot.

Track 10: Hope [closing track]

Hope is the only song that I wrote when I was still in Cuba. In fact, during the pandemic in Cuba we had one of those super long lockdowns, there were no concerts, there were no clubs, well, like almost everywhere, but in Cuba it was really quite long, it lasted almost a year. And I really began to get depressed with the fact of not being able to play music, especially not being able to play music with other musicians, since that’s what fills me the most, sharing with other people and then I don’t know, suddenly, one day I started playing on the piano. I started with that groove and that made me feel a bit hopeful, I don’t know, thinking this is going to end and we’re going to be together again and I’m going to play with my friends, and we’re going to have a party. It took much longer than I thought but hey, I think it’s the hope that one should not lose in order to continue, that I need to have in me to move forward.

So the record is being released soon.

On August 25 [2023].

I imagine there is a tour planned to promote the album.

Yes, we have some concerts here in Europe in September. In France, in Nantes, and also in Paris, we have a big concert at La Villette [Jazz à la Villette], and concerts in Germany [Mannheim], Netherlands [Rotterdam], Switzerland [Saint-Luc]. And then in October we have another little tour of France [Chalons-en-Champagne and La Rochelle], Spain [Madrid] and Belgium [Harelbeke]. In November we have a tour of about a month in the United States. Ah, we are going to Japan also at the end of September.

Very good. Anything else you want to add about this project?

I’m just really looking forward to sharing it and for the whole world to hear it and see what I think, musically speaking.

Congratulations and thank you for taking the time to share everything about this project with our readers.

Thank you!

Timba a la Americana European Tour
Timba a la Americana European Tour

Web Publisher. Founder, Editor & Webmaster for Latin Jazz Network, World Music Report & That Canadian Magazine. A passionate and committed communicator with a sensibility for the arts based in Toronto, Canada.

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