In Conversation with Jorge and Maikel Vistel
Born in Santiago de Cuba, Jorge Vistel and Maikel Vistel are the reflection of a type of eclectic Jazz that manages to reconcile values, ideas, trends, history and current affairs, uniting diverse systems and concepts. Their music is a challenge to our conventions, to emotions, to feelings, to symmetry and to everything that is fixed and constant. Their Jazz changes all the time and with outstanding improvisation skills they make magic on stage. In each concert they manage to sharpen the public’s concentration, undoubtedly helping to increase the creative capacity among those who listen to them and reinforce traits, new ideas and knowledge that facilitate expression, under an energetic prism of enjoyment and enjoyment that fills concert halls, clubs and theaters around the world.
Vistel Brothers, in short, are a band whose musical base, without a doubt, makes us get in touch with the Soul of what we call Jazz. That’s why both Jorge and Maikel have made important collaborations throughout their careers with Quincy Jones, David Murray, Alfredo Rodríguez, Steve Coleman, Francois Mountain, Greg Osby, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. And what can we say about the relevance of the 24 Grammy Awards obtained by Maikel Vistel throughout his years as a saxophonist and arranger for Banda Calle 13, and his last preselection at the 2022 Latin Grammys, as Producer in the Tropical Tradition Category, which endorses a long career full of musical and professional successes.
It is a pleasure to present to our readers a short conversation with the Vistel Brothers.
Danilo Navas: I would like to start with your beginnings in music… You come from Santiago de Cuba, you were born into a family with a long musical tradition. How did you take your first steps in that world, surrounded by music, absorbing those influences, not only within the family, in one of the most important provinces in the development of Cuban music?
Vistel Brothers: Our beginnings come from our mother’s womb, from the moment of our gestation so to speak, since we come from a family saga where music has flowed through our veins and that of all our ancestors for generations.
From a very young age, our father devoted himself to transmitting musical knowledge to us and taught us everything about music, and he also loved teaching us to play the trumpet. In the beginning, since we were very young, he considered it as a game and little by little he demanded more of us and instilled in us discipline, and made us aware of the importance of study and daily work.
In Cuba, it is very easy to live influenced by the musical culture and by art in all its expressions; so in addition to our family circumstances, society as a whole made it easier for us to choose an artistic and musical career because of the great value placed on our work. You only have to watch the television programs and realize the multitude of programs that broadcast live music. In our country of origin, being an artist is highly valued and well regarded; there’s great importance to the cultural essence of countries and societies as a whole.
Then come the years of academic training, of perseverance and dedicated study to develop professionally in the musical field, and at the same time advance in that search that leads you to find your identity as artists. What can you tell us about it?
Our years of study and training were really hard, not only in terms of discipline and learning, but because we started as children… with 9 years! At that age we entered the Art School of Havana and being away from our parents, our daily work was based on the discipline that the teachers instilled in us.
It was a few years later when we discovered Jazz; already in our adolescent stage, when thanks to our uncles (who gave us some books with standards) motivation made its way into our paths and then it was non-stop creating, studying, playing and producing music out of passion, vocation, with a deep motivation and desire of achieving our goals, from a job well done, from the years of study that were now materialized in successes and in a path of advancement and new discoveries.
From what I see you have played together from an early age, but you have also developed your artistic careers separately… In the case of Maikel, with a long career with the band Calle 13… In the case of Jorge, you are known for your work in jazz avant-garde… At the same time, you have shared stages, projects, recordings, musical tours with renowned artists…
We played together since we were children and it was in our teens, when we were studying at the Havana School of Art, that we created Vistel Brothers.
Our professional careers began to grow by leaps and bounds when I [Maikel] was chosen as saxophonist for Calle 13 and Jorge went on tour with David Murray, and later with Alfredo Rodríguez and Quincy Jones; this enriched us a lot as musicians and this stage of our lives filled us with great satisfaction and joy; but it was also difficult for us to be able to play together, so for a while our common project went through a process of development in which both of us were growing individually and gaining experience each one on our own, to later come together with a more adaptive capacity and greater plasticity to create.
At what point in your artistic careers did you decide to emigrate? Did you do it at the same time? How has the experience of developing musically outside of Cuba been?
We immigrated to Spain in 2005, we were both very young and the experience at that time was incredible, since in Europe the progress in all aspects was outstanding and we were able to evolve as artists, going from being studious and disciplined teenagers to being professional musicians with a solid voice. This process took several years of growth, transformation and evolution.
Now let’s talk about the albums you’ve recorded together. Firstly, Evolution (2010 Fresh Sound Records), in which you worked with pianist David Virelles, who after his stay in Toronto, Canada, and now based in New York, is considered one of the most important contemporary Cuban pianists. Also participating in this project are Reinier Elizarde, a true master on the double bass, and Iago Fernández, a prominent Galician musician living in Switzerland, who is known as the drum poet…
Evolution was the first Vistel Brothers album and the experience is unforgettable for both of us. We managed to gather a lot of talent and through teamwork we created a successful and very characteristic project. David is our friend since we were little, we met at the school where we all studied together, we used to play in different places in Havana.
We met Reinier Elizarde as a teenager and from the beginning a deep friendship and mutual admiration developed. Iago Fernández was the newest addition, we were totally impressed to see him play; we had been thinking about a drummer for the band for some time and as soon as we saw him the connection was instantaneous, we knew that he would be our choice.
Your latest album, Fiesta en el Batey, is an album dedicated to Santiago de Cuba, inspired by Franco-Haitian culture and it pays homage to the Cutumba Folkloric Ballet. How was this recording project born? What does the Cutumba Folkloric Ballet mean to you?
This record project arose from the desire for new discoveries. We thought about how we could bring the rhythms that filled us to the more jazzy parts of our identity. It was intense work with a lot of previous study where we selected records from the Cutumba Folkloric Ballet to listen to, and after an introspective creation work we began to write all the music and we continued investigating the rhythms in more depth. Thanks to months of deep work we created this Great Record.
The Cutumba Folkloric Ballet was the main source of inspiration for us, a group that we believe has been able to take its characteristic culture to the whole world.
What can you tell us about the members of the band that accompany you on this album? Have you been working with them for a long time? What do each of them contribute to the realization of the musical vision of the Vistel Brothers?
Our team of highly chosen musicians, selected for this album for their great professionalism, provided everything we were looking for to realize this musical project.
Reinier Elizarde on double bass, he is a professional who has been with us all our lives, for many years we have been like brothers and the important connection we have is transferred to the stages, we can say that he is the driving force behind each song.
Lukmil Pérez on drums, he’s art in its purest form; his function is to paint over the rhythms. Being two percussionists, the drum had a well-defined function and that was the essential function of the creative process.
Yuvisney Aguilar and Fernando Favier had the important role of achieving something truly great with little, since the part they are responsible for in the Franco-Haitian format is originally played with other instruments, and they accomplished the difficult task of adapting their congas to that sound.
We are very proud of the choices we made and above all we are happy and very satisfied with the work we did and the great team we put together.
Tell us a little about some of the songs in Fiesta en el Batey. What is the story behind each of them? They are all original compositions in which you take a journey through different African, Caribbean, jazz rhythms and traditions…
- Puerta del Àngel, an allusion to the Madrid neighborhood that some call the new Brooklyn.
- Fiesta en el Batey, the composition that gives the album its name.
- Free, an allusion to the exploration of avant-garde jazz.
- Congo and Carabalí, two of the most important and influential African ethnic groups in the development of Caribbean culture.
- Palo, which alludes to the Afro-American rhythm of the same name.
- My Dream, a sophisticated, elegant bolero.
- Haitian Merengue, with a very catchy and contagious rhythm. In many places we identify merengue with the Dominican Republic, but it is certainly closely linked to the Franco-Haitian musical tradition.
Free is a song that I [Jorge Vistel] wrote in the middle of the Pandemic, but in a moment of light and special brightness for everyone; just when we could go out here in Spain. When I play it, I get that feeling of freedom again.
Mr Dream, is the traditional part of Santiago de Cuba; a song written with the great musicians from Santiago in mind, such as Compay Segundo and the Trío Matamoros… among many others.
Congo and Carabali, has an artistic base where the creation consisted of making that rhythm with another melodic and rhythmic form.
Puerta del Ángel, is the neighborhood where I [Jorge Vistel] live here in Madrid; a duo that reflects the union that my brother and I have.
Haitian Merengue, can be confused as Dominican, but rhythmically it differs and is recognized as Haitian music.
Do you think that this new album will open more doors for you after the terrible experience of the pandemic? Possibilities of presenting it at jazz festivals, both locally and internationally?
We believe and have faith that the record will open doors for us. It’s a job well done, a fresh, happy and eclectic record. It has a more contemporary part and also another that is pure jazz tradition and pure Franco-Haitian tradition. We are working with our representatives both in Spain and in Europe and the rest of the continents, to be able to bring our music to different audiences and make them enjoy our musical culture, which has been the background work of long years of musical trajectory and study.
Thank you Jorge and Maikel for taking the time to answer my questions and for sharing your musical vision with our readers. Thank you also to Lucía Díaz Grueso, manager of the Vistel Brothers in Spain, for making this conversation possible. Congratulations for Fiesta en el Batey, which I highly recommend to our followers.
YouTube Video – Congo y Carabali – Vistel Brothers
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