30 Years – A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America is a milestone in the history of New Yor-Uba and the fruition of one of Michele Rosewoman’s greatest goals. As Michele eloquently writes in the liner-notes, “New Yor-Uba is the tapestry that weaves together all of my dreams, experiences, knowledge, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been and the lives I lived.”
Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba – 30 Years – A Musical Celebration Of Cuba In America (Advance Dance Disques, 2013)
It is my contention that every recording has a compelling back story and “30 Years …” is certainly no exception. The ensemble’s story begins in Oakland, California circa 1970s, where Michele’s parents owned a record shop and exposed her to a wide variety of music, including R&B, jazz, the Blues and sacred music from around the world.
Michele took up the piano at the age of 6 and learned the jazz tradition from her mentors the “old-school” way. From the beginning of her career she was open to possibilities and drawn to things that were rhythmically and harmonically complex. During her teens she took up percussion and was drawn to the rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean, particularly the rhythms of Cuba and Haiti.
In the late 1970s Michele moved to New York, where she performed with jazz luminaries as well as Cuban dance bands. 1980 was a pivotal year for Michele. It was the year that she met Orlando “Puntilla” Rios at Soundscape during an explosively collaborative time between jazz, Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians. “Puntilla” moved to New York from Cuba as part of the “Marielito” wave and brought with him a wealth of knowledge of Cuban Folkloric music. It was through her mentor/student relationship with Puntilla that Michele came to understand that it was possible to infuse her original material with traditional elements, such as batá rhythms, centuries-old Yoruba and Arará chants as well as Abakwa and rumba. The revelation led to the creation of New Yor-Uba, a 14-piece ensemble whose name signifies the progression of the music of the ancient Yoruba people of Nigeria through Cuba and present day New York.
With a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, the first incarnation of New Yor-Uba debuted at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York in December of 1983. The program, titled, A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America, featured Puntilla and integrated masters of Cuban Folkloric music with a rhythm section, horns and an impressive group of jazz musicians. Following their triumphant debut the ensemble toured Europe and performed at jazz festivals throughout the U.S.
Between 1984 and 1996 Michele recorded 7 highly acclaimed recordings as a leader, the main vehicle being Quintessence, whose repertoire overlaps somewhat with New Yor-Uba but allows for more extended improvisation and places more emphasis on changing meters.
The arrival of percussionist/vocalist Pedro “Pedrito” Martínez from Cuba and the untimely passing of Puntilla in 2008 led to the inevitable passing of the torch and a new, dynamic phase in the development of the ensemble, due in large part to the fact that the new generation of Cuban musicians were more familiar with Cuban Folkloric music and jazz and more adept at navigating the waters, thus giving the new ensemble an affinity and balance that was missing in the original ensemble.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, a smaller, leaner New Yor-Uba was conceived. The ensemble made its highly acclaimed debut at the “Roulette,” a trendy auditorium in Brooklyn in April of 2013. As before the configuration featured a core of Cuban folkloric masters (Pedro Martínez, Román Díaz, Abraham Rodríguez, Daniel Carbonell), a dynamic rhythm section (Michele, Yunior Terry and Adam Cruz) and an impressive horn section (Howard Johnson, Oliver Lake, Mike Lee, Vincent Gardner and Freddie Hendrix). Soon after the performance, the ensemble made a bee line for the recording studio and recorded their first album in 30 years, followed by a triumphant performance at Philadelphia’s “Painted Bride.”
The 2 CD-set contains 14 original compositions, the vast majority of which pay tribute to the Orisha deities, who reflect the manifestation of God in the Yoruba religious system. Other tracks include “Perdón,” originally recorded by the Cuban band Yoruba Andabo, the soulful “Earth’s Secrets” and “Old Calabar,” whose haunting chants, powerful Abakwa rhythms and brilliant solos make this one of my personal favorites.
I vividly recall playing the recording the first time, not quite knowing what to expect. Initially, I was struck by the spiritual nature of the music, the pull of the drums and chants, the inescapable beat and the underlying groove. Above all, I am awed by the profundity of the concept and Michele’s ability to execute her vision in such an uncompromising way.
During a recent interview with journalist, Larry Blumenfeld, Michel spoke about the challenges of keeping the music “aligned,” how the percussionists have a tendency to play in front of the beat while the jazz musicians tend to play behind. At the Roulette, I witnessed Michele at the keyboard doing what she does best, focused, in command, ever on the alert for an anomaly, leading the ensemble by example and always in the pocket. Physically, Michele is small in stature, her most prominent features being her wavy, brown hair and ever-present smile, but it’s her inner power, her Aché (the power to make things happen) that adds another dimension to her person.
The recording is dedicated to the memory of Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos, whose wisdom, guidance, influence and pride in being a member of the ensemble was pivotal to laying the foundation for the original ensemble. His spirit is ever-present.
“30 Years …” is an astonishing achievement, deserving of the praise it has received from critics and listeners alike. Look for it on my list of Best Recordings of 2013. Highly recommended.
MICHELE ROSEWOMAN’S NEW YOR-UBA – 30 YEARS – A MUSICAL CELEBRATION OF CUBA IN AMERICA (ADVANCE DANCE DISQUES, 2013)
CD 1: 1 – Divine Passage; 2 – Dance for Agayu; 3 – Natural Light; 4 – Por Ahora y Siempre; 5 – Vamp for Ochún; 6 – Old Calabar; 7 – Rezo a Ochún;
CD2: 1- In Praise of Spiritual Guides; 2 – Perdón; 3 – Obalube; 4 – Where Water Meets Sky; 5 – Agua Dulce de Bosque; 6 – Warrior; 7 – Earth’s Secrets
THE NEW, NEW YOR-UBA: Pedro “Pedrito” Martinez, Román Díaz, Abraham Rodríguez, Daniel Carbonnell, Yunior Terry, Adam Cruz, Freddie Hendrix, Oliver Lake, Mike Lee, Vincent Gardner, Howard Johnson, Michele Rosewoman, Nina Rodríguez.
THE ORIGINAL ENSEMBLE: Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos, Gene Golden, Eddie Rodriguez, Oscar Hernández, Pheeroan akLaff, Rufus Reid, Olu Femi Mitchell, Kelvyn Bell, Michele Rosewoman, Bob Stewart, Howard Johnson, John Stubblefield, Oliver Lake, Rasul Siddik, Baikida Carroll, Butch Morris.
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