From August 18 to 25, 2002, I had the good fortune to go to Cuba, to
play at a variety of venues in Varadero, Santa Clara and Camajuani. The
tour was organized by Andrew Demciuch, the owner of L'Arte (2060 Dundas
W.), where I've been playing every Monday night for more than 2 years.
Andrew also organized the Russian tour David Rotundo and I did in April.
This time around, David was otherwise engaged, having brought his
friend, guitar maestro Enrico Crivellaro, over from Italy. But David
will join me on my next jaunt to Cuba, which is supposed to happen in
This time, I went with Livan Castro, a Cuban-born artist now based in
Toronto, who had an exhibition in Cuba. Compared to the Russian tour,
the Cuban tour was both more work and musically a more eye-opening
experience for me. In Russia, we just played the blues, as we do here.
In Cuba, I played some blues, both solo and with some very good Cuban
musicians, but I also sat in with several Cuban bands on traditional
Cuban songs. This was new for me, hence the need for some last-minute
cramming, but the combination went surprisingly well, I think.
In the course of six days, I met and played with about 25 Cuban
musicians, many of them classically trained, although some were
self-taught. All of them were very good. As is customary in Cuban
music, there were lots of acoustic nylon-string guitars, tres and
percussion instruments, although there was also an electric bass player
and a very good trombonist on one of the gigs.
I started off with a gig at Arenas Blancas, which is a 5-star,
all-inclusive tourist resort. My partners were Los Hurricanes, a very
experienced and versatile trio who play there regularly. They had me
start the night off with a set of solo piano numbers and then joined me
on stage. We alternated songs for the rest of the evening, with me
switching between piano and guitar. The audience's response was quite
favourable. A Cuban rap group, which happened to be at the hotel
because some of its members work there, was especially complimentary.
This concert was videotaped, but I haven't seen the result.
The bulk of the tour took place inland, away from the beaches and the
tourists, in Camajuani and Santa Clara. Camajuani was then in the midst
of an annual festival, which has been taking place for at least 105
years. The town is naturally divided by a main street, and each side has
its own team, complete with its own patron saint: the Chivos (or Goats)
and the Sappos (or Frogs). The festival consists of a week of public
revelry, culminating in a grand display at which each team unveils an
impressive, hand-made float. These floats are several stories high and
comprise astounding array of hand-painted and sculpted decorations,
light-shows, etc., accompanied by fireworks displays and music. Each
team labours in secrecy until virtually the last moment. Each tries to
create the most impressive spectacle, although there is no formal jury
and no formal decision on the winner. Both floats were remarkable, one
depicting a scene from 17th century European palace life, the other
depicting the glories of the Roman Empire.
In the course of this revelry, I played with several groups at several
locations, including a spot in a concert at the Casa Cultura of
Camajuani. I did some solo numbers on keyboard and guitar and was
accompanied on some others by a local guitarist and bass player. The
audience seemed to respond best to 'Highway 61', an adaptation of an old
Sunnyland Slim number (which he, in turn, adapted from an older
tradition), and to a slow, minor original, 'When My Mother Died'. I was
asked to play that song again a few days later. An artist --of whom
there are many, highly gifted ones - told me it inspired him to make a
painting especially for me, which he will send me. I can hardly wait.
In Santa Clara, one of the highlights was playing with an assortment of
young musicians. We played together several times, but the climax was a
late-night concert at an old, open-air amphitheatre, which seems to be a
local cultural hot-spot. The programme included several bands, including
the group Sacramonte, which boasts an excellent vocalist, a consummate
dancer and an array of fine guitarists and percussionists. They
performed some traditional Cuban salsa and some Cubanized versions of
Spanish Flamenco. I sat in with them for a few numbers, switching
between piano and guitar, trying my best not to disrupt their beautiful
rhythms. I then played several solo numbers, some on guitar and some on
piano, and several blues numbers with a Cuban back-up band, consisting
of bass, guitar, percussion and the aforementioned excellent trombonist,
who is a member of the Symphony Orchestra of Camajuani and is all of 24
For the finale, Sacramonte and the other bands on the evening's bill,
including yours truly, all jammed together on a Cuban theme - a bolero,
if I'm not mistaken. The proceedings were taped by a cameraman from
local Cuban television.
All in all, it was a memorable experience and a musical eye-opener for
me. The musicians were, without exception, highly gifted and very warm
and approachable. I'd had some trepidations about what they would think
of the home-brewed barrelhouse blues I play, but the reception was warm
Let's face it: Cuban music has no need of the likes of me. They have a
very rich, varied musical tradition of their own. That they nevertheless
permitted me to join them with such patience and evident pleasure at
experimenting with a complete novice to Cuban music was a privilege I
won't forget. After the concert was over, characteristically, the
musicians were not ready to quit, so we all trooped off to a nearby park
and continued to play until the wee hours of the morning, fortified by
excellent Cuban rum. I didn't do much sleeping in Cuba. But I was
already missing it on the way to the airport. I have rarely - no, make
that never - been exposed to so many creative people (artists, writers,
dancers, musicians) in such a short time. I'm looking forward to going
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