Chuck Smart


In Cuba, Even The Dogs Bark In Clavé

All the travel Chuck Smart has done in his life has been motivated by the people’s culture and the role that music plays in that culture. All of the travel Chuck and I have done together has had the double focus of the people’s culture and music and the country’s history and politics. Cuba offered us the opportunity to focus on all of these things at the same time, something we’ve rarely experienced before. Sitting in an open-air plaza, talking across language barriers about what people’s lives are like, while listening to traditional musics that reflect the country’s history as well as its future. And people told us that everyone in Cuba connects with the music, even the dogs. Nonstop music, nonstop people. Our definition of heaven.

Because of the 19th Annual International Jazz Festival held in Havana in December, we saw, heard and talked with some of Cuba’s greatest legends almost every day that we were there. Sponsored by the Instituto Cubano de la Musica, the Festival allowed us to see well known Cuban musicians -- Chucho Valdés, Tata Güines, Changuito, Lázaro Motua, Roberto Martinez, José Luis Cortés y NG La Banda, Roberto Fonseca, Los Van Van. And we got to see groups new to us, like Ralph Irizarri and the highly energetic and inventive group, Timbalaeye. There were more than sixty other bands in the Jazz Festival from Spain, France, Martinique, Peru, Japan, Russia, Canada, Ecuador, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Portugal, England and Venezuela.

Concerts were held in the National Theater of Cuba, smaller theaters throughout Havana, the Jazz Cafe and other less well known clubs, the Hotel Riviera, and the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza. Although the concerts were attended by people of all ages, the crowds were overwhelmingly young, well-informed Cubans who listened with great authority. They responded avidly to subtle Cuban nuances that often were hidden from us. While in Seattle an enthusiastic audience will clap at every opportunity, the Cuban jazz audience withholds its applause for true excellence and individualism in a music they completely understand. This heightened our music experience, letting us see how Cubans perform and consume their music, helping us learn to listen differently.

A paramount feature of the Jazz Festival was a segment devoted to Louis Armstrong that featured a number of American musicians. This included Donald Harrison and the Armstrong Orchestra, the New Orleans All Stars, Nicholas Payton Quartet, Ronnie Cuber, Kenny Barron, the Ronni Mathews Trio, Dave Valentin (who was a great disappointment, being Mr. Showman instead of reflecting the seriousness of the event and great musicians on the stage), and many others.

The venues being in different places meant we often had to leave one event and find our way to another. This was complicated by the fact that there were five of us and taxis are legally limited to four. One night we found it impossible to find a taxi willing to bend the rules, at which time our very resourceful friend and guide, Julio, found an enterprising tour bus driver who was waiting for his load of tourists. The bus pulled up, the door opened, and Julio, with his constant Cohiba cigar clenched in his grin, said, “Get in, man, let’s go!” The five of us laughed hysterically, boarded this huge bus and rode in style to the next concert.

At the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza, we found an outdoor courtyard, ringed by neighborhood apartments, with people hanging from their windows and balconies and the surrounding rooftops. The music was just beginning to heat up at 10 p.m. We were surrounded by a sea of people, snaking our way to an area near the front of the stage due to Julio’s maneuverings. A man is taking orders for beer and rum. This was probably the best and most contemporary music we heard during our trip. Ralph Irizarri and Timbalaye. In Cuba, rhythm is paramount and the level of sophistication of rhythm-based music is amongst the highest in the world. And these groups, firmly rooted in tradition, have taken the important new forms of music from Europe and the United States into a hybrid of salsa, jazz and hip hop. The young Cubans call it timba. Timbalaye engendered reckless abandon — on our parts and on the parts of the 1000 Cubans in the audience. You’ve never salsaed until you’ve done it rubbing elbows, knees and butts with 1000 Cubans smoking Cohibas and drinking rum from paper cups!

This was all during the one week we were in Havana and does not begin to capture the breadth of music we found, including the many great traditional bands and sacred musics we heard in other places. We heard many of the songs we know from Buena Vista Social Club. We heard the popular song dedicated to Ché and sung by almost every group, including one with a 12 year-old girl singing the lead with great style and professionalism. These groups perform all over Cuba, in clubs, in restaurants and in the plazas. They play music from all over the island — from Oriente, from Mantanzás. They play ballads, hot salsa, popular son, cha cha cha, mambo, rumba and sacred bata and bembé rhythms. They play songs made famous in the U.S. by Frank Sinatra and other crooners, giving the music a regional interpretation only the Cubans could.

One night we went to Casa de la Trova, a neighborhood venue where balladeers get up and sing. There is usually one of them in every city. The singers are local people. Not professionals. The instruments include bongos, guitar and a trumpet. The night we were there the singers included two older women, who had clearly been doing this for some time. They were dramatic. Their singing heartfelt. There was an older man as well, who spoke in verse accompanied by the musicians, sharing a poem or a story we were sorry we couldn’t understand. And there was a young woman, trying her voice in public for the first time. The audience, made up of neighborhood people and a few tourists, encouraged her and gave her a warm response.

One of the musical highlights of the trip was a rehearsal with Julio’s father’s band, who numbers among its past members, Ruben Gonzales. We went with Thor Anderson, a conga-playing friend of Chuck’s for 30 years. It was in a building not unlike the one seen in the film, Buena Vista Social Club. An old, decaying, but grand colonial structure with wide marble staircases and high ceilings. There were many studios in the building for musicians and dancers. The rooms were dimly lit, looking out into interior courtyards, some filled with plants and chickens, others filled with rubble. Julio’s father was the arranger and played bass, and was joined by a set drummer who also played timbales, a conga player, a keyboard player, a trumpet player, and three singers. Once again, the Cohibas were smoked, the rum flowed freely, and big fun was had by all. Chuck and Thor jumped in when invited to play conga and cowbell. But Chuck was an even greater with his scat singing, which all the singers then had to try. What these musicians were able to accomplish with the most basic equipment is hard to describe. And it is part of the reason why their technique is so great.

Another highlight was the rumbon, a celebration of the Yoruba deities known as orishas, the gods of health, prosperity, and peace, for example. It was held in a long courtyard, painted in beautiful colored murals by an artist named Salvador Gonzalez Escalona , who is also a babalawo or priest. He had constructed alters inside one of the rooms off the courtyard to honor all of the deities. Our lack of Spanish prevented us from understanding everything that was going on, but the music was drumming and the rhythms were rumba and religious in nature. In this instance, all the players and dancers were women. Three drummers playing tumba, conga and quinto. There also were women playing clavé and cacaráh, which defined the time. The conga players were very high energy and as they increased the pace, the dancers took it up and gave it back. All of this was directed toward the guest masters, Changuito and Giovanny Hildago from Puerto Rico. The energy continued to rise and some of the women danced provocatively in front of Changuito and beckoned Giovanny to join them. The quinto player put the drum between her legs and holding it between her thighs danced toward him, using the drum to beckon him and entice him to join in. She danced back to her place and Giovanny accepted the invitation. He took her drum and played for 15 or 20 minutes. Finally, in one climactic move, the drumming came to an end. The women left singing, making their way through the crowd of some 500 people. The babalawo then made a prayer, thanked the guests, and brought the rumbon to an end.

These were very personal and highly prized experiences for us, as we got to know some of the musicians and when we could, would go back to see them again and again. Chuck was often invited to play, which he did with reluctance, but he was accepted and didn’t screw it up! In view of his anxieties, he came through with a passing grade. Having spent his entire life involved in percussion in one way or another, Chuck was heavily impacted by the level of musicianship and the depth of the culture that plays out in the music. He will never see drums in the same way again. And as someone who can never remember the players’ names or where the downbeat is, I now hear clavé in everything. And we listened for, and believed we heard, Cuban dogs barking in clavé.

Chuck and Dawn Smart, December 2000


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