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A week of jazz in Havana: gandinga, mondongo and sandunga

The 38th Jazz Plaza Festival filled the Cuban capital with long nights of rum and jam sessions in the company of extraordinary musicians

Los percusionistas Pedrito Martínez, a la izquierda, y Giosvanni Hidalgo, durante una actuación en el Festival Jazz Plaza
Percussionists Pedrito Martínez, left, and Giosvanni Hidalgo, during a performance at the Jazz Plaza Festival last week.Rick Swig

It’s been three days since the end of the 38th Havana Jazz Festival and it’s only now that I can meet up with my friend Lázaro again. We are both exhausted and hungover but in high spirits after a frenetic week of concerts, rum and jam sessions performed by extraordinary musicians who have given us an injection of energy and good vibes, because good Cuban music and jazz are a balm to the soul, most particularly in these dense and troubled times.

We met at the gates of the Colón Cemetery, where you can visit the graves of illustrious Cuban musicians such as Chano Pozo, Benny Moré and the great jazzman Frank Emilio Flynn, of whom the American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said, after listening to him on the piano during a visit to Cuba in 1998: “God must exist if this man plays notes only He can achieve.” And he took him straight to New York to play a concert at the Lincoln Center.

Adel Gonzalez, on the left, and Roberto Fonseca, during the concert that closed the Havana Jazz Festival, last Sunday.
Adel Gonzalez, on the left, and Roberto Fonseca, during the concert that closed the Havana Jazz Festival, last Sunday.Rick Swig

Along with Bobby Carcassés and Chucho Valdés, Frank Emilio was one of the Cuban musicians who worked the hardest to consolidate the Jazz Plaza Festival back in 1980 and make it what it is today – a great space of freedom and musical creativity which everyone falls in love with, starting with Dizzy Gillespie, who travelled to Havana early and built bridges to connect Cuban and US artists. Soaking up the sources of Afro-Cuban jazz and being in contact with the magic of Cuban music is a big deal, and the jazz maestros have always known that.

After paying tribute in the cemetery to the masters of yesteryear, we have a beer in a corner bar, where Lázaro says: “If you are going to write something general about the festival, it won’t do it justice; there are too many good things and you can’t cover everything. You’re going to come out looking terrible.” He is right. There have been almost 100 concerts. But here’s a try.

The first thing to note is that the Havana Festival is not a normal jazz festival. In other festivals, each artist arrives with their own scheduled pieces to play with their own group, then they leave. But not in Cuba: here the script is written as the artists go along. Formats, repertoires and collaborations are improvised and, in the midst of the chaos, everyone plays with everyone else. Foreign artists, particularly the most renowned names in Canada and the US, have a wild time playing with Cuban musicians young and old – with those who still live on the island and with those who have emigrated.

The Cuban pianist Rolando Luna at the Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana.
The Cuban pianist Rolando Luna at the Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana.Rick Swig

One of the defining features of this edition of the festival was the return to Cuba of Cuban musicians who left years ago to make their careers in the US or Europe, starting with the extraordinary percussionist and rumbero Pedrito Martínez, who has been living in New York for the past 25 years. Pedrito has played with the greats and years ago he recorded a tribute album to flamenco legend Camarón de la Isla, produced by Fernando Trueba, with Niño Josele on guitar. Having previously played in other Jazz Plaza festivals, this was the first time he performed with his own group, accompanied by the great Puerto Rican percussionist Giosvanni Hidalgo, his godfather in New York from day one.

The three concerts and the master class he gave during the festival were first-rate, although perhaps the most moving was the one he gave in Trillo Park in the Havana neighborhood of Cayo Hueso, where he was born. Both he and the audience became clearly emotional as he delivered his heartfelt tribute to Juan Formell and Chano Pozo, the great Cuban percussionist who, in the 1940s, also settled in New York and joined Gillespie to revolutionize jazz and create a masterpiece like Manteca. Heir to Chano, the gifted Pedrito was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the week.

Trumpeter Carlos Sarduy and percussionist Adonis Panter, during their performance at the Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana.
Trumpeter Carlos Sarduy and percussionist Adonis Panter, during their performance at the Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana. Rick Swig

Other returning veterans included pianist Rolando Luna, trumpeter Carlos Sarduy, saxophonist Irving Acao and drummer Lukmil Pérez, who played both their own pieces and covers, together and separately, and in different scenarios. Luna’s thrilling concert at the Martí Theater, first with solo piano and then accompanied by Sarduy and Irving, began with an improvised version of Debussy’s Clair de Lune and ended with the spicy Guarina by Sindo Garay. Sarduy performed days later at the National Theater with his Groove Messengers –Afro-Cuban jazz at its best – and Irving performed in the gardens of the Mella Theater.

Lázaro tells me that the might of Cuban music is tremendous, no matter the genre – whether Afro-Cuban jazz, danzón, traditional trova, guajira, concert music, timba, guaguancó, mambo, filin or bolero. He’s right. During the festival there were memorable galas, such as the one dedicated to rural music and to the late Celina González given by pianist Alejandro Meroño, with big band arrangements, and also Pancho Amat, a dazzling madness that proved that Cuban jazz can do anything. A similar show of versatility was made with the tribute concert to the immortal songs of Marta Valdés, a distillation of filin and feeling, given by guitarist and composer Dayron Ortiz, with guests including trumpeter Mayquel González, sax player Emir Santa Cruz and the great pianist Ernán López-Nussa, whose 65th birthday was also given a nod.

American pianist Aaron Goldberg, during his performance at the Havana Jazz Plaza Festival.
American pianist Aaron Goldberg, during his performance at the Havana Jazz Plaza Festival.Rick Swig

Having sunk four beers, Lazaro says, “You’re going to go over the top. Everyone will be able to tell that you are too enthusiastic.” Then he asks, “And how are you going to fit in the concert given by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and the new set from drummer Ruly Herrera, and La gran diversión by Roberto Fonseca [current artistic director of the Festival], and the version of Manteca that the American pianist Aaron Goldberg played at the Bellas Artes theater, and the master percussionist Adel González, who has not left Cuba, and the workshop in the art schools of Yosvany Terry, who is a professor at Harvard, not to mention the beautiful tribute to Pablo Milanés by Pachequito?”

Faced with the impossibility of summarizing the wonders of the week, we order another round and toast the health of Frank Emilio, Bobby and Chucho once more, who although he no longer lives in Cuba, is still palpably present here. “The most incredible thing is the number of young musicians and jazz artists who are keeping the flame alive,” says Lázaro. “It doesn’t matter whether they live here or elsewhere.” He’s right. That, and the fascination generated by the colorfulness of Cuban music, and the versatility and brilliance of its instrumentalists, and Frank’s Gandinga, Mondongo and Sandunga, an Afro-Cuban jazz hymn, and the inexhaustible talent of the upcoming artists, and the artistry of the veterans, and the rum and the jam sessions that make you forget your sorrows: mamita, I feel a bass drum calling me.

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