Thursday, April 30, 2009

Buzz: Fania's Future? plus Libre Tribute

Word is that the Fania catalog has been sold by Emusica, supposedly to a group called Red Planet Records. People in the industry claim to have confirmed this with Emusica chief Giora Breil, with an official public announcement due in a few weeks. What the sale means for the remastering and reissuing of the classic salsa label and its subsidiaries such as Vaya and Cotique, a project Emusica began in 2006, is uncertain. No details of the current deal are known, but according to Billboard, Emusica acquired the Fania assets for a reported $10 million in 2005.

Post-Oquendo y Libre

Also hitting the ground running is the rumor that Charlie Santiago will be the guest timbalero to fill Manny Oquendo's position in Libre for the tribute concert at the Bronx Museum on May 30. Said spokesman Mike Reyes,
"As long as the public desires to hear quality music and the members of Libre want to continue in honor of Manny, the band will continue to play. Manny's chair will rotate from a cast of "special" invitees. The first set of gigs (NYC, Mexico, Chicago) will involve Charlie Santiago."

Here is a clip of Charlie in action; the first timbalero to solo is Andy Alfonso, who hands off the pailas to Charlie. Thanks to Edgar Omar Arteaga for sending the link.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mano a Mano with Nati Cano

After the Merlefest show, I got a few moments to chat with mariachi maestro Nati Cano. I offered to carry his vihuela to the bus as he descended some steep steps behind the Watson stage, but the 75-year-old wouldn't hear of it.
"I like a challenge," he said.

Sylvia P.: What's the average age of your musicians? You probably get a lot of young musicians coming in.

Nati Cano: Yes I do. The group has been together for 48 years. Some of them might be 40, others 30, others 20-something. It’s like a football team, or baseball, you have to change, you know.

Sylvia: There must be people who come out and audition, because they really want to be in the group.

Nati: No, no they don’t.

Sylvia: You recruit?

Nati: No, what happens is, that I already know about them, I see them in the other groups. I start hearing, they say, ok, this guy wants to join the group. And I say great. Let me go and just look.

Sylvia: You check it out first.

Nati: Let me just take a look, and that’s it. I just look. They don’t audition.

Sylvia: So everyone gets selected, hand-picked.

Nati: Oh yes, I already knew them. They had a reputation.

Sylvia: How do you train?

Nati: It’s a kind of a feeling, you know. They all know me, they know what I want. I want to project the happiness of this music, the feeling, the passion of this music. And that’s what I do. If I see musician who doesn’t show that to me, I really get to him, you know. I’m going to tell you something, with respect. We had a restaurant. I really screwed it over, I don’t want a restaurant anymore, but anyway. It was my restaurant, our restaurant. It was our house. We performed for so many years, 30 years or 35 years. One night I came in to the restaurant and saw a guy playing so bad, so, you know like [makes a flat, droning noise], you know. And when the show was over, I came to him, I said, "Antonio, what’s happening? You know, what happened to you last night? Were you hung over, or were you taking drugs…?" And he got offended. “I want you to know, I don’t take marijuana, I don’t take alcohol, I don’t take drugs.” You know what I told him? “Take something.”

Sylvia: Try it. [Laughter.]

I mean you know, it’s unacceptable. No you have that’s my way of...keeping the group. They believe in me, we work together, we’re a team, and I’m proud of it.

Sylvia: How hard do you drill them, do you have frequent rehearsals? Are you just on the road all the time?

Nati: Yes, we have our own repertoire. But when let’s say, when we’re going to accompany Linda Ronstadt, we prepare for her ahead of time. And we accompany Lila [Downs], and Aida Cuevas, and another singer from Mexico...

Sylvia: Which one?

Eugenia León. She’s great. Great. And we accompany her, so we have to rehearse and we have to really...Because our reputation is right on the line. We have the reputation of being good mariachi. So I don’t want to take a chance.

Sylvia: It’s paying off, what can I say. It’s my first time hearing you live, and it's exquisite in person. The [Smithsonian Folkways] recordings, there’s such great clarity on there, but you sound like it could be the record in person, beautiful.

Nati: Oh my god, well. You hear those recordings?

Sylvia: I’m a big fan. We really enjoy your music, I’m on a college station [WXDU]...we love your records, they’ve been on our playlist.

Nati: Well thank you, that’s a compliment to us. Thank you very much. I hope you enjoy, and uh...I hope we get in touch, we can give you a serenade or something.

Sylvia: [Laughter] That would be great!

Nati: I know! [Laughter.] Well, thank you for your interest, ok?

Sylvia: Absolutely, you all have a good tour. Where you headed now, back home?

Nati: To Los Angeles, back to home again...That’s why I opened the restaurant way back in 1969, because we were travelling all the time. You know the routine, Vegas, Lake Tahoe, New York, I mean we were travelling all the time. And then I felt sorry for these guys, because a lot of them have families, like me. And I said, you know, this is not fine. Yeah, we were making money but, we never saw the families, you know. So that was the idea for the restaurant.

Sylvia: Is that still there?

Nati: No. I let that go.

Sylvia: When did you let that go?

Nati: A year and a half ago.

Sylvia: And so now just music?

Nati: Yes, just music.

Sylvia: And you’re going to be in D.C. [at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival] in June?

Nati: Yes. How do you know that?

Sylvia: Your singer [and musical director, Jesus "Chuy" Guzman] told me.

Nati: Oh good. Yes we will be in Washington. Are you in there?

Sylvia: I might drive up. I live in North Carolina.

Nati: Oh great. Maybe we can sing a song for you right there. We will, hey.

Sylvia: [Laughter] That would make my day.

Nati: We will, bless you for us. Thank you, thank you very much. I’ll see you in Washington. Give us a chance to say hello, ok? Bye bye.

Linda y Los Camperos

Nati Cano
Natividad (Nati) Cano with his vihuela, an instrument he learned to play at age 6. From age 8 to 14 he studied violin at the Academy of Music in Guadalajara.

In 1987, his mariachis backed Linda Ronstadt on Canciones de Mi Padre and the follow-up Mas Canciones. More recently, he has recorded three albums on Smithsonian Folkways, winning a Grammy this year for Amor, Dolor y Lagrimas. He lives in SoCal, near Santa Barbara. He and his band will be back on the East Coast in June, performing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in D.C. One of the three festival themes this year is "Las Amerícas: Un Mundo Musical/Music in Latino Culture."

Linda Ronstadt

These mariachis are a national treasure, and Linda takes obvious delight in being ensconced in the traditional Mexican music she grew up with. She can still belt out memorable high notes, lovely long sustains reminiscent of her pop hits, and emotional breaking notes native to the ranchera idiom. Not that bravura vocal performance seemed to come completely effortlessly to her anymore (if it ever did--Ronstadt has always been a careful, even cautious performer; I noticed she had a velvet-draped computer monitor discreetly placed center stage as a lyric prompter, and some kind of remote device in her hand). While I found some of her renditions of classic rancheras flawless, others were darn good or just ok (her "Gritenme Piedras del Campo" was one of the latter, for me, but I'm partial to Cuco Sanchez' interpretation). What makes her an authentic performer nonetheless, and one people really enjoyed hearing at Merlefest, is not really the fact that she came out of this Mexican tradition, but that she returned to it with the American-made craftsmanship of her own particular sound, based in pop, folk rock and retro '50s balladry.


Linda's sets were broken up by songs highlighting the other singers in Los Camperos (pictured above). When you factor in that all these guys play violin at concert level, as well as being outstanding singers, their talent is truly tremendous. I chatted with Jesus "Chuy" Guzman (right, obscured by violin) backstage, he has been with Nati Cano the longest and also serves as his musical director. These mariachis seem very proud of what they do; with good reason.

Eight fantastic dancers from the Ballet Folklorico Paso del Norte, based in El Paso, Texas, added dollops of color to the program.

Paso del Norte dancer
"You should never separate dance music from the dancers. When you do it gets fast and stiff and weird," said Linda. "It's when we all started dancing to recorded music that it got weird."
Interesting opinion from someone who made her name during the era of recorded dance music as the highest paid woman in rock. Linda's friend Emmy Lou Harris, who performed at Merlefest the night before, was in the house (and walked right by me, so I'm told--I must have had my back turned!) as was her long-time producer John Boylan, whom a fan spotted backstage.

Photo platform (cropped)
Only three photographers were allowed on this platform at a time, and only during her first three songs; we had five minutes each on the platform, we were also supposed to keep our camera lens below stage level (pretty much an impossibility, but we obediently sank to our knees). I'm not sure why Linda has so many rules for photographers, honestly it just made it comically difficult to get good photos of her. A real crap shoot!
Camperos vocalist Ismael Hernandez. He gave a special smile for the cameras, below, which is one of my favorite shots from the show.
(click on photo to see larger).

smile for the camera

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mariachis Tonight

Whoa. The Winston-Salem Journal ran this short item about Linda Ronstadt headlining Merlefest today, but did they have to run such an unflattering image?

Perhaps all the official, copyrighted publicity photos require explicit permission to run. Well, I have my own photo/press pass at Merlefest this year, so I hope to return soon with some of my own.

That's right, kittens! I'm going to see those folk heroes of the Smithsonian label, Mariachis Los Camperos de Nati Cano, backing Ronstadt, pop icon of my late '70s youth and the only reason I became acquainted with Roy Orbison tunes like "Blue Bayou" (Did you notice how Linda's version puts a triplet backbeat under it, giving it a 'Latin' sway?) You probably already know that Ronstadt has Mexican-American ancestry via her father's roots in Tucson, but her maternal ancestors come from the Midwest, and Ronstadt has two adopted children. Nowadays, the only music she sings is ranchera, and her voice really does seem to be built for it, like on this tune "La Cigarra" originally from a movie by Linda's Mexican singing idol, Lola Beltran:

There's a little controversy about her in the Afro-Latin music world because of a project she commissioned of Barry Rogers, Eddie Palmieri's signature trombonist, shortly before his early death (at age 55) in 1991. There are people who believe disappointment contributed to it, since Barry and his wife, lyricist Lou Rogers, worked 3 years on the project, tailoring it specifically to Ronstadt, getting their friends to play for free on the demos against the promise of a future recording, only to see their work come to naught. I've always been intrigued by these tales of unreleased recordings by Barry Rogers, and widow Lou says she still owns all the rights to this music. She and son Chris Rogers (also a musician) both say the music is "wonderful," and would have been ahead of its time had Ronstadt gone ahead with it, presaging the Latin pop "crossover" boom.

More to come!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Carnavalito Update

A lot of free solar energy didn't seem to hurt Durham's Earth Day Celebration this afternoon, where Carnavalito played in 80-90 degree temperatures. The Triangle's first Latin band demonstrated today that it is still one of the finest.

I really didn't do Alberto Carrasquillo justice in this clip; what you hear is just the denouement of his trumpet solo. He has been on fire lately, and was totally killin' it as I fumbled for my camera (doh). Still, a nice update of what Carnavalito can do, and still does, on a regular basis. I was on time for Serena Wiley's saxophone solo, and a nice little rumba embellishment at the end of the arrangement. This is probably my favorite tune in their current/updated book, which ranges to merengue, son montuno, deep cha fusion, cumbia and Latin jazz. Phil Merritt on piano, Pako Santiago on timbales, Atiba Rorie on congas and leader Ricardo Granillo on bass were all feeling the fire.

Believe it or not, when Carnavalito's first CD "dropped" in 1995, music journalist and historian Max Salazar was here--here, in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina--for the release party. (I have proof positive of this on VHS! Courtesy of Salsa Carolina founder Jim Spier.) I am not sure why I was not at this affair in person, perhaps my salsa nightlife career was still in its salad days. In any case Salazar, author of Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York, a 2002 compilation of his columns over the years in Latin Beat magazine, recognized Carnavalito as a carrier of the true spirit of la música.

Let me tell you, musicians don't get rich making a lifelong side career out of playing local/regional gigs. God bless you men and women who do this, year in and year out, for what the music gives to you. It makes our communities richer places and draws in newcomers (like me, back in the day) to the mystical, expansive, universal tradition of Latin music. This music was a survival toolbox for the ancestors who forged it, and it remains so today, a spiritual fountain for anybody who approaches it to drink. That's how I feel about salsa and Afro-Caribbean music. And it's not just because of records from faraway times and places, but because of a lot of local culture bearers who made this tradition accessible to me. I venerate all the musicians who have shared their talent with us over the years and continue to do so, literally, in good times and in bad. It ain't easy. But you know it means a lot.

Correction: Max Salazar attended Carnavalito's first CD-release party, not their second as incorrectly stated earlier. The post has been updated to reflect this correction.


Plena de amistad
The Latin Project gave us a solid evening of dance music (more on that later), but as sometimes happens, the really interesting stuff happens when you least expect it. As the musicians were killing time in the parking lot between their second and third sets, Lucas Torres (a powerful percussionist and former WBAI reporter from New York) brought out his panderetas, and a spontaneous plena session broke out. You can see a bystander running for his video camera; maybe he got some better footage than I did, but despite the low light, this was a rare treat to witness, let alone record!

If memory serves, the lead voices in order are: Lucas Torres (several verses, ending with "hasta Carolina vine a vacilar, desde Puerto Rico vine yo a cantar"), Jaime Ramon ("...dejalo nadar en las aguas puras de aquel manantial"), Juan "Cuto" Lanzot (regular verse), and Jaime again ("en las Carolinas yo vengo a cantar, la plena de Puerto Rico y esto es de amistad"). Jaime speaks at the end.

Los Pleneros de Factory Shops Road
(y una amiga):

Plena Party (cropped)
Juan "Cuto" Lanzot, Lucas Torres, Jaime Roman, Jose Sanchez. Center: Jessi Mock

This morning as we loll in our beds, The Latin Project is up bright and early, recording a demo at Pete Kimosh's home studio. Members of the band travel from Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Columbia, SC so they rarely get a chance to rehearse, let alone record.

The dubbing will break up around noon so Alberto Carrasquillo (trumpet), Serena Wiley (sax) and Phil Merritt (piano) can make it to their Earth Day gig with Carnavalito (1:25 pm, CCB Plaza, downtown Durham). FREE EVENT (Saturday, Noon - 5 pm, various music, see calendar).

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Latin Project LIVE SALSA @ Carmen's Tonight (4/24)

DJ Salsa Mike presents a great local orchestra tonight which we rarely get to hear: The Latin Project. They are popular in Charlotte, but last time I heard them in the Triangle was Earth Day last year. I liked it a lot, an 8-piece with conga power and tasty son tempos, co-led by beloved Durham trumpeter Alberto Carrasquillo (Carnavalito, Orquesta GarDel, Durham City Parks & Rec). I can't wait to hear this band again and see what's cooking.

The place is Carmen's, tonight, Friday (4/24). Admission $15, discounted for students and active military. Live music, for the third weekend in a row! Mas salsa que pesca'o...

BAMP African Dinner Dance Malaria Benefit SATURDAY (4/25)

The most fun you can have while doing good: Bonjour Africa's 6th annual African Dinner Dance to benefit malaria prevention in Africa. Your tax-deductible $30 at the door ($25 in advance) gets you a home-cooked dinner of Senegalese food, music by WNCU deejay Bouna Ndiaye, dance performances by Paso and others, and a silent auction. All proceeds go to purchase and distribute effective malaria interventions through a locally based healthcare network in Linguere, Senegal.

WHAT: Bonjour Africa Malaria Project - African Dinner Dance
WHEN: Saturday (4/25), 7pm - 12 midnight
WHERE: Durham Armory, 220 Foster St, downtown Durham
Cost: $30 door (advance $25) minimum tax-deductible donation

MORE INFO: contact Bouna Ndiaye at or (919) 215-4765.

Bouna is the host of WNCU's Bonjour Africa which airs Sundays 4-6 pm.

Here is a great story in the News & Observer last year on the BAMP African Dinner Dance.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

More Shakori Video (The Beast)

You know you love Shakori for the free spirited fashion:

This was the scene 'on the ground' as The Beast played yesterday, making the most of a choice spot in the Saturday lineup.

As promised, Eric Hirsh's new arrangements featuring guests Andy Kleindienst and Tim Smith on horns were exciting. Pierce Freelon tells me that--get ready now, hold on to your seats--Orquesta GarDel is coming in the studio to record the track you see here, "Translation," in which Tim and Andy rip a few moñas:

The Beast is for Kids

kids love the beast
hands in the air
baby fist pumpin'
Pierce Freelon
Pierce and Eric
double happiness
Tim smiling
Steve drum solo

Captain Luke at the MusicMaker Showcase

The MusicMaker Relief Foundation, a Hillsborough organization that aids North Carolina blues musicians, had its usual blues showcase at Shakori on Saturday. John Dee Holeman was there, among others, including one of my favorite gentlemen, the deep-voiced Captain Luke.

Captain Luke series

Captain Luke series

Musicmaker showcase

Captain Luke series

Dig that old Shakori wristband decorating his cap! They say the "L" around his neck stands for "Love." Captain Luke is all right.


Enhance your Captain Luke knowledge with this audio piece and slide show by Richard Ziglar and Barry Yeoman. (link added 5/10/09)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Welcome to Shakori Hills!

Scroll down for daily updates...

tierra va' temblar
Why are Eric Hirsh and Jose Sanchez smiling?

They are about to take the stage with Orquesta Gardel for the WORLD PREMIERE of a new timba tune written by trombonist Andy Kleindienst. It's entitled, get this: "Welcome to Shakori Hills"!

A song, written FOR the gig? That's like, 111% percent commitment. That's like a renaissance-scale luxury.

VIDEO of this blessed event will be posted as soon as I can get it uploaded!

Team Paso was there (Cuban-style dance school led by Stephanie and Eduardo Winston) to validate this experiment of timba-in-the-wildnerness.

I feel like I was present for something historic Thursday night: not only Gardel's first original, fresh out of the gate (with more soon to follow), but very possibly the first timba song ever written in the Triangle, and almost certainly the first timba song dedicated to Shakori Hills. The sound of timba, with its dynamic piano lines and punchy metales, really suits Gardel. Even though he talked a lot about "salsa gorda," Puerto Rican sonero Nelson Delgado carried the Cuban timba style convincingly right down to his "ahi nama's".

This band was born to play timba. Congratulations Andy! Gardel continues to set the bar higher.

It was in this same spot a year ago that their April performance at Shakori sparked my awe and the Indy cover story that ensued. There's something magical about that Dance Tent, where great evenings with Plena Libre, Bio Ritmo, and Ricardo Lemvo y Makina Loca have gone before.

Jose Conde y Ola Fresca

fresh wing
Jose Conde y Ola Fresca played the Meadow Stage in the shank of the evening.

His touring five-piece (which plays twice more on Friday) features Cuban-born bassist Jorge Bringas; New York Cuban and DUKE GRADUATE ('94) Alex Fernandez Fox on tres and jazz guitar; Venezuelan jazz percussionist Pablo Bencid, as versatile on cajon as drumset; and a surprise: conguero Gabo Tomasini of Bio Ritmo! Jose was born in Chicago, raised in Miami and makes his home in Brooklyn, but he and the Richmond-based Ritmo are good friends. There was a lot of diversity to his set, and Jose charmed with his laid-back sonero style and personal, often whimsical songs in styles from Haitian to joropo. They closed with some son and salsa, and Jose tells me TONIGHT'S SET (Friday night, Dance Tent) will be tailored to the dancer.
"It will be more of the dance stuff, and a couple funky things. We have a wide repertory," says the urban sonero.

"I like to sing in rhythm, and I like to tell stories. I'm trying to take the son spirit into funk," says Jose.

This performance from Thursday night, when they were fighting cold temperatures to keep their instruments in tune, shows their Cuban dance music side. "Puente a Mi Gente," about ending the embargo, features a frisky tres solo by Alex Fernandez Fox.

Jose didn't realize that the festival organizers found him via his nifty Obama video.
"Oh wow," says Jose. "Well we're going to have to do it tomorrow then. That was written for the election, so we'll do it in its original incarnation."

UPDATE added Saturday, 4/18:

Ok, I wondered what he meant. Here is Friday night's performance of the tune "Respondeme," which he adapted for the Obama video. It's a smart-sexy love song (appropriate):

Again, Alex Fernandez Fox takes a searing solo on tres. Alex says his first instrument was piano. At some point, he made his own tres, and then figured out how to play it. (Cubano hasta el hueso.) If I got the story straight, he played guitar in the Duke Jazz Band in the early '90s, under the direction of Paul Jeffries.

Jose Conde's singing voice reminds me a little of Bono, if Bono were an 80-year-old Cuban man living in the mountains. Maybe the Catskills. In any case someone like Alex and his tasty tres would never be far away.

Saturday at Shakori: Get Horny with The Beast

Today at 5 pm: Take a ride in Pierce Freelon's jazz hip hop vehicle The Beast with its new, pimped out horn section. Arranger/pianist Eric Hirsh says to expect new arrangements and more Latin soul flavor. Other Gardelites on hand: Pete Kimosh, Andy Kleindienst and Tim Smith. Vaya!


Shakori Hills Grassroots
is a great festival because unless all you listen to is opera and death metal, it has music for everybody. There's so much going on in 4 days I can't survey it all, so see the website for schedule, directions, ticket info, etc.

Some Shakori tips:

Bring a cozy for your beer, and maybe a stash of your own toilet paper (just in case the portapotty village runs out). I love the New York Pizza and the Indian food vendors, and the way the stars in the night sky always look brighter when you are out in the country. If you stay late, bring warm clothes in case the temperature cools down, and if you leave the festival at night, watch for small critters on the roads (I slowed for quite a few deer and bunnies). Drive safely! It's definitely worth the mileage.

Monday, April 13, 2009

19 Days

Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, The New York Times finally published an obituary for Manny Oquendo. In English, by A. E. Velez. Nice photo. Recommended.

Here is an older video of Libre with Manny on bongo and bell. Nice crowd shots; Jerry Gonzalez takes a conga solo. The tune, by Cuban conguero Francisco Aguabella, was recorded by Tito Puente in the '50s when Aguabella was in his orchestra. Check out this trombone-dense arrangement, classic of the Libre sound.

Now, check out this TV appearance of Libre screaming their Puerto Rican heritage with the classic plena, "Elena Elena." The fluid, forceful Herman Olivera was never more at ease on lead vocal, and count 'em, FIVE TROMBONES feature a young Jimmy Bosch soloing. Manny follows this with a signature solo on timbales:

I also like this one a lot, it tells you why Libre was, is, a great band: flexibility and an inimitable chemistry of groove. Look at flutist Dave Valentin pumping his cintura as he plays! Que sabor maravilloso, reminds me of old Orquesta Broadway videos. The camera blacks out for a little while during Willie Rodriguez' tremendous piano solo, but hang in there; visuals are back for Manny's extended treatment of the pailas. The tune, "Suavecito," is a traditional Cuban son by Ignacio Piñeiro, refitted with Libre's "free" sensibility. They aren't showing off or inventing some esoteric idiom, they're embedding deeply personal and modern utterances in the historical repertoire. It's music made primarily for musicians (themselves) that remains, first and foremost, music of the people.

For more media links, tributes from fellow musicians, and video footage:
Search Onda Carolina for Manny Oquendo

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Live Salsa with GARDEL this Saturday (4/11)

It's a good band: Orquesta GarDel.

That photo looks nice on the poster; it came from the cover story I wrote about them in June 2008.

Here are the details on Saturday's "Spring Black and White Party" at George's Garage. The party starts at 11 pm promptly (not before, although the bar will be open as the dining area clears). The first live music set starts at 11:30 pm. There will be a mambo performance by James Cobo at 12:30 pm. Then, the band's second live set begins at 1:30 am, and the party won't close down until 3. That's an extra hour than usual, and Cobos run a well-organized ship, so you can expect to get your money's worth of dancing and live music.

I've been sworn not to say too much about what GarDel has woodshedding in secrecy these last few months, but they are getting ready to unveil some new charts including original compositions that will be surprising. They already have a huge and heavy book of standards including Barretto, Palmieri, Ruben Blades, Gilberto Santa Rosa and La Sonora Ponceña.

Admission will be $20 at the door; some limited discounts are available, while they last, if purchased online, and to be eligible for discounts you must abide by the 'black and/or white' attire theme. (I would love to see a basket of spring colors, myself, but that's just me.)

Get out the house. A bailar.

UPDATE added Sunday (4/12):

Very accomplished local mambo professional James Cobo debuts his new solo routine, as his parents (above, center) look on.

While it was impossible to capture a portrait of James in motion with non-flash photography, I did capture the impressions of onlookers, dressed in the party's elegant "black and white" theme:
fan club

GarDel blasted and sounded GREAT. Will elaborate on how and why later.

In this photo from their first set, Paso dance instructors Stephanie and Eduardo Winston eclipse stage lights in a view from the dancefloor:
paso a gardel

Here's Jose Sanchez (congas), Brevan Hampden (timbales) and Ramon Ortiz (bongo/bell) in this hardworking rhythm section, backed by metales Wayne Leechford, Tim Smith and Andy Kleindienst:
hard at work

See more party photos at my Flickr page, if you click on any photo.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Summer Camp for Rumberos

There's a highly recommended Afro-Cuban dance and drum program at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California coming up this July 25-August 1.

I've heard great things from people who've gone there, and it also seems (to me) to be a great value--the whole week-long program of classes is $495, not including travel/lodging. You can also sign up by day rates.

Among the esteemed instructors at this camp: the one and only Francisco Aguabella, John Santos, Mike Spiro, Toto Berriel from Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, founding member of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional Lazaro Galarraga, and drummers and dancers from other top folkloric groups in Cuba, such as Yoruba Andabo and Afro-Cuba de Matanzas. The program also includes scholars such as David Peñalosa who has written books about clave.

Realer, a deal does not get. Classes cover rumba and orisha song, dance, and multi-instrument drumming techniques, at levels from beginner to pro.

"I must mention that our evening rumba parties have become legendary," says program founder and coordinator Howie Kaufman.

"You will not be disappointed!" emphasizes Santos.

Details and registration at the website: Humboldt University: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Dance and Drumming

Van Van Watch (with updates!)

Here's a little gossip for those hot on the trail of the rumored Los Van Van tour:

This message comes from a NY/NJ area promoter:
"I spoke to Lele [of Los Van Van] personally last Saturday while they were in Europe. He confirmed to me the dates of all the tours and venues for July-August, September-October, January-February, and April-May tours! They have everything listed and are very excited. The company bringing them is Monterrey International and the contact person is Paul Goldman. He was pretty much telling me...they should get their visas once they returned to Cuba. That's all they are waiting for."

--Andy Perez
Habana Music Productions

With Hillary Clinton running the State Dept., I am as confident as I can reasonably be that they will get their visas. Why? Well, the last Cuban band to tour the Triangle--way back in 2003--was Barbarito Torres. And when he had trouble getting his visa and FBI clearance, it was Senator Hillary Clinton who stepped in for him.

DJ Melao is monitoring the situation closely, and broke the news in these parts. He's closely allied with timba artists and promoters, so keep refreshing his website for the latest.

UPDATE added Monday (3/6):

This word of caution from Elizabeth Sobol, manager of Tiempo Libre and a music industry veteran:
"Just FYI - I have gotten very different info from the presenters. We have been told that Monterey had to submit a "tour route" to the Cuban government in order to get the ball rolling. And that they put together more of a "wish list" than an actual tour route. A lot of the venues listed simply aren't even available on the dates/periods that are listed on what was sent out. Two of the venues in there are actually closed for renovations during the period.

None of this means that a tour won't happen, but I wouldn't get my heart set on seeing them in any of these markets unless and until you actually see the concerts listed and tickets on sale on individual venue websites.

So, they are looking for their Cuban visas? Hard to say. I can say that I look forward to the day when it's other governments, not ours, that impede the free flow of people, trade and culture.

Stay cool, kids.

UPDATE added Tuesday (3/7):

DJ Melao clarifies via Blackberry:
"This was direct info from Mayito and Lele. It was made clear dates and venues are subject to change at this point. But that is what they are aiming at...the last update I got was that Van Van has visas for a year with over 70 planned dates."

Communicator out.

UPDATE added Thursday (4/9):

Looks like the tour agent working with Van Van wants to put the brakes on the rumor mill until things firm up. Matt at posted this message from Paul Goldman of Monterrey International:
"There is no tour in place at this time, nor will there be until such time as visas are issued for Los Van Van by the US Government. The schedule published is 100% incorrect and should be removed immediately from any web site."

Got it?

So, my take on that is, that tells us where things stand: they are waiting for their U.S. visas. It also confirms that the schedule was a "wish list" submitted to get the ball rolling, rather than confirmed dates, as Elizabeth indicated (see 3/6 update). That schedule obviously wasn't supposed to leak out, but members of Van Van gave it to DJ Melao. And the rest is mystery!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Greensboro Tiene Ya Su Guaguancó

Some pics and commentary from Afro Cuban All Stars at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro last night (4/3):

Juan de Marcos, still the empresario. Behind him: former Cubanismo pianist Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera, who lives in Minnesota, and bassist Alberto Pantaleon who lives in Mexico City.

Evelio Galán
Representing the old school: Evelio Galán is a nephew of Mañuel "Puntillita" Licea, an original member of the Buena Vista Social Club who passed away in 2000. Galán lives in Dublin and heats up the scene there in percussionist Conor Guilfoyle's band, Havana Son. Juan de Marcos (on stage, behind him) called him "the best singer I have ever heard." Gorgeous voice, like butta. He blew me away. (I like how he strategically placed himself in front of my camera too. These are not bootlegged, I had a photo press pass.)

Calixto Oviedo
Calixto Oviedo is a beloved timbero in Stockholm. His 90-year-old mother is gravely ill right now, and although he is very worried about her, it didn't affect his performance. We all hope she will hold on to her health until he finishes out the tour next week and can go down to Cuba to see her. This guy has tremendous musicality on the timbales, and a great attitude!
timbalero mayor!

Pepe en campaña
Behind Emilio Suarez's dancing torso, that's bongosero Pepe Espinosa, who played an unusual solo on bell. He lives in [correction!] Stockholm, I believe. His sister Madelin Espinosa is also a percussionist.

sonero y ritmo
Jose Gil Piñero, aka Jose Gilito, definitely plays well to the ladies.

give it up
Here he is down in the open orchestra pit with the dancers. After intermission the concert went into party mode. On stage behind him: Emilio Suarez, Juan de Marcos (arms raised), Evelio Galán.

big love
Don't curb your enthusiasm.
Jose Gilito gets a hug. Behind him on stage: Emilio Suarez, and Juan de Marcos' wife/business manager, Gliceria Abreu (in white).

nostalgia de hoy

manos arriba

ground zero

Yes, that's one nice thing about Cuban bands, they bring the party to you. For anyone who had reservations about this new and unfamiliar lineup, they are the cream of Cuba's talent diaspora. This is an elite orchestra and I appreciated the vitality and fresh faces. They shared with us a sense of optimism that this tour is opening doors, and that Barack Obama will put an end to the cold war on cultural exchange. Soon we will be ready to exhale!

I write this as rumors about Los Van Van's U.S. tour THIS SUMMER appear to be substantiated. It's going to happen, people! This July 28, Durham will get run over by El Tren!

Shout out: Local musicians I ran into in the audience at the Afro Cuban All Stars show included Bradley Simmons, Robert Cantrell, Jose Sanchez and Cesar Oviedo. If you were there, give a holler!

I also talked to Edwin Dubois, the owner of the Greensboro club Rumba D'Cache. He said he did cancel the Niche concert (sounded like he didn't sell enough advance tickets?), and was out of town that week opening another club.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

FULL FRAME: "Sons of Cuba" boxing film premiere

Durham's downtown film fest opens today:

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival website

More to follow...

UPDATE added Sunday (3/5): SONS OF CUBA World Premiere

I went to the sold-out, world premiere Friday night of Sons of Cuba, a British-made film about the boys' boxing academy in Havana. Director Andrew Lang and editor Simon Rose said they had only just finished the film 3 days earlier. Lang completed film school training in Cuba in 2005 and had unprecedented access to the boarding academy, which accepts boys as young as 9 and trains them to become Olympic boxers.

I really liked the film, any movie that brings the sights and sounds of Cuba and its people closer is a joy. Music's role in the film was mostly in the soundtrack, which drew heavily on Cuban rap; the credits went by fast but I remember seeing one Eliseo Grenet tune, and some unfamiliar band names I take to be next gen hip hop. This was a good fit for the theme.

One boy, Santos, is nicknamed "The Singer," because he's always composing rap-like lyrics and songs on the spot. He was rather unhappy at boxing camp, and I kept thinking, they should transfer this kid to the conservatory farm system! I admit that one of my motives to see the film is that I imagine it must be somewhat similar to the life experienced by young musicians in Cuba, who are also taken from home at a young age. I think I am probably not too wrong in this.

The degree of love and bonding among the boys, and also between them and their nevertheless demanding coach, was an impressive fact. So was the close relationship most of these boys shared with their mothers. It was striking to me that the coach even impressed upon the boys, "your mother is the most important person in your life." That's far from the aggressive, "don't be a sissy," encoding of masculinity and rejection of all things feminine so typical in many or most societies when they are training men for a sport like boxing. Knowing Cuban culture from another angle, it was not hard for me to imagine these boys a little older, when they start having girlfriends, and thinking that any boy who loves his mother so much will surely end having a healthy respect for and attachment to women. That's not to say there is no "macho" element in Cuban culture (so I hear), but there's a certain approach to love, sensuality and pleasure, at least encoded in the music, that I find quite egalitarian. Let's just take as one example Mayito's song with Los Van Van, "Llevala a tu vacilon," where a guy is encouraged to take his girlfriend out to the parties with him, rather than leaving her at home. Let your girl have her fun, or you won't have a girl for very long.

It was hard to watch very young children undergo such grueling physical training. I couldn't help wondering if the obsession with weight, in particular, was not detrimental at that age, both physically and psychological. How do they allow for these kids to grow up, while maintaining a rigid weight class of say 32 kg? The hero, Christian, really had a gaunt, overexercised appearance. He sure as hell could fight though. Christian was an interesting character, because he's the son of a former Cuban Olympic and World Champion.

There was so much heart and emotion in this movie and so many tears: tears in victory, tears in defeat, tears when family stress intruded on school, tears when certain kids didn't make the team cut. I have never seen so many men (and boys) cry in two hours in my life! These men really love and comfort each other, even the rival coaches of the Havana and Matanzas academies, who do some hilarious trash talking in the beginning, but dissolve in a tearful embrace at the end. The Matanzas kid boxers had a reputation of being big, tough, yucca-eating farmers' sons who can punch you into next week, which made me think about the Matanzas stevedores who invented rumba, and Ignacio Piñeiro walking out to Matanzas for some good Afro-Congolese food and dancing in the song "Echale Salsita."

After the film, I stood up at one of the mics and asked the filmmakers if they had considered the film, among other things, as a portrait of Cuban masculinity; to my shock, really, Lang said this never occurred to him. Never occurred to him! Interesting. And he says he went to an all-male boarding school.

I think this has something to do with the fact that, like most outsiders making a movie about the Cuban system, they bring their own values to it somehow. That's not inappropiate. But Lang highlighted the historicity of the film being shot during the transition from Fidel to Raul. However, this event seemed like a bit of an anticlimax to me, both as experienced in real life, and as a dramatic element in the film. I guess he wouldn't be doing his job as a filmmaker not to position the film in its context and political moment in this way, but it really had no impact on the inherent drama of the film, which was all about the boys and their rival boxing teams. And, their dreams.

One point that the film made clearly was that all these people, children and adults, are coping with life in this system, the way anyone anywhere is forced to do. In particular, all these boys face a lot of pressure from their families to do well, so that they might have a chance to pull their families out of poverty. It's really not that different from the U.S., where low-wealth minorities are positioned to view sports and entertainment as aspirational paths.

It's a remarkable film, well worth seeing. If you love Cuba and her children, you'll probably be crying too by the end; I was. Beautiful moving images, too. These kids are unforgettable. Oh, and I can't wait for the followup films in 5 years, 10 years, etc. Like the Balseros docs, that would really be fascinating. Are you listening, Lang & friends? Well done, and keep us posted.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Groovy x 2: Cratediggers' Alert

Two record sales are happening this weekend in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro groove zone:

UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries are having a record sale to benefit the Southern Folklife Collections on Saturday (4/4) 9:30 am - Noon in the Wilson Library.

Then on Sunday, from Noon - 6 pm, the city of Carrboro hosts their biannual Carrboro CD and Record Show, in the Century Center.

Enter free.