Take it to the Bridge

"Things like [Music Bridges] didn't happen two years ago so it's a step of some sort. Is it a good step? It's good that these Cuban musicians are exposed to people outside of the island. Am I down here as the harbinger of McDonald's? I somehow feel like that."

NdegeOcello was more concerned about what she viewed as the "ugly American" side of the Music Bridges. "I was never so embarrassed in my life," the critically acclaimed bassist/singer said. NdegeOcello walked out of a rehearsal in which Mark Hudson, a songwriter who served as musical director for the concert, continuously referred to the Cubans on hand as "Spanish people" or "Spaniards," and often assigned them as mere back-up musicians for the Americans. When Hudson didn't have a translator, he attempted his own version of Spanish by adding an o to every word, as when he announced over a loudspeaker that Cuban musicians "returno their borrowed gearo right away-o."

NdegeOcello and others were also appalled that Ray Scott instructed them to stay in the hotel and not explore Havana on their own, incredulously claiming their visas didn't allow them to wander the streets. Only a handful of the 36-member contingent disobeyed, including NdegeOcello. She spent time in a house in Old Havana participating in a Santeria ceremony, and attended a rumba.

Although Music Bridges was not altogether a hallmark of cultural sensitivity, the participating Cubans themselves didn't much care. Musicians forged working friendships, and the event proved particularly advantageous for Cuban singer/songwriters and rock musicians who have not gotten the international attention recently shown to Cuban dance bands and jazz musicians.

"This is the most important thing that's happened here in a long time," said Edesio Alejandro, a Cuban singer and guitarist whose music mixes soul, funk, and hip-hop styles with Cuban son. Alejandro was thrilled to work with Gladys Knight. "I think this is just the beginning of what can happen in the future."

With luck the Music Bridges concert was not a musical omen of things to come in Cuba. The three-hour show was heavy on Seventies-sounding guitar pop and maudlin love ballads, including some cloying stabs at "We Are the World"-style theme songs. Inexplicably the Cuban musical element was scarce, heard mainly in an Afro-Cuban percussion section that stood to the side of the stage. Most of the songs were in English. Out of twenty-five songs, only three or four were notable, including a show-stopping number sung by Joan Osborne, accompanied by the Cuban dance band Manolito y Su Trabuco, drummer Horacio Hernandez, and guitarist Sergio Vitier. Carlos Varela and Beth Nielsen Chapman were among a few others who captured the spirit of collaboration in song.

It was an evening that contrasted sharply with a concert by the Buena Vista Social Club, held the previous night at the Cuban Film Institute's Chaplin Cinema. That show was a display of the elegance and authenticity that have always brought international attention to Cuban music. Ry Cooder, the American guitarist and producer who first assembled the group of venerable old-timers under the Buena Vista moniker, constructed his "bridge" with little pomp. Yet the self-titled album that resulted from those 1997 recording sessions has since sold over a million copies worldwide, proving the enduring appeal of unadorned Cuban music. At the show Cooder sat with his percussionist son Joaquim at the back of the stage and left the limelight to the Cuban veterans.

"I've never seen any scene explode as quickly as this," a somewhat overwhelmed Cooder told the New York Times, referring to the wave of international publicity about Cuban musicians sparked by Buena Vista, and responsible for bringing the Music Bridges people to Havana. "That's good, and that's bad." Indeed Cooder looked rather like Dr. Frankenstein faced with his monster as he fled from a CBS camera crew waiting outside the Egrem recording studios.

After the Music Bridges concert, the musicians attended a reception hosted by Castro. Just a few hours later, the red-eyed Americans hugged their Cuban counterparts goodbye in the hotel lobby. Like Cooder, Don Was had mixed feelings about Cuban music's renewed popularity. But he pointed out the weeklong exchange had ultimately made it clear that music, and the people who make it, are not differentiated by borders.

"There's good music and there's shitty music everywhere," Was concluded. "I've met some real jerks here and I've seen ego run rampant among Cuban musicians. Still I've met some clear and wonderful people. It's the same thing in our contingent of 36 musicians. You've got some real assholes and you've got some beautiful musicians. Everybody had fun. The rum was flowing, and where there was dissension and people who acted outside of the spirit of things, there was also the discovery that 40 years of embargo and isolation didn't alter 10,000 years of human evolution. We found the same personality traits in Cuban musicians as our own. We are one.

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