It's pop-quiz time. What do Anchorage, Alaska; Uncasville, Connecticut; and Wausau, Wisconsin; all have in common? Best keep your podunkville remarks to yourself: All three far-flung burgs will be graced with an imminent live concert from Havana's Cubanismo, the sprawling son ensemble led by ace trumpeter Jesus Alemañy. Those are merely three stops on Cubanismo's current tour, an itinerary that brings some of Cuba's hottest sounds to almost every distant corner of America -- every corner that is, except the one 90 miles from the band's home base.
Cubanismo is hardly the only topnotch Cuban outfit to be crisscrossing the United States right now. It's joined by, among others, timba kings Los Van Van, jazz pianist Chucho Valdés's crack quartet, and folksy guaguancó revivalists Los Papines. The only real common denominator among these diverse artists is the glaring absence of a Miami appearance. Blame it on Elian and booking agents (as well as Cuban government officials) feeling mighty skittish in the wake of South Florida's amply televised Cuban-exile conniption fits. In contrast the rest of the nation is only deepening its sense of Cubanophilia; unless Wausau and Uncasville are harboring formerly unknown exile communities, the love for all things authentically Cuba based seems to be penetrating deeper and deeper into the heartland. Even fans of the X-Files are no longer safe: On an episode two weeks ago, as Mulder and Scully scurried offscreen, a host of zombies rose from the grave and began furiously cha-cha-cha-ing around their tombstones. The zombies' gently wafting soundtrack? Buena Vista Social Club's "Pueblo Nuevo."
Of course truth always is stranger than fiction (even Fox-TV fiction), as borne out by Salesforce.com, yet another Bay Area Internet site that announced its entry into the world of e-commerce via a swanky launch party. The band booked to play this high-profile shindig? Los Van Van. "We've got a revolutionary new way to sell software," earnestly explained a Salesforce.com staffer, "so we wanted a revolutionary band to play our party." Los Van Van canceled at the last minute (the decidedly nonparadigm-shifting B-52's filled in) to jet off to a private party in Los Angeles. This wasn't just any Hollywood bash, however; it was an impromptu celebration of Los Van Van's Grammy win for Best Latin Album -- further mud in your eye for el exilio's cultural commissars, still fuming after losing out on playing host to the Latin Grammy Awards because of their "no Cubans" stand.
Don't cry too many tears for Los Van Van missing out on that no-doubt highly sizable Salesforce.com paycheck. With their heightened post-Grammy prestige and reams of glowing reviews for their live show (as any of the 3000 attendees at their October Miami Arena gig can attest to), the band now is reportedly commanding upward of $80,000 per performance. It's a bit unclear just how Los Van Van was planning to pocket that Salesforce.com loot, in light of U.S. restrictions on commercial concert fees, but this much is clear: This is one Cuban collective that's going to have little trouble adapting to post-Fidel economic theory. (Personal memo to the Van Van boys: Next time inquire about stock options.)
If there's one bright spot on Miami's nightlife horizon given this post-Elian chill in cultural exchange with Cuba, it's in the form of Debbie Ohanian, one of only a handful of local individuals still committed to staging concerts with those heathen islanders. Somewhat chastened by recent events, Ohanian sighed to Kulchur: "So many people are hard-line now who were moderate before, it's set us back years. It's divided the city to such a level, I don't know what they're going to do to repair it." Still, she remains undaunted: Buena Vista Social Club lutist Barbarito Torres is set to kick off his U.S. summer tour with a show at Ohanian's Starfish club on Friday, June 9.
Miamians pining for an in-the-flesh live taste of Chucho Valdés can at least settle for the next best thing: his new album Live at the Village Vanguard. Drawn from an April 1999 two-night stand at that famed New York City nightclub, the album easily demonstrates why Valdés isn't just a monster of "Latin jazz," but of jazz period. For anyone still disappointed at his somewhat lackluster set the last time he hit town (perhaps owing to the lack of a proper full-size grand piano), Live at the Village Vanguard stands as a welcome corrective. Although you don't get the delightful visuals of Valdés's massive six-foot-plus frame topped off by a black Kangol (looking vaguely like Pulp Fiction's Samuel L. Jackson, had he chosen to attend a music conservatory instead of becoming a hit man), that visceral energy still comes across loud and clear. Violently dominating the keys, his fingers flying back and forth in an exhilarating rush, there are intense passages here where Valdés seems ready to physically push the black-and-white ivories through to the floor. Then suddenly his rhythm section will step back, as if dropping through a trap door, and fall into a beautifully meditative spell. "When you play in front of a live audience, you feel that higher level of energy," Valdés explained to Kulchur from his Seattle hotel room while on tour. "It makes you play even more intensely -- not just me, but the whole band."
What's just as astonishing is Valdés's ability to straddle seemingly dissimilar currents in jazz; he can effortlessly move from dizzyingly discordant Cecil Taylor-esque slash-and-burn runs to slowly pirouetting Bill Evans-like comps. The secret may be contained in one of the song titles on Live: "To Bud Powell." After all Powell's own piano compositions -- angular, off-kilter, at times downright creepy -- may have made him a revered postwar figure (and the subject of the film, Round Midnight), but he's hardly a canonical staple of Latin jazzbos. "Powell is the best," Valdés says matter-of-factly, offering no room for argument. "I've been listening to him since I was a little kid."
South Florida's own saxophonus colossus, Keshavan Maslak, may physically reside in our midst, but his jazz shows here seem to be even less frequent than those of Chucho Valdés. "I have to travel 5000 miles for a gig," laughs Maslak. "That's the story of my life; my suitcases are always ready."
Though the reasons for this are less political than aesthetic (it's hard enough for solid straight-ahead players to land local shows, let alone avant-gardists such as Maslak), it's easy for Maslak to sympathize with the current plight of Cuban musicians. "I've always seen my job as being a cultural ambassador to spread American culture all over the world," he explains. "Culture is what breaks open barriers. I saw it with my own eyes when I played in Moscow in 1988. I toured all the Soviet bloc countries when they were still communist. I felt like I was making inroads with the people at a grassroots level, bypassing the politicians."
There wasn't any money beyond travel expenses in those shows, and Maslak received zero support from American embassy officials (perhaps they were too busy setting up logistics for the Soviet tours of artistic giants Billy Joel and Bon Jovi). Still, the shows were well attended. "East Germany was heavy," he recalls of that preunification moment. "They were so repressed by the Soviet army you could feel it in the air. But the audience was fantastic! They were so hungry for music; their response was amazing!"
As he spoke with Kulchur, Maslak was set for an impending departure to Tunisia, for a week of concerts there, including an appearance at that nation's nascent jazz festival. He'll be joined on the trip by pianist Burton Greene, who first made a name for himself in New York City's mid-Sixties free-jazz circles, playing alongside figures such as Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, as well as releasing several albums on the legendary ESP label. When Greene and a new-in-New-York Maslak first met in 1975, the pianist served as a living bridge from the Sixties to the new generation of artists making up that era's "loft scene." The two have continued to collaborate, both live and in the studio, for the past 25 years. "We know where the other guy is going," Maslak says admiringly of their crossdecade musical relationship.
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As for the concept of bringing two outré jazz artists to Africa, Maslak is anything but worried. "Overseas they've traditionally been more open-minded to alternative voices, whereas here in America, all you hear about is Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock. America is really media dominated, whereas in other cultures around the world, the media doesn't have as much power to influence people's minds."
In fact Maslak is particularly enthusiastic about heading for Tunisia's Muslim milieu -- at least if his prior experience in Morocco is any guide. "Music is such an interwoven part of Muslim culture," he says. "Early in the morning at 5:30 a.m. you hear the Muslim chant, the call to prayer, over the loudspeakers. It wakes up the whole city! Even if you can't understand the words, it's such a beautiful song."
Burton and Maslak return from Tunisia to play two rare local shows: One Night Stan's (2333 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 954-929-1566) at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 11; and 9:00 p.m. at Maslak's own Sushi Blues Café (1836 S. Young Circle, Hollywood; 954-929-9560) on Friday, May 12. They'll be joined by fellow NYC expats Joe Zeytoonian on Turkish oud, and percussionist Myriam Eli, who also doubles on interpretative dance.
Send your music news, local releases, and general gunk to Brett Sokol at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33137. Fax to 305-571-7678 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org