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Report on '97 Festival

Report on '96 Festival

1998 Festival


Havana International Jazz Festival
1997, 1996

Attracts many folks from around the world, including thousands of Americans! From the announcement:

Report on '97 Festival

"Chucho Valdes is the President of this international music gala. The festival's international artists will include Ruben Blades' Seis de Solar, Roy Hargrove with his Big Band Orchestra, Winton Marsalis, and Steve Coleman. Cuban popular groups such as NG La Banda, El Medico de la Salsa, Paulito y su Elite, Sintesis, and PG La Banda will also perform.

Jazz Festival venues are centered in the beautiful Havana neighborhood of Vedado. Continuing the 17 year tradition, the Casa de Cultura hosts the events, featuring the festival's headliners in its intimate outdoor amphitheater. During the festival, Cuban musicians and their international counterparts often jam into the wee hours of the morning at local clubs. " - from Caribbean Music & Dance

Report on the '96 Festival

At Cuban Jazz Festival, A World of Musicians

By: Peter Watrous    © 1996 N.Y. Times News Service

HAVANA, Feb. 21, 1996 -- Sometime during the middle of the sprawling, disorganized and endlessly rich Jazz Festival Plaza 96 in Havana last week, a Japanese trumpeter stood up next to a Cuban saxophonist with dreadlocks and played an American blues with musicians from the United States.

It wasn't particularly good music, but it did suggest that the world, with all its political, national and cultural stances, was finding a common language, at least for a moment or two.

The festival, spread out over 15 theaters, clubs and bars in Havana from Feb. 10 to 17, is one of the best-kept secrets on the jazz and world-music circuit. The festival's talent, which is produced by the school system, is as extraordinary as it is obscure, although Cuban music is increasingly popular around the world.

This year's festival, the 16th, coincided with Carnival, and tourists from America, Europe and Japan were more numerous than ever before, making up 30 percent to 40 percent of the audience at some concerts. For three years, as a result of the general loosening of Cuba's investment laws, European and Japanese companies have been putting money into Cuban music.

"Things are really changing quickly in Cuba,'' said Julio Ballester, the head of Egrem, the Cuban government's music department. "There are now companies doing business here from all over the world. The competition between companies and between bands has really increased the quality of Cuban music recently. And we've been encouraging music tourism, which is  repeat tourism. People who get a taste of the music come back.''

For this year's festival, the government shut down Havana's famed waterfront boulevard, the Malecón, and spread outdoor band shells along the water. It was possible to start listening to Latin jazz indoors at 5 p.m., move to another concert at 9, then at midnight wander into the street to hear some of the best dance bands in the world. 

One night last week, NG La Banda, one of the best-known groups in Cuba, spent the small hours of the morning entertaining  several thousand Havana residents with its tough street music. 

The band, as it usually does, had a priest from the African-based Santería religion of Cuba come out to bless the audience; the music, often called Timba, was profoundly African. The band switched rhythms easily and had the audience dancing and singing along with the songs and chants, in African dialects and in Spanish.

Carnival street parades bounced along to the tough rhythms of Havana's neighborhood percussion groups. Floats, sponsored by groups called comparsas, were hauled by tractors and powered by ancient Soviet generators on wheels.

Each neighborhood has its own subtle variations on the rhythms and dances of Cuba, and the music, driving and intensely complicated, was played by drummers slapping out rhythms on conga drums or metal percussion instruments, some of them fashioned out of skillets or car parts.

A handful of American jazz musicians made the trip. The trumpeter Roy Hargrove and his band performed at the Hotel Riviera's Salon Internacional to a packed audience.

Hargrove spent the rest of the week jamming in every sort of permutation, with the group Los Van Van, with Chucho Valdés, the famed pianist and leader of the group Irakere.

And after the official concerts, Hargrove and his band jammed in the bar of the Hotel Riviera until 4 a.m., greeting a stream of talented young Cuban musicians and playing with some of the great Cuban percussionists, including the young conga player Anga and the esteemed elder percussionist Changuito.

"I knew there were going to be good musicians here,'' Hargrove said, "but I had no idea they were going to be as good as they are. I'm lucky, because when I was a student I spent time playing in meringue bands, which prepared me for the rhythmic sophistication. The average American jazz musician can easily get lost in it all. The rhythms here are so deep it's already left an impression on me; it has definitely changed the way I play.''

The abundance of exceptionally talented musicians stems from Cuba's two main music schools, Escuela National de Arte and Escuela Superior de Arte, which take on talented children from the age of 10 in a boarding school environment. The grounds are in disarray and the buildings are spotted with broken windows. But the school seems like one giant clubhouse, and it clearly promotes virtuosity.

"These kids really have an interest in jazz,'' said Valdés, an imposing pianist who is also the artistic director of the festival. "We have such a strong rhythmic improvising tradition here in Cuba that there's a real thirst to play with more advanced harmonic ideas, which Cuban music hasn't always had. The students go directly to jazz. And for whatever reason, we're really in the middle of a flowering of talent here.''

One of this year's more promising events was the collaboration between the saxophonist Steve Coleman and his band Five Elements and a group of folkloric drummers, dancers and singers called Afro Cuba de Matanzas. The crosscultural experiment, produced by Caribbean Music and Dance, an arts organization from Oakland, Calif., which has been conducting workshops in Cuba since 1992, showed how complex Cuban music could be.  In rehearsal and onstage at the Sala Avellaneda in the National Theater of Cuba, Coleman and his musicians sounded tentative playing with Afro-Cuban drummers, as if they were standing on a thin paper floor, waiting for it to collapse. But when Coleman and his group played alone, the audience -- starved for American music -- cheered the band, especially the improvisations of the rapper
Carl Walker.

Throughout the festival the excitement was palpable. Cuba's main dance bands and jazz figures spend up to half the year out of the country; they're cultural stars in a way that's unimaginable in the United States, with easy access to hard currency and outside information that few people in Cuba have. 

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