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Cuban Contemporary Fusion

Cuban Contemporary Fusion


One of the most influential musicians in today´s alternative, contemporary music scene is Roberto Carcassés. With a pedigree musical background—his father is the famous Cuban jazzist Bobby Carcassés—and in the tradition of some of the greatest Cuban pianists—Emiliano Salvador, Gonzalo Rubalcava and Omar Sosa—he moved from percussion to piano, composition and the jazz scene straight after graduating.

In the early 90´s he hooked up with guitarist Elmer Ferrer and bassist singer–songwriter Descemer Bueno to form the Estado de ánimo band, accompanying and touring extensively with trova singer and composer, Santiago Feliú.

Some years later, the experimental umbrella group, Interactivo, was collectively formed with Carcassés as its director, band leader and pianist, incorporating, amongst other multi–talented musicians, singer–songwriters Yusa, William Vivanco, sonero and composer Francis del Río, poetess and rapper Telmary Díaz, trumpeter Julio Padrón and guitarist Elmer Ferrer. This outfit continues to inspire and serve as a safe, but experimental home–base for them and others. Interactivo plays whats called timba–funk—with a vibrant mix of hip–hop, rock, jazz and blues that is very influential and popular, especially among an alternative music–listening public.


If you love Norah Jones or Ellis Regina then you´ll feel good about Haydée Milanés. This young, shy and unassuming singer has a warm, gentle and very relaxed voice perhaps inherited from her father, Nueva Trova legend Pablo Milanés. She started off studying piano and choral direction, later singing (her voice used more as instrument) with the Hernán López Nussa latin jazz quartet. Her most popular work to date is a recording of songs by friend and contemporary, composer Descemer Bueno. When in town, and apart from some solo performances, she can also often be seen helping out in concerts with the Interactivo crowd. Many feel that with her voice and talent she should be bigger than she is, and so are waiting with much anticipation for new projects. Signed to EMI, look for her 2005 debut album, “Haydée.”


In many people´s book, Descemer Bueno—although only thirty–something—is one of the finest contemporary Cuban songwriters around. His songs, whether they be boleros, guarachas, son, trova or more R & B based, have been described as “… modern classics, beautifully crafted and with melodies to die for.” For many years he also directed his own band, Yerbabuena, but now spends more time on his own work, writing for film (Habana Blues) and producing some of the multi–talent on the island—Yusa, Haydeé Milanes, William Vivanco and, most recently, Diana Fuentes. In the 90´s he was head–hunted, among others, by David Burn and now moves between the US and Havana. Although more famous for his songs and their covers, his fine bass playing and emotive, almost broken voice make his rare live concerts very popular. Listen to Haydée Milanés for some of the best renditions of his songs.


Guitarist, bassist and singer–songwriter, Yusa, has been making big waves both here and outside of the island for some time—especially in Europe and Japan. Often intimate and laid back, sometimes fast and furious, her funky bass playing and loose singing style are a contemporary mix of Cuban, Brazilian, jazz and R & B styles, though she says she is now searching for a quieter simplicity in her music. Guitar was studied at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory—where she met Roberto Caracassés—and she later went on to master tres, piano and bass. With the “simple sophistication of her music, one knows one is finally hearing 21st–century Cuba,” wrote music critic Jan Farley. The long and close association with Roberto Carcassés, Descemer Bueno and Pável Urquiza remains inspirational for her and Interactivo provides a musical home–base to move in and out from. A fine guitar and bass player with an emotive, soulful voice, she is signed to the TUMI label and can best be heard on her very nice 2004 album, “Breathe.”


With bags of personality, attitude and stage presence—a kind of hippy Missy Elliot—this former founder of Free Hole Negro (early hip–hop fusion band) has been developing her solo career at a pace. With songs that talk of love and the trials and tribulations of everyday Cuban life, Telmary´s husky and expressive raps use an innovative mix of Cuban styles (especially rumba) with dashings of contemporary funky sounds and influenced by her long and ongoing collaboration with Roberto Carcassés and the Interactivo group. She has toured extensively in Canada and Europe, is signed to the Bis Music label and her latest album—A Diario—has gone down a storm, especially the very sassy hit “Que equivocado estás de la vida.”


This young, very talented pianist/composer is very well known both in the classical and contemporary fusion scene. A young prodigy, and from one of Havana´s most famous musical families, Aldo began composing at five, playing at six, performing and collecting awards at 12 and, at the ripe old age of 17, playing Prokofiev with Cuba´s National Symphonic Orchestra and playing jazz (invited by Chucho Valdés) at the island´s international jazz festival.
Then, in the late 90´s, he left for London and the celebrated Trinity College of Music, where he studied with Anthony Green and Philip Fowke, thus widening his already virtuosic playing. He has continued to develop all of his musical sides—from classical through jazz to alternative contemporary fusion—and has travelled extensively in Europe, the USA and Latin America. His particular solo (and with his group) pianistic style mixes the virtuosity of classical music, the vibrant freedom of jazz, with the rhythmic complexity of Afro–Cuban styles, and one can also easily hear the love of greats such as Keith Jarrett and Yellow Jacket in there. Listen to his 1999 solo piano “En el ocaso de la hormiga y el elefante” (nominated for a Latin Grammy) and his latest solo piano work.


This young, talented singer has already backed for, and worked with, almost all of Who´s Who in Cuba—including Carlos Varela, X Alfonso, Andrés Alén, Descemer Bueno, and Aldo López–Gavilán—and is now set on developing her solo career. She studied at the Instituto Superior de Arte, specialising in choral conducting and spent two years working with the renowned group, Síntesis. Diana has recently released her first single (Música de Fondo) with slinky video clip to match, and has won (May 2007) the Gran Premio of the prestigious, national Adolfo Guzmán song festival competition. She has been collaborating with British composer Sue Herrod on an album of songs and we hear that she is presently working on a solo album with Descemer Bueno. Many seem to think she is on the brink of a label signing in the very near future.


Think Bruce Springsteen/Bob Dylan/Phil Collins/Joaquín Sabina and you have the black–hatted–clothes–and–shades talent of Carlos Varela. An early rebel Nueva Trova singer, supported by Silvio Rodríguez in the 1980´s and now, in his mid 40´s, Varela has been described as having “… a searingly emotional gravel of a voice which can rock you off your seat and then break your heart with his beautiful and haunting songs about love, separation, loss and Cuban daily life. ” He is very big here (and in Spain), draws huge crowds of mainly younger (and not so younger) fans, is signed to Abdala, tours extensively and is perhaps best heard on the early “Como los Peces,” the delicate and intimate “Nubes,” and the more recent, more commercial, “Siete.” He has toured extensively in Europe, Latin America and the US, sharing the stage with such stars as Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Fito Páez and Joaquín Sabina. Most recent news is of an invitation to perform—along, amongst others, with Bob Dylan, Manu Chao and the Steve Miller Band—in the Ottawa Blues Festival (July 2007).


A veritable Cuban institution, this renowned family–based group led by bassist and composer Carlos Alfonso (formerlly with Irakere), and his wife, vocalist and keyboard player Ele Valdés, celebrated their 30th birthday in 2005 and are still going very strong. Composer Lucía Huergo was an early member, keyboardist and composer Esteban Puebla has been key, and their daughter, singer Eme, and now famous musician–composer son, X Alfonso are also a part. Known as Cuba´s first progressive rock band—with early influences of Genesis, Pink Floyd and Yes, they are “ … one of the few musical groups anywhere who have truly moved with the times, over the years weaving rock, pop, jazz and hip–hop styles into their melodious and rhythmical music,” and they still draw a devoted public ranging from the young to much older fans. Steeped and based in a seriously–studied Afro–Cuban tradition, which included collaboration with Cuba´s top Afro–Cuban singer, the late Lázaro Ros, they released the first example of a fusion that combined their own, particular style of experimental rock with Afro–Cuban Santería ritual music and jazz. Many fans feel this is their finest album—Ancestros (Vol. 1)—but also recommend the 2002 Latin Grammy–nominated “Habana a flor de piel” and the two others volumes of Ancestros. A notable other is “El Hombre Extraño” (1989), arrangements of 10 songs by Silvio Rodríguez.


This versatile and very popular all–girl a capella outfit, who mix jazz, R & B, rap, Brazilian and Cuban styles, recently celebrated 10 harmonious and successful years together. From music school buddies (Conservatorio de Música “Amadeo Roldán”) to European tours, Sexto Sentido play solo concerts, back a lot of contemporary luminaries here in Cuba and have included musicians such as Roberto Carcassés, Elmer Ferrer and Julio Padrón on their albums. In 2001 they won the island´s prestigious JoJazz festival, chaired by renowned jazz pianist and composer, Chucho Valdés. Their first album—Bossa Cubana (2003)—featured standards and covers of Stevie Wonder, Sting and Tim Jobim songs, and their latest, nominated for the Cubadisco award, Mi Filin, showcases songs by Cuban composer Marta Valdés, Noel Nicol,a César Portillo de la Luz, Adolfo Guzmán and Descemer Bueno.


Music prize upon music prize upon film scores upon albums upon video clips upon everything, X Alfonso has swept the boards in these last few years. Born into the musical and creative hothouse that is Síntesis, he is known as a consummate artist and wows a mainly younger audience with vibrant energy and an innovative mix of afro–cuban/hiphop/rock and popular Cuban styles. His performances are celebrated for being
…”beautifully and cleverly presented… with stunning light, sound and visuals.” Admired for his wide musical range, he is signed to EGREM. Look for the albums X Moré (his tribute to Cuban musical giant, Beny Moré), Civilizacion and Delirium Tremens (dance/theatre performance). He most recently won a shared Goya prize (Spain´s Oscars) for the soundtrack of the film Habana Blues.


Once upon a time in Havana there were a group of unknown, young Nueva Trova singers. Then one fine day and right out of the blue, two Cuban trovadores living in Madrid—Pável Urquiza and Gema Corredera—offered to produce an album of their songs. The young singers took advantage, stayed in Madrid, developed their work and became what is now the hugely successful group, Habana Abierta.

They mix and blend almost every Cuban form with rock and roll, and their particular, fine fusion of rock and son has become known as Rockason. Habana Abierta (Boris Larramendi, Kelvis Ochoa, Vanito Caballero, José Luis Medina and others) play some great rhythm–and–bluesy upbeat melodies with lyrics of love and joy, but also touching on deep feelings of nostalgia, separation and loss. Look for their three albums Habana Abierta, 24 Hours and the most recent, Boomerang.


Born in the eastern part of the island, and from a very musical family, Kelvis was the first member of the group Habana Abierta to record a solo album, in collaboration with Alejo Stivel. He´s best known for expressing every–day themes such as love, social contradiction, nostalgia and family, and musically blends Cuban or Latin styles, such as son, merengue, sucu–sucu, guaracha, milonga and cumbias, with Chilli Peppers–style funk and pop–rock beats.

His lyrics are sometimes poetic, other times more street and he delivers in a very up–beat and humorous style which makes him very popular, particularly with younger people. Notable collaborations have been with musicians such as Pavel Urquiza, Roberto Carcassés, Yusa and Descemer Bueno and his music has been included on various film soundtracks—”Vampiros en La Habana” (Juan Padrón), the 2005 “Barrio Cuba” (Humberto Solás) and the more recent “Habana Blues” (Benito Zambrano). For the latter, he won two prizes in Spain—the Goya and the Premio de la Música 2006 prize. Look also for his second album with PM records.


From the same generation as Habana Abierta, singer–songwriter David Torréns is famous for his passionate and fiery performances. Based in Mexico, but spending a lot of time in Havana, his work is so fusioned that many say it´s almost impossible to classify. Aficionados talk about the seamless movement between pop, rock and trova that thread though his most popular songs, and which blend Caribbean rhythms such as mambo, cha–cha–cha, bomba, samba, and reggae. You can also hear the influences of Bola de Nieve, Djavan and Donato Poveda. Collaborations include Amaury Gutiérrez, Roberto Carcassés, Kelvis Ochoa and José Luis Medina. With at least two albums to his name (Mi poquita fé (1998) and Ni de Aquí ni de Allá (2001), this very popular artist “… irreverently mixes tradition and innovation and gives you great songs about the sweet and more savoury sides of daily life.”


A graduate of the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), Elmer Ferrer is one of the most prolific studio musicans in Cuba and is particularly known and greatly admired for his harmonic brilliance and his fast and furious finger work. He is also an accomplished composer, arranger, producer, teacher and leader of the “remarkable” Elmer Ferrer band. In the early 90´s, he hooked up with Roberto Carcassés and Descemer Bueno to form the Estado de ánimo band, touring extensively in Spain, Bolivia, Uruguay, Germany and Argentina. Elmer has performed at numerous and prestigious guitar and jazz festivals, recorded with Los Van Van, written music for film and was one of the few artists invited to play with Sting when the British musician visited Havana. He has collaborated and recorded with many of Cuba´s best and you can find his 2002 solo album Metrópoli on the Unicornio label.


Former rebel Nueva Trova singer, Polito Ibañez is now considered to be one of the more serious young singer–song writers on the island. He graduated as an actor from the Instituto Superior de Arte and his first big concert was in 1991. His great popularity is said to mainly come from the themes he expresses—of love, adolescence, searing social commentary—and the profundity of that expression, having shared the stage with luminaries such as Pablo Milanés, Silvio Rodríguez and Joaquín Sabina.
Polito is presently concentrating on his own band, a vibrant and animated pop–rock, but maintains his roots—a more gentle son, trova and bolero—and live, amidst an always energetic and visually exciting show, he also often plays what are pop–rock compositions in this much softer style. Known as a fine, thinking performer, he has played in Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America and was nominated for a Cubadisco award in 2001. Look for his albums Recuento (live, 1993), Para no pensar (1999), and his most recent, Axilas.


From the eastern–most province of Cuba (Guantánamo), this singer–songwriter duo—Israel Rojas (with a degree in law to boot) and partner Yoel Martínez—are said to be one of the most popular bands among a young, mainly high–school and university crowd. Although they can be questioning, using much metaphor and irony to express reflective and well–thought out ideas and feelings, they also talk about love, relationships and the everyday issues of Cuban life. With various music prizes and three albums already to their credit they are big news. So—says my 17–year–old neighbour and all her friends—if you enjoy a melodious and rhythmic kind of folky–pop, with a mix of Caribbean and Cuban beats, and if you fancy seeing hundreds of all–singing, all–smiling and all–dancing young people, search them out.


When university lecturer and composer–bassist Humberto Castro left rock–pop outfit Moneda Dura, the rest of the band followed—bar lead vocalist Nassiry Lugo—and together they formed Wena Onda. Working in the same musical vein, the band have a large, mainly school and university following and kids I know like them both for their lyrics, which deal, among others, with having fun, young love, infidelity and sexuality, and for their infectious, commercial beats and tunes. They mix pop–rock with Cuban forms such as cha–cha–cha, guaguancó and timba. So, “if you need to loose a bit of weight, which you do—too much ice–cream and cake!” said my 17–year–old high–school neighbour to her mum, “you could let me listen to Wena Onda, shake off a few pounds in the meantime, and enjoy yourself!”


This very popular, young, studious–looking band are a real mix. They blend a mainly Spanish, acoustic tradition (using guitar, box drum, violin and bass) with a sprinkling of Cuban percussion and beats. Their fans describe their “… interesting, lyrical style that´s good to sing along to” and note that some good, solid songs have come out of this project. Group leader, composer and lead vocalist Miriela Moreno is the main mover and shaker in Aceituna, but the rest of the musicians are well respected too. Their lyrics deal with various, common themes—love, relationships, change, adaptation, etc.—but they are perhaps more recognised and enjoyed for their particular quirky and poetic way of expressing them. Look for their two albums— and Consumir preferiblemente antes de…



From the second most important city in the island—Santiago de Cuba—and, more, the seat of son, comes the young “hippy–cool, guitar playing, locks–flowing, singer–songwriter” Willam Vivanco. He learned his music on the street and has developed a very curious way of mixing experimental vocal sounds, harmonies and utterances with what have been described as edgy, tenor vocals. His popular music is a rhythmic blend of old trova, son, pilón, bossa nova, reggae, blues and pop, which is often interwoven with Arabic–sounding fragments. The umbrella of Interactivo has provided him with many collaborative possibilities, and Roberto Carcassés, along with Descemer Bueno, produced his second album—La Isla Bonita.


Born in Ciego de ávila, in the centre of the island, Arnaldo was originally member and composer for the band Azúcar. Later, with Arnaldo y su Talismán, he began experimenting much more with Latin and Caribbean styles such as cumbias, plenas, ballenatos, sones and sambas. This commercial–sounding band performs with a group of young women backing vocalists who are considered to be fine dancers, and fans talk admiringly of their choreography, which they consider keeps the band fresh and dynamic. Their themes speak of the usuals—love, friendship and nostalgia—and each year (end of March/first days of April) they host an important local fusion music festival—”Piña Colada”—which exists to promote fusion–style groups on the island and is tremendously popular.


With a subtle rhythmic intensity in voice and song, José Conde takes his Cuban roots and grafts them onto a dizzying range of Afro–Latin styles. From Puerto Rican bomba to Haitian compas, Cuban son to New Orleans swamp–funk, the singer–songman´s striking and timeless new album, (R)Evolución (Mr. Bongo Records UK, won an Independent Music Award for Best Latin Album, and has been hailed the world over as a “brilliant and thrilling” (Billboard) “smorgasbord of sounds that keeps listeners in a diasporic daze” (Trace). Conde and his New York–based band Ola Fresca´s 2007 feature performances included Chicago World Music Festival, Santa Monica Twilight Dance Series, Kennedy Center, NY Global Rhythm Festival, North Carolina Latin Festival, New Orleans Voodoo Festival and more. Three songs from (R)Evolución have been licensed for compilations on Rough Guide Records, and another for a comp CD titled Café Cuba is upcoming on Putumayo Records. José Conde also recorded a children´s album in 2007 titled Baby Loves Salsa due out with accompanying book on Rope a Dope Records/Sony in June 2008.

(R)Evolución follows Jose Conde´s first full length album, Ay! Que Rico (PiPiKi Records 2004/Pimienta/Universal 2005) and brings together evocative stories that are a supernova flare of inspiration from Conde´s head, with music that breathes organically with slinky propulsive beats and vibe. Produced by Grammy–winner Aaron Levinson (Spanish Harlem Orchestra), (R)Evolución called on a diverse and esteemed group of special guests, including master New Orleans Funk drummer “Ziggy” Modeliste, the late Cuban trombone legend Generoso Jiménez, Yerba Buena´s Pedrito Martinez, and salsa trombonist Jimmy Bosch.

Born in Chicago and raised in Miami by parents who fled Cuba in the ‘60s, Conde likes to tell people, “I feel in Cuban and I think in Americano. That´s the core.” Conde goes out of his way to sidestep the politics of Cuba or Miami while embracing his roots and his experience within the new context of America. The theme of his new album is to evolve beyond the “R” of Revolution, beyond change through violent means, beyond the Cuban Revolution, and towards an evolution of music, coexistence, good times, and preservation of the Earth.


Singer–songwriter Eme (M) Alfonso is just 23 years old but is already beginning to make some quite significant waves here in Havana. Some of that can be explained by her heritage; she comes from one of the most prestigious musical families on the island, her brother is the acclaimed musician/composer X Alfonso and she´s already a seasoned performer with the Alfonso family group, Sintesis. But although her songs are presently moving more in an R & B fusion direction (not common in Cuba), she has also shown herself to be equally home with much more experimental styles and is wasting no time in getting herself out there as a solo artist. M recently released her first solo album, Señales, which can be described as a fusion of her strongest influences—R & B, jazz, experimental pop plus the more Cuban folkloric, son and filin styles. She performs regularly in the new and very cool (though equally smoky) downstairs club space, No se lo digas nadie (Don´t tell anyone!), at Teatro Bertolt Brecht in Vedado. It´s a late start—11.30pm—but she´s definitely worth a listen.

Mar / 2010

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