This past week I posted a brief recollection of being stranded in Santa Clara, Cuba in 1994 and my impressions of an encounter with a young musician who came to my aid and, through time, a tearful reunion nearly a quarter century later, this past weekend at the TD Jazz Festival. The story burned a hole through the 24-hour a day ‘bad news’ cycle on Facebook as friends briefly paused from debating America’s belligerent immigration policies, courtesy of ‘Grifter and Chief’ Donald Trump.
The outpouring of emotion over those briefly scripted memories was palpable. From two good deeds, a friendship flourished, not the kind you get dialing a close friend or Face-timing but one recounting an episode in a life that is passed on through conversation with others. It’s that table talk over a bottle of wine with a few musicians eager to retell an epic life event, one that forever bonds us all together - the art of storytelling.
On to Havana 1994!
Throughout the humid night, a rooster’s song rarely ceased as it crowed along with the staggered beats of conga drums. The walls of my hotel room sealed in a red brocade fabric collected decades of night life – smoldering cigars, Cuban rum, long nights of passionate love-making; the arguments, the binges and the bleary-eyed partying, that would eventually spill onto the musty shag carpet drenched in mishaps and accidents. l
This was my room when I first visited Cuba in 1994 as part of a seven-team cultural delegation sponsored by Canada - Cuba Sports & Cultural Festivals and headed by Jonathan Watts. It all seemed clandestine and so other-world.
Americans were banned from any contact with the ‘island country’ after the embargo became law on October 19, 1960. This was serious Cold War revenge. Suddenly, that Caribbean nation favoured by Americans as an exotic getaway was now the pariah state in our hemisphere.
There’s something exciting, revealing and most intriguing visiting any place stamped off-limits. This was the case for me and Cuba in 1994. I was there representing Canada as the music man. It was province to province travel – a meet and greet with government officials and local musicians - much by mini-van.
In 1991, the Russians pulled out of Cuba taking with them the most prestigious works of Cuban art as down payment for it’s ‘dependency dept’ since joining COMECON in 1972, an alliance of socialist economies under the watchful eye of Moscow. The dissolution had an immediate impact on the Cuban economy. Trade between the countries dropped 90%. Cuba endured power outages and periods of blackouts running several hours of the day.
Oil imports dropped from 13 million tons in 1989 to three million tons in 1993. Food was scarce, even the basics – toilet paper, pens and pencils, paper, fruits, vegetables – easy to find items we take for granted – were in low supply. It was suggested as a gesture of goodwill that we bring those items along with recorded music, scholarly periodicals, magazines - anything that could inspire and make life a bit more agreeable. Then Hurricane Gordon slammed the Caribbean causing $100 million in damage and either destroyed or maimed 5,906 homes. Now you have a recipe for long-term pain.
Night one at the Presidente I experienced first-hand what it was like to live without the basics. It was a moment of reckoning. Gone were the easy comforts; in as a meager existence. The Cuban government provided us with what provisions were available, much like what most would endure during these difficult years. If it’s not there to be had, it can only be had through the black market, or it doesn’t exist. Even a late-night trip to a washroom was an adventure. Try to find a roll of toilet paper.
I wouldn’t dare speak for Cubans, but I can address the fact that the times I’ve visited the island mostly as a journalist/musician, I’ve been interested in creating awareness for the vast cultural entities that paint the country rich in music, art, and dance. There’s much more. Cuba is known for its ground-breaking research in the medical field and high-quality education. Above all, it’s the generosity and goodness of the people.
Upon arrival in Havana, we were greeted with cameras, many there to report our mission and later findings; whatever that was meant to be. Then a visit to the minister of culture’s office.
I will say, in life I’ve had few encounters as chilling as this. It’s easy to get swept up in the frenzy of the moment, the sudden burst of color and goodwill, but coming face to face with someone who fought alongside Castro through the ground battles in the Escambray Mountains during the War Against Bandits and marches to victory into the heart of Havana served as a warning. This is an ironclad dictatorship, and the man resting one side of his ailing body on a cane and speaking in sharp, authoritative sentences is no one to mess with. Shut up and listen!
You could witness the draconian measures citizens faced daily as we travelled by mini-van through the countryside. Cubans were not allowed to associate with visitors. There was this look of desperation in the faces of those who were not government-sanctioned spokespersons. People want to talk as much as inhale oxygen. Talking is the song of life. It’s in our DNA, in fact, we rarely shut the hell up. And that’s a good thing.
A local artist confronted me in Cienfuegos, Cuba who wanted the world to hear the truth about Castro and how he stifled creativity and favoured only government-sanctioned artists. At first, the local art denizens waved him off as a kook but as his unrelenting testimonial bellowed to full rage, he suddenly disappeared. So goes the night!
On to Santa, Clara.
Santa Clara is Cuba’s fifth largest city, founded by 175 people in 1689, mostly descendants of two families, located in the most central region of the country. It was also the site of the last battle of the Cuban revolution. The architecture is of Spanish design with a central plaza constructed of tempera colored brick.
The moment I climbed out of the mini-van I thought I’d touched heaven. It was the surrounding beauty, the large bouquets of seasonal flowering that draped every house, and nearby monuments. The pastel colored structures illuminated by an intense tropical sun that demanded I investigate for myself.
Cultural bandwagons are meant to be educational and business opportunities. I was looking to create a partnership with the music community – bring a Cuban band to the Beaches International Jazz Festival and, in exchange, send Canadian musicians or students south for a week of social interaction and music.
First order of the day, a visit with the local music official – the man overseeing everything concerning sharps and flats, whole notes and annotations.
The building ‘music man’ worked from resembled an antiquated structure built to withstand the rampaging assaults of Caribbean pirates. The thick brick building was three or four degrees cooler than the blistering sun-drenched streets beyond the shaded windows. Only a desk fan and curtains curtailed the soaring temperatures. No matter the circumstances, it was still all about the music.
After a few introductory exchanges, it was cut to the moment. The gentleman wanted me to listen to his band already cued up on a cassette tape. I’m there to listen. Why not? He then punches downward with his index finger and out comes an easy listening mix of ‘elevator jazz’ mixed in with Cuban rhythms. The kind of music you would have heard at a tropical theme party in your neighbor’s backyard.
Within seconds, the tape ceases to play. The room goes dark, the fan no longer spins. Blackout! The look on the man’s face was demoralizing. It was as if someone had stabbed him in the heart with a clarinet or splintered drumstick.
We wait and wait. No sign of electric juice. ‘Music man’ then makes a few targeted calls hoping to get an answer from authorities. An hour passes until I’m retrieved and accompanied down a back alleyway to preview a local fusion-jazz band.
Neighbors gather with their folding chairs and we face a garage, doors spread wide open - featuring a band of five young musicians frantically setting up. Mounted on metallic skeleton-like racks, two old Bogen power amps linked to a pair of home-made speaker cabinets. The exposed wires looked as if they had a secondary purpose; hanging clothes out to dry.
As the band was nearing final set-up, power returns. Whap! The players rush to their instruments, count in a tune and it’s a Weather Report song – it’s fucking, “Birdland”. Yes! And they are killing it.
In a blink of an eye, the crippling power outage returns to slay another victim and silences both band and onlookers. To say the players looked as if they faced a firing squad would be under-selling the moment. Deep, deep group depression sets in. We wait, hug and handshake a good half hour before I move on.
It’s museum time – slideshows, a detailed history of the region, expectations, preservation, conservation – stuff like that. Eleven folding chairs placed in the centre of a large room in Teatro La Caridad in front of a couple of floor-mounted fans blowing our direction. This was more than I could face at that moment.
I’m good for a couple of lectures, then I drift. Sorry, but I learn through observation, conversation and just doing. That’s how I planned my escape - a quick jaunt to a public facility then out the back door and into raging, glorious sunshine. That be me – back door man!
On a set of steps, left side of entrance, I take up residence slightly elevated above street level. I’d come to witness this alternate world. A visual delight of dissonant, abstract interactions - in tune with its modest surroundings. Nothing closely familiar to the life I live in downtown Toronto. This was the big flow of humanity tethered to the ruins of a bygone Soviet era when goods flowed, meat was plentiful, oil was an afterthought. Before me were buses they call ‘the camel’, crammed with working people; no air conditioning, only the silhouette of paper fans flailing about as if the bus cabin was a temporary bird sanctuary.
It was near noon-day and by the looks of nearby activity, it appeared something epic was about to erupt.
Across the narrow road, I could see a couple of young men setting up two large columns of speakers as another ran wires through uncut grass connecting what looked to be a radio or something designed for sound.
Down below, rusted Forever bicycles, whose origins date back to China circa 1940, dodged restored American automobiles from the fifties. Just beyond view a behemoth of another bygone era, monstrous pollution snorting Soviet truck comes barreling through the centre of town square leaving behind a nuclear cloud of oily grime and soot. It was as if this ferocious beast rose from the boneyards of Alberta’s Badlands.
While absorbing a visual feast, I notice a few steps below me a black woman with her baby gesture at me. I hadn’t a clue what she was signaling me about until a stout man to the right of me says in broken-English, “She wants her baby to kiss you. It will bring you good luck the rest of your life.” Really? I readily agree. Honestly, it just happened to be one the most spiritual moments in life. You can’t refuse or question the motive or moment. The event came absent a request for compensation. The woman smiled contentedly – placed the baby in my arms. The baby turns its face towards me and kisses a cheek, then a crowd of onlookers’ cheer, explode in laughter - woman and child smile, and move on.
I sat there and replayed the interlude over and over in my head, at first not trusting, then accepting. I told myself, I’m not in Toronto where people walk away from calamity and on with their day. I’m in the ‘old world’ with fewer competing values.
Bam! The music hits with a thunderous jolt. Then at peak volume. A cassette salesman was ready for business. He merchandised and showcased the latest music from Miami courtesy of bootleggers and those capable of pulling tunes out of terrestrial air space and recording. There was no police interruption. It became obvious law enforcement had a bit of latitude since most lived in the surrounding neighborhoods and needed to get along.
As the music played the landscape below filled with people salsa dancing. Not ten, or twenty, but hundreds. They laughed, they danced and romanced under a baking sun until the hour played out. The scene I witnessed looked as if flowed from a Fellini movie. While, just behind me, slides kept rolling and flickering with no sign of life coming my way.
Enter ‘the boy’. “Mister, can I practice my English on you”?
The boy must have been ten to twelve years old. We talk and talk, and he informs me of his dream to one day leave and become a businessman himself, but first, he must get good at speaking English. A deal was struck – we only talk in English. I agree. He insists when he starts to answer in Spanish, I stop him and make him respond in my native language. The boy then asks me to buy him a Pepsi. He says he can only have one when tourists are around. The thought of a cold Pepsi was overwhelming. Off we go on a Pepsi safari.
The boy knocked on doors and pounded nearby neighborhoods until one old woman cracks a door and omits a sliver of daylight. The boy begs and bargains, but she doesn’t want anything to do with us. She insists I was somehow connected to the government. I could see the black-market goods stashed in boxes and out in plain view. Then she slams the door.
It would be in a cathedral located in a plaza where a woman selling cold Pepsis buried ice deep in a plastic cooler answered our grand wish. As we are savoring the colas it dawns on me I’ve long been separated from my cultural counterparts. Anxiety strikes, then panic. I begin speed walking through neighbourhood after neighborhood and arrive where I thought our mini-van was parked. Gone! Shit!
I ask around, but no one spoke English. A few blocks away I locate a hotel. I corner the desk clerk who admits he can’t speak a word of English. I step outside, and a man approaches and reads the expression on my face then speaks a few words of English. “You’re from Canada, I saw you on television. My English no good but I know someone who speaks better that me.” I tell him I’m lost and in need of help. He gestures to me, wait.
Renaldo goes to work. He picks up the telephone at the front desk and begins calling around looking for information on the mini-van’s whereabouts. He then informs me it will take a bit of time and I should join him in the top floor restaurant where he and his wife are resident musicians. Between teaching hours, the government assigned the couple a two-hour lunch gig. I do just that and order a plate of something. A couple of beers pass and so does the two-hour set.
Renaldo and I talk music, music, music, and then the invitation arrives, “come to my home” insists Renaldo. I’m now more than uncertain of the whereabouts of my posse and what lies ahead. “Bill, we must jam at my place.” I was told we should never go to someone’s home. A government decree. That we do.
Cubans during this period had so little. Renaldo’s home was like many others where fractured furniture, broken appliances, a fan that rarely ceased spinning, rooms dripping in worn paint and lights dimmed to keep the temperature at a minimum was the most a family could hope for.
Renaldo had a small Swiss organ, a Solina he wanted me to play along with him on. I did my best on the small two-octave contraption, and Renaldo showed me where he was musically. He then asked me if I would send bass books. Renaldo wanted to play like the great American players; Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller, Ray Brown and the like. He then pulled out a book on Cuban music, an original edition called Popular Cuban Music written by Emilio Grenet in 1939. Inside were piano pieces composed by Sindo Garay, Manuel Mauri, Carmelina Delfin, Ernesto Lecuona - composers who bridged the 1800s, with the twentieth century. My head spun. I wanted to discover the link between Cuba and American jazz, especially ragtime and hoped it was in these pages. We both promised to abide by our word.
Eventually, word got back to Renaldo a driver was returning to pick me up. Upon arrival, Renaldo and I hug and wish each other a future saturated with music, prosperity, and goodwill. Then the long goodbye. I could see it in his face. His world would be an ongoing struggle and his desire to go abroad; near impossible.
A driver arrives; a local cultural attaché who spoke English. The man says to me, “I know you’ve had a long trying day and are anxious to get back with your group, but would you come with me and hear the band that started off your day. They were devastated. With power temporarily restored, they would be delighted.” I did just that.
The alleyway was jammed, and the locals awaited my return. As I exited the van I was greeted with hugs and outreaching hands pointing me to my seat. The next half-hour the band roared through Weather Report, Return to Forever, then announce they were going to play a couple of original compositions. It was pure unadulterated Cuban fusion-jazz with all of those ‘trip you up’ rhythmic shifts, speed driven guitar riffs and epic endings. Wicked!
I eventually catch up with our group and have a good laugh and retell my adventure and we move on.
This past week I played two nights with my jazz piano trio – Collin Barrett bass, JoJo Bowden drums, and singer Gavin Hope out front as part of TD Downtown Jazz Festival in Yorkville at club Sassafraz.
As I enter for the ten-p.m. set a gentleman dressed in plaid blazer and slacks walks directly up to me and says, “Bill, do you remember Santa Clara – those books, those books that educated me to who I am today - I’m now a bandleader in Havana – do you remember Renaldo?”
Christ sakes, my jaw dropped. Renaldo and I hug and hug and hug, cry and cry until there was little emotion left. It was one of those rare moments in life when every pore of the body locates all the goodwill stored deep in the farthest region of the heart and brought it to the surface.
Renaldo and I talked throughout the night. I learned of his hardships, his desire to be a great musician and to one day leave Cuba and see the world. He then says, “I have thought of you for years and wanted so much to meet you again. I found me a sponsor, so I could come to Canada and find you and visit. I searched through jazz listings and saw your name playing here. We made our way here from Montreal and look at us, we are still good friends.”
Nearly a quarter century has passed between us and music is still the glue that bonds and never let’s go. Above the disruptive political chatter, the divisive language, the cruelty, and unrest – the right combination of notes, sounds and imagination still wraps humanity under one flag. It forgives and forgets, it sweet talks you on a lonely doorstep, it embraces in a distant café, it migrates along shifting winds and tidal currents above the ocean floor and settles in the pores of every living thing.
The night ends with group photos. The band and Renaldo. Through all the chatter and fun banter I failed to catch Renaldo’s last name but did remember to give him a card with my email and address. I’m sure life will make sure we meet again. Oh, the everlasting power of music!