Thursday, June 11, 2020

Music Makers: Notes from Habana

Osvaldo & Alga Marina
In the winter of 2017, I took my second trip to Cuba. I had gone the previous year with my friend, Helene, and I fell in love with the place. This trip the plan was to meet my friends Fred and Faye in Habana and spend a couple of weeks exploring the music scene there. Fred is an accomplished sax player and wanted to play with some Cuban musicians. I had some good connections in my friends Osvaldo and Alga Marina. They had lined me up with people to photograph the previous year and we had formed a strong bond in a short time. Osvaldo was a talented jeweler and Alga Marina had been an educator. They were both very involved in the Cuban Revolution, especially in regards to the arts. So when I asked them if they could put me in touch with someone who could arrange for Fred to play with some Havana musicians, they did not hesitate.

Gerardo Portillo
 A few days later I was contacted by a french horn player named Portillo. He offered to help in any way he could. His brother was a well known jazz pianist and Portillo thought he could get Fred a gig playing with them. As a professional musician, he had lots of good contacts. Since I had arrived in Cuba a week before Fred and Faye, I arranged to meet Portillo one afternoon in Havana and talk about possibilities. I mentioned to him that I was a photographer and asked if it would be ok to take some shots during my stay. He assured me that that would be fine and offered to arrange for me to photograph a few of his musician friends

La mamá de Portillo

We met again the next day and he invited me to a rehearsal of one of the national bands he belonged to. After the rehearsal he asked me if I would be willing to go to his mother's house and take a photo of her. She was old and in poor health.When we arrived, we found her not doing well at all; I was only able to get one shot  for Portillo. She died a few days later.

Amadito Valdéz: Percussionist of Buena Vista

Portillo then told me we were going to the home of Amadito Valdez, one of the original members of the Buena Vista Social Club. We stopped at a cultural kiosk and I bought a copy of a new biography about Amadito, upon his request. When we arrived, Amadito signed my book and wasted no time getting to the point: He wanted to do a tour in the US and he wanted me to help arrange it! Buena Vista no longer existed as the original group, and he was in dire need of work. I told him I knew nothing about such things and he responded that it did not matter. He had press releases I could use, and he felt his fame would carry him a good distance in the US. He also thought that Fred, being a musician, must have contacts that could be interested. I did set him up with a cultural promoter in Oaxaca, but nothing ever came of it.

 Portillo and I got together once more before Fred and Faye arrived. This time he arranged for me to take some shots of two very popular female vocalists, Zule Guerra ( Dayme Arocena. Zule was an up and coming artist who had drawn a lot of attention in the 2015 Habana Jazz Festival. Dayme was an Afro Cuban jazz vocalist who had  won the 2015 Juno award for best jazz album ( I could never have had this opportunity without Portillo's help.
Dayme Arocena
Zule Guerra

The following day my friends were arriving in Habana. I had arranged for a nice apartment in Vedado, a short guagua (1950's taxi) ride from Habana Vieja. Portillo had come through nicely; he had arranged three gigs for Fred with some of Habana's finest jazz players. The adventure was about to begin.

Part 2 to follow soon and will include a visit to Cuba's Escuela Nacional de Arte.