Tuning Up in Cuba

What's inside is not what you think



Photos by Michael Labrie

I walked through the door of the studio.

“Bob, tenemos un problema.”

It was Monday, November 9, 2015, the first day of sessions on our first recording trip to Cuba, and it was hot.

In the darkness, Dayron Ortega, the lead producer in Cuba for my North Hampton NH-based music company PARMA Recordings, put his hand on my sweaty shoulder.

My shoulder should have been neither sweaty nor darkened, but at the moment, the power was out. No lights, no air conditioning, no electricity.

And there was, as Dayron duly noted, most certainly no recording happening.

The place looked and felt a whole lot better when I scouted it in person during my first trip to Cuba the previous May — a trip taken with the intent of determining the viability of mounting recording projects in Havana with Cuban musicians.

Among my many duties as CEO of PARMA, I have a responsibility to match the right compositions with the right players in the right settings — that’s how good music is made, and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over the world to do it, with symphony orchestras, big bands, chamber ensembles, choirs and much more.

I was equally fortunate to have traveled around the United States while touring with my Seacoast-based trio Dreadnaught. We’re now in our 20th year together and (for the last decade or so) can be heard daily on New Hampshire Public Radio in the theme music for “The Exchange.” So … let’s put it this way — I’ve been at this for more than a little while, and I’m always interested in pushing into new territory, be it in terms of geography, business or art.

Following the moves made by President Obama in December 2014 to normalize relations with Cuba, I realized there was an opportunity to pursue new sounds, ideas and relationships that had been held at bay by our respective governments for nearly six decades. I decided to visit Havana and, in order to be in full compliance with US law and with the help of my friend and translator Teresa Fernandez, established what turned out to be a ludicrously full schedule of professional meetings.

This is a temporary situation for us, the visitors, but, for the people of Cuba, it's a daily reality.

Flying into Havana at night on that first trip proved shocking in its own way. To see so little light, so little evidence of habitation over so significant a metropolitan area, in such a large country so close to our own was, to say the least, highly notable.

Every new country I visit is the subject of vigorous research on my part, but little in my mind matched what I experienced when I arrived in Havana. At that time, there were fewer than three dozen Wi-Fi Internet hot spots in the entire country, no ability to change American dollars, no ability to use American credit cards and no cell carrier that would work for our phones.

It was like going into a black box. A hot, humid, loud and auto emission-infused box.

Yet it was, and is, utterly beautiful: a gorgeously decayed ruin of a city of bright pastel buildings and buttery horizontal light, crumbling back alleys and majestic shorelines, treasures, tricks and, most importantly, a passionate, deeply artistic, incredibly kind culture.

I met with dozens of the very best musicians, engineers, producers and arrangers in Havana, in days so long that I began to wonder in semi-hallucinatory fashion if I had indeed slept the night before. Where I was, the time, the outside world — these things evaporated as each and every conversation dove deep, fast and hard into music.

By the time my visit concluded, I was convinced that I could do truly great work with many of the people I met. Consummate musicians, they took the concept of this responsibility seriously, many of them saying that we were the first Americans to ask them to do this and that they needed to represent their music, their country and their people in the best way possible.

It was refreshing. However, what wasn’t refreshing, but rather deeply concerning, was, well, everything else: the logistics, the facilities, the equipment, the infrastructure, the works.

I toured many studios, including some of the legendary Cuban rooms where true classics were made, but they simply wouldn’t be able to accommodate our projects. The reasons included size (many of them were too tiny to handle large ensembles), equipment challenges (if you can feel the wood through the grooves in the ivory of the piano keys, it makes it kind of hard to execute, say, Chopin) and even actual existence — there are no more than a small handful of facilities in all of Havana.

After a virtual litany of disappointing visits to depressing facilities, we at last ended up at a place with air conditioning, modern gear and equipment, an excellent microphone cabinet, a huge “A” room big enough to fit an orchestra, smaller recording rooms, a mastering room, a snack bar (with, um, rum) — all of it. Just what we needed.

When I arrived home to the PARMA office, we immediately began planning a trip for November to record. We carefully selected scores that we felt would be particularly good matches for artists I had met on the initial trip, studiously programming music by eight composers with works ranging from small ensemble classical and modern classical to retro big band jazz.

 The team meticulously planned the trip, which would include not only PARMA staff, but our composers as well. A full schedule of recording and education was planned, lodging secured, drivers hired, translators engaged, food allergies researched, musicians rehearsed, studios booked — every detail was fully addressed in a historic, cyclonic high-wire act of project management and coordination at an unassuming office building on Rte. 1.

 Thousands of miles away, in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood, at that very moment, there’s a good chance the lights were flickering.

 And, of course, when we arrived for our very first day of recordings, those lights were out.

 As one must in situations like these, we made lemonade, and Dayron deserved and received a nice pat on the back for finding multiple alternate venues from which I could immediately choose to do the recordings that same day, so all’s well that ends well.

 But this is the thing about Cuba: what’s inside isn’t necessarily what you think.

You see the old cars, and you say, “Wow, frozen in time!” But then you find out that the cars are actually just shells, and they’re really Frankensteins, guts and bones and parts pulled together from every source imaginable, held together in a perpetually tenuous, MacGyver-esque manner.

There’s a moment of disappointment when you realize you’re not actually sitting in the “genuine article” (whatever that means), but this quickly yields to intense admiration of the sheer ingenuity necessary to keep things going in a country where your monthly government-issued rations contain a few eggs, a little milk and some vegetables; where the internet costs more for one half-hour of access than most Cubans can accumulate over weeks and weeks; where thousands of people have died trying to escape by any means necessary, across the sea, to get to a better life. It gives pause.

The album cover

We were back in Havana for recording during April of this year, and we’ll return in the coming months. The music we made during our November 2015 trip, an adventure that I regard in many ways as both groundbreaking and humbling, was released on June 10 via the Ansonica Records label.
The release, a double-length collection of music by American composers (and one Australian!) played by Cuban musicians including members of the Buena Vista Social Club, Irakere and the National Symphony Orchestra, is called “Abrazo: The Havana Sessions.”

In English the word “abrazo” means embrace, and we intend it as both a description of our experience with the superb musicians in the country as well as a request for people to engage with Cuba and its people for the benefit of all. I genuinely hope that the engagement that has been initiated between the US and Cuba continues to grow.

Sure, we had a problem with the electricity at the studio that first day. Yes, at points I could barely breathe because I was choking on car exhaust. Absolutely, the idea of hot water is at best an intermittent dream while you are there. Things just stop. They’re hollow. They don’t exist.

It is, in a word, crazy.

This is a temporary situation for us, the visitors, but, for the people of Cuba, it’s a daily reality, and when I listen to these incredible performances, I’m amazed at what was achieved despite the many challenges.

At the end of that week, I remember Dayron sitting on the studio couch, exhausted and ragged yet triumphantly relieved, speaking half to himself and half to some imaginary listener:

“Todo bien. Todo bien.”

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