HAVANA — The Cubans may have lost their baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday afternoon, but it didn’t matter much that night at the Karl Marx Theater, where American and Cuban musicians were also brought together here for the first time in 40 years–only in this case, they were all playing for the same team, in concert.
As dozens of Cubans milled about outside the theater, hoping to be allowed in, 5,000 of their well-dressed compatriots attended the invitation-only concert, which featured U.S. musicians such as Bonnie Raitt, the Indigo Girls and Montell Jordan, and such Cuban artists as Jose Maria Vitier, Chucho Valdes, Isaac Delgado and Giraldo Piloto. The concert was the final showcase for songs co-written by Cuban and American musicians as part of a weeklong collaboration called “Music Bridges.”
The exchange was the fifth such event organized by Woodland Hills songwriter Alan Roy Scott–a soft-spoken, gentle man who genuinely believes music has the power to unite cultures and people. It marked the first time in nearly 40 years that musicians from the ideologically opposed nations separated by 90 miles of ocean have written songs together with the blessings of both governments.
The first number, a group rendition of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” led by R&B singer Brenda Russell, was as sentimental as a middle school slow dance, but the evening quickly perked up with the third song of the night, “Saint Elixer,” in which Indigo Girl Amy Ray’s powerful vocal purring was nicely matched with Cuban singer Luis De La Cruz’s more ethereal sound.
Though there were many big names from the rock world of decades past, including Mick Fleetwood and Jimmy Buffett, the undisputed American stars of the show Sunday night were two relative newcomers, both of them hip-hop artists: Montell Jordan and Michael Franti.
The crowd, sort of a who’s-who of Cuban power, was polite but seemingly uninspired until the collaborations between Jordan and the beach-blond leader of the Cuban dance group Sintesis, Carlos Alfonso. “Walking on Sunshine,” a reggae-flavored love song, got the audience dancing.
But it was Jordan’s second offering, a ballad called “Unlonely,” that proved him to be a thoughtful, gymnastic vocalist. Performing only with Alfonso’s piano as backing, Jordan won the crowd over with his showmanship and his heartfelt lyrics about seeing a sad-looking man on the streets of Cuba who “looks a lot like me.”
But the most profound, insightful and daring of the night’s lyrics were those written by Franti, a socially conscious rapper who heads the group Spearhead. His song, “Can’t Stop the Bus,” was the result of Franti’s unauthorized wanderings about the streets of Havana in search of inspiration, and the lyrics spoke of the frustration he saw in the eyes of Cuban citizens who are crammed onto buses, forbidden to enter fancy hotels and beaches.
“You can’t see it, but you can feel it,” he started the song by rapping. “It’s coming, y’all.” What followed was an incisive stream of consciousness in which Franti compared current Cuba to an out-of-control bus, in which the people will eventually “go home in disgust until tomorrow’s bus comes. . . . There’s a new day coming in Cuba, y’all, another bus is on the way,” he sang.
As Franti sang in English, Communist Party members danced to the beat, seemingly unaware that Franti was voicing political opposition to their government.
“Everybody knows that the embargo just hurts the Cuban people. So I went to my guitar company and bought a bunch of guitars at cost, and I’m going to give lots away to the music school here, and the rest to people I know here.”Bonnie Raitt
Unfortunately, not all of the collaborations were as sharp and interesting. “If You Go,” a two-chord vamp written by Gary Burr, Don Was and Cesar Portillo, was lukewarm. “I Wanna Make Love to the Music,” with Mick Fleetwood as lead singer, was passe and tedious enough to set the crowd to chatting. Buffett, who annoyed musicians from both countries by arriving late, demanding the Presidential Suite at the Hotel Nacional and missing rehearsals, made a surprise appearance on the song, but his presence added little.
Other scheduled performances included a collaboration between Cuban artists Rey Guerra and Pablo Menendez with Raitt and actor-cum-musician Woody Harrelson, and another between Kiki Corona, Chucho Valdes, Lisa Loeb and Gary Bartz.
At the halfway point of the concert, nearly all of the songs had lyrics in English, and there was very little of the traditional, and complex, Cuban rhythms to be heard. This probably was due to the superior training of the Cuban musicians–a fact noted in several jam sessions throughout the week.
Nonetheless, all Cuban and American musicians interviewed have said they were very satisfied with their creative efforts of the past week. Indeed, watching the well-intentioned, if a little naive, hugs and smiles onstage, it was hard not to be happy for everyone here.
According to Cuban singer Amaury Perez, who helped organize the event, “It’s been a beautiful experience.”
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U.S.-Cuban ‘Bridge’ Music Finally Released
Historic Havana Session Tapes Surface After Five Years in Limbo
In 1999, during a relative thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, a group of American musicians traveled to Havana as part of an independent cultural exchange program called Music Bridges Around the World.
Bonnie Raitt, Mick Fleetwood, Gladys Knight and others met up with a group of contemporary Cuban musicians at Havana’s Hotel Nacional for a collaborative recording session. It was the largest U.S.-Cuban musical project in more than 30 years.
But U.S. trade restrictions and legal tangles kept the session tapes off the market for five years. NPR’s Phillip Davis reports on the long-awaited release of Bridge to Havana on CD and DVD.
Despite the politics, the language barriers and the time pressures — the project was scheduled to last one week — the musicians wrote, arranged and recorded more than 35 original songs.
At the end of the sessions, the artists performed a marathon concert at Havana’s Karl Marx Theater.
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler caputured the event for a documentary, also titled Bridge to Havana, which is being released along with the CD.