SFJAZZ.org | In Conversation with Cuba

On The Corner Masthead

In conversation with cuba

February 12, 2019 | by Rebeca Mauleón

2019 has begun with a distinctly Cuban flavor at SFJAZZ, highlighted by our spectacular Gala honoring legendary pianist and bandleader Chucho Valdés last month with our Lifetime Achievement Award, followed by a weekend of performances by the newest incarnation of supergroup, Irakere 45. But you may not know that SFJAZZ also embarked on a remarkable journey to Cuba weeks before, for an eight-day adventure curated by yours truly for 17 travelers in partnership with InsightCuba. This immersive experience spanned a broad range of activities, extraordinary music, dance and visual art, visits to schools, conversations with leading cultural and academic leaders, and was capped by the 34th International Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana. Particularly bittersweet was the news of the tornado that touched down in the country’s capital a few days following our return, and it is in the spirit of solidarity and friendship that we dedicate this blogpost to the resilience of the Cuban people. #FuerzaHabana

What follows are some photographic highlights from members of our group—from the stunning architecture, breathtaking surroundings and vibrant arts scene, to the many artists we enjoyed along the way.

Cuban National Ballet
Our first day in Havana included the Cuban National Ballet’s magnificent production of Swan Lake at the newly renovated Gran Teatro de La Habana.

Ballet Nacional

Cuba’s National Ballet members take a bow after the performance

Gran Teatro

The glorious Gran Teatro de La Habana

Walking Tour & All-Star Jam
We began our second day walking through some of Havana’s iconic neighborhoods, then dined outdoors as we enjoyed a private concert with trumpeter Yasek Manzano, and finished the evening with star-studded tribute to late conga maestro Tata Güines at Club Paparazzi.

Havana University

Our group on the steps of the University of Havana

Yasek Manzano

Trumpeter Yasek Manzano

Alain Pérez (bass, voc), Yaroldy Abreu (congas), Daymé Arocena (voc) and Yosvany Terry (chekeré)

All-Star jam (l to r): Alain Pérez (bass, voc), Yaroldy Abreu (congas),
Daymé Arocena (voc) and Yosvany Terry (chekeré)

Dayme Arocena and Pedrito Martínez

Daymé Arocena and Pedrito Martínez

A Day in Matanzas: Deep-Roots Folklore
After a visit to Ediciones Vigía book publisher in the beautiful city of Matanzas, we were treated to a private performance by legendary folk group, Afrocuba de Matanzas (est. 1957).

Handmade books at Ediciones Vigía

Handmade books at Ediciones Vigía

Grupo Afrocuba

Grupo Afrocuba performs sacred Yoruba songs and dances for the deity Oshún

Arts Everywhere
We were fortunate to receive a curated tours of Havana’s Fine Arts Museum and the Casa De Las Américas cultural center, and were surrounded by exquisite visual art no matter where we went.

Bellas Artes

Art installation by one of Cuba’s leading multimedia artists, Choco, at Havana’s Fine Arts Museum

Tree of Life

“Tree of Life” ceramic sculpture by Mexican artist Alfonso Sotero, Casa de las Américas permanent collection

Cuban Poster Art

Poster art on display at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano

Jazz Fest & Fábrica de Arte Cubano
The opening night of the 34th International Jazz Plaza Festival included stellar performances by numerous artists in a multitude of venues, including the ever-vivacious Omara Portuondo. After hours we headed to Havana’s hippest nightspot, the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, and caught a smoking hot set by the Dafnis Prieto Sextet.

Stage Backdrop

Stage backdrop made from recycled doors by artist José Joaquín Ávila Rodríguez

Omara Portuondo and Roberto Fonseca

The reigning diva Omara Portuondo is escorted on stage by pianist Roberto Fonseca

Dafnis Prieto Sextet

Dafnis Prieto Sextet at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano

Joyful Collaboration ~ Camerata Romeu & Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Another memorable moment was an intimate performance by Cuba’s acclaimed Camerata Romeu and Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the Basilica of the St. Francis of Assisi cathedral. The collaboration resulted in a beautiful composition—arranged by one of the Camerata members—dedicated to the city of Cienfuegos, which has historical connections to New Orleans.

Camerata Romeu

Conductor Zenaida Romeu with members of the Camerata Romeu

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Camerata Romeu and Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Camerata Romeu and Preservation Hall Jazz Band after the performance

Tributes to Legends
Performances from Havana’s 34th annual Jazz Plaza Festival included tributes to vocal icon Benny Moré (1919-1963), the 67th anniversary of folkloric group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and legendary dance band Los Van Van, who will celebrate their 50th anniversary this December. Among the standout performers was singer Cimafunk, crowned by the Spanish press as the “Cuban James Brown.”

 Los Muñequitos de Matanzas

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas lead dancer Barbarito Ramos dances with his grandniece

Los Van Van

Los Van Van live at the Casa de la Música Plaza


Cimafunk live at the Pabellón Cuba

Artist Highlights
The Jazz Plaza festival presented over 100 concerts in a dozen venues over five days. Here is a partial listing of the many artists we saw and heard:

Alain Pérez, Arturo O’Farrill, Bobby Allende, Bobby Carcassés, Brian Lynch, Carlos Miyares, Cimafunk, Dafnis Prieto, Daymé Arocena, Emir Santa Cruz, Emma Pack, Eme Alfonso, Ernán López-Nussa, Felipe Cabrera, Gregoire Maret, Grupo Afrocuba de Matanzas, Haila Mompié, Harold López-Nussa, Héctor Quintana, Horacio “El Negro” Hernández, Interactivo, Joss Stone, Leyanis Valdés, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Los Van Van, Marc Quiñones, Mayquel González, Nestor Torres, Obbini Batá, Omara Portuondo, Orlando “Maraca” Valle, Pedrito Martínez, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Roberto Fonseca, Roger Glenn, Rumbávila, Tony Succar, Yaroldy Abreu, Yasek Manzano, and Yosvany Terry.

The Great Equalizer
What our travelers gleaned from this excursion was far greater than they had expected. Jazz has now unabashedly become part of the Cuban landscape, far more pervasive not only in the context of live performance venues and festivals, but in the all-important people-to-people exchanges as increasing numbers of foreigners visit the island. Above all, it is the landmark inclusion of jazz education in the arts schools and conservatories of Cuba that has proven why our music is the perfect metaphor for cultural exchange and open dialog. As SFJAZZ reinforces its mission to celebrate the international face of jazz, we rejoice in sharing the wealth of Cuba’s amazing artists with our audiences, and look forward to seeing you at the Center as the conversation continues.

Here are a few of the many wonderful artists we enjoyed during the Jazz Plaza Festival.