Getty Images Ray Manzarek of the legendary rock band The Doors has died at the age…
- Posted on Sep 29th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, 'Vehicle'
Seem familiar? Right. It's 'Vehicle,' the 1970 one-hit by American band the Ides of March, along with Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago, led a wave of horns-heavy bands of the time. Only this instrumental version is by the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, an all-star studio ensemble recorded in Havana under the strict auspices of the Castro regime and a launching pad for such future stars as Chucho Valdes, Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval.
"That's one of the misty appeals of Cuban music at this time," says Dan Zacks, who included this track on 'Si, Para Usted Vol. 2' from his Toronto-based Waxing Deep label, the followup to a 2006 collection. "You have Communist revolution cranking out some really funky stuff."
As happened all over the world in those years, American pop music filtered its way into all sorts of cultures with some pretty profound effects, perhaps none more so than inside relatively closed societies. Cuba was among them.
"There were versions of Western pop songs," Zacks says. "This one comes from a seven-inch. The flip side is a Burt Bacharach tune -- which isn't very good, I might add. But it shows how Cubans had their ears open, could listen to music played on American radio. So the Ides of March has a huge hit and they did a version of it. Not like a small band, but an in-house orchestra."
And not all of it was referencing American pop, by any means, but rather capturing the vibes in a very Cuban manner. Los Caneyes' skittering 'Suspirando Por El Chikichaka' reworks village dance rhythms into then-modern dance music. Combo Los Caribe's 'Andalucia' moves from hallucinogenic Spaghetti Western ambience to bone-shaking groove. And there's the vibrant, almost psychedelic 'El Cristal,' by the band Los Barba.
Los Barba, 'El Cristal'
The group, launched to public attention as teens in the late '60s via a national battle of the bands competition, devoured such American pop as Blood, Sweat & Tears and Earth, Wind & Fire but processed it all in ways very much Cuban. The group rose to the top of the charts there before several members died in a 1976 bus crash.
Now, this was happening at a time when music was playing a big role in the mindsets among young citizens within authoritarian countries. The infiltration of Western rock and pop, generally via illicit airwaves and contraband recordings, sowed seeds of dissent and dissatisfaction. At the same time, in Eastern Europe and other parts of the Soviet bloc, young generations renewed a sense of national pride by rediscovering local folk music, building resistance to culture imposed from Moscow. In Hungary, for example, the revival of village traditions by Muzsikas and others is credited with helping lay the groundwork for nationals casting off Soviet domination. Meanwhile the tropicalistas of Brazil and the Nueva Canción balladeers throughout Latin America were variously exiled, jailed or in some cases killed by military rulers, though inevitably the attempts to silence them only made them heroes and martyrs.
But this funk revolution of Cuba didn't spell an end to the entrenched Castro revolution by any means.
"You have Cuba, with a very rich history of music and musicianship," says Zacks, setting the scene behind this music. "Particularly up to the revolution, Cuba is a destination, and particularly for Americans, and you have a music industry that exists for that. The revolution comes and the Castro regime does several things that have a big impact on music in Cuba. They give musicians a living wage. Essentially musicians become employed by the state. That money comes to them without any concern for profitability, so they are free to do what they want -- other than censorship and that they had to be good enough.
"But prior to the revolution, they'd been plagued by racism, socioeconomic barriers to study music. Now this gave a lot more Cubans access to music schools. Combine this with the post-revolution excitement and belief that Cuba is doing wonderful things and a new commitment to Cuban music, and you have a real explosive music community that developed.
"What makes this particularly interesting is musicians are free to explore within some constraints and expand on Cuban musical traditions with what they might hear on American radio coming out of Miami or music brought back by Cubans who had gone to Africa, without really departing from the traditional Cuban music forms."
So it was a situation that inherently blunted the move toward democracy that music helped fuel elsewhere at that time?
"That's both right and wrong," Zacks says. "It's right in the sense that there was a lot of pride in Cuban music. But the revolution was very successful in eating its young. By that I mean that so many of the musicians on my CDs left Cuba whenever they could. Juan Pablo Torres [musical director of Orquesta Cubana and others of the era] went to Miami. Some members of Los Barba are in Toronto or Florida."
He notes that not all left. The group Los Van Van, perhaps the most famous of the era's Havana bands both in Cuba and around the world, remains there to this day. And tracks on this compilation by the bands Sonopop and Grupo FA5 are virtually pro-Castro propaganda with a beat. But many were not happy with the situation.
"That's something I tried to clarify with the second CD," he says. "Although you had great music coming from Cuba and people proud of the environment, it was not the ideal situation to make music. A lot of bureaucracy determining what music got produced, who made music. So you do have this great body of work, but it caused a lot of musicians to get out of there. So they didn't stay and work toward a more democratic world. Or if they did stay it wasn't something they were interested in."
But, he adds, "There are a great many subtleties. It's complex. I assume the members of Los Van Van are still committed to the revolution or would have left."
Zacks, a lawyer by day whose public presentations of cool sounds started with a college radio show, also called 'Waxing Deep,' confesses that he found detailed information and anecdotes a bit hard to come by in putting together these compilations. He spent some time in Cuba while doing the first and got introductions to a few musicians through the government: He wanted to make sure the tracks were licensed legally, so that meant dealing with the government. But he thinks that the official connections may have made some reluctant to share much with him. And most of the expats he tracked down in Florida and Canada, he says, were also cautious with stories of the old days
Whatever it meant in terms of emigration or internal politics, there certainly was a growing market for this music at the time, though with governmental restrictions.
"Speaking to musicians with their stories about how they would jury-rig antennas to catch American TV shows like 'Soul Train,' people were enthusiastic for the new sounds," he says. "You could record a song like that and have a built-in market, You have Los Barba, for a time the single most popular band in Cuba. Singer Mireya Escalante was telling me that when you released a song you could not walk 100 feet without hearing it coming from a speaker. And yet they never released an album -- just singles. That's a consequence of their being no financial incentive to capitalize on that. So did Juan Pablo Torres choose 'Vehicle' because they thought it would make a lot of money? Probably not. They just liked the song."
Could these compilations stimulate a '70s funk version of the Buena Vista Social Club, the Cuban musicians from an earlier era brought into the international spotlight in the '90s? Zacks believes the circumstances are just too different to even make a meaningful comparison. The Buena Vista musicians have been doing pure revivalism -- of music that certainly influenced the artists on the compilations, but as something to build on and ultimately move away from. The musicians of the '70s, he says, are not really interested in revivalism.
"I will point out that you've got Los Van Van that still performs and their sound has progressed, they're not playing what they did in the early '70s," he says. "Groups like Buena Vista are pure revivalism. Go to Cuba and you'll hear musicians complain about that. One of the most lucrative things musicians can do is play for tourists. What do the tourists want to hear? Buena Vista Social Club. So they're having to play music that was for their grandparents! It's the sort of thing that the musicians on my compilations based their sounds on. They grew up listening to that kind of son, music played by their parents and grandparents and they sought to build on it."
Still, how about some sort of tour or new funk reunion?
Ideally it would be fantastic," he says. "I would love to hear some of these bands play these tracks. But I'm no optimistic. The musicians I talked to are eager to move on."