The creativity of Cuban performance artists was on full display this past month in New York City. I attended two concerts/performances that left me shaking my head from the sheer amazement of what Cubans are capable of achieving on a stage. And I mean not only on a stage in New York City, but also on the world’s cultural stage.
In my Cuba courses I have always tried to balance my coverage of political history with an appreciation of cultural expressions. To focus exclusively on the former is to dwell on the dismal, but the latter is a story of extraordinary achievement, not just now, but always. I tell my students that if there is ever a final judgment day for the world’s cultures, the Cubans could never claim, say, contributions to better governance. But my people would be at the front of the line of those claiming to have made world-class contributions to the performing arts, especially music. That engagement on the world’s stage, dating back to the nineteenth century, continues undiminished to this day. It’s a hell of a run.
Anyone who thinks that I am just being the usual hyperbolic –exagerado - ethnocentric Cuban did not attend the two events I attended in New York City in the past few weeks. Those were not quaint folkloric performances. They were performances that, in a uniquely Cuban way, push the envelope in the universal genres of jazz and modern dance.
May 16, Friday, the stage of the Appel (née Allen) Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center was the site for a gathering of five virtuosos that had not previously played together as a group. With Columbus Circle, 57th Avenue, and Central Park as the
backdrop in that beautifully designed hall, the mostly Cuban group delivered an original set of ten compositions by the performers under the title “Nuevo Jazz Latino.” All the Cubans in the quintet started their careers in the island’s musical institutions and arrived in the U.S. in the late 1990s: Yosvany Terry, saxophone (Camagüey); Dafnis Prieto, drums (Santa Clara, see my previous blog on Dafnis); Elio Villafranca, piano (Pinar del Río); and Pedrito Martínez, percussion (La Habana). The fifth performer was Carlos Henríquez, acoustic and electric bass (Nuyorican, born in the Bronx).
Each musician contributed two of his own compositions for the concert. It was a varied and intense concert, played without an intermission and with a minimum of interruptions. The ten pieces collectively represent a milestone in Latin Jazz, pushing the boundaries of the genre in different directions. There was not a weak spot, but I especially liked the opening “Back and Forth” by Dafnis; “Keep Talking,” by Martínez, based on an African canto; the danzón-inspired “Tula’s Dream,” by Henríquez; and Terry’s “El Noticiero,” the finale. It was in that final number that the group was joined on stage by Eladio (“Don Pancho”) Terry, Yosvany’s father, violinist, legendary leader of a charanga orchestra in Cuba, and perhaps best known as a master of the chekeré, which he brought with him in a case and played it throughout “El Noticiero” with great gusto.
It was an evening that ended triumphantly with a standing ovation. Too bad the New York Times’ reviewer Jon Pareles left the hall after the performance by the New Jazz Standards Quintet at the Appel Room earlier that same evening. In his review of that performance, Mr. Pareles noted that “the [New Jazz Standards] quintet is an all-star group of composers whose daunting task was to come up with 21st-century jazz standards.” Had he stuck around for Nuevo Jazz Latino, he might have heard (and reviewed) another all-star quintet of composers and performers whose work may well become part of the new jazz “standards” of this century.
Another New York Times reviewer, however, did attend a performance of MalPaso, a dance company from Cuba, who performed, in their first tour outside of Cuba, at the intimate Joyce Theater in Chelsea from May 27th to June 1st. Liza and I went on the last day’s matinee performance and found it truly electrifying. The New York Times reviewer, Siobhan Burke, heaped praise on it: “It’s impossible to choose favorites among the dancers, many of whom studied at Cuba’s National Ballet School. They have the pristine technique but none of the
rigidity that comes with that kind of training, as comfortable on the ground — in coiling, capoeiralike flips and tricks — as they are in the air. They’re both humble and sparklingly present — and remarkably strong all around, with the men and women doing equal lifting.”
The company was founded by Osnel Delgado Wambrug and Dailé Carrazana González, two gifted dancers and choreographers who are joined on the stage by six other equally talented dancers. The program featured two pieces, divided by an intermission. The first was “24 horas y un perro” and the second “Por qué sigues.” Liza liked the second one, an energetic piece with African musical motifs and movements derived from Yoruba folk dancing. But I preferred
the first one largely because it had live music, composed and arranged for the piece by Arturo O’Farrill and performed right next to the stage by O’Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble. Besides, I really liked the “dog” theme, chronicling an eventful day using a canine allegory. I know literally where they’re coming from: after visiting Havana many times, I have developed a little theory about the behavior of street dogs in that city. But that’s for another blog post . . .