Monthly Archives: June 2012

Yosvany Terry and Manuel Valera at Drom

Back at Drom for another session of Cuban jazz. The saxophonist Yosvany Terry joined the pianist Manuel Valera and his “New Cuban Express” for the late set on Saturday, June 23rd.

Unlike the June 6th set by Jorge Luis Pacheco (see CNY blog post of June 11), the Drom management did not offer an online deal, which meant that the audience, although a bit sparser, was there strictly for the jazz and not the deal. It also meant that the food was much better. Part of the deal for the Pacheco set was a plate of Cuban food, which, as I noted in the June 11 blog, was best forgotten. For the Terry/Valera gig one had to order a la carte from the menu and that was a good thing.  The Drom Kitchen, after all, does not regularly feature Cuban food. It’s based in the Mediterranean, especially Turkey, and Liza and I were pleasantly surprised. Clubs usually do not have food this good.

The fried calamari were light and crispy and the Mediterranean plate was plentiful, varied, and just the right accompaniment for the drinks. My apologies to the Drum chef for my previous disparaging remarks about the Cuban food. It’s just not what they do. They should stick to what they do best; with the Cuban plate they were, as we say, peleando fuera de peso (fighting outside their weight class). And you don’t have to have Cuban food with Cuban jazz.

The food was much better than the last time, but I can’t say the same about the musical experience. I simply enjoyed the Pacheco session much more: he had vibrant interpretations of many Cuban themes and melodies and his stage presence was engaging and simpático and he gave the audience his all, playing for nearly ninety minutes.  In contrast Terry and the Valera group seemed aloof and mechanical and the management asked them to end the set after only about one hour.

That is not too say it was not worth staying up past my bedtime to hear these guys (and it was way past my bedtime once we got back up to Washington Heights from Alphabet City). Terry is a wonderful and versatile musician and every member of the group was up to his level, virtuosos all (John Benítez on bass, Samuel Torres on congas, Ludwig Afonso on drums, and Tom Guara on guitar, in addition to Valera on piano, of course).

Yosvany Terry on alto sax, Manuel Varela on piano and the rest of the “New Cuban Express” on stage at Drom on June 23rd

The arrangements were flawlessly performed and I especially enjoyed the most distinctive (and yes, “most Cuban”) piece: “Me Faltabas Tú” a bolero by José Antonio Méndez (by the way, is there a bolero that says 1950s Havana more than Méndez’s “La Gloria Eres Tú,” interpreted, of course, by Olga Guillot?).  The last piece (I didn’t get the title) was also very good, perhaps because the congas were finally allowed to come out and punctuate the arrangement.

So it was a worthwhile musical experience, it was just that it was missing a yo no sé qué, an energy, maybe, or a chemistry among the musicians and with the audience. I did not leave that basement exhilarated, as I usually do after a great jazz performance.

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Who Was the First Cuban New Yorker?

It’s an important question without a clear answer. I’m using three criteria to try to answer it:

1.    Chronology, of course: Who was the first Cuban in New York? But chronology shouldn’t be the only factor. It should be considered, I argue, in light of the other two criteria below.

2.    The first Cuban New Yorker should be a clearly identifiable Cuban, not just someone born in Cuba. I’m sure there must have been Cuban-born persons traipsing through Manhattan not too long after Henry Hudson’s Half Moon entered New York harbor in 1609 (especially when you consider La Habana was already nearly a century old by then). But the first Cuban New Yorker should be someone who gave every indication that he thought of him/herself as a Cuban, not as a Spaniard, and certainly not as a loyalist of the Spanish Crown.

3.     The first Cuban New Yorker should be a New Yorker, that is, someone who lived in the city and not simply a sojourner passing through.

With those criteria in mind, I have two candidates, both arrivals in Manhattan in 1823: Cristóbal Mádan y Mádan and Félix Varela y Morales. Mádan was a

New York City as seen from Brooklyn, ca. 1824

teenager that year and he would not even be competing with the venerable Varela for the honor of the first Cuban New Yorker, except that, well, he did arrive a few months before the priest. In fact, it was “Cristobalito” who served as Varela’s one-person welcoming committee, finding a rooming house for his former teacher and getting him oriented around the city. José Luis Rodríguez, the author of the excellent 1878 biography of Varela, describes how Mádan would hold Varela’s arm, steadying him as the two strolled around lower Manhattan until the priest could get used to walking on his own on the icy streets, a totally new experience for him (Varela arrived in New York on December 15thof that year, reportedly during a blizzard).

William Street, ca. 1820

I am not considering some prominent Cubans who meet criteria one and two, but, not, as far as I can tell, criterion three. One of the first Cuban exiles in the city was José Aniceto Iznaga, a young man from a wealthy landowning family of Basque origins that had established itself in Trinidad, in southern Cuba, in the early part of the eighteenth century. The young Iznaga had run afoul of the authorities in the island for his subversive activities against Spanish rule and moved to New York in 1819. Together with his brother Antonio and a young Cuban student named Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros (he will later figure prominently in Cuban history), Iznaga hatched plans for wresting Cuba from Spain with the support of Simón Bolívar.

Two months before Varela arrived in the city, Iznaga and his co-conspirators boarded a ship for the northwest coast of South America for their meeting with the famed liberator. Obviously, nothing came of the initiative, and it is not clear if the group returned to New York. Little is known of Iznaga’s days in New York and there is no evidence that he remained in the city beyond his relatively brief stay as an exile.

So here’s what I am proposing to do. In a subsequent blog post (not necessarily the next one) I will make the case for Mádan as the first Cuban New Yorker. In another post, I will make the case for Varela. Frankly, I have not made up my mind, so I will invite readers of CNY to weigh in and maybe we can reach a consensus (or maybe not).  But two things are certain: 1) we’ll learn something about the beginnings of Cuban New York; and 2) neither candidate will get upset if he is not picked.

Cuban Art at El Museo del Barrio

For a rare opportunity to view a great assemblage of classic and contemporary Cuban art, be sure to make your way to El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets.  El Museo’s exhibit, Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, which opened June 12th, brings together a trove of Caribbean art from collections around the world, including more than twenty works by Cuban artists. The exhibit is about much more than Cuban art, of course, but in Cuban New Yorker my focus is on that which is Cuban in New York, so no one should interpret my admittedly insular approach as a slight to the many fine and important non-Cuban works in the exhibit.

Caribbean: Crossroads of the World is actually a multi-site collaborative exhibit that spans El Museo, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Queens Museum of Art. The entire project was under the general direction of Elvis Fuentes (Art History, Universidad de La Habana, 1999), the accomplished Associate Curator for Special Projects at El Museo. This weekend I was only able to make it to El Museo.

The entire exhibit is organized along thematic lines and not by style or epoch, so unless one understands the themes being explored through the works, the pieces do not seem to fit together (other than being works by Caribbean artists). The themes pursued in El Museo’s portion of the exhibit are “Counterpoints” and “Patriot Acts.”

But don’t get hung up on the unifying themes, which are slightly abstruse and not always easy to trace throughout all the works. Just enjoy the art on the walls and in the display cases. With or without a theme, there is something endearing about an exhibit that finds a pretext for including a portrait by Armando Menocal (1890) as well as gelatin silver prints by Ana Mendieta (1981, 1983), and just about everything in between.

Virtually every well-known Cuban artist is represented.  Works have been gathered from museums and private collections, including the MOMA, the Hirschhorn, the Schomburg, the Bacardí Collection, and the collection of those leading collectors and dealers of Cuban art, Ramón and Nercys Cernuda of

Victor Patricio Landaluze, Ladies by the Window, ca. 1860. Collection of Ramón and Nercys Cernuda

Cernuda Arte.  The two matancero brothers, Esteban and Philippe Chartrand, each have dreamy nineteenth-century landscapes of their native province on display at the exhibit. Also from the colonial period there are two classic examples of the costumbrista style of Victor Patricio Landaluze, Ladies by the Window (ca. 1860) and Lady on a Horse (ca. 1870).

The romantics of the early Republican period are also represented, not only by the Menocal portrait (not his best work) but also by a gauzy 1925 landscape of Viñales, Paisaje con Mogotes (not well translated as Lanscape with Cliffs) by Domingo Ramos.

Domingo Ramos, Paisaje con Mogotes, 1925. Collection of Ramón and Nercys Cernuda

It is fair to say that nothing in Cuban art draws greater attention than the vanguardistas of the mid-twentieth century, and most of them are there, at least temporarily, in El Barrio. Carlos Enríquez is represented by a small painting of the exterior of his hideaway studio, El Hurón Azul (undated, from the Bacardí Collection). There is an abstract oil simply called Paisaje (1941) by Fidelio Ponce León from the Cernuda collection.

Fidelio Ponce de León. Paisaje, 1941. Collection of Ramón and Nercys Cernuda.

Of the two oils by Amelia Peláez in the exhibit, the big eye catcher is a large and vibrant piece, Fish with Baroque Columns (1950), also from the Bacardí Collection.  Borrowed from the Hirshhorn is El sueño (1947) by Wilfredo Lam, and from the Farber Collection, a gouache by Antonio Gattorno, Ascension (1947).

Antonio Gattorno, Ascension, 1947. Farber Collection.

But what really struck a chord of familiarity within me, and brought a grin to my face, was finding on the wall of El Museo one of Mariano’s roosters. It is simply entitled El Gallo (1941), as if it is the rooster and not one of literally dozens Mariano painted over the course of his career. That’s the one item in the exhibit I would’ve most wanted to take home with me, although there is little chance of that: it belongs to the MOMA.

Perhaps the best part of this exhibit for the fan of Cuban art is that in addition to the familiar, there are also intriguing works by lesser-known or up and coming artists with whom I, at least, was not well acquainted. It is undoubtedly not a coincidence that three artists in the exhibit, who, despite their evident talents, have not reached the prominence of many of their contemporaries, were Afro-Cubans. After viewing El Beso (1930-32), an evocative bronze piece loaned by the Schomburg, I want to learn more about its Afro-Cuban sculptor, Teodoro Ramos Blanco, who died in 1972. I am also curious about Roberto Diago Querol, represented by his Cabeza (ink on paper, 1946), who died under mysterious circumstances in Madrid in 1955 at the age of 35. There is also an untitled 1972 painting by the primitivist Ruperto Jay Matamoros, who passed away in 2008.

Not as noteworthy, in my view, are Angel Acosta León’s untitled portrait of José Martí (1955-60) and Felipe Jesús Consalvos’ dogmatic collage “Uncle Sam Wants Your Surplus Fat” (n.d.).  But there are two sculptures by young artists that are both whimsical and thought-provoking. One is Abel Barroso’s Cigars with

Abel Barroso, Cigars with Ideology, 2001. University of South Florida.

Ideology (2001), a carved cigar box with a lithographic scroll inside that can be hand-cranked to reveal a historical lesson about Cuba, Tampa, and cigars. And then there’s Yoan Capote’s 2006 plaster sculpture Rational (2006).

Yoan Capote, Rational, 2006. Collection of Ben Rodríguez-Cubeñas.

When you buy your admission ticket at one of the three venues for the exhibit, you receive a “passport” that entitles you to visit the other two sites at no charge. Based upon my experience at El Museo, I will definitely find my way to Harlem and Flushing to view the rest of Caribbean: Crossroads of the World. And I’ll no doubt post a blog or two about what I see. I wonder if there are any chino-cubano restaurants in Flushing that I could review while I’m there . . .

Another Jazz Wonder from Cuba Plays New York

Cuba seems to have an inexhaustible supply of musical talent. Last week in a cavernous basement in Alphabet City, New Yorkers got a chance to see and hear yet another young Cuban jazz virtuoso. Jorge Luis Pacheco made his U.S. debut in Drom, the Avenue A club/bar/restaurant that is quickly becoming a major venue for music clubbers in the Lower East Side with eclectic live “world” music six days a week.

Jorge Luis Pacheco on piano, Carlos Mena on bass, and Zack O’Farrill on drums.

On the Wednesday night that Pacheco took the Drom stage, the house was packed for an early 6:00 pm set (the only one of the night). Most of the patrons, however, were probably there because the house management had placed an offer on an online discount dining site: a jazz concert and a plate of Cuban food for $25 person (plus service charges, drinks not included).  It was a smart move. Without a previous U.S. performance and no widely-released CD, Pacheco was not a guaranteed draw.

But the “online couponers” got more than they should’ve expected for their $25. Not in terms of the food, mind you. For a kitchen that normally turns out Mediterranean and Turkish tapas, the plate of Cuban food was a commendable and valiant effort, but ultimately horrific (although Liza pronounced it “not that bad”). Arroz con pollo became a piece of overcooked chicken with rice on the side with what seemed like gandules — not a Cuban staple – mixed in (couldn’t tell: Drom has club lighting), and some salad also on the side. Liza’s plate had two small slices of fried plantain underneath the salad, but my plate had none. She shared. Oh, and some sort of potato-based preparation clinging to the edge of the rice portion.

Never mind the food. Once Jorge Luis Pacheco sat on the piano bench, all was forgiven. He was accompanied by locals Zack O’Farrill (scion of the O’Farrill musical dynasty) on drums and Carlos Mena on bass. That was all: no congas, bongós, claves, güiro, or cow bell. And yet it was unmistakably Cuban jazz, and not primarily because the headliner was Cuban, but because of the evident origins of the melodies interspersed like leitmotifs throughout the improvisations.

There were two original pieces: the closing one, Negrita mía, written by Pacheco to his girlfriend, and a dramatic composition he was commissioned to write for the soundtrack of a Cuban documentary due out this year marking the centenary of the Cuban race war of 1912. His rendering of Drume Negrita, the lullaby famously interpreted by Bola de Nieve, was probably the highlight of the set. Pacheco showed his artistic range when he sang Rafael Hernández’s bolero Silencio in a plaintive tone reminiscent of Bola de Nieve himself. There is much in Pacheco’s style, both in his piano and occasional vocals, that is reminiscent of Bola, something remarkable if you consider the span of time that separates the two artists.

The trio worked remarkably well together, if not always smoothly, considering it must have been cobbled together days – if not hours – before the performance. The crowd was won over not only by Pacheco’s effortless and truly virtuoso playing, but also by his simpático stage presence, especially his self-effacing efforts to overcome his difficulty in communicating with the audience in English.

One is left to wonder why among young Cuban jazz musicians there is an abundance of pianists, following in the footsteps of Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Next Fall, Carnegie Hall, in addition to Chucho, will be featuring two young jazz pianists, Dayramir González and Aldo López-Gavilán in its three-concert Voices from Cuba Series. Check it out, it should be a memorable series.

Let’s hope we see Jorge Luis Pacheco back in New York soon.

How many Cuban New Yorkers?

Cuban New Yorker’s first blog has to be about the numbers: how many?  My mentor in graduate school would be proud. One of the many things he taught me was that the first thing a sociologist should know about any place or population is simply: how many people?

So first things first: here are the essential demographic facts about Cuban New York, culled from the recently-released 2010 U.S. Census results. In New York City (the five boroughs), there are 40,840 persons who identified themselves as being of Cuban “origin or descent” (hereafter referred to as “Cubans”).  That’s more than half (57% of all Cubans in the state of New York). Those Cubans are pretty evenly scattered throughout four of the boroughs (there are relatively few in State Island), with Manhattan having the largest number (11,623), followed closely by Queens (11,020). The Bronx and Brooklyn trail behind, with 8,785 and 7,581, respectively.

Is that it? Not at all. The demographic portrait of Cuban New York is not complete unless you jump across the Hudson. There are more Cubans in New Jersey than in New York. Of course, those Cubans are not scattered throughout the Garden State: 63% of Jersey Cubans live in the three counties along the Hudson right across from Manhattan: Hudson, Bergen, and Union. Hudson County has the heaviest concentration, with more than 15,000 Cubans living in the adjoining cities of West New York and Union City, within sight of Midtown Manhattan. In those cities, Cubans are the largest Latino group. Those may be the only places in Greater New York where Cubans are found in greater numbers in comparison with, say, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, or Mexicans.

In Cuban New Yorker, all Cubans within the Greater New York area will be treated as Cuban New Yorkers, even if they are in Jersey. From my office window at John Jay College I can see Hudson County. The river does not seem to me a formidable enough barrier to force us to think separately of New York Cubans versus New Jersey Cubans, to treat those Cuban communities in the Garden State as separate from Cuban New York. I wonder how my compatriots in Jersey feel about that.

And there are, of course, Cuban New Yorkers in other areas close to the city. How about Westchester County?  5,430 Cubans. And in Long Island beyond Brooklyn and Queens?  Nearly 10,000.  And so it goes. My definition of a Cuban New Yorker is meant to be as inclusive as New York itself, spanning rivers and state and county lines.

Are there more Cuban New Yorkers now than in the past? Are there evident areas of concentration of Cubans within New York City? Is Cuban New York composed primarily of the older generations of Cubans who arrived in the decades immediately following the Cuban Revolution or has it been replenished with younger arrivals from more recent waves, especially those arriving after the 1994-95 U.S.-Cuba migration accords? [Here’s something that may be a surprise to many of you: more Cubans arrived in the U.S. in the decade of the 2000’s than in any previous decade].

Cuban New Yorker will answer those questions in subsequent blogs, but not immediately. There are other things I want to write about first, and I don’t want readers to think this blog will be just about the (yawn) numbers.