Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Certified Genius at the Drums

Many years ago during a weekend trip to Miami from Gainesville, Florida, where I had just started graduate school at UF, I dropped by the Librería Universal, Juan Manuel Salvat’s venerable Spanish-language bookstore in Little Havana. It was a Saturday, the day of the week when La Universal was always crowded with patrons hanging out among the books with the expectation of getting drawn into a more or less intellectual discussion about Cuba, about literature, or just about any other topic that promised some lively banter.

That day Salvat introduced me to several in the Saturday crowd as a “young sociologist.” One of the regulars, an elderly Cuban intellectual of some renown, who always graced La Universal’s Saturday gatherings with his impeccable attire, elegant diction, and sharp wit, immediately came up to me with a faux look of wonder in his eyes and forcefully shook my hand. “It is such a pleasure to meet you, joven,” he said, “in my long life I have met many Cuban poets, Cuban lawyers and doctors, Cuban peloteros and bongoceros, politicians, boxers, and dominoes players, but I have never met a Cuban sociologist.”

No doubt he was putting me on more than a bit, but I thought about that gentleman when our friend Marilú Menéndez suggested that we go with her and Monty (her friend and ours) to the Jazz Standard last Tuesday to catch a performance by Dafnis Prieto and his Proverb Trio. I jumped at her suggestion: it was an opportunity to meet a rare type of Cuban, far more unique than a sociologist. You see, Dafnis is a certified Cuban genius, the winner of a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship, informally known as “genius” awards. Imagine that: a certified Cuban genius, unlike almost all other Cubans, who are, of course, self-proclaimed geniuses. And how appropriate is it for a Cuban to win one of those awards by playing drums, a foundational instrument in Cuban music?

But Dafnis is not a typical Cuban percussionist. He is neither a bongocero nor a congocero, but a two-stick percussionist on a standard drum set, a baterista. His bio on the MacArthur website tells us that Dafnis is a “percussionist whose dazzling technical abilities electrify audiences and whose rhythmically

adventurous compositions combine a range of musical vocabularies. A classically trained musician who absorbed from an early age the multifaceted percussive traditions of his native Cuba . . .” Born in Santa Clara and now in his late thirties, Dafnis studied at the Escuela Nacional de Música in Havana before coming to New York in 1999.  He is yet another (and perhaps foremost) example of how the New York jazz scene has been enriched by the arrival of musical talent from Cuba.

The Jazz Standard in the Gramercy area (116 East 27th Street, between Park and Lex) occupies the basement of Blue Smoke, the regionally eclectic barbeque restaurant where the Chef de Cuisine is Eddie Montalvo, a Jersey native of Colombian ancestry.  The restaurant and jazz club share the kitchen, so you can order the restaurant’s full menu at the club. But since we had reservations for the late (9:30 p.m.) set, we decided to eat first at the restaurant, especially since Marilú believes it is discourteous to the musicians to munch on ribs while they are playing beautiful music. OK, that makes sense.

So after what turned out to be a very substantial meal we headed downstairs for jazz and drinks. The Jazz Standard has to be one of the most comfortable, yet cozy, jazz venues in the city. The tables are not crowded together and they are on different levels so that everyone has a good view of the stage. The piano was covered with a cloth and pushed aside; the Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio did not need it.  Jason Lindner plays electronic keyboards, Dafnis, of course, plays his sprawling drum set (was that a skillet

hanging on his right?), and Kokayi, well, Kokayi plays his vocal chords.

The trio also does not need music stands. No sheet music anywhere on the stage. The group’s trademark is true improvisation, something Dafnis emphasized each time he spoke to the audience to introduce the next number, inviting it to go along with the adventure: “you don’t know what’s going to happen, and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Jason Lindner, Dafnis Prieto, and Kokayi

But it all comes together masterfully. This trio may not be reading music, but they have great rapport and seem to feed off each other’s creativity.  When they really get into a groove, you can tell they can feel it, and the audience also feels it. The trio is a perfect vehicle for the display of Dafnis’ talents as he uses the drums to weave a wide and complex tapestry of rhythms and even melodies. I don’t think I have ever heard drums played with such versatility. But his colleagues are not in the background. Lindner uses the full range of his keyboards’ capabilities to create evocative and exotic compositions that usually set the table for each number. Kokayi is a virtuoso of song, a veritable master of jazz/rap/funk, all rolled into one. He infused each number with incredible energy. The “tweet” piece, as Monty called it, was extraordinary.

The performances at Jazz Standard this past week marked the release of the trio’s new CD, which Dafnis’ companion, Ivet, was cheerfully selling at the door. I bought one and have played it now countless times. Dan Bilawsky, in his review of the CD characterizes it as a “triumphantly trippy album that’s built around the notion of jazz as a collectively improvised modern melting pot.”

Dafnis has a very comprehensive website with tracks from his CDs, including the new one, videos, biography, etc. It’s worth a click.

After the performance, Dafnis stopped by our table to greet Marilú whom he knows well. She said I should interview him for my blog, but I said that was not necessary; Dafnis had already spoken plenty with his drums.

My next posting will be the long-delayed essay on the credentials of Fr. Félix Varela as the first Cuban New Yorker. Now he was a truly one-of-a-kind Cuban. Sociologists abound. And there is even more than one MacArthur-certified Cuban genius. [I recall that years ago Ruth Behar, a Cuban-born anthropologist at Ann Arbor, also received the “genius” award.] But Varela is apparently on the road to being declared a saint by no less than the sole and ultimate authority: the Vatican. Although most Cubans will tell you their mothers are/were saints (“la vieja es/era una santa”), and many Cuban husbands try to portray themselves to their wives as perfect saints, contrary to all evidence (“no me digas, ¿tu eres un santo, verdad?”), Varela would be the first (and probably last) certified Cuban saint.

Now that would be a true wonder.

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Observations from a Post-Ideology Miami

I have been observing Miami, especially the Cuban community, most of my life, sometimes as a resident, sometimes as a visitor.  As a resident one observes the city as one views a movie, as a visitor one sees it as a sequence of snapshots.  After moving to New York two years ago I am now in the visitor mode.

The advantage or disadvantage of observing through snapshots is that change becomes more evident, perhaps exaggerated. On this summer trip I have been struck by two important changes in the landscape of Cuban Miami.  One is that Miami has entered a post-ideology phase. The other is that there has been a marked improvement in the quality of the fried plantains served in Cuban restaurants in Miami (at least the ones I have visited). A few years ago it seemed one was always served platanos maduros cut too thick, not ripe enough, and undercooked. I am now seeing more platanitos cut into thin, very ripe, well-fried slices that stick together, as they should be:  amelcochados . . .  sorry, I digress . . .  this is not about plantains, but about ideology.

More than twenty years ago I published an essay on the nature and importance of the traditional exile ideology. Among the essential elements of that ideology, I wrote then, is an uncompromising hostility towards the Cuban government, a commitment to “recovering” the homeland, and the primacy of that ideology in determining the political attitudes and behavior of Cuban Americans.

A few years later, my colleagues Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick wrote about what they called the “moral community,” the set of political values that underlies Miami’s Cuban community, providing in effect a guiding and integrative force, a reason for the community’s presence in this country, and a vision of its destiny.

Mural at Casa Lario’s (now Bongos) on Ocean Drive, South Beach

I have been aware for several years of the withering of the anti-Castro “cause” within the ethos of Cuban Miami. I am not referring here to changes in the political attitudes of individual Cuban Americans, although that, of course, may be part of what I am seeing. Changes in attitudes are what my friend and colleague Guillermo Grenier has been tracing for years with the series of FIU Cuba Polls that he has conducted over the past twenty years. To be sure, there have been changes in those attitudes, influenced by intergenerational shifts and new arrivals from the island.

No doubt an overwhelming number of Cuban Americans, when asked, continue to hold negative views of the Castro brothers and of the Cuban Revolution generally. That hasn’t changed much. What I am referring to here, however, is the role of the anti-Castro ideology as a compass, a moving force, in the community. I would argue that even if the attitudes themselves have not shifted much and Cuban Americans of different generations and arrival waves continue to have a negative, even hostile, view of the Cuban government, what may have occurred with the passing of the older exile generation is the loss of the primacy of the Cuba issue in shaping the political agenda of Cuban Americans. In other words, newer generations and perhaps even newer arrivals may at various times exhibit attitudes and behaviors consistent with the traditional exile ideology, but their political agenda is more diversified. Unlike the older generation’s exclusive preoccupation with Cuba, today’s Cuban Americans do not see the world exclusively through the traditional exile lens. It is this development that has turned down the ideological volume of Cuban Miami.

A Miami friend, not Cuban, but also a longtime observer of the local scene, agrees with me that the Cuban cause is no longer a driving force in Miami. He says there are only two causes left in Miami today: David Lawrence’s Children’s Trust and Norman Braman’s efforts to curb what he sees as municipal fiscal excesses. Both of those causes have influential leaders and clear goals and have an impact within and outside their constituencies, something that is now missing from the traditional Cuban cause.

My friend traces the start of post-ideology Cuban Miami to the death of Jorge Mas Canosa in 1997. He may be right. It is undeniable that no one has replaced Mas as a leader in the Cuban community. Despite the fact that I strongly disagreed with what he was doing (and how he was doing it) and I took every opportunity to say so — even to his face in a televised debate in 1989 during his unsuccessful attempt to muscle into Florida International University a research institute controlled by the Cuban American National Foundation — I always recognized his extraordinary ability to project the exile cause both within and without the community in a way that had not been done before (or since).

Jorge Mas Canosa in President Reagan’s face when he hosted the President’s visit to Miami in 1983

Those that now seek to lead Cuban Americans are apparently doing so through the ballot box, getting elected to local offices, the state legislature, and even the U.S Congress. As Mas recognized, however, those are not ideal positions from which to most effectively push the Cuban cause (he never ran for public office), because elected officials must attend to a variety of issues that have nothing to do with Cuba. As with most leaders of causes, Mas’ political focus was exclusively on Cuba, and that was part of the reason for his success in keeping the exile agenda at the forefront of Cuban Miami.

That is not to say that the Cuban Miami gang in the U.S. Congress has been unsuccessful in advancing the traditional hardline agenda of keeping U.S. Cuba policy frozen in the Cold War. [Given the likes of David Rivera in that group, I feel justified in using the term “gang”.]  On the contrary, they have been quite successful (together with their New Jersey compatriots) in keeping U.S. Cuba policy unchanged. But that is a different ball game. To the extent that the leadership of the anti-Castro cause has defaulted to the Washington gang, it means that the stage has shifted from Miami to D.C., and that it is less about ideology and more about electoral politics and succeeding as a politician. To be sure, Mas Canosa lobbied in Washington, but he was always careful to tend to his ideological base in Miami, making sure it stayed focused and committed to la causa.

In this visit, I have seen symptoms everywhere that Miami has now fully transitioned to a post-ideology stage. There seem to be only scattered remnants of what had been a cause capable of being the major driving force in the political landscape of Miami. Let’s look at the media. The AM radio dial, formerly on fire with inflammatory political rhetoric and call-in programs expressing outrage about the Cuban regime, is now largely devoted to music, infomercials, religious programs, and ads and commentaries about local politicians and local politics. Only in Radio Mambí, la grande, la más potente, are there a few hours of programming a day devoted to castigating the Castro brothers in programs with long-standing formats and longtime participants that now sound pitifully decrepit.

And where are the periodiquitos, the fly-by-night free tabloids devoted to the cause that once proliferated in the stands of restaurants? The ones I have been able to find now are entirely devoted to advertisements or to stories lauding one or another political candidate or declaiming on a local issue.

There used to be at least two primetime talk show programs on Spanish-language cable channels that were devoted to stoking the flames of anti-Castroism, Miami versions of Cuba’s dogmatic Mesa Redonda where only the party line is presented. Now only one survives and it has diversified its format to include non-Cuban topics.  The rest of the programming on those channels is devoted to telenovelas or to incredibly inane “comedy” programming.

Public demonstrations against the Cuban government on one issue or another manage to assemble only a few dozen participants (as a recent one on the death of Payá Sardiñas), a distinct change from the marches that Mas Canosa would convene, filling S.W. Eight Street.

The change in the quality of the platanitos is a good thing. The change in the ideological landscape of Cuban Miami is, well, what it is. I certainly do not mourn the passing of much of the intolerant and intransigent discourse that always characterized the climate in the community, a discourse that seems to survive primarily in some fringe sites in the blogosphere. And on a personal level I do appreciate that there are fewer venues, at least venues that matter, in which I can be accused, as I have been in the past, of being a Castro agent, an inflitrado, a communist, a dialoguero, un mal cubano, and a few other things. My point is that if I were to be accused of those things now, few people would notice or care (especially me).

But I must say that I strangely miss the effervescence that existed in Miami over Cuban issues. The community is without a compass. This was not the plan: the struggle for recovering the homeland was to be followed, in exile lore, by the effort to rebuild Cuba. None of that has happened, so there is a suspension of purpose, a loss of guideposts.

I have observed during my trips to Cuba that the same thing has happened there. Only the political elites (as here) are unwilling to abandon the historical struggle. The ideological hardline discourse finds fewer echoes in a population intent on adapting to new realities and going on with their lives. Too much time has passed, too many things have happened while, essentially, not enough has happened. Exhaustion takes its toll.

Havana and Miami have always been, in political terms, mirror images.