Tag Archives: Dafnis Prieto

That Irrepressible Cuban Creativity

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).

Dafnis Prieto
Dafnis Prieto
Pedrito Martínez

Pedrito Martinez



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 . . .


Even the dogs are creative . . . 🙂







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.