Way To Blue concert and Cuba


Dear Mailing List,

I know, I’ve been back from Cuba for a while and I promised a full report. It was great……! OK, I’ll expand on that but first some ‘housekeeping’ as event comperes are wont to say.

First, “Way To Blue”, the concert tribute to the music of Nick Drake that I have – with Catherine Steinmann, Kate St John and Bryn Ormrod – organized in various UK venues and abroad over the past seven years is performing an encore at Symphony Hall in Birmingham on May 12. Birmingham is where it all began and the organizers there wanted us to return to the scene of our first concert to celebrate the new hall’s tenth anniversary. The singers are a mix of rookies and veterans, with Green Gartside and Vashti Bunyan joined by Sam Beam (Iron and Wine), Glen Hansard (of “Commitments” fame), Sam Lee (Mercury prize nominee), Olivia Chaney, The Rails (Kami Thompson, Richard and Linda’s daughter plus James Walbourne of The Pretenders) and Mark Abis. The band is (almost) the same, with Kate, Zoe Rahman, Neil MacColl, Leo Abrahams, Martyn Barker but without our totemic bassman, Danny Thompson, who’s recovering from an illness. John Thorne, a disciple of Danny’s, will deputize.

I’m excited – it’s been four years since our wonderful night at the Sydney Opera House and I’m ready to hear these wonderful songs again from a new angle.

In other news, JOE BOYD’S A-Z has settled into its new fortnightly format and we’re already up to EE. The audience is growing, the plaudits are being gratefully received and, hey, I think I’m getting (even) better at it! We’ve been from Mongolia to the Brill Building with many stops in between.

I was asked to contribute to Rebecca Solnit’s new urban atlas of New York and in my piece about the song that drew me to a particular New York neighbourhood, I evoked the greatest female rock n roll voice of the 1950s. And, just coincidentally, she is the subject of podcast EE.

So, on to Cuba. You can imagine how hesitant I was to be a part of a busload of Americans being disgorged in small Cuban towns for a specially arranged concert of Afro-Cuban dancing and drums. The vision brings up all kinds of uncomfortable clichés. But it turned into the most wonderful 10 days. Here are some of the reasons why:


  • – Ned Sublette, our fearless leader, author of “Cuba And Its Music”, “The World That Made New Orleans” and “America’s Slave Coast”, speaks fluent Cuban Spanish and knows the place backwards. Musicians there have felt his superbly well-informed love for their music for over twenty years and they reciprocate. His Cuban collaborator, Cari Diaz, knows every musician in the land and all love her, as do we.


  • – The group turned out to be very diverse and completely intelligent, sociable and interesting. From the ethnographer who knew Lucy Duran from Bamako, to the retired, Bauhaus-ly dressed German couple who met “dancing Latin” in Nuremburg in the late ‘50s, to the hot young couple from California who turned out to have four kids and knew almost as much as Ned about Cuban music. The bonus track in the group was the legendary Harry Sepulveda, manager of the greatest Latin record store in the world and the only one you need a subway token to get to. Harry is the sage of Latin New York, known to all Newyoricans and he’d never been to Cuba! Watching and listening through the delighted Harry’s eyes and ears was worth the trip just in itself.


  • – The musicians, who were mostly in the Afro-Cuban religious tradition or other styles from the rich history of the island’s music. Rumbas, charangas, kongos, keyboard extravaganzas, decimas – we saw it all. And mass Cuban audiences, while they respect their roots, are not always that interested in paying to see these great artists. So there were only warm, unrestrained welcomes for us everywhere we went.


  • – We spent only a few days in Havana. It’s a great city, but when I was last there fifteen years ago, it was hard work dealing with the hustles and the bureaucracy and the potholes. So it was great to be out in the beautiful countryside. And Matanzas! Where rumba was born! What a nice city. I’d happily go back there anytime.


  • – The food! Ned warned us that this was not a culinary trip, but the food has improved out of all recognition, even in government-owned restaurants. The paladares (private restaurants) have been freed from their previous limits of a dozen places, only government-supplied frozen fish and no non-family employees. We ate like kings, the most memorable being a ‘slavery-era’ feast in an old sugar-mill town east of Matanzas complete with whole roast pig and a side-trip to my favourite Havana restaurant, La Esperanza. Hubert and Manolo, who were paladar pioneers many years ago, have expanded and their food is better than ever.


  • – But most of all, the trip was memorable – cliché alert! – because of the people. It’s been said many times, but whatever the flaws or shortcomings of the revolution, it has created a society in which people are actually very nice to one another. The Revolution was wary of Afro-Cuban culture back at the beginning. Socialism is supposed to be colour-blind and it was counter-revolutionary to encourage too much interest in distinct cultures. But that has turned completely around and now there is solid support for Afro-Cuban religious traditions (and Cubans of all shades wearing the all-white colours of new Santeria initiates). As a result, Afro-Cubans seem more confident and connected than ever before. But hard to find anyone, black, white or tan, with the kind of strutting ego you often meet in big capitalist cities. People were agonizing about how the opening with America will change Cuba; my big concern was how can we get America to change by exposing it to more Cubans.


  • – We had a very nostalgic visit to Egrem studios, where I made 3 Cubanismo records and one by Alfredo Rodriguez. It was great being back and remembering those great sessions – the first was six months before Buena Vista happened.


Like most others, I did some filming on the trip and I plan to put it up on my site or YouTube or something. I’ll let you know when that happens.

To find out about more Ned Sublette-guided musical trips to Cuba, write to ned@qbadisc.com. If you go, don’t miss laesperanza@nauta.cu (closed Sundays) and tell Hubert Joe sent you.

As ever –