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Piano Classes in Havana

I never thought they sang the blues in Cuba.  At least not Eric Clapton songs.  But my last night there, at an impromptu jam session in a cramped Havana apartment, I found myself with a little Casio-like keyboard accompanying a group of flamenco musicians to the tune of Clapton’s “Before You Accuse Me.”  It turned out to be a very Cuban musical experience. 

Two weeks earlier, Fidel Castro was there when we arrived at the Jose Marti International Airport.  He was giving an endless political sermon on the immigration waiting room TV.   I was one of about two dozen American musicians who, with group of American dancers, had come to learn to play and dance, Cuban-style.  The trip was arranged, legally, by a San Francisco tour group.  

The first day of classes, the walk to school was a stroll through a musical landscape.  Muffled piano montunos drift under the door of a dormitory practice room.   Under the huge canopy of a tropical tree, a trio of conga players rehearse rumba riffs.   At the campus cafe, a young violinist  plays Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Approaching La ENA, Escuela Nacional de Artes, the National School for the Arts, all these sounds — Chopin piano, African drumming, bebop trumpet  –grow into a rich cacophony.

We were a mix of professionals and amateurs — a drummer for Doc Severson,  a bass player with a country music gig at a Taiwan theme park, an economist-pianist, a cabinet maker-percussionist — many very accomplished musicians.   Yet, we were overwhelmed by the talent at La ENA.  The school was a mess of rotting wood, peeling paint and exposed wires but full of treasure — teenage musicians who seemed to have musical dexterity well beyond their years.

Once, an American boy, after watching a Cuban his own age rocket through amazingly quick and complex jazz riffs, asked the pianist his secret.   The Cuban musician said one word:   “Czerny.” (Carl Czerny was the composer of many difficult piano studies that the Cuban had obviously practiced and mastered).  

For two weeks, we study with some of the best musicians in the country soaked our ears and minds in its rich melodies and rhythms.

Our almost round-the-clock musical survey included everything from popular heart-pumping salsa bands to a bata (a traditional drum used in religious ceremonies) trio to rumba (African call-and-response singing) groups to a Cuban boy band.

One night at a downtown jazz club, Miguel Miranda played bass, conga, bell and hihat.  All very well, all very fast, and all at the same time.   On returning to our accommodations, my roommate, the bass player from Taiwan said, “I need to practice.”  And he did.  At 1:30 a.m.

What makes the music Cuban is all in the beat.

Our rhythmic concepts instructor tried to bang this into our heads.   He’d demonstrate the proper way to hit a cowbell with a stick.  Then he’d hand it off to me to play.  Another student would get a g├╝iro, a gourd with serrations you rub with stick.  Someone else would get a clave, a stick you hit with a stick.  For the next hour and fifteen minutes, without a word, we’d bang sticks, and gourds, and bells and drums.      

In dance class, instructors tried to put the rhythm in our feet.  

“No change, no change,” my dance partner, a member of a Cuban-Haitian dance troupe, kept saying, again and again, as I continually miss-stepped and confused my left with my right.  Exasperated, she sat down.    

“I’m tired,” she said.  

Our American ears are conditioned to hearing accents on the first pulse of every measure of four beats.  WE all live in a YEL-low submarine.  Cubans emphasize the fourth beat.  It sounded syncopated, anticipated, wonderful, and very unnatural to Chicago flamenco guitarist Hector Fernandez, accustomed all his life to the Western European musical way.   

“I can’t get it together,” he said.  “I’m an Americano.  The gringo-ly impaired.”

In the advanced piano class, Pupi Pedroso, former keyboard player for the legendary Los Van Van, encouraged his students to play their piano parts while tapping tumbao, a syncopated fourth-beat bass line, in one foot and clave, a repeating two-measure pattern that calibrates the musical parts (Clave is both a stick and a rhythmic pattern.) in the other.  It feels like patting your head, rubbing your stomach and tapping Morse code at the same time.
 The syncopation came to the country with the slaves shipped from West Africa.  

“What happened here that didn’t happen in the United States, ” explained John Calloway, a musician, educator, and coordinator of Plaza Cuba’s popular music program, “is that the African influences were allowed to flourish.”

 American plantation owners tried to stop slaves from beating drums and practicing their native religions, but the Spanish overlords did not. 

 Today Santeria and similar religions flourish.  One night, two members of our group returned from a ceremony with a story about five possessed people and a sacrificial turtle.  A few year ago on the other side of the island, I witnessed something similar involving a bottle of rum, several long needles and a chicken.  And drums.  There are always drums.

The African rhythms mixed with European melodies and musical ingredients from other parts of the world.   It’s like a big ajiaco, a stew, my piano teacher, Andres Alen was fond of saying.  

“We are the result of mixing.  It’s a very natural thing that happens in our culture,”  Alen said. 

Alen got a musical self-education when he was a young boy in New York City.  He saw a French film and fell in love with the score.  He ran home and began to transcribe the music.  He kept returning to the theatre again and again, dozens of times, to learn and transcribe the bass line, then the strings, then the woodwinds.

“I was sort of an obsessive.”  He began transcribing musical cues from soap operas.  Classmates requested scenes from previous days’ episodes.  And he played them.

Alen became a music director for Arturo Sandoval, a Grammy nominee, concert pianist, composer, and my piano teacher.

At the keyboard, he quoted  Gershwin, Cuban son, jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Rachmaninoff in the style of American bebop, the Woody Woodpecker song — anything that made the music point at hand.

The lesson was that Cuban music is much more than Desi Arnez or the Buena Visa Social Club. 

At the home of new generation jazz pianist Roberto Carcasses, we sipped Cuban coffee and listen to his latest mixes — a funk groove played with a clave beat and a rumba (think African drumming and chanting) with rap.  

 This is what keeps drawing Calloway back to Cuba.  The mix.  Musical and cultural.

Black and white are more or less considered equal, he said.   “They’re accepting of all different cultures here. Sadly, we don’t see that in the United States.” 

“I’m one of the few people that doesn’t smoke, drink, stay out late, have ten girlfriends.  I just love coming here and associating with the people.”  

Fernandez had a real musical and cultural exchange. 

“I met a musician on the beach.”  The man had a tres, a Cuban guitar with three pairs of strings.  The strings in each pair are tuned to the same note, an octave apart, producing a distinct sound. 

“I said, ‘Do you want to trade?’ and the next thing I know, I have a tres and he has a guitar.”   He laughs. 

“Next year when I come back I hope to be able to play something.” 

The two-week program culminated with a recital of sorts.  In the open-air common area of the school, the Americans perform for and with the Cubans. 

I played the standard Lagrimas Negras along with two singers — one American, one Cuban — and a full compliment of horns and percussion.  People actually applauded.  Cheered even. 

But my favorite tunes were performed in the apartment that last night in Havana. 

Fernandez and his Chicago flamenco partner, Tom Kimball, and percussionist Don Skoog befriended a local flamenco troupe, a group that mixed traditional flamenco and Cuban rhythms, and were invited to a going-away party.  I tagged along.

In a dingy apartment building in the Verdado neighborhood, we cautiously made our way in the dark up three flights of stairs.  A door opened and we were embraced, greeted with hugs and kisses, by the singer, his wife, his mother, a dancer, and the band manager.  A few minutes later another guitarist, a pianist, and other friends appeared.  Fourteen people, all in a tiny ten-by-ten living room.  We drank rum, ate popcorn and snack puffs, played music and laughed a lot. 

Tom and Hector shared a guitar (Hector had given his away), the enthusiastic singer worked up a sweat belting out tunes in a smoky Gypsy King-like vocal style, the dancer pounded frenetic flamenco rhythms into the floor, and Don, the percussionist, played the vinyl chair. 

And everyone clapped.  The way flamenco people do. 

The evening’s mix included  flamenco, Eric Clapton, even rumba, the call-and-response associated with the Palo religion.  The singer chanted.  His wife and friends responded with a chorus. 

The pianist, a talented self-taught musician with the plastic keyboard was anxious to add a little American to his playing.

“I make agreement with you,” he proposed in broken English.  “I teach you all I know about Cuban music and you teach me all you know about the blues.”

He played Lagrimas Negras.  I played Eric Clapton.  

Another ingredient for the ajiaco.   

We left as we arrived, with hugs and kisses.  We laughed our way back down the stairs.   And as we entered the taxi, we looked up to see that the singer and his friends had gathered on the third story balcony. 

“I love you,” he shouted. 

And we made our way back home. 

For more information:

Plaza Cuba:  Offers a variety of music and dance study program      510 872 9505

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