Cuba Mirrored by “Habana Abierta”

June 5, 2011 | Print Print |

Musical Bridge from Cuba*

Osmel Almaguer

Habana Abierta. Photo: wikimedia.commons.org

HAVANA TIMES, June 5 — Habana Abierta is a group of Cuban musicians that used to meet at the corner of 13th and 8th streets in the Vedado district of the capital, a place where musicians would gather in the 1980s as they begun to create a new sound in Cuba.

This was a sound full of world influences mixed with the best of national music, creating a more universal and more open sound.  It was the sound of the new generation, the one born in the Cuba of the ‘70s, the one that grew up and formed in the ‘80s and matured in the middle of the Special Period economic crisis of the 1990s.

Some of the band members made it to Madrid in 1996, thanks to fellow-musicians Gema Corredera and Pavel Urquiza, and there they recorded the CD “Habana Oculta.”  They had already known each other while living on the island, but starting with the recording of the disk “24 horas,” they turned into a completely unusual musical phenomenon.

In December 2002 and January 2003 they gave individual performances in Havana theaters, singing for the first time for their native listeners since their having left to settle in Spain.

The performances culminated with a large concert at the La Tropical attended by around 10,000 people.  The audience sang along with all the songs — word by word — despite that being the first and only concert on the island by the whole group.

The band is still the voice of a generation, half in Cuba and half outside of the island because of the exodus caused by the country’s economic and political situation.  Each one of their members has a very particular style, very different but at the same time complementing each other.  When recording their CDs, they choose each member’s best songs and they form a musical mixture that is nothing less than pure energy and Cuban talent.

In 1998 they recorded “Habana Oculta” with the participation of Alejandro Frometa and Raul Ciro, from the group Superavit.  As Habana Abierta they have recorded “Havana Abierta,” “24 horas” and “Boomerang”; with this last one done in 2006 with the collaboration of maestro Bebo Valdes on piano on the song “Siempre happy,” by Boris Larramendi, and with Alain Perez on bass.

Three of their members have recorded disks on their own: Kelvis Ochoa with his namesake CD Kelvis, Boris Larramendi with Yo no tengo la culpa and Luis Barberia’s CD that was also named after himself.  Kelvis and Boris in turn headed the Habana Blues Band, which was formed for the movie “Habana Blues,” the winner of the 2006 Goya award for best soundtrack.  Presently Habana Abierta is preparing to launch a new self-produced recording, while Vanito Brown is working on a CD on his own.

At the moment the members of the group include Vanito Brown, Luis Barberia, Jose Luis Medina and Alejandro Gutierrez.  However through their ranks have passed Boris Larramendi, Kelvis Ochoa, Pepe del Valle, Andy Villalon, all leaving their marks on the work of this singular group.

Their music is a fusion of rhythms that the band members refer to as “rockason,” “timbawithrock,” “rumbawithfunk” or “congawithnpop.”

Divino guion

CD: Habana Abierta

Life is a divine script.  Life is a divine script.  Now I know it is.  Now I know it isn’t.

In Buenos Aires I meet a babe, who went around alone with the idea: everybody who works and sweats eats, everybody who cries nurses.

I told her to shut up and get in bed, I already knew how this movie ended.  At the end of everything, I think she understood absolutely nothing.

There in Havana the mambo is very hard.  It’s more than the cost of mango.  They’re passing cabbages for lettuce and potatoes for malanga.

I get upset but I don’t get involved.  Take my soup mama, that has your concept, and say a little about what there is, and a little about what is needed.

Life is a divine script.  Life is a divine script.  Now I know it is.  Now I know it isn’t.

Life is a divine script.  Life is a divine script.  Now I know it is.  Now I know it isn’t.

It was beautiful but it loses its color.  It’s no longer the same thing as when we were kids: “pioneers for communism” and “cosmonaut missions.”

All the rats follow behind the flute, Jose Marti set the rule: the elephant has four feet and a memory that will crush you.

I didn’t leave, I just went away a little.  Things sound prettier from farther away.  My heart processes, suffers, dances and sings what it bleeds.

Listen to how rich rock n’roll with timba sounds.  Habana Abierta is bringing it to you damn it!  A little of what’s needed.

Life is a divine script.  Life is a divine script.  Now I know it is.  Now I know it isn’t.

Life is a divine script.  Life is a divine script.  Now I know it is.  Now I know it isn’t.

Those on the right, turn right.  Those on the left, turn left.  And me, I’m already tired of those old little trips in circles.

I travel straight, though I’m not arrow.  I’ll sign it over to you and put a date on it, in case you’re suspicious, in case you’re suspicious, in case you’re suspicious, you snitch.

And I’ll certainly give it to you if I have it, a place to go, a place where I’m coming from.  There’s a brilliant diamond inside all souls.

If you find it, tell me, if you find it.  Then today I put a bomb in a coconut.  Help me to stop this talking that I’m talking to you, this talk that I’m talking to you, this talk that I’m talking to you, this talk that I’m talking to you…

Now I know it is.  Now I know it isn’t.

Now I know it is.  Now I know it isn’t.

Now I know it is.  Now I know it isn’t.

Lights, camera…

One can say a great deal about this song that heads Habana Abierta’s second CD.  We could speak of its intensity, of its musical mixture, of the apparent catharsis in its own extension.

I find that with the composition and editing of this song, its authors were left with that sensation you have when you’re satisfied.  When you devote everything and your effort isn’t in vain; instead, it flourishes and renders such fruits that make it clear that the work has been worthwhile.

Their lyrics are eminently polemic, dissident.  They express disagreement, being fed up.  They react to an order of things whose existence blames a power, what’s called the “dictatorship of the proletariat”; though in this context the proletariat doesn’t dictate anything.

Their ideas are expressed through a plethoric language of Cubanism and Latin-Americanism, through proverbs and sayings, all which in turn fuse to form sentences that even succeed at creating a playful effect.

This guy who is telling the story tries to explain to his girlfriend that things are not as pretty as they look from the outside.  Life is a divine script, so our destinies are guided by what is written by God – a political god, not a religious one.  However the acceptance of all gods implies a dogmatic passivity, and that is precisely what happens in Cuba, and that is precisely the situation that the artist is reacting to.

With the collapse of the socialist camp there also dropped a sort of innocent curtain under which —  ideologically — they tried to keep us on the fringe of a pragmatic but real world.  We were like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, before biting the apple.  This is expressed gracefully in the passage: “It was beautiful but it loses its color.  It’s no longer the same thing as when we were kids: “pioneers for communism” and “cosmonaut missions,” alluding to that illusion that through the new system we would make it to a cosmos by any means possible, actually or metaphorically.

For them everything is no more than a farce, a device, so they turn Jose Marti into the Pied Piper whose tune was able to attract those rats that invaded the city.  The rats — all of us — are charmed by the sound of the flute.  However they then affirm that more than like rats, we’re closer to elephants that never forget, though this sounds more like a warning.

Then, confronted with possible accusations of them having criticized from the outside, they affirm that: “I didn’t leave, I just went away…a little.  Things sound prettier from farther away.  My heart processes, suffers, dances and sings what it bleeds.”

Between the words and words they introduce musical elements like rock n´ roll mixed with timba or a definition of rhythm that includes “de pinga” (an expletive meaning that which is done well), and in that affirmation they push all modesty to the side.

They again criticize the vicious circle that maintains the reigning order, but they exclude themselves, giving as an example the direct tone that they use in this same song.  (I travel straight, though I’m not arrow.  I’ll sign it over to you and put a date on it, in case you’re suspicious, in case you’re suspicious, in case you’re suspicious, you snitch).

But such wordiness would be empty if it weren’t born of the deepest feelings, that’s why they try to touch that “diamond” that we all have, inserting the “bomb in the coconut,” meaning to connect the heart with the mind to achieve a discourse that is as objective as it is moving.

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(*) A Musical Bridge from Cuba: This is an effort to find new bridges that promote communication between peoples of the diverse regions of the planet.  I will be using simple narration in a series of articles to connect with those who are interested in the messages transmitted by Cuban songs, which due to their limited commercial potential and the difficulties posed by their translation, languish in a state of communicational stagnation – despite their being true jewels of Cuban culture.


What's your opinion?

  • Robert Hagedorn

    Apples grow on apple trees. But what the heck grows on that strangely named tree of knowledge of good and evil? Do a search: First Scandal.