From the heart of Cuba, a love song for the Crescent City
Jazz currents swirl through the music of New Orleans and Havana
By David Cázares
Posted December 11 2005
HAVANA· -- The troubling images of New Orleans left in chaos and pain by Katrina astounded people around the world, but it broke hearts here. Centuries of commerce, migration, history and music bind these two cities, and musicians at this year's international jazz festival gave props to the Crescent City in their common language.
Two of Cuba's most prolific composers and internationally acclaimed bandleaders composed musical tributes to New Orleans and its people. Flautist Jose Luis Cortés of NG La Banda and jazz pianist Chucho Valdés want musicians and residents of New Orleans to know Cubans are with them as they rebuild.
Cortés, a black Cuban whose music blends a streetwise sensibility with jazzy sophistication, was particularly saddened that so many black people in New Orleans were among those most affected. "In New Orleans, there are black people," Cortés said. "In Cuba there are black people. Blacks came from Africa. We're all from the same place."
Cortés also wanted to reach out to his fellow musicians in New Orleans, who share his love of a treasured art form. "New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz," he said.
"I want to look for the currents of jazz that are within the music of New Orleans as much as they are in the music of Cuba."
The bandleader's composition, which he hopes to perform soon in a country accessible to musicians from both nations, is written for symphonic orchestra and his big band. Intended as an inspirational work, it fuses classical music with Afro-Cuban dance music and Yoruban chants.
The piece will be an expression of solidarity with the musicians there "and above all with the black community," Cortés said.
New Orleans is beloved in Cuba because of the cultural, historical and musical roots it shares with the island. Founded by Canadians working for France, New Orleans became a city under Spanish rule in 1762, and the first governor of Louisiana reported to the captain-general of Cuba. The Spanish gave New Orleans its structure and rebuilt the city after fires in 1788 and 1794 destroyed most of it. Even in the fabled "French Quarter," Spanish architecture predominates.
New Orleans had a profound cultural relationship with the port city of Havana, ties that continued well into the 20th century, said Ned Sublette, author of the book Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. The island's habanera rhythm appears in the music of New Orleans in the first half of the 19th century and is the "Spanish tinge" that New Orleans jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton said was essential to the genre, Sublette said.
It is only fitting, Sublette said, that today's Cuban musicians would feel an affinity for New Orleans and its people. "New Orleans was the first important music city in North America," said Sublette, owner of New-York based Qbadisc, which specializes in music from the island. "The city that gave birth to jazz was in a constant, open circuit with Havana, and jazz was heard in Havana from early on."
Like New Orleans, Havana has played an important role in the development of jazz. Musicians in Cuba and the United States have long collaborated, particularly since the golden age of Cuban music in the 1940s and '50s.
After Katrina, many Cuban musicians dedicated their concerts to New Orleans. "New Orleans is part of the Caribbean community and like Cuba, the city has a strong African culture. I can't forget that New Orleans is a port city and that sounds travel," said Dr. Michael White, a clarinetist in the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band. "It's a beautiful thing that Cubans are honoring New Orleans' musical heritage."
One of the most ambitious signs of support came from pianist Valdés, who helped close Havana's 22nd annual international jazz festival with a work that honored New Orleans.
Performing with Cuba's National Symphony Orchestra, the Cuban National Choir and his quartet, Valdés delivered a spectacular concert that fused the blues, classical music, gospel, Yoruban chants and straight-ahead jazz. In the tribute A Song to God, the composer's sister, Mayra Caridad Valdés, sang an ode to the music of New Orleans, "so beautiful and lovely," and to its people: "How many sad stories must be forgotten," she sang.
Valdés told the audience at the Teatro Mella that his work was a song of love, of peace and humanity. "This is a tribute to New Orleans, its history, the place where ragtime and the blues were born -- a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, to Wynton Marsalis," he said. "It's for the musicians."
Staff writer Eliseo Cardona contributed to this report.
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