We last left our protagonists – American musicians on the island for the first time – as they were figuratively deflowered by the temptress that is Cuba and literally robbed by her inhabitants.
With only 48 hours in country, they were already acquainted with water-borne bichos and explosive diarrhea; frolicked (and perhaps even fornicated) along the Malecón; and acquired groupies. In short, they were partying late, sleeping little, creating music, and making very merry.
The theft of the Fender bass after the Will Magid 4’s first Jazz Festival gig did little to dampen their spirits or enthusiasm for this place. On the contrary: the kind, well-equipped stranger who offered to loan us a bass for the next gigs only reinforced their admiration for Cubans and their ways.
Before you can say ‘pass the planchao, asere,’ it was Friday, hours before the gig that had everyone hot and bothered. It wasn’t a festival event, the crowd would be small by design (we had to keep it quiet in the interest of crowd control), and we weren’t sure how the band would fit in the performance space. But after another rehearsal in my living room, all we could talk about was the Guagua Loca.
It’s not really called the ‘Crazy Bus,’ (see note 1); that’s my name for it because it is a little loco (and muy cool) this gutted bus packed with Havana’s best DJs making music and fun on its midnight tour of the city. To date, the Guagua Loca had only made one voyage; my guys were excited to be the first foreigners invited to play this innovative mobile music party.
Clearly, a jazz quartet has no place on the Guagua Loca. But while the Will Magid 4 was here to play Jazz Fest, they aren’t really a jazz combo at all, but an amalgam of funk and groove, sampling and swing drawing on musical roots from New Orleans to Ghana. This is music to boogie and have revelations by and after just one gig, Cubans were already gaga for their delicious mix of live and electronic music. And after meeting Iliam and Alexis, (collectively known as I.A. Electronica, the brain trust behind the Bus), the feeling was mutual. Hopes were high for Friday night’s adventure.
As the sun set and excitement swelled as big as the almost-full moon, the Will Magid 4 + 4 dribbled in from their day’s explorations. I waited until all were assembled to give them the news: the Guagua Loca was off. For reasons beyond our control or comprehension, it had been cancelled by The Deciders. I was at pains to explain it – maybe it was a little too loco for this place and time? Regardless, everyone – the Will Magid 4, the other DJs, and fans – was saddened by this turn of events. So we turned to rum for succor and set our sights on Saturday night’s Jazz Festival gig.
We were running late for the sound check and I was tasting the bane of all music managers: organizing musicians is like wrangling cats in heat. When my phone rang at 4 on the dot and it was Wil Campa asking “Where are you? We’ve got the bass and are waiting at the theater,” I started to fret for real. The bass was locked in, but now we were missing the bass player.
At the beginning of this trip, if I’d had to bet who would go missing, show up late, or somehow leave us hanging, my money would have been on the drummer. To my surprise, Terry turned out to be the only one at our early morning meeting after partying all night and was settled behind his kit on time, every time, earning him a new nickname: Mr Professional. Adam, meanwhile, had taken to Cuba like a drunk to an open bar (despite the theft of his bass), and he was out mixing and mingling somewhere when we had a sound check and a Cuban musician of international renown waiting on us.
Smile on his face and jaba in hand, Adam sauntered up at about 4:05 and we rushed to pack ourselves into an almendrón to the Bertol Brecht Theater. True to his word, Wil Campa and his wife Tony awaited us there with a beautiful six string Rickenbacker they were loaning Adam for the night.
“Please, please, please don’t let this bass out of your sight,” Tony implored.
Slipping the case on to his back, Adam said: “don’t worry, I won’t.”
After kisses and hugs all around, our saviors sped away in their late-model BMW to shoot a music video in the setting sun.
The room was big and a few of our tribe were still suffering from bouts of explosive diarrhea forcing them into a step we’d dubbed ‘the clench and scurry.’ If you’ve ever been to a theater anywhere in Havana, you know how apocalyptic/toxic/disgusting the bathrooms can be. But everyone took this in (scurrying) stride, as they did all their Cuban experiences, from cockroaches in the bedroom to stolen instruments and cancelled gigs.
The Will Magid 4 set up – live electric bass and guitar, drums (with some sort of electronic component I never did grok), trumpet, MacBook, and sequencer – was presenting problems during the sound check. There weren’t enough outlets and we didn’t have the right adapters. We were short a few cables and there was a false contact somewhere between the amp and bass obligating Adam into his own dance and scurry. Little by little we worked together to get it together, but everything was running late and the 25-piece college ensemble following us fiddled with their instruments, anxious to get their sound check rolling. After a few false starts, things were finally set and I took a seat alongside Will’s parents. The first notes erupted from Will’s trumpet and I started to relax when suddenly everything went dark and silent.
Dios mío. Would Cuba pull any punches for these guys?
I followed Emilio, the laid back runner-of-things at the Brecht, onstage. In trembling sotto voce I asked: had the group’s rig blown the circuit?
“Some cables are down,” he explained. (Whew). “The electric company is on their way. Chill out for an hour or so with some beers and I’ll call you when we’re back online.”
Will packed up his Mac, Adam shouldered “his” bass, and we stowed the rest for safe keeping. After a couple of lagers and lively conversation with some Cuban musicians who told me there are only 8 or so fretless Fender Jazz basses in all of Havana (I will find you cabrón, whoever you are) and that both Carlos Varela and Liuba María Hevia had both suffered thefts of their guitars (the WM4 was in good company), Emilio’s call came through: llegó la luz; haul your asses back.
Once there, the sound check went quickly, I bought Emilio a Bucanero, and we cut loose until showtime. In spite of all the mishaps and low level stress (mine, not theirs), energy and hopes were high for this gig. It was indoors, so the sound would be better that at the previous show and we’d done a lot of publicity to get a good crowd. I’d set up two interviews for Will and invitations had already been extended for their return to Cuba.
The Will Magid 4 went on after the talented Jorge Aragón Trio and though the crowd was thinner than we’d hoped, the potential was palpable. I prayed to whomever listens to me – that is, no one in particular – for good sound and functioning equipment. I knew the rest would be superbly attended by the four guys on stage.
By the end of their first number, feet were tapping and heads bobbing as the audience got into it. The last notes of Cuban Swing were winding around and down when suddenly everything went dark and silent.
Blackout. (‘Shit!, again?!’)
“Thank you all and good night,” Ethan said into his mic, unplugging his guitar.
“¡Qué lástima!” Terry exclaimed, using his new favorite phrase.
Once again I followed Emilio onstage.
“Leave your rig and gear hooked up. We’re checking on the problem and you guys’ll continue once it’s solved.”
Will looked at the band, lit by the beam from Terry’s iPhone.
“I saw a stand up bass backstage,” Adam ventured.
“St James Infirmary. Acoustic. Let’s do it,” Will said.
And there in that dark theater, the quartet – now a trio as Ethan held the iPhone up high for light – gathered in close. Will began teasing out the first notes of what turned out to be the most soulful and novel version of that jazz-blues standard ever heard on these shores. The Cubans in the audience sat stunned and smiling. Emilio caught my eye with his big thumbs up and nothing could keep my goose bumps down. The notes from Will’s trumpet trembled and leapt through the dark in a visceral eulogy to life’s lost love. The rhythm section paced our emotion, carrying us through one of those impossible to plan and hard to forget only-in-Cuba moments.
It was musical alchemy. The band knew it. The audience felt it and we had the talent and solidarity, dreams, hard work and dedication of so many people, strangers and friends alike, to thanks. It was magic not unlike Cuba itself.
As the last stanzas enveloped us, the band was suddenly, glaringly, bathed in light.
Llegó la luz.
“Can’t we have a little more blackout?” someone in the audience asked.
They finished their impromptu number, Adam traded the stand up for the Rickenbacker, Ethan plugged in and the Will Magid 4 played out their set to a dancing crowd – small, but exultant.
2013? I’m chasing more musical alchemy. Won’t you join me?
My deepest thanks and respect to Will, Adam, Terry, Ethan, Larry, Patti, Julie, Josue, Wil Campa, Tony Massolin, I.A. Electronica, and all the organizers of Festival Jazz Plaza 2012 for helping make my dream of bringing US musicians to Cuba come true.
1. It’s real name is the ElectroBus; look for it.