Tag Archives: Wil Campa

Adventures of the Cuban Virgins: Part II

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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.

Box o rum, at the nice price!

Box o rum, at the nice price!

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.

Tony, Adamm & Wil Campa, post-gig

Tony, Adamm & Wil Campa, post-gig

“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.

Blackout.

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.

WM 4 ADsmall

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.

Notes
1. It’s real name is the ElectroBus; look for it.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Adventures of the Cuban Virgins: Part I

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Honeyed, late-afternoon rays streak down Línea illuminating two men, each carrying a conga in one hand, a cajón in the other. An old Dodge, Ford, then Buick rumble past a tattooed youth helping a blind woman across the street and the smell of baking bread lifts even the darkest mood.

“Can I stay here forever?” the bassist asks so soon after arriving I haven’t yet learned his name.

“Slow down, caballero. You haven’t even been here a night and day. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

I am anxious about this visit: somehow, I’d convinced eight complete strangers to come to Cuba and I’m not sure how they’ll handle it (not everyone can). I know Will in passing – the raison d’être for this descent of California talent upon Havana for the jazz fest – but at this point, the rest are simply the guitar player, the drummer, the bassist, the girlfriend, and the parents. Months in the making, this visit is a dream realized for me: ever since my first trip here in 1993 when Cubans across the island begged me for Kenny G cassettes, I’d felt a moral obligation to share with them higher quality sounds from my patria. This was my chance, but I’d never been involved in a music festival beyond being in the audience – enthusiastically, deliriously, but still.

What was I thinking?!

I didn’t grow up in a musical home and don’t play an instrument. While I’d love to learn to play guitar, until now, I’ve only collected guitarists. I envy the universality, the pure luxury, of music: as a writer, I’m limited to (mostly) one language, but ripping through a riff or pounding out a rhythm needs no translation to move your audience. Despite my vicarious relation to the craft, I’m convinced music holds some key to happiness. When a friend took me to see an act he manages in San Francisco, that key met tumblers and things started to click. With a surfeit of talent and energy and plenty of solos to go around, the Will Magid Four (see note 1) created a transformative, happy conversation between musicians and audience. I knew these guys had to play Cuba.

Will Magid: doing that voodoo that he does so well.

Will Magid: doing that voodoo that he does so well.

This I how I find myself waiting for eight strangers at Terminal 3. I had worked hard to square away details for their participation in Jazz Plaza 2012 – probably doubly so since I’ve never been on the organizational end of music before and this is Havana after all, where things are often needlessly, maddeningly difficult. To boot, only two of the eight had ever set foot in Cuba prior. The potential for disaster is high. Even as they do their first sound check, I’m still not sure it will come off – there are technical and electrical problems, the guitar player is laid flat by explosive diarrhea, and organizers are quietly voicing anxiety about the upcoming show to no one in particular.

But when the eight of them pile all their gear, luggage and laughter into the mini-van from the airport Cuban clown-car-style, I know my misgivings are misplaced. Grossly so: by the end of that first night, I’m marveling at how these folks roll with the Cuban flavor. When I lay out possibilities and options, they choose cajitas over paladars; 10 peso maquinas over hard currency taxis; Serrano over Cubita in the never-ending flow of espresso, and forgo sleep for fiestas. When Adam (AKA “Bass Face;” see note 2) sits down with cardboard, scissors, and glue to fashion sleeves for his CDs he’s giving away, I wonder what strange twist of fate dosed these folks with Cuban blood. It’s not only me: highballs of Havana Club in hand, they fill my apartment with such sweet sounds, my 8-year old neighbor sits rapt throughout the rehearsal whispering to me: ‘Conner! We don’t have music like this in Cuba!’ When I ask if he likes it he replies ‘Yesssssss!’ with a swivel of his hips.

Rehearsal in my living room, Will Magid 4, Havana

Rehearsal in my living room, Will Magid 4, Havana

“I love this city,” Josue would say randomly and repeatedly over the course of his stay. He spoke for himself, me, the group and probably you, if you’re still reading this.

_____

On the day of the first gig, we’re one credential short and every member of the group has spent their pre-dawn, post-party hours sprinting to the baño with crippling diarrhea, fever, and sleep-robbing nausea. Julie projectile vomited a couple of times and Ethan isn’t going anywhere. While this would be enough to sour the experience for most, I’m hunting down another credential, we’re taking Ethan’s guitar to sound check, and those still standing pop some ‘cork you up’ pills courtesy of my neighbor. The rest we tuck in with chamomile tea and crackers, hoping they’ll rally by nightfall. I counsel them to slow down a notch, go easy on the rum, and to eschew 5am batidos from now on. ‘No one can party ‘til pre-dawn for five days straight,’ I tell them (in this, I am proven quite wrong). With nothing left to do, we set out for the sound check.

We flag a maquina, load in the gear, and arrive at the Casa de Cultura a lo cubano. After some questions and clever resolving on the part of the venue’s crew – few here know how to hook up and mix a sequencer and Macbook with live players – the sound check goes off without a hitch. In the middle, Ruben, the artistic director, sidles up beside me and says ‘these guys are amazing.’ I agree, pointing out that not only are they stellar musicians but humans as well: Adam is donating his Fender Jazz Bass once the Festival is over and the group brought an entire suitcase of medicines and hard-to-get items to leave behind.

Patti, Adam, Larry, Julie, Josue & El Loco - faces alight post-WM4 set.

Patti, Adam, Larry, Julie, Josue & El Loco – faces alight post-WM4 set.

It doesn’t matter that the huge screen behind the stage says ‘Will Magio 4’ or that the crowd is thinner than expected. Terry would like a few more minutes to get his gig head on before getting behind his kit and I imagine Ethan is willing his sphincter into submission. In spite of it all, they exuded an equáname – a Cuban kind of go-with-the-flow – I very rarely see in North American visitors. Will leads the band in this and every sense, deftly maneuvering from sequencer to laptop to trumpet with magisterial ease and intent. Although their set is absurdly short, they win hearts and minds with their infectious energy and earnest words – in Spanish – for this opportunity to play in Cuba.

L-R: Terry, double fisting the double economy, Mayabe in one hand, Havana Club in the other; Will, fetchingly pensive; Julie, her smile says it all; and Ethan, seeing the light after a knock-down, drag-out fight with the porcelain god.

R-L: Terry, double fisting the double economy, Mayabe in one hand, Havana Club in the other; Will, fetchingly pensive; Julie, her smile says it all; and Ethan, seeing the light after winning a knock-down, drag-out fight with the porcelain god.

Bottle of Havana Club in hand (with a splash for los santos first), they join the crowd after their set to dance and swing to Wil Campa, the night’s headliner. I have never heard of this Pinar del Río artist and his Cuban music extravaganza, but from the looks of his late-model BMW, he is well known beyond these shores.

Already the WM4 rhythm section is making time with the ladies and a smiling Will is passing out discs. We dance and drink and soak up the Cubanía in a mutual love fest, while ‘El Loco,’ a friend from bike polo, gets it all on video. I feel my musical sixth sense being validated: I didn’t know why these cats had to come play Cuba, but knew magic might happen if they did.

El Loco and Terry, his 'brother from another mother'

El Loco and Terry, his ‘brother from another mother’

When we stop to care, it’s 1am – time to move on to the next fiesta. Little by little we move equipment, band, and ‘frens’ (see note 3) to the sidewalk and talk about where to go and what to do. Adam is the last to saunter out, his Bass Face, traded long ago in for his Cuban perma-grin.

“We ready?” he asks looking from face to beaming face, lingering on the torpid eyes of the mulata by his side.

Vamos!” we sing out.

“Where’s your bass?” someone asks.

He looks around expectantly. The group looks around hopefully, but I know. In the euphoria of their debut set, combined with the sassy, brassy salsa of Wil Campa, and the dancing frenzy fueled by 7-year old rum, ladrones had struck: some cheeky Cuban walked with that fretless Fender bass. I watch the Festival come to a screeching halt for the Will Magid 4.

“I don’t know where to get a bass on such short notice,” I say when someone suggests it.

“You’re not going to see that bass again,” one of the Insta-Groupies adds unhelpfully.

Feo, feo, feo,” one of the Cuban musicians says shaking his head.

Ugly indeed and I feel completely responsible. I could and should have warned them of certain dangers and risks.

“Well, I made the donation,” Adam says, taking the theft in elegant stride. “And at least I know it will get to a musician who needs it.”

Just then, a chic woman appears speaking perfect English, asking what happened. At her elbow is a good-looking blond guy with ojos claros nodding along with the growing crowd of musicians as she explains Cuban realities and how robberies spike at the end of the year. Feeling responsible for the mierda that has gone down and remiss for not warning them, I wonder aloud how they’ll play their next gigs.

“I’ll loan you a bass,” ojos claros says with authority.

“This is Wil Campa. I’m his wife Tony,” the chic woman explains. “Here’s my cell – call when you’re ready to sound check tomorrow and we’ll bring it by.”

My heart swells and I swoon – once again – for this island where one minute you’re the victim of a robbery and the next the recipient of generosity and solidarity unparalled.

The show (and party) would indeed go on…

Stay tuned for Adventures of the Cuban Virgins Part II.

Notes
1. The line up stateside is actually the Will Magid Trio, but grew to four, plus four, for the trip south proving the Cuban mantra: the more the merrier.

2. By the end of the trip, most everyone, (again, getting their Cuban on), had a nickname: Terry is “Fancy LA,” Josue is the “Dairy Fairy,” Adam is “Bass Face/Rubiocito,” Ethan is “Emerson,” and Julie is….in solidarity with my rock ‘n roll sistah, I will not reveal the nickname pinned on her the last night.

3. A good band always attracts hangers-on and it doesn’t surprise me that within 48 hours, these handsome/talented/foreign musicians are surrounded by pretty/charming/bored Cubanas.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba