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A bottle of rum and a little rumba

A group of WYPR members and our program director,  Andy Bienstock, went to Cuba last week for the International Jazz Festival in Havana. And WYPR’s City Hall reporter, Dominique Maria Bonessi, tagged along in search of her Cuban roots and to try to figure out just what’s the difference between Cuban and American jazz.

First, we tried some WYPR members on their way to the festival to see if they could explain the difference.

“The difference for me is the pattern," said Mollie Dobb. "The like the beat that is in the background, that is what I enjoy the most being able to follow it.”

“I think that the percussion is quite different because they have a lot more hand drums than just drum sets," said Edmond Cronin.

So, then I turned to the experts.

“Most of the world think that Latin Jazz is just Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz. But we have to be very clear about that because Latin Jazz is not only Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz!” says Cesar Orozco, an alum from the Johns Hopkins’s Peabody Institute for jazz piano, left Cuba in 1997 to perform with a Venezuelan Orchestra.

Seven years later, Orozco came to Baltimore. Today he is a music teacher in New York City and—every once in a while—comes to Baltimore for performances. He plays jazz piano and violin.

“Personally I have a lot of interest in music from Peru or Argentina," says Orozco. "There are a lot of very interesting Tango projects that mix tango with jazz, and for me are really brilliant.”

One of our WYPR trip members, Bill Nurenberg, was part of the jazz faculty at the Peabody Institute.

“In America jazz migrated from the gut to the brain and that is where it stayed, and I like that," says Nurenberg. "But I also like feeling the primitive rhythm and the drive that Latin Jazz has.”

Nurenberg says that Cuban and Latin Jazz rely more on traditional harmony while American jazz is outside those standards—allowing the artist to be more inventive.

“I think Latin Jazz and Afro-Cuban Jazz have sort of orthodoxy about them," Nurenberg says. "American jazz had that, but we abandoned it."

Nurenberg says American recording labels use to support jazz musicians, but they no longer do that as much.

“As a result the musicians have sort of gone in their own direction and there has been less of a drive to follow a certain style," says Nurenberg.

While American jazz has less of a particular style to follow, Nurenberg says, Afro-Cuban and Latin Jazz rely heavily on bongos and conga.

“It goes back to pre-historic times when the drum was used as a means of communication from tribe to tribe.”

And Cuban jazz combines the traditional music of the island with jazz rhythms. Emilio Marti, a Cuban guitarist who was playing at the historic Hotel Nacional in Havana explains.

“The word jazz doesn’t really represent a genre. It’s more of an attitude," Emilio says. "The biggest difference for me is that Cuban Jazz rooted in traditional Cuban music. And the vocabulary is completely different.”

Marti says he likes to use the best parts of jazz like improvisation. Marti and Orozco take their cues from some of the greatest jazz musicians in Cuba. There’s Chucho Valdes, the grand marshal of this year’s international jazz festival. Valdes is able to combine traditional Cuban music with jazz, create jazz arrangements from classical Polish compositions like Frederic Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor and lay down a standard American blues.

There is also “El Inolvidable”—the unforgettable one—Tito Rodriguez, a Cuban-Puerto-Rican artist.

Rodriguez takes traditional songs, like La Negra Tomasa, from both Puerto Rico and Cuba and finds a way to mix them into jazz melodies.

The big question that remains is how does Cuba have all these talented musicians? Is there something in the water?

"I’ve never thought about it like that, but maybe it is the water or the air we breathe here. Or the rum," chuckles Marti. "But in all seriousness, I think for Cubans it is something that is incorporated into their DNA."

Marti also points out that Cuba has a system where children as young as eight can begin attending a conservatory for music alongside regular classes and make a career out of it.

"Also in Cuba, we find refuge and relief in the music with all the problems we’ve had throughout the years," says Marti. "Problems are solved with a bottle of rum and a rumba.”

Through economic hardship and the volatile political situation, Cubans use jazz as an escape. They make it their own in the best way they know how, by being resourceful, creative, and proud of their roots.