NG La Banda

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Friday, April 26, 2002

The way to get to Habana is the direct charter from LA (CTS). You need to get a license to go on one of these because of the embargo, but as a musician, I have no trouble qualifying. This is so much better than going through Cancún. It's a short five and a half hour flight, and then there you are, in La Habana. The plane gets in around 8:30 PM, so by 10:00, I was all moved into my casa particular and was walking around Vedado looking for la musica.

My Spanish has always been bad, and I should have done more studying since my last trip, but I am a lazy bastard when it comes to such things. Yet, in the taxi from the airport into town, I realize that I am able to understand what the driver is saying. Before, 90 percent of my communication was one-sided. I was able to say what I wanted to say, but the responses were almost always indecipherable. Now for some strange reason, I am picking up far more than I had two years ago. It's as though I have Douglas Adam's' babelfish in my ear. I guess it's the result of listening to Cuban music nonstop for three years: I must have picked up some of it subliminally.

I walked down to the Hotel Riviera, but it turns out that the best bet for the night is NG La Banda at the Casa De La Musica. I take one of those silly looking bug taxis (the Coco) to get there. This thing is a modified motorcycle with two hard plastic seats encased in a round yellow plastic enclosure. You sit behind the driver on one of the molded plastic seats in back. With a guy as big as I am sitting in the back, the weight distribution was dangerously one-sided. I was always sure that the thing was going to flip over on a hard right turn.

The chica driving tonight is probably 16, and it's her first day. She can't drive at all—my ride is her on-the-job training. She tears the bumper off another taxi when she pulls out, and we haven't gone four blocks when she gets pulled over by a cop for driving with her lights off. But she only got lost three times, and eventually we made it to the Casa De La Musica.

The opening act tonight is Yoruba Andabo from the Grammy winning CD La Rumba Soy Yo. This is a huge improvement over the awful opening acts I endured on my last trip. The whole group is dressed in white and rumba dancers perform in front of the band. They sound great—absolutely killer.

NG La Banda plays the same set they've played for the last two years, but tonight they are playing with much more enthusiasm than the last time I heard them. They open with their monster version of Chick Corea's Spain, and the solos are absolutely awesome. There are so many killer musicians in this band. After a few rocking Timba tunes, the set starts pandering to tourists with merengue and cumbia, but they wound up with their trademark Santa Palabra and just tore the roof off the place.

The rum flows, everyone in the room is my friend, and I'm filled with such happiness to be here that I drink way too much rum. Que será, será. My mysterious ability to understand Cuban speech diminishes with each drink, too. The babelfish is getting a bit tipsy.

< previous | next: a different Chucho and a rumba >

An excerpt from NG La Banda's trademark show opener Spain. Don't try this at home.

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Yoruba Andabo's La Habana from the Grammy-winning La Rumba Soy Yo.

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