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Sunday, April 28, 2002

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Another double-header day: The rumba at Callejon Hamel and Manolito Y Su Trabuco at Casa De La Musica. If you are ever in Habana on a Sunday, get yourself over to Callejon Hamel in Centro (entre Aramburo Y Hospital, Centro). The artist Salvador Gonzalez has tranformed this little street into a living, breathing, constantly evolving work of art like nothing I've seen. There is no charge for the rumba, and of course there is a bar serving up mojitos, rum and ice cold beer. Salvador is a tall, elegant, well dressed fifty-something man with a Cohiba cigar. I introduced myself to him and told him I was friends with Jack O'neil, who featured Salvador's work in the book that accompanies his excellent Cuba: I Am Time box set. In fact, the title of that collection comes from one of Salvador's murals: Puedo esparar más que tu, porque soy tiempo. (I can wait longer than you, because I am time). I told him that I had based the art on the Mamborama CD cover on his work, and that I would bring him a copy the next time I came.

My friend Harón introduced me to Leonel Cuesta, one of the rumberos. His group Iroso Obba closed out the show each Sunday that I was there. We got along immediately, and Leonel became one of my best friends while I was there. A real party animal, and a great player. When they played, Leonel pulled me into the closed off stage area and made sure that the rum got passed to me. The congueros of this group were amazing. Two of them sat on cajones (boxes) that were built like tuned port bass cabinets. When they thumped these things, it was like a deep kick drum. They played tumbaos that moved from the cajones to the congas and each played a rhythm that played off the other. Polyrhythm on top of polyrhythm. Add to this a third conguero playing quinto, Leonel on palitos, and three singers, two of whom add even more polyrhythms with claves and campana. A deep, hypnotic groove. Towards the end of the set, Leonel passed the claves to me, and for a few brief happy moments, I was a rumbero de Callejon Hamel.

Manolito Simonet & FamilyAfter the rumba, I headed over to Manolito Simonet's house. On my first trip two years ago, Manolito and I became friends, and he was good enough to teach me some piano. He has a wonderful family, and his mother-in-law has to be the best cook in La Habana. We piled into Manolito's car and headed out of town to the house of his road manager, Paquito. Manolito was surprised when I sang the title song from the new Trabuco CD, Se Rompieron Los Termometros. It hadn't been released yet in Cuba. I had been to Paquito's house two years ago as well, and it was great to see everyone—his father is great fun to talk to. Manolito played me highlights from the new Trabuco album. Absolute knockout stuff—it's his best album to date: killer songs, great performances, monster arrangements and of course it's all propelled by that powerhouse Trabuco groove. This is a highly recommended CD.

Rum flowed, we ate, and after a few hours, we headed back into the city, and Manolito dropped me off at my place. The evening was spent at La Casa De La Musica, and Trabuco tore the roof off the place. It was packed, and Mayito of Van Van, and Lázaro of Bamboleo were in the audience. Manolito has retired Manteca as the opening tune, and they started off with El Diablo Colorao, one of the new ones from the new CD. The new keyboard player is all of twenty years old, but plays very strong and confidently. The rest of the group is unchanged since I saw them two years ago. Except that they're even tighter and groove even harder. Their two hour set never slowed down for a minute—Manolito doesn't have any dead space between tunes. They played Marcando La Distancia, La Boda De Belen, Musica Cubana, and lots from the new album. One of the very best bands in Cuba, and it's bizarre that they are almost totally unknown in the States.

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