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Thursday, May 2, 2002

I spent the morning practising, and hung out at Manolito's in the afternoon. There is always a flood of visitors and various extended family at Manolito's house. There is usually a bottle of rum on the coffee table with a bucket of ice, and the afternoons are often spent listening to various CDs, telling stories and lots of laughter. Manolo's mother-in-law invariably brings out something great from the kitchen for people to snack on—the woman has to be the best cook in La Habana. A frequent visitor was Germán Velasco of Irakére, one of the top sax players in Cuba.

Today when I arrived, there was a giant of a man with a thick black beard filling up one of the chairs in the living room. Manolito introduced me to him, saying I was a musician from Los Angeles, etc., and then told me that his guest was a very fine producer and arranger and that he was the guy who played that amazing violin solo on the Grammy winning CD La Rumba Soy Yo. I asked, "Track number 7?," And he smiled and said yes. "Coño!" It was Lazaro Dagoberto Gonzalez, the soloist on Un Violin Pa' Chano on that CD.

Manolito played some of the CDs Dagoberto had produced. If you ever want some amazingly lush and inventive string charts if you're recording in Habana, this is your guy. Manolito played tune after tune, and CD after CD of wonderful arrangements and excellent production. Manolito then played a few things that he had produced and arranged for other artists, and of course if you know his work at all, you know that he is a monster writer and arranger.

I remembered that I had arranged a meeting with Bellita's engineer to buy a CD of her performance at La Zorra so I ducked out for a minute—the engineer lived just two blocks away. On the way back, I bought five or six cucuruchos for everyone from an old woman selling them outside of Coppelia. When I came back into Manolito's apartment with these in my hand, Dagoberto laughed and said, "Ah, el manicero!"

manolito y su trabucoThat night Trabuco was back at the Casa De La Musica, and so was I. I got there way too early for lack of anything better to do. You have to pace yourself going to these shows in Habana, because sometimes the main group won't take the stage til two in the morning. Don't start drinking til you see the whites of their eyes, as Kevin Moore says.

A guy who had been down at La Zorra the night before came over and talked to me—he had heard me play with Jazz Tumbatá. He was from Zürich, so we spent a few moments talking about the Latin scene there. I asked him if had liked the group, and he said no. "Too many notes. I don't like." But majesty, there are only so many notes as are required. Which notes should I remove? I changed the subject to Cuba. He didn't have anything very complimentary to say about Cuba either. "These Cuban people are so hard." Huh? That would never occur to me to describe Cuban as "hard." Even the most aggressive Jinetero/as do their hustling with a sense of humor and a smile. His next complaint was that he couldn't have an intelligent conversation with Cubans about science. What about the Cuban biotech industry, I asked. "No, I can't talk about science with these people." "Man, you are in the third world, after all," I said. "If you want to talk about science, maybe you should vacation in Oslo or Japan or somewhere."

I excused myself from this dour creature to wander around looking for people I knew. Javier, the Productor of Trabuco's live shows was there. Javier is a true show business guy. He is an extremely large man, always wearing a sport coat regardless of the heat, along with some glitzy Italian shades, about fifty pounds of gaudy gold chains and a big Cohiba cigar. Kevin's friend Chucho "El Capitalista" was there, looking shiny and dressed to the max. He sat me down at a table and pulled a little bottle of rum out of his pocket and poured me a drink.

As guys sitting around night clubs often do, we made appreciative comments about various chicas lindas that wandered by. I pointed out one that was endowed with some rather sizeable breasts to Chucho. "You like?," he asked. What's not to like?, I said. Twenty minutes later, after Trabuco had started playing, I was standing on the stairs on stage left to get a good view of Manolito's tumbaos when Chucho came over beaming, towing the voluptuous chica I had pointed out before. He shoved her at me, saying her name was Becky, as if she were a gift to me. She began the all-familiar jinetera twenty questions interview: "What your name? What country you from," etc. I politely explained to her that I was here studying music and maybe we could talk later. She wandered off in search of other turistas to interview. Chucho is quite an accommodating fellow. Whatever you need, Chucho can provide.

Trabuco was sounding as strong as ever. Manolito changes the set list from night to night, so repeated listenings were never dull. Towards the end of the set, Manolito motioned for me to come up and play. Unfortunately, it was not one of the Trabuco songs that I know. He motioned with his eyes for me to look at what he was playing, as if I could learn a complex sixteenth note harmonized tumbao in two bars. He stepped away from the piano, and I started faking it the best I could. I had the key right at least. Manolito brought the band down for me to take a solo, and while I was improvising, the harmony of the tune became apparent to my rum-soaked brain, and I was able to finish by not playing Manolito's exact tumbao, but at least one that worked, and for those few fleeting moments, I was holding the reins of the Trabuco, and let me tell you, what a charged, adrenaline producing feeling that is.

Still, after the show, I was unhappy with the way I had played, and I went backstage and apologized to the musicians. No, no, no, they insisted, you did fine. I know better, but the Cuban musicians seem to enjoy seeing someone from El Yuma playing or attempting to play their music. Whatever. At least I made my debut at the Casa De La Musica.

I had my taxi drop me off at the El Rápido close to my house for a bite to eat and a beer. I was sitting there enjoying the tropical night air when Eduardo, the bass player from Trabuco wandered by. I invited him to sit with me and bought him a beer. We were talking when a few minutes later, Osiris, the former synth player for Trabuco walked past. I said, "Coño! Don't you remember me? Two years ago?" The light went on, he shouted "Beel!," and he joined us for a beer, and we sat talking til about five in the morning. Osiris is now the keyboard player for Pupy Y Los Que Son, Son. He invited me to join him Friday night at Egrem studios in Miramar for a recording session with Pupy and the band, including the legendary Changuito, the original drummer of Los Van Van. My plans for Friday were in flux due to an embarrassment of riches. I had originally planned to go hear Issac Delgado at the Habana Cafe, but Manolito had invited me to go with him and the group on the bus to Cienfuegos. I was considering doing this, because Issac plays California quite often, but Osiris’ offer won out. I love watching these guys work in the studio—they always have fun recording, and there is always something new to learn hanging around sessions with someone as experienced as Pupy.

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An excerpt of Dagoberto's violin solo from La Rumba Soy Yo.

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A coro from El Diablo Colorao from Manolito Y Su Trabuco's newest album. El Indio is the vocalist.

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