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Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Marcos picked me up in the morning to go to the Klimax rehearsal. Marcos lives pretty well by Cuban standards. His father is the famous trumpet player "El Greco." He drove up in a beautifully restored Willys Jeep and we headed off to Marianao for the rehearsal. We got caught up on the way. The conversation was kind of weird, because he spoke English, and I spoke Spanish. I guess we were both practising our new languages. His English is a bit better than my Spanish, though, so it was helpful to be able to switch to English when my vocabulary failed me (often) rather than resort to a bilingual game of charades.

The building where the rehearsal was to be held looked somewhat like an elementary school or a gymnasium. There was a giant Olympic-sized swimming pool sitting empty behind it. Marcos introduced me to the members of Klimax who were waiting for band leader and founder Piloto who was off paying the rent for the hall. Like everything else in Cuba, the start time of ten o'clock was just a point of reference. If you are someone who gets anxiety attacks if things don't start right on time, or go according to a pre-planned schedule, Cuba will drive you nuts. Myself, I prefer the relaxed, no-hurry pace. We had plenty of time to talk and tell stories waiting for Piloto.

He finally arrived around twelve. Marcos introduced me (we had only spoken by phone at this point), and we headed up to the rehearsal hall, which was up the stairs and down a long hall. It turned out to be a huge empty theater, complete with catwalks and an orchestra pit. The gear was all set up: there were four roadies and tecnicos working. Man, I wish my rehearsals could be like this: full sound, monitors, recording from the console to play back the rehearsal, the full deal, just like a Van Halen rehearsal on a Hollywood sound stage before a tour. This is these guys' job: they get paid to rehearse—the tecnicos get paid to work the rehearsal, and this is why these Cuban bands can pull off such amazing musical magic tricks. They rehearse four or five times a week when they're not touring, and gig maybe three or four nights a week. This is one of the major differences between American and Cuban groups. It's often downright impossible to do much of any rehearsing here, because every musician is playing as many gigs with as many groups as he can, just to get the rent paid. Getting a time when everyone can get together is often impossible.

The group started running through some new tunes, and sounded incredible. Piloto is an amazing musician. He writes most of the songs, does most of the arranging, and is one of the best drummers in Cuba. His group is incredibly tight, and you never would have guessed that they were breaking in a new bass player—he was playing as though he had been with them all along. The percussion section is made up of Piloto on traps and timbales, Julio López on congas, and Jean R. San Cristóbal playing a percussion kitchen sink setup that includes timbales, bongos on a stand, a guiro mounted on a stand, and three batá drums strapped together. The groove is deep and funky.

After a few tunes, Piloto's bass drum pedal broke, so while he was fixing it, Marcos asked me to play some of the tumbaos I had learned. He wanted to show his buddies the oddity of this Yanquí playing Cuban style. I played Pupy's tumbao from Que Tiene Van Van? and the whole band (sans Piloto, still fixing the pedal) started playing and the three singers were all over it: "Que tiene Van Van? Que sigue ahí, ahí, así..." Next I played El Negro Está Cocinando and the same thing happened: "Qué no le toque la puerta, el negro está cocinando! no, no, no, no, no, que no le toque..." Marcos requested Manolito's Marcando La Distancia, and the band fell right into it and the singers knew most of the words.

I laughed and told Marcos that now I could brag to my friends that I played with Klimax! He said he had never heard Klimax play Van Van before! Too funny.

After this surrealistic interlude, the drum pedal was fixed and they got back to business. I was proud to see that Marcos has become Piloto's right-hand man after two years with the group. Marcos is tremendously talented, and just 23 years old. Between Piloto, Yusef the keyboard player (another monstrously talented guy) and Marcos, they hammered out some changes to the horn chart.

The last tune they ran through was from the upcoming Giraldo Piloto: Klimax & Friends Latin jazz album. They take Latin Jazz into unexplored 21st century territory on this album. There is some amazing stuff on it.

After the rehearsal, Marcos and I went tooling around Havana in his Jeep. He needed to pick up his visa for some gigs in Curaçao, and then we headed out to Miramar for lunch at his favorite restaurant, Palenque. Now my favorite restaurant as well: same sort of great comida criolla as El Aljibe (my former favorite, and still big on the list), but at one fourth the price. You're welcome. We had a stupendous meal and finished up with a few Havana Club Reservas. We talked about everything from music to politics and after a few hours of a leisurely meal, Marcos dropped me off at my place, declining my offer to go hear Manolito at the Habana Libre that night. Being newly married, night life is a bit different for Marcos now.

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An excerpt of Klimax's Regalo De Amor from their Oye Como Va album. I love the contrapuntal horn lines when they quote Caravan.

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