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Wednesday, May 8, 2002 - the evening

I called around to the various clubs to make sure I wasn't missing anything special. Although I would gladly go groove to the Trabuco every night of the week, there are a ton of great groups in La Habana, and I wanted to get a variety if I could. Unfortunately, the wealth of groups from the previous week was not repeated this week, most likely due to a huge tourism convention in the nearby beach resort town of Veradero. I worked the phone, and besides Trabuco, the only offering for the night was Pedrito Calvo, formerly with Van Van. Not my cup of ron. Pedrito con Van Van, si. Sin Van Van, no. So, the plan for the evening was to try to catch Rolando Luna's jazz group at La Zorra for an hour, and then head up La Rampa to the Turquino atop the Habana Libre for Manolito Y Su Trabuco.

Around 10:30 I went over to La Zorra, and the manager was standing outside. He addressed me as "Maestro" (that cracks me up when Cubans do that—I'm never quite sure if they're being facetious or what). He kindly inquired about my eye, because the last time I was there I was sporting my accident victim look with the bandage. I asked if the Rolando was going to start right at eleven. Of course, he said. "¿Seguro?" "Si, claro." Not believing him for a minute, I paid the five buck cover and went in. I had nothing else to do for the next hour and a half, I might as well sip some rum and talk to the cocktail waitresses, who by now treated me like an old friend.

At eleven, no musicians were visible in the club. At 11:15, they started to straggle in. By 11:30, they actually started to take their instruments out of their cases while chatting with each other and getting caught up on the latest gossip. What’s the hurry, after all? At 11:45, I saw that the drummer had yet to get his cymbals out of the bag and the drum kit was only halfway set up. It was apparent by now that there was no way that any music would be played before 12:15, so I decided to head for the Habana Libre. It’s funny, because here in the States, club owners get all over me if we haven’t started at five minutes past the scheduled downbeat, whether there’s anyone in the club or not. Sometimes in Cuba, the band doesn’t hit the stage til one in the morning.

Too bad I couldn’t hear Rolando’s group—he is an amazing loco cowboy Timba pianista when he plays with Issac Delgado’s group, and I was curious to hear him on a jazz gig, but it will have to wait til next time. Yet another of the million reasons to get back to La Habana pronto.
Manolito had put me on the guest list at the Turquino. This club has seen better days, and like much in Habana, it could use a little fixing up here and there, but what a great place to hear music. It’s on the 25th floor of the Habana Libre hotel, and the views of the city at night are awesome. The club itself is medium-sized and the two level stage was a tight fit for Trabuco’s 14 musicians, but what a great place to get close-up views of the bands. Los Van Van was going to be playing there on the upcoming Friday, but that was the day I had to fly out.

This was the ultimate home town gig for Manolito, because he lives right across the street. The whole extended family was sitting at a big table by the side of the stage, and I was invited to join them. The musicians were still arriving, and I had a drink with the family. When Sixto “El Indio” Llorente showed up, I sat at his table and we talked. I love this guy’s voice, and I asked him if he would consider singing on one of our tunes if I could manage to record in Habana. Como no, was his reply and I told him the story of the lyrics and sang him the coro. He immediately started to rip out improvisations on it right there on the spot. He is one of, if not the best singers in Habana today. The guy’s tone, intonation and timing are all impeccable, and he has got to be the best improviser down there. I heard Trabuco a total of four times in the two weeks I was there, and his guias were different every night. We spent a good forty minutes talking and as is always the case in Cuba, became friends right then and there. He has a great sense of humor and is very humble about his talent, as are most Cuban geniuses. That attitude is what keeps them constantly improving. And, with so many amazing musicians living in that town, it would be hard to get too egotistic about your musicianship, because there might be some seventeen-year-old kid that comes along tomorrow and blows you off the stage.

When the group started, I stood near the stage to watch Manolito’s hands. He is a rock-solid player—he has more drive and funk in his playing than just about anyone else, and he always has a few tricks up his sleeve, especially if he knows that another piano player is listening. The Producer of the show, the gold chain-laden Javier was standing beside me. The Turquino had graciously provided four gorgeous chicas in matching skintight costumes to dance in front of the stage. Curiously, they faced the band as they danced, not the crowd, but believe me, the view was wonderful from any angle. One of them was especially stunning: a million dollar supermodel-looking cafe con crema mulatta with long curly hair and all the moves. I made the mistake of pointing her out to Javier. He said, “you want her?” I politely declined, mumbling something about not having much money with me. Without a beat, Javier tried to relieve my financial difficulties by offering to buy my shirt. A true businessman. He and Chucho “El Capitalista” should start a company together.

Trabuco played with awesome force and power that night. The set list was different from the last time.. The one tune they play live that doesn’t do much for me is the Mezcla de Cumbia medley they do. I’m not real big on Cumbia, but it goes over big with the Latin American tourists and the dance floor is always packed when they play it. For me, it’s my opportunity to refresh my Habana Club Reserva, so I headed for the bar. For the fifteenth time that night, I was approached by an enterprising jinetera. I was suffering from jinetero/a fatigue, so I decided to have some fun with her. I asked, “What is it about you Cuban girls that you all seem to like old fat men? There are lots of younger, more handsome guys here—why are you so taken with me?” She was not amused, and turned and left. I don’t have any problem with jinetero/as, I know everyone down there has to hustle in one way or another, but I got bored with the same questions and answers every time. I got so that when guys in the street that wanted to sell me cigars asked me what country I was from, I started telling them that I was from Cuba. One guy I told this lie to just laughed and immediately got what I telling him: not interested. Others would raise their eyebrows in disbelief and challenge me. “You’re not from Cuba!” “Yes I am, from Oriente, Holguín! My parents are Spaniards!” It still didn’t trick them, but it was more fun than the everyday conversations, which became identical after awhile.

The rest of the night was spent alternately watching Trabuco and the chicas who were so erotically interpreting the music with their moves on the dance floor. Some of these knockouts were moving their hips more frenetically than any Samba dancer. A sight to behold, and you couldn’t ask for a better soundtrack than the mighty and powerful Trabuco. By the way, the new billing is Manolito Simonet Y Su Trabuco, Not just any old Manolito.

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Manolito Simonet Y Su Trabuco tearing up Linda Melodia at the Casa De La Musica.

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