New Box Set Captures The Golden Age Of Afro-Cuban Music

Oct 11, 2018
Originally published on October 11, 2018 11:14 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's remember this morning how Havana sounded back in the 1950s and 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: The music you're hearing here is part of a new box set that really captures the golden age of Afro-Cuban music. It contains five legendary albums featuring some of Cuba's finest musicians. These recordings were made in Havana's Pan Art studios between 1956 and 1964. That's the period just before Communist leader Fidel Castro nationalized the recording industry. And since then, these albums have become extremely hard to come by - until now, that is. This set is called "The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions" Volumes 1 through 5. And here to talk about it is Felix Contreras, host of NPR's Alt Latino podcast. Hey, Felix.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Hey, David. What's happening?

GREENE: Well, I'm enjoying this music. Actually, there's very little Cuban music you've played me that I don't like. So what makes this special?

CONTRERAS: First of all, the studio. The Pan Art studio was the best studio in Cuba, so virtually every major Cuban artist had played there at some point or another. And these sessions are from after-hours jam sessions after the musicians played their gigs at places like the Hotel Nacional and the really opulent Tropicana nightclub. These are the best musicians gathered together to experiment with that mixture of Afro-Cuban music and jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF CACHAO'S "DESCARGA CUBANA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in foreign language).

GREENE: So this was like the after-hours stuff?

CONTRERAS: Yeah. They take off all those frilly shirts and their little jackets, and they would just go into the room and just start playing. And the owner of the studio ran tape the whole time, sometimes between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

GREENE: Wow, till the sun would come up.

CONTRERAS: There you go.

GREENE: So what happened exactly when Castro came to power?

CONTRERAS: OK. Eventually, he nationalized the recording industry, and the bureaucrats take over, right? And the freewheeling Bohemian scene suffered a little bit because the government felt there was a reflection of the decadence of the United States. So the owners of the studio were concerned about what was going to happen with the masters and what was going to happen to the style of music. So they started taking these masters and smuggling them out of the country and depositing them in different Latin American countries along the way.

GREENE: So what happened to those recordings over the years in hiding?

CONTRERAS: Eventually, they were sold to different labels in Latin America over the years. Some shoddy reproductions were produced along the way, but most of the albums became incredibly hard to find. So finally, a couple of years ago, a California label - Craft Recordings - bought this Mexican label that was holding onto these tapes. And they figured out what they were holding, and they decided to put something like this together.

(SOUNDBITE OF CACHAO'S "PAMPARANA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in Spanish).

GREENE: So what are some of the highlights here? What stands out?

CONTRERAS: OK. There's one in particular that I call the crown jewel of the of the collection. It's called "Jam Sessions In Miniature." It's by the famous bassist Israel Lopez or Cachao. And you got to check this out because the music is just - it's right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF CACHAO'S "PAMPARANA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in foreign language).

GREENE: Yeah. I see what you mean. I see what you mean.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

GREENE: So does all increase how we understand Cuban music in some way?

CONTRERAS: You know, with these sessions, we are now in the room as these musicians are basically creating a new genre, latin jazz, a combination of Afro-Cuban rhythms like cha cha cha, mambo and rhumba and the harmonic sophistication of jazz from the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIO GUTIERREZ'S "JAM SESSION (DESCARGA CALIENTE)")

GREENE: Cool. Felix Contreras is host of NPR's Alt Latino podcast. Thanks for telling us about this cool stuff.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That new box set Felix told us about, it is called "The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions" Volume 1 through 5. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.