Back to Cuba, Through a Door I Hope Doesn't Slam Shut Again

Chucho Valdés (left) first played the Jazz Plaza Havana Festival in 1980, leading his legendary band, Irakere. He is the music director of this 32nd edition. Pianist Roberto Fonseca was just 15 at his Jazz Plaza Havana debut. He sis artistic director of the first edition of a sister event, Jazz Plaza Santiago.

Hard to believe I’m at JFK airport waiting to fly to Havana. Hard to believe I’m going back (haven’t been since 2010). Hard to believe I can fly direct, and for less than it costs to visit my folks in Jacksonville. Hard to believe that this sudden ease, and the renewal of cultural exchange that was missing during the Bush years may soon get shut down again by a brutal Fascist.

Fidel, of course, is gone. Trump will be president. Among the things these two men have in common: they rose to power surprisingly, and by making promises quickly abandoned; they mastered the dark arts of fearmongering and propaganda. Among the things they don’t share: One of them was exceedingly literate and recognized the meaning and value of culture.
Not sure I’ll bring back rum or cigars when I return from the 32nd annual Havana Jazz Plaza Festival, but I will come back to with stories to write. Stories about pianist Arturo O’Farrill, who travels back this time with the ashes of his father, composer/bandleader Chico O’Farrill, to repatriate to an abandoned homeland. About trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who makes his first trip to the island, with a band that includes pianist Fabian Almazan, who left Cuba at age 9 and hasn’t yet returned. About pianist Chucho Valdés, a towering presence among Cuban musicians and the longtime music director of this festival. And about other Cuban musicians, such as trumpeter Yasek Manzano, who we rarely get to hear in the U.S.
And about the long embrace between U.S. and Cuban musicians, and the issues of identity and politics that swirl around it.
Here’s some background—a piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal (also pasted below), after Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced a path toward normalized relations.

Continue reading “Back to Cuba, Through a Door I Hope Doesn't Slam Shut Again”