Preservation Hall Jazz Band
A Tuba to Cuba
A Tuba to Cuba is the culmination of a decades old dream of Allan Jaffe, the founder of Preservation Hall in New Orleans. He knew that New Orleans and Havana have a shared cultural and musical heritage. New Orleans and Cuba share a colonial heritage as Spanish colonies with slave based economies. That legacy is seen in the architecture and felt in the rhythms that live on in the music. Allan Jaffe wanted to take the idea of Preservation Hall and link it to the larger heritage of the Caribbean. After all, people say New Orleans is the northern most outpost of the Caribbean. Of course, Preservation Hall was founded in 1961 and any outreach to Cuba would have to wait for an easing of tensions.
In 2015, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band fulfilled Allan’s dream with a two-week pilgrimage to Cuba. They went to the island with open hearts and open minds, to meet and share experiences with Cuban musicians. They went to explore how African and Spanish heritage influenced their music. Some things they found to be very familiar. In Havana, they find a shared mission of preserving musical traditions and teaching new generations with Piquete Tipico. Like Preservation Hall, Piquete Tipico was founded by older musicians who passed their knowledge to younger players, who are now the elders.
In Santiago de Cuba, the Preservation Hall players found a lively musical culture similar to New Orleans. The neighborhoods have their own Conga organization, which are similar to the Social Aid and Pleasure Societies responsible for the second line parades. It’s pure joy to see the Preservation Hall musicians get into a street jam with the San Agustin. The tour ends in the city of Cienfuegos, which was founded by refugees dissatisfied with the Louisiana Purchase. The final concert was performed at the venerable Teatro Terry, an old wooden theater with a water feature under the stage that allows the building to be tuned to suit the performances. Musicians from Santiago de Cuba join the Preservation Hall band to perform “Keep Your Head Up,” which was inspired by that street jam.
Watching the Preservation Hall members interacting with Cuban musicians, I’m struck by the humility they display. There is a scene where Pianist Ricky Monie is trying to learn a piece from a Cuban pianist. Monie can’t get it right and vamps a New Orleans style version of the idea. He laughs and says, “Next time I see you, I will learn it the way you play it. I want to play it correctly.” There is always something to learn.
The album A Tuba to Cuba isn’t really a soundtrack album. “Las Palomas,” is the only song taken directly from the film. Guitarist/guitar maker Alejandro Almenares performs the song that was written by his father. The remaining eleven tracks are elaborations on what the Preservation Hall players learned from their experiences. They play a traditional tune, “Descarga del Speteto” using an arrangement by Speteto Tipico Oriental. “Tumba” is swinging, jazz number inspired by a vocal sample of Tumba Francesa from the movie.
“Kreyol” is a Latin jazz number that pays homage to the Creole tradition, the blending of European and African ideas, that is so much a part of both Cuban and Louisiana culture. “El Manicero” is a jaunty traditional number with a vocal that hints at Louis Armstrong. The album closes with “Malecon,” a song inspired by the harbor side promenade, which is a focal point of Havana social life. The song transmits the languid feel of evenings by the sea and the timeless ritual of gathering to see old friends and make new ones.
At the end of the movie, Ben Jaffe says that what they want to take away from their Cuban experience is a commitment to continue to learn and grow. The song on the record that embodies that commitment is “Keep Your Head Up,” the song inspired by the street jam in Santiago. It’s a joyous blend of brass band funk, Indian chant and Cuban spirit. Eme Alfonso provides a lead voice while the band spins riffs and chants around her. The chant of “keep your head up” works for country struggling with economic hardship and a city almost washed away. As the song fades away, it echoes like a promise, from members of a family separated by water, time and politics to keep the spirit alive.