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Jane Bunnett spotlights the spirit & energy of female Cuban musicians in Maqueque

The jazz face which Cuba has shown to the outside world has been primarily male. But Jane Bunnett is working to change that with her new group, Maqueque.

Jane Bunnett and Maqueue's first CDThe Toronto jazz flutist/saxophonist is famed for her decades-long championing of Cuban music, and for being a mentor to many well-known Cuban jazz musicians who have come north to learn and to perform. But until now, those Cubans she mentored in Canada were all male.

This new group, though, consists of five young women musicians from Cuba, plus Bunnett – the first all-female group she's led. They've just released their first CD and are currently touring across Canada.

They will perform in Ottawa on Thursday and Friday at GigSpace.

The band's name, “Maqueque”, means “the spirit or the energy of a little girl,” Bunnett said. “We went to the lead vocalist – well I can't really say she's the lead but she's the foundation of how the whole group started – Daymé went to her grandmother who's very steeped in the Afro-Cuban religion and asked her for a good name for the group when we formed. And she came up with about five different names and that was the one that I really liked. I liked the sound of it and then I liked the idea of the feisty young little girl. I picture how I was as a child – I was feisty!”

The Cuban musicians are young: with one exception, they're in their very early 20s. All graduates of Cuban music conservatories, they come from several different Cuban provinces, including Santiago de Cuba and Havana, each of which has a different musical tradition and vibe. They play a wide range of instruments: drums (Yissy García), percussion (Daymé Arceno), tres guitar and fretless bass (Yusa), piano (Danae), and batás and congas (Magdelys).

And four of the five are also strong vocalists. “They all could stand up on a stage and sing as lead singers. They're all very, very strong voices. So when they pool their voices together, it gives a very dynamic sound that happens within the band. It's very different.”

That makes the band's sound distinctive, she said: tight vocal harmonies within a Cuban jazz perspective.

Bunnett said she was excited about the group both because of its musical potential, and because of the message it sent of possibilities for young female musicians.

“I just saw that, even though women seem like they're on equal ground in Cuba, with the revolution et cetera, in terms of jazz musicians, it still seems like a very the-guys-rule-the world in terms of the jazz festival there. The jazz festival is not all that wonderfully organized now and so all the people who get to perform are the really aggressive guys.”

Jane Bunnett ©Brett Delmage, 2013Bunnett and her husband, Larry Cramer, have been working in the Conservatory in Cuba “for 20 years now, and there were so many wonderful young women musicians. They start them when they're very young like 8, 9 years old in the Conservatories, and by the time a lot of the folks pass they've had a good 15 years of training.”

“But I wouldn't see them out on the scene playing, and that seemed really strange. I couldn't quite figure it out. We'd be at a jam session and I'd recognize some of the girls who had been in the classes, and they were very hesitant to jump up and perform. And it just never happened.”

Latin jazz and mainstream jazz are still very male-dominated, she said. There are some “incredible” musicians in mainstream jazz such as Ingrid Jensen, Christine Jensen, Renee Rosnes, and Geri Allen, she said, but compared to the number of women who are going to university and involving themselves in musical studies, “it's still kind of rare”.

She hoped that seeing women performing jazz in a group like Maqueque would inspire young women still in high school and considering whether to study it further, to “jump in and just check it, to see if there's a possibility”. While she herself was just discovering the possibilities in music, at age 21 or 22, she met Cramer, who was “incredibly supportive. He was just always there, but not everybody has that kind of thing.”

Bunnett disagreed with those who believed people are destined or not to become musicians. “I think influence is everything. And support is everything. If you have a couple people in your life that are there encouraging you to keep at it, you'll do it. You really will.”

She and Cramer provided that type of encouragement to Daymé, whom they met almost by accident in Cuba. They were leading a JAZZ.FM91 jazz safari to Cuba. Daymé was performing in the cigar bar at their hotel.

“I caught her performance, and then I had organized a jazz jam session that night and I invited her. And she jumped in. And I thought, 'Omigod, this girl is so talented and she's so charismatic and she's so fearless. I hadn't really seen that for so many [years], not someone at that age. She was maybe 17 at the time. I was really impressed and so Larry and I started to mentor her.”

In May, 2013, Bunnett arranged to bring Daymé to Toronto, to take part in the Funny Girls & Dynamic Divas fundraiser for which Bunnett was musical director. “She brought the roof down and then I realized she's really got talent. So let's try and continue to help her.”

Over the years, Bunnett and Cramer have introduced many Cuban musicians to North America through their group Spirits of Havana, including Pedrito Martínez, Dafnis Prieto, Hilario Durán, Elio Villa Franca, Yosvanny Terry, and David Virelles. “David lived with us for four years. We met him when he was 15, and I won an award, and with the money I got I brought him here. He came for three weeks; he stayed for four years.”

“We've had some pretty amazing talent. I think one of the things that we're really good about is that we're great talent scouts."

“There's a long list, and I realized they were all guys. There were no women who had come through the group, outside of now just meeting Daymé. And I thought, we'd been working in the Conservatory for 20 years, with all these women. Why are they not on the scene?”

Cramer suggested helping some of these young women, and trying to “suss out some really great talent down there. And that's what we did. We went down with Daymé and we formed this group.”

I think influence is everything. And support is everything. If you have a couple people in your life that are there encouraging you to keep at it, you'll do it. You really will.
– Jane Bunnett

In October and December, 2013, Maqueque recorded their first CD, in Cuba, and played at the Havana Jazz Festival. Then Bunnett and Cramer took the tracks back to Toronto for further work, including adding string arrangements by Hilario Durán. It was a challenging process, Bunnett said, but “I'm really, really happy with it.”

The CD was released June 17, coinciding with the start of the group's cross-Canada tour, which took them to all the major jazz festivals in Western Canada and the Toronto Jazz Festival. The band has another series of dates in July, mostly in Ontario. In August and September, they head down to the United States for a series of dates, including the Blue Note in NYC.

Almost all the dates feature just Bunnett and the five Cubans, but their show in Stratford on August 2 will allow them to recreate the string arrangements, with the addition of the Annex String Quartet.

And after September? Bunnett laughs. “Rest. I really mean it. I'm going to rest and then I'll see how the project is received and then work from there and try to do other dates. I'd like to do a spring tour after. But we'll just see how this goes. The record, I think, has got a long life and so we'll just see how it goes. Europe?”

But she's looking long-term with this group. “I'm looking at this tour as a promotional tour. Nobody's going back with big bucks! This is to get the word out and just hopefully get a bit of a buzz happening, and people can hear these amazing musicians. They're all awesome.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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