Jane Bunnett is still amazed at the success of her all-woman Afro-Cuban jazz group, Maqueque.
“Three years ago, this project was a leap of faith. I didn't know if this idea would have any legs. But I thought, 'Let's try it! Let's try to put something together for a recording, all females, and just see what happens.' "
Since then, Maqueque – the Canadian jazz saxophonist/flutist plus five young women musicians from Cuba – has toured all over Canada and the U.S. and as far away as Australia. They played before thousands at the Chicago Jazz Festival last fall, with an almost-unprecedented encore demanded by the crowd. In May, they received at standing ovation at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and then recorded a “Tiny Desk Concert” in the offices of National Public Radio – which has so far garnered almost 29,000 views. And they won a Juno Award for their first album.
The group has just released its second album, Oddara, and will bring it to Ottawa on Wednesday, October 19, for a concert at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans. Besides Bunnett, Maqueque includes Yissy Garcia on drums, Dánae Olano on piano, Magdelys Savigne on batá drums and congas, Elizabeth Rodriguez on violin and vocals, and Celia Jiménez on bass.
Bunnett's heart was in the project, both musically and as an organizer, but she recognized the risks.
“I really didn't know how people were going to respond to it. In my heart, I felt it was something that really needed to be done, because there's just not enough performance opportunities for women and, in Cuba, there's not enough performance opportunities, period, for anybody. So the women are really on the bottom of the list. Everybody's fighting to get a chance to get out there and play. You have to ask permission from the government to do anything. You can't just go out and play: there's various layers of regulation you have to go through before you've got your horn in your hand and you're up on stage.”
“I didn't really know the girls. They didn't really know me. And we had lot of issues making that recording, a lot of problems surrounding it. And lo and behold! it got a 2015 Juno Award for a best jazz group recording, which was just amazing. And when that happened, I thought, 'Maybe we're on to something!' ”
When I talked to Bunnett on Sunday, the group had just spent three days officially releasing the CD in concerts in Toronto. “We had the Jazz91 radio hour-and-a-half live interview and playing too on Thursday, and then Friday and then last night at Hugh's Room. A great audience, and we sold lots of CDs, and we had fun. It was great!”
What audiences really respond in Maqueque's performances, she said, is “the energy that is presented on stage by the girls. Last night, so many people came up and said, 'I can't believe the energy you feel from the stage with these girls!' There is a real synergy between everybody.”
Bunnett and her Cuban bandmates have got to know each other very well, touring together, and living (and cooking) together in Bunnett's house in Toronto for weeks in between as they rehearsed for tours and prepared for recordings.
“It's an old-school band concept. So I think when we hit the stage, it has a very powerful presentation. Because it's real – it's not a put-together band by a producer. When we're all together, it's extremely intense. And everybody is adding to the music.”
Bunnett has also taught them what she's learned in decades as a jazz musician – listening to each other, being connected on stage, creating a group sound.
“It's very easy when you get on stage to be all about yourself and your own performance, being really conscious of yourself. But there's a bigger thing when you sit down to play that you really need to have that exchange, you have to have your antenna up – that's the hard thing with jazz music, that you have to be listening and reacting. You have to be pulling up all of your devices, your intuition, your technique, being able to think and react on the spot. I've played jazz for a long time, and that's what jazz is, of course, all about. It's not just about a solo performance. It's about a whole, bigger group sound.”
She's also emphasized the importance of acting as an ambassador when on the road. “You're really representing your country, you're representing the group, and everything reflects that. It's a great honour to be a musician, to be able to do what we do. People are expecting a lot – they pay a lot of money to come out and see you and it's their time, and so it's just really important to just give it your all. And I know they do! I know they've got a sense of all of that, how important it is.”
“I'm just so proud of these girls, from where they'd been three years ago to where the group is now, because it's become a much more powerful unit.”
This growth is also reflected in the group's material. “The first recording, I did most of the writing, along with [vocalist] Dayme Arocena. Since getting the Juno, now everybody's writing for the group! We couldn't put everything on the record that we recorded, though we'll be able to use that for the next recording.”
The musicians in Maqueque, most of whom are still in their early 20s, are “extremely gifted instrumentalists and vocalists”, Bunnett said. “They're all very, very strong women and they're all highly creative.”
“For example, Danae Olano. She's a classical pianist. She was a child star in Cuba at the age of four. She had a hit song on TV – like a Shirley Temple! And everybody knows her, because of this song that she did. All her peers know it, because it was all over the radio. It was all over the television. Since then, she came in second in all of Cuba in the classical piano competition. But she's also a killin' jazz musician, because she's really honed down on that and been really studying it. And now she's composing pieces for the group!”
“And Yissy Garcia: she's probably the most seasoned one in the group, because she's had her own band in Cuba. But that hasn't been easy for her to have her own band. She's been writing for her own group, too. Now she's writing for us. Celia Jimenez, our bass player, is actually a classical bassoonist and only picked up the bass just four or five years ago. She's now writing compositions for the group.”
The newest member, violinist and vocalist Elizabeth Rodriguez, began playing with the group in April when Bunnett needed an extra vocalist for four nights at The Jazz Showcase in Chicago. “She did such a stellar job, and now she's in the group, too.”
The musicians come from different parts of Cuba, and bring different musical experiences and flavours with them.
“Especially with Magdelys Savigne, who's our percussionist and singer, she's from Santiago de Cuba. And that, I have to be honest, is really my favourite city in Cuba, and it's got a very particular sound and style of music. It's in the Oriente region. It pulls in from Haiti and Jamaica and a very different feel in the music than a Havana sound. And she knows how to tap into that and I just love that music so much! So I'm able to pull that ingredient into my music much more so, than if everybody was just Havana-based.”
“I'm listening to everybody and their ideas, especially when it comes down to very detailed things about the Cuban music, because they're all studied Cuban musicians and they know their history of Cuban music, of course, better than I do.”
Afro-Cuban soul jazz, with four-part harmonies
She emphasized, however, that Maqueque's music was jazz, rather than strictly Afro-Cuban. “I'm a real adventurer in the Cuban music, and I love all the different styles, and I like to pull all of that into music, and not just stay on one particular thing, and then incorporate that in with the jazz harmonies and jazz improvisation, and really strong melodic – really well-structured material in the repertoire. Not just like, 'OK, here's a vamp and everybody get up and dance!' ”
“Ultimately I see myself as a jazz musician who works in the context of Afro-Cuban rhythms. So I don't see us as an Afro-Cuban [band] – we're not a salsa band. We're not going for that kind of thing. So maybe there are people who are saying 'Eh, it's not salsa enough for me!' That's fine. That's not what I'm going for with this group.”
The group's sound has evolved over the past three years, she said, but has retained its signature four-part harmonies. “We're a six-piece group and four of the instrumentalists sing at the same time. It's still very strong on the vocal component. I think we've just taken it up a notch, a few notches.”
What has changed? “I think the group has started to take on a bit more of a bit more of a soul sound coming through. There's an inflection in the music now that's from that period. It's not pop at all, but it's a real soul sound. It's Afro-Cuban soul jazz.”
A strong and happy CD, in different Cuban styles
The new album's title, Oddara, is an Afro-Cuban word for “strong and happy”. It was recorded this spring at two Toronto recording studios, with material that had been written over 1½ years. The songs include fun, upbeat pieces like Bunnett's “25 New Moves” and Olano's “Café Pilon” (about Cuban coffee). Savigne's “El Chivo” is performed in the Changui style from the Guantánamo region of Cuba, while Jimenez's “La Flamenca Maria” tells the story of a fortune teller and scam artist in a traditional danzon style.
The group has also included an old Cuban song from the 1920s by classical Cuban composer Ignacio Cervantes called “Tres Golpes – Pa Eleggua”, which is about Eleggua, one of the deities in the Afro-Cuban religion who opens the doors to one's future and also closes the doors. And Melvis Santa contributed “Power Of Two (Ibeyi)”, based on her own experience of being a twin, with a chant expressing the power of that bond.
Dayme Arocena develops her own career
This is not the first time Bunnett has been a den mother to Cuban musicians, although previously they'd been all male. 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of Bunnett's ground-breaking and award-winning recording, Spirits of Havana, the first major collaboration of North American and Cuban musicians.
She and husband Larry Cramer first visited Cuba in the early 1980s, and have led their Spirits of Havana group for 30-odd years. Many now-famous Cuban musicians, including pianist David Virelles, drummer Dafnis Prieto, and percussionist Pedrito Martinez, originally were part of that group. “They're all leaders and stars in their own way now, with their own projects. But they all came through Spirits of Havana.”
This process of “graduating out” has also affected Maqueque. Hearing the extraordinary vocals of Dayme Arocena was Bunnett's initial impetus for creating Maqueque, and her singing was a major part of the group's sound. But now Arocena is developing her own career outside the group.
“She has become a huge star all over the world. She's playing places that I haven't even played yet! She's 23 years old, and when I met her she was 17 and I took her under my wing. And since then, Gilles Peterson picked up on her. He's based in England and he's a real mover and shaker, producer guy and has got a lot of contacts at the BBC and everywhere.”
“She's just doing gangbusters now. But she still considers that she's in the group [laughs]. She almost arrived this week – she says I'm free! I'll be there! And then something happened. We put her down as a guest vocalist [on the new CD and at concerts] because she still wants to be performing with us.”
Another guest musician on the CD was percussionist and vocalist Melvis Santa, from Havana but now based in NYC. Along with Dayme, she's “very much still part of the project. It's just if their schedules work out.”
Bunnett said the hardest part of working with Maqueque was the logistics: getting permission from the State Department for their first American tour, or arranging for the musicians to leave Cuba. “It's not easy. Omigod, you can't imagine. Getting them out of Cuba, they all come here, live in the house downstairs, we're all cooking, I made a meatloaf tonight and Dánae made something else. One of the girls has been out all day. She just walked in the door and I said, you're making the salad! OK. And poor Larry's here with five women...”
She hoped to keep Maqueque going in the long-term, just like Spirits of Havana. “It can be a forum for other young women who want to play and get out there.”
"Cuba is having a tough time"
But one thing she's less hopeful about is the conditions for people in Cuba, especially because of the economic disturbances caused by the recently-improved diplomatic relations with the United States.
“I'm afraid to say … things are pretty messed up in Cuba right now. I mean, they're trying, but now that all the Americans are going there, Cuba is having a tough time.”
“When the girls got here, one of the first things they told me is that there's no food for Cubans on the market. If they want to eat, they've got to go to a restaurant. All the food's going to the paladares, which are the private restaurants, and going to the hotels. If you want food, you've got to go on the black market to look for food. And right now, they're just inundated with tourists that are coming.”
The resumption of normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba needs to come slowly, she said, because “I don't know if they're even mentally prepared for it. It's hard for me to comment, because I'm a Canadian. We've been going there since 1982. I witnessed Cuban friends in the special period when Russia pulled out. Cubans are just incredibly resilient and amazing, but how long can you just keep promising people things?"
“It's just so, so difficult, you know – you have this incredible education for every Cuban and you give them all the skills to do all these remarkable things – but there's no opportunities. And the big problem for me is that the Cubans can't travel freely, and if they could travel more freely, then they would be able to go back, be able to take money and go back. A lot of the Cubans, they want to go back to their country, but they don't want to go back to their country when they can't exist in the way that they're used now that they've been out of there. They get a taste of information, the Internet, and all these things that are so important to your growth.”
“I have such a love for Cuba, and I have such a love for the Cuban musicians – and all Cubans, not just the musicians, but everybody! They're just remarkable people, and their spirit and their character and their humor and their perseverance. But if you can't live there and support yourself and your family, what are you going to do?”
“And now there's all these Americans that are just dying to go down there and see the Real Cuba, because they haven't been witness to it, and they're heard all about it, and they feel like they've really missed out on something. And the Cubans – they're so sick of people saying to them, 'Oh, I want to get there before Cuba changes.' They're like going, 'Don't talk me about change! We need to be able to survive, like all you folks are!' ”
“One of the best audiences for me anywhere”
Maqueque's Ottawa show is at the beginning of a cross-border tour which will last until mid-November, with stops in Ontario, Quebec, and the north-eastern and central U.S. “Our first night in the U.S. is Birdland [in NYC], which is pretty exciting because it's such a legendary club. I haven't played there in 20 years, maybe! And it's moved – I don't think I've played in the new Birdland.”
Bunnett said she was looking forward to returning to Ottawa, after Maqueque's appearance at Chamberfest this summer. “It was really exciting for us! We had a great time.”
Ottawa has always been “one of the best audiences for me anywhere – and especially for something like this. I've invested so many years into cultivating this sound, and so when I get to present it in Ottawa, it's pretty meaningful. It's still the nation's capital, and it's where I received my Order of Canada. It means a lot, you know, to be there there and presenting it to Ottawa audiences.”
Jane Bunnett and Maqueque perform at the Shenkman Arts Centre (245 Centrum Boulevard in Orleans) on Wednesday, October 19, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $42 and are available on the Shenkman website.
Maqueque's Fall 2016 tour:
- Oct 13 Long & McQuade Performance Hall JAZZ.FM Live to Air 7pm EST Toronto, ON
- Oct 14 Hugh’s Room (CD Launch) Toronto, ON
- Oct 15 Hugh’s Room (CD Launch) Toronto, ON
- Oct 19 Shenkman Arts Centre Ottawa, ON
- Oct 20 Burlington Performing Arts Centre Burlington, ON
- Oct 21 Flato Markham Theatre Markham, ON
- Oct 25 Birdland New York, NY
- Oct 26 The Iron Horse Music Hall Northampton, MA
- Oct 28 Deer Head Inn Delaware Water Gap, PA
- Oct 30 The Woodstock Lodge Woodstock, NY
- Nov 1 The Reggata Bar Cambridge, MA
- Nov 3 BLU Jazz+ Akron, OH
- Nov 4 Nighttown Cleveland, OH
- Nov 5 Kerrytown Concert House Ann Arbor, MI
- Nov 7 The Sanctuary Troy, NY
- Nov 9 The Falcon Marlboro, NY
- Nov 10 The Mainstay Rock Hall, MD
- Nov 12 Exit Zero Jazz Festival Cape May, NJ
- Nov 17 Spoke Club (Private) Toronto, ON
- Nov 18 Sunfest Presents Jane Bunnett & Maqueque Aoelian Hall London, ON
- Nov 19 Upstairs Montreal, QC
Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's previous stories about Maqueque:
- Jane Bunnett spotlights the spirit & energy of female Cuban musicians in Maqueque
- Jane Bunnett and Maqueque bring Cuban passion to Ottawa
- Jane Bunnett and Maqueque win 2015 Juno Award