A podcast series exploring the History of Cuban Music in Canada with Freddy Monasterio and Karen Dubinsky.
In this episode, we continue to explore Cuban music in western Canada. This time, in Banff, Alberta. Guest host Melissa Noventa explores ¡Afrocubanismo!, an unparalleled festival that brought the biggest names in Afrocuban Culture to Canada in 1994 and 1996. You will hear from festival co-ordinator Andres Schloss and musical co-ordinator Michael Spiro. You will also hear from Cuban faculty members including dancer and singer Ana Perez from Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, along with Antonio Figueroa and Ramses Zamora Molina from Afrocuba de Matanzas. Toronto-based musicians and producers Mario Allende and Luis Orbegoso, also share some of their memories, while Cuban musician, producer and social activist Luis Bran speaks about the social upheaval that was occurring in Cuba during the years the festivals were taking place.
Join us as we explore how the ¡Afrocubanismo! festival was brought to fruition, and we learn about the ways that cross-cultural learning was transmitted, the relationships that were forged, and the impact the festival behind.
This episode features music from Chucho Valdés, Irakere, Ilu Aña, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Angá and Tata Güines, Afrocuba de Matanzas and, the Afrocubanismo CD recorded in Banff.
Special thank you also to Luis Orbegoso for the live soundbites he shared from his personal archive for this episode.
Music in Episode 6 of Cuban Serenade
1.Con Poco Coco – Chucho Valdés
2. Vale Todo – Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
3. Chango feat. Amelia Pedroso – Ilu Aña
4. Irakere live @ Banff Springs hotel – Luis Orbegoso archive
5. Rumba Tonada – Ilu Aña
6. Percussion Class at Banff – Luis Orbegoso archive
7. Descarga at Banff – Luis Orbegoso archive
8. Caridad – Afrocuba de Matanzas
9. Abakuá – Afrocuba de Matanzas
10. Presentación – Angá an Tata Güines, Passaporte Album
11. Recogidito – Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
12. Pa’Los Mayores – Afrocuba de Matanzas
13. Xiomara – Afrocubanismo Live Album
- Intro – Cuban Serenade theme music
Hello and welcome back to Cuban Serenade, a podcast series exploring the history of Cuban music in Canada. A special thank you to creators—Freddy Monasterio and Karen Dubinsky—for inviting me to guest host this episode about ¡Afrocubanismo! An unparalleled festival that brought some of the biggest names in Afrocuban culture to Canada, in 1994 and 1996. My name is Melissa Noventa, and I will be your host as we continue to explore Cuban music in western Canada, this time in the mountains of Banff, Alberta.
For this episode, I spoke to Andy Schloss the creator and program director of the ¡Afrocubanismo! festival, as well as Michael Spiro who was the musical co-ordinator. You will hear from Cuban faculty members including dancer and singer Ana Perez from the Muñequitos de Matanzas along with Antonio Figueroa and Ramses Zamora Molina from Afrocuba de Matanzas. You will also hear from Cuban musician, producer and social activist Luis Bran who acted as a translator during the festival and festival participants including: Mario Allende and Luis Orbegoso who are both musicians and producers now based in Toronto. We will explore how the Afrocubanismo festival was brought to fruition and hear about the sometimes-unexpected ways that cross-cultural learning was transmitted. But most importantly, we will hear about the relationships that were forged, and the impact that this festival left behind.
- Soundbite of Con Poco Coco – Chucho Valdés
In 1994 and 1996, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity hosted the most extensive exploration of Afro-Cuban music, dance and culture held outside of Cuba since the 1959 Revolution. ¡Afrocubansimo! was a ten-day festival dedicated to Afrocuban music and culture and brought together over 30 of Cuba’s most renowned musicians and dancers from Havana and Matanzas to perform and teach workshops in both folkloric and popular genres. This roster-which can only be described as epic- included artists like Chucho Valdés and Irakere, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Amelia Pedroso, and Cuban Modern Dance pioneer Eduardo Rivero. The festival integrated film screenings, an art exhibit, parades, and lectures, including several by Cuban ethnologist Natalia Bolívar. Besides participants from Canada and the US, the festival drew approximately 110 attendees from across the globe including: Germany, Japan and Zimbabwe. Participants ranged from amateur artists to well-known professionals including Jane Bunnett, the late Vic Voguel and the late Hugh Fraser from the Canadian jazz scene, and David Garibaldi, drummer for American Funk/Soul band “Tower of Power”. The festival also included concert performances that were open to the public and attracted upwards of 900 people per night.
Despite the success of the ¡Afrocubansimo! festivals, little is known about this important moment in Canada-Cuba cultural exchange. Currently, there is no official archive of the festival. And as the festival approaches its 30yr anniversary in 2024, it remains a “moment in time” cherished most, by its surviving participants.
I caught up with the program director and visionary behind ¡Afrocubansimo! —musician, researcher, and professor at the University of Victoria—Andrew Schloss. Now a dual citizen, Andrew was born in the United States and began playing percussion in Hartford, Connecticut during the 1960s. He went on to study at Bennington College, the University of Washington, and Stanford University, where he received a Ph.D. working at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Andrew began traveling to Cuba in the 1980’s, when it was particularly risky for Americans to do so. After having made a connection to Cuba’s electronic music scene through a donation of music journals to the UNESCO office in Havana, Andrew found himself going back to Cuba regularly, attending Havana’s electronic music festival as a guest of organizer Juan Blanco. Andrew also helped to set up The National Laboratory of Electronic Music in Havana, and regularly exchanged electronic music gear for drum lessons. Merging his interest in “hi-tech” and “low-tech” music, Andrew’s attention to Afrocuban music, would plant a seed that would eventually, helped bring the Afrocubanismo festival to life. He shared the festival’s origin story with me:
In 1990 I took the job in Victoria, and I really didn’t know much about Canada, like most Americans are ignorant of Canada. But the one thing I did know was that as a Canadian, I could perhaps do something in Cuba. So, two things happened. One of them is that Spiro and I started a record company called Fundamento Productions, and I was the guy who could do it because I had my Canadian citizenship. So, we started a Canadian company and Spiro probably still has a bunch of suitcases full of our record, Ilu Aña —which you probably have—and then there are other ones that we did. And we kept that going for a long time and then finally, it wasn’t worth it anymore. But in any case, the opportunity to do something in Canada, really it was two-fold. One was to start this company and support Cuban artists by, basically we would just hand-carry, whatever we made on these records we would give them to the artist, pretty much directly. Which, they were very, very, grateful for, as you can imagine because it was hard currency. But in the process of doing that, I also when I was teaching in Victoria, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “what can I do in Cuba?” And then, my opportunity came in a very bizarre way, in about 1993 or so, I don’t remember, the Dean at the time asked me to give a presentation to one of these national Dean conferences. So, I sort of reluctantly gave a talk about my work. But here’s the funny part. Everyone there was a dean, pretty much, except there was one woman there who was not a dean at all. She was the artistic director for the Banff Centre of the Arts. And her name was Carol Phillips. She works as an art curator, and gallery curation. But at the time she was the artistic director of Banff. And I had lunch with her, I don’t know how that happened, and she kinda just said, you know, “anything you would like to do at Banff?” Which is kind of an amazing question. And I said, you know, I would love to do a festival of Cuban culture. And she said, “Ok”. And I was like I can’t believe this; this is too much. This can’t be true. Because, you know, Banff had all that money, I don’t know if they still do, but they were very wealthy from that oil. So it was kinda like, “what would you like to do?” I mean it was one of these insane opportunities where you didn’t have to worry about paying for it. It turns out it was a very successful festival because we were able to bring in so many students from all over the world. But still, it took the resources of Banff to pull it off. It was a massively complicated and expensive thing. But anyway, she backed me up and we did in ’94 and it was a big hit, and we did it again in ’96 and I couldn’t get it to happen again. But it was absolutely a dream come true, for everybody. And of all places in the middle of Alberta. The cultural connection in Alberta, which is a very white, sort of, pretty right wing, you know, cattle culture. There was one breath of fresh air, which was Edmonton. Edmonton had an ethnomusicology program at the university; it also had a collection of I think Chileans who were pretty left wing. So, there was a really strong support from Edmonton.
- Vale Todo Soundbite – Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
Musician and producer Mario Allende, now based in Toronto, spent his youth as part of that Chilean community in Edmonton. He spoke about what it was like, and how it contributed to his early exposure of Afrocuban music.
I think by the time Banff came, that the festival happened, there was already probably Colombians, Chileans, Salvadorians…um, not many Cubans at all. Those were the big groups. And now, that’s probably changed as well. There’s probably more Mexican immigration and…it all changes depending on which country’s kinda going through the craziest amount of shit. That’s usually how you can trace it. So that’s why the Chileans got there, maybe, first. But, I mean, quickly people had to come from Colombia and Central America, because of the different situations. Now that said, my two cents is that, when everybody comes under those terms or because of what happens in their country, you’re not necessarily getting that many…you’re getting people that music and culture is maybe not the first thing they get to deal with and that they get to explore, that they get to experiment with. So I have always seen that, there was culture for sure. In the Chilean community everyone was trying to maintain their traditions, or maybe, like you know my dad would bring different groups from Chile to just try and promote the culture and also what was happening. He used music in that way. But, I guess what I want to say is, it’s not like there was a great scene of musicians. Not like we had salsa bands, its not that it had been able to develop that much. Long story short, I would say that there was a desire, kind of in that solidarity with Cuba there would have been an effort by some people to go to Banff. But I can’t say that it was that big. Other than, you know my dad putting on a show for Muñequitos, which probably helped a little bit. When they came to Banff, he brought them to Edmonton. That’s where I first met them. Actually it would have been a couple days before Banff. So in that small way, there was a connection.
I think a guy like me, and most of the Chileans who would have been living in Alberta at the time, if we had any exposure to Cuban music it would have been through Silvio Rodríguez and some of his, at the time, later recordings where he was working with Grupo Afrocuba –not Afrocuba de Matanzas but Afrocuba the jazz group— that’s where I started hearing those drums and those rhythms maybe for the first time, so there was that little bit of familiarity. Then around ’90, ‘91 is that concert in Chile; it was a very very important concert at the time, when he went back to Chile for the first time since when the dictatorship kind of ended. He went back and did that concert at the soccer stadium. That’s something you might be able to find online now. But, that was a very big band. That was like Irakere… a bigger version of what would come to Banff. So I had already seen that. So at the same time I can’t just say, ‘oh, it was just like meeting buddies for the first time’, it’s like I already knew about Chucho and Carlos del Puerto, Ernique Pla all those guys were in that concert that I remember. Like, ‘oh. Shit. These guys played in a concert stadium in Chile with Silvio.’ I knew that they were a whole other level of musician that I for sure had never had to deal with before.
- Chango soundbite – Ilu Aña feat. Amelia Pedroso
American musican, retired professor, and 10x Grammy nominee Michael Spiro was the musical co-ordinator for both Afrocubanismo festivals. He spoke to me about the significance of the faculty roster that he helped to curate:
I mean that’s the thing, that’s why I think that trying to find some way to document this is of value, even historically. Like to have the best of both provinces from a folklore standpoint, um like when does that ever happen? And then to have the popular music component of you know, all of Irakere, plus Changuito, plus Richard Egues … I mean, this was like some fantasy that somebody was dreaming, but it was about music and dance. And then somehow or other, made it happen!
- Irakere live @ Banff Springs Hotel soundbite – Luis Orbegoso archive
Transforming Afrocubanismo from a dream to reality was no small feat. So, what exactly did it take to bring this all-star line-up of Cuban artists to the Canadian Rocky Mountains? Andrew gave a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes:
For me, I needed a lot of help, and of course I got all of the administrative help you could possibly want from this amazing machine that is Banff. But I also needed experts in Cuban culture. And there were two issues there, one is that it was not something that was particularly well established in Canada, and that’s partly the case. The other part, that’s more my issue is that I didn’t know if there were Canadians who were experts. I didn’t really know them. I knew one conga player, in Vancouver, but I didn’t know any people like Spiro. And Spiro is pretty unique, I mean it turns out I made the right choice, I hired Spiro. I hired Rebecca I hired John Santos (who had to leave because a relative died). The point is I hired Americans, which was kind of on the edge because Banff was paying for it. But I just wanted to get the absolute most talented, most knowledgeable people and really, you know, you can’t beat Michael Spiro for that. There were also some issues that I had never dealt with before that were very interesting for me, and challenging which was Canadian content. Was a new idea for me because you know, I grew up in the United States. And there’s no such thing as US content. Why? Because it’s so hegemonic to begin with, there’s no requirement, right? So in Canada I totally understand the Canadian content idea, but it was hard for me because I just didn’t know anybody. But it was also good because who did I meet through that pressure, I met wonderful people, like Jane Bunnett the flutist who came to Banff and brought her people with her. And she was thrilled to be at Banff with Richard Egues, the most famous member of Aragón. Anyway, I did bring Canadians to this festival but the people who were teaching the classes and helping the Cubans were mostly Americans. Which as I said I was a bit nervous about bringing all these Americans.
- Rumba Tonada Soundbite – Ilu Aña
Andrew Schloss (continued)
The process was sort of like the ultimate dream because, thank God I was able to bootstrap Banff’s already massively well organised structure for putting on events. So this was perfect for me because it was kinda like saying, “well who would you like to bring from Cuba? Anybody you want.” So OK, so I make my dream list, and they all wanted to come! It was a big dream, you know we all dreamed, you know “who’s amazing?” and we just brought everybody. So, it was up to me to sort of submit the list but, I was always listening to everybody I knew. And then, the cool thing though was, as I say, once had the list, then the Banff Center did this insane amount of bureaucratic work getting visas, and also how do you pay the Cubans and all that negotiating. So there was a massive amount of work I didn’t have to do, which is a good thing, because really that’s not my thing. So they had their infrastructure set up. There was a woman named Carol. There was Carol Phillips, who I mentioned already, who was the director. I usually call them the two Carols. So Carol Holmes was the administrator who made it happen, and Carol Phillips was the artistic director who allowed it to happen. You know, who opened her doors. So in terms of the decision making then, basically the artistic choices, the broadest artistic choices were made by me, with open ears to the community of experts that I knew. And then Banff basically made it go.
- Percussion class with Changuito soundbite – Luis Orbegoso archive
Once everyone arrived at Banff, the participants were asked to choose a focus in either popular or folkloric genres. To help everyone get the most out of their experience, each participant was auditioned and then placed in a class according to their general level of proficiency. Peruvian-Canadian musician and producer Luis Orbegoso, whom you heard from in an earlier episode, shared his story from the 1994 festival:
(Laughs) It’s funny that you mention popular music because the first day we auditioned, we all had to audition. And the first day that I went, I remember it was Michael Spiro holding that audition. I think there were other people holding auditions as well but I decided to go in the popular music category. For whatever reason, because I thought what I was getting into was just playing popular music from Cuba. I heard of NG la Banda and I also head of, you know Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés. So, popular music to me was the sound of the music and more pop sounding music. So I thought, Ok, I might as well go in there and learn how to play pop music the way Cuban’s play pop music. Like I was shooting, way, way, away from the bulls-eye. Really what popular music was, then after the whole thing concluded I knew that popular music was, more like learning to how to play those popular rhythms back in the day. You know the popular rhythms, maybe some timba which was just getting started, songo, um… rumba which was thrown into the popular setting as well because when you had big bands, they would arrange and they would have rumba sections, and maybe a little bit of batá. But I think…I was able to understand more what the popular music meant when I actually started going to the classes. Originally, I think I was…I am trying to remember who I was going to study with…But I really wanted to study with Changuito. Because, like I said before, Memo introduced me to him through recordings and I also heard him on shortwave radio, so I auditioned and I was put… I think I was put in one of the Miguel Angá classes. And I didn’t…I mean not to disrespect but I had set, like in my mind, “I’m gonna study with Chango. I’m gonna study with Chango”. So, I would sit in on Chango’s classes. I had no conga’s, I remember, and I was playing on my lap. Whatever Chango would play, I would mimic on my lap. You know, at that point, I already played some congas. And I already studied with Orchestra Revé’s conguero, el tumbador Carletin at the time. So anyway, I had some knowledge and I would mimic what Chango. And Chango’s like “Por qué tu no te metas en mi clase? Por qué no te metieron en mi clase?” Actually, also the first night in the descarga, I got up and I played some timbales. And I soloed and I mimicked what I heard from Chango’s solos and Chango was really, ah… he was really happy with me. He was like, “You should go into my classes. I don’t know where you are now but come to my classes.” And I was like, yeah! That’s what I wanted! (Laughs).
Once auditions were completed, it was literally, non-stop action for 10 days. Mario reflected on what a typical day might look like:
Oh you’d get up um, kinda first thing in the morning say, at like 9am. At least for the musicians, I don’t know about the dancers, but I think the dancers were there as well. Everyone would go sing first, like maybe half an hour, a singing class. Then you would go to your first class of whatever it might be, like folkloric percussion, or drum set or you know, that starts to depend on each individual participant. Then you would have your lunch break and in the afternoon there would be another session. There would also be a master class. I don’t remember if it was everyday or not but around the lunch hour you would go and maybe Chucho’s explaining something and Changuito’s playing along, a bit of a mini concert or master class. Probaly go grab dinner and then get ready to go to the concert. So there was always a concert. It might be the Havana folkloric guys would do their concert, or maybe Chucho would do a concert but just with the Canadian jazz musicians that were there. Or maybe another night it was Irakere doing a concert. And then, after that, they would have the jam sessions. And that was a really great part of the day where you would just go watch these guys, jam. And it was just such a powerful thing to see. I think it still would be. That’s where a lot of the magical stuff happened. Like I could be sitting right beside the drums. It was a very, very informal setting. And that could go until, whenever, as late as you could handle it and then go to bed and see if you could do the same thing the next day. But at that age you could, I could anyway.
- Descarga Soundbite – Luis Orbegoso archive
While the core of the Afrocubanismo festivals was constructed around formal workshops and performances, the descargas or ‘jam sessions’, were an especially important part of the festivals. Starting in the evening and lasting into the early hours of the morning, faculty and students were welcome to participate. They characterized, one of several ways that cultural knowledge was transmitted outside of a classroom setting. Michael Spiro elaborated on what the descargas were like:
What you and I, I think would argue, is that Banff gave these different… and here I think that dance is critical, all these different artists a chance to be in the same place at the same time and then at night time, to interact in ways that they never would have. So, Chucho’s playing piano, and del Puerto is playing base, and so and so is playing trumpet but the Muñequitos are the rhythm section. But then also, all the dance teachers are dancing which means that all the dance students are dancing trying to figure out what their teachers are doing and then it becomes this…I mean I’ve never been to, you know… God I won’t even say it, but like this Woodstock sort of, just you don’t even know what to call it anymore, it becomes this other entity. I think that’s the thing that, Mel, that I was trying to talk to you the other day about. It wasn’t just that the faculty was interacting, but it was all of the…it was everybody, students as well, all somehow thrown into this melting pot to where it started to not be teacher-student, faculty- student, it was just these people. That’s where I think then, being in Banff nowhere else to… that never would happen if there were a workshop in…Montreal. And I think that that’s the critical component to all of this.
It wasn’t only festival participants that were impacted by the Afrocubanismo festivals. In May 2022, I went to Cuba, to interview some of the surviving Cuban faculty members from Afrocubanismo, in Matanzas. They all spoke fondly of Cubans located in the United States who would travel to Banff to simply greet faculty members or to sit and listen to a music class. They also spoke fondly of Canadian families who weren’t necessarily participating in the workshops that would take them out sightseeing and shopping or welcome them in for dinner. Dancer and Choreographer for Afrocuba de Matanzas, Antonio Figueroa shared one of his favourite memories with me:
Starts with Spanish and Fades to Melissa Noventa translating:
The exchange was: I bought a pair of leather boots, a pair of leather cowboy boots because I love cowboy boots, I love them, I’ve loved them all of my life. And what was the exchange? The boots cost $100. And the shop owner said, “look, I will give you the boots, but you have teach my wife to dance salsa.” So, I said, “OK! Music boys!“ And so the guys who were with me started singing “Cuba que lindo es tropical” and I started dancing, salsa, salsa, and the owners of the shop said “Ok, we’ll be there tonight at the club”. I don’t remember what the name of the club was. And the man and his wife arrived with a bag. And they said “here”. And they gave me the bag with the boots. And we spent the whole night, dancing salsa. The woman wouldn’t let me rest! It was dancing salsa, dancing salsa, dancing salsa… and I said to myself “Figueroa, that $100 is gonna cost you!” But she learned to dance. Yes, she did.
- Caridad soundbite – Afrocuba de Matanzas
The Afrocubanismo festivals coincided with a period when the Cuban government began a renewal of nationalizing and exporting Afrocuban culture as a means of increasing tourism. For several Cuban faculty members, the festivals in Banff marked their first experience traveling abroad. Ana Perez—dancer and singer for Los Muñequitos de Matanzas— and Ramses Zamora Molina—musician and dancer for Afrocuba de Matanzas—shared some of their most memorable moments with me.
Starts with Spanish and Fades to Melissa Noventa translating:
All of us went to bring an offering to Ochún down by the river. It was… spectacular. Spectacular. Everyone was left fascinated; and us, especially. Because we didn’t know, we had our notions from here, but we didn’t know that there were so many people, like yourself, who were so interested in all these things. And when it came time to teach, and I saw how big that dance studio was, and I saw all those students, I said “Aye, Yvonne! And now?” And she said, “Ana, what do you mean? What’s wrong?” And I said, “I don’t know! I find myself nervous. You start. And then I’ll jump in.” Really, that was the conversation. And so she began teaching first, and then I incorporated myself. It was incredible. When I finished teaching that class, that huge workshop, all the students came to surround me, and I fell to the floor!
- Abakuá soundbite – Afrocuba de Matanzas
Ramses Zamora Molina:
Starts with Spanish and Fades to Melissa Noventa translating:
I had the great privilege of meeting several big artists while I was there, who are no longer with us. Like, Maestro Richard Egues. And, Natalia Bolívar was there…and the people told me before I went, “Watch out for the elk!” because an elk reared at professor Natalia. And the National Folkloric Company was there, and Maestro Chucho Valdéz, that was the last year but, Irakere worked and played. And I had the luck of working with them. Not as a musician, but as a dancer for a composition they had called La Danza Ñaniga, sung by the great master Mayra Caridad Valdéz. And I was there dancing and we fused Afrocuba with their Abakuá drums, and they with their music. I was a teenager and never imagined to find myself there, working with this calibre of artists, because I began in Afrocuba as the utility guy! I never thought I’d get there. It was really big. Really emotional, bringing our folklore to that country. It was immense. I had the great blessing while I was there at the festival in Banff, I was giving class, and my son was born while I was away at the festival. And the students were so happy, they threw a small party for me because my son had been born. It was big. Banff was a beautiful place.
- Presentacíon soundbite – Angá and Tata Güines
One night, I took Jesús Alfonso and Niño, the singer for the Muñequitos, into town, and I bought them… I said “I’m gonna buy you guys dinner. Come on.” And, who knows where we went, but the waiter comes up and says, “Ok so, what would you guys like?” And they looked almost surprised by the question. And they both, in unison went, “ CARNE!” And, you know, please, no more chicken or you know vegetarian… bring me MEAT! So, to this day, and this is absolute truth… Jesús is long gone. But when I see Niño, we greet eachother with that word. And I’m not making that up. I don’t go, “Niño, mi hermano, como estás?” He doesn’t go, “Miguel!” No, no, no. The greeting, while we’re shaking hands, “CARNE!”
That was Michael Spiro sharing a memory that speaks to the specific historic moment the Afrocubanismo festivals took place. During the 90’s Cuba was experiencing the height of what is widely known as “el periodio especial”or, the special period—a prolonged social and economic crisis— following the collapse of the island’s primary trading partner, the Soviet Union. In fact, the first Afrocubanismo—hosted in August of 1994— took place only 3 weeks after an important and rare protest took place on the streets of Havana known as the “maleconazo”.
While I was in Cuba I also spoke to musician, musical producer, and social activist Luis Bran in Matanzas. He was living in Canada at the time of the Afrocubanismo festivals, working as a percussionist for both the Decidedly Jazz Dance Company and the University of Calgary’s dance program. He had also been running regular cultural exchange tours between Calgary and Havana. He was hired to be a translator during Afrocubanismo in both ’94 and ’96. Here is some of what he recalls about at the festivals:
Starts in Spanish and fades to translation by Melissa Noventa:
If you take stock of when this festival occurred you’ll note that it took place in the middle of an severe food crisis here (in Cuba). The worst year was 1993. But in 1994, well there was the Maleconazo, there was the crisis of the Balseros, that was a critical moment. And when I was reviewing the papers we recovered of the meal plan and everything… from what I remember, it wasn’t like that. That is, I don’t know who within the organization decided—because someone had to have decided— that this system wasn’t going to work. That you put money on a card and each item would cost whatever amount, or you were entitled to a certain main dish. That was a lie. It was like an open bar. And someone had to have thought about it. I think it was a change that must have been designated because there was a point of joy and ambience in the festival that you couldn’t control on the side of the Cubans; because I remember the tables full of food and beer. It was such as an important a stimulus for them, as much as receiving students, I think. And in this aspect, ‘bravo’ to the Banff centre, to those who made this possible, that there was the vision to release limitations on everything so that everyone could be happy in this moment.
But, there was no talk of politics ever. No talk of politics ever. It was like a break, from the bullshit.
- Recogidito Soundbite – Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
The proximity of the festival to the upheaval in Cuba, was not lost on its organizers, participants, or the media. Local newspapers touted the festival as an “artistic coup” and a “Cuban invasion” of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Even Radio Martí—a right wing information company that broadcasts to Cuba from the United States—approached organizers to report on the event. Nonetheless, performing, not politics seems to have remained the driving pulse of these festivals.
I remember talking to journalists from the US and I started realizing that this could get out of control. And that we were in a way, better off being in this far away…that was part of what was so weird about it, was to be in the middle of nowhere in the Canadian Rockies. Of course, you were talking about a bunch of fanatics, right, who were put together. So ya, there’s no question. Whatever people’s politics were, was irrelevant. Here we are together, this is happening, there’s my hero. You know, Changuito, Angá, whoever your hero happens to be, Richard Egues. It’s like, forget everything you know, we’re here together. And we are in this neutral space, and in Banff you’re so far from any kind of political anything, you’re just out in the woods. So I’d say that people were free to absolutely bathe themselves to this culture that they were so devoted to without any fear or argument. I don’t think I heard anyone arguing about politics because that’s not why they were there. You know? They were there for the culture.
In the midst of treaty 7 territory in Alberta, there was indeed plenty to explore and celebrate about Afrocuban culture, but Alberta and Canada certainly had its own political dynamics. Several Cuban faculty spoke to me about seeing “tepees” along with other performative representations of Indigeneity that are typically used to represent Canadian culture. And while Canada may have been able to boast “friendlier relations” with Cuba than our US neighbours to the south, for most Canadians, sensibilities about Cuba’s African heritage were often less than friendly, and highly exoticized. The very title of this podcast strings together several newspaper headlines that expose a failure on the part of Canadians to come to terms with its own internal racial politics. In fact, the entire 1994 festival was almost shut down when someone tipped off the RCMP out of fear that animal sacrifices would be occurring during Afrocubanismo. Despite all these complex dynamics, the Afrocubanismo festivals did help to lift the shroud of mystery most Canadians would have had around Cuban—and Afrocuban—culture up until that point. Still, perhaps the most meaningful impact the Afrocubanismo festivals were the professional networks and the friendships they introduced, many of which still thrive after almost 30yrs. Luis Bran shared how a conversation at the 1994 festival with Augtustín Diaz Cano—a percussionist with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas—had an important impact on him:
Starts in Spanish and fades to translation by Melissa Noventa:
For me that was super important because, because it was the moment, this is the moment professionally, where I re-located myself to Matanzas. Because, that right there, was where Augustín told me to leave Havana behind. That the next time I went to Cuba, I should go there. And he said “Hey, let go of Havana, let go of Havana. You need to come to Matanzas”. And so later a friend of mine from Matanzas that was returning here, and I had a photo that I had taken in the classroom with Toto Barriel. And so I gave it to him. And I said, when you get to Matanzas, give this to Augustín and tell him, that I am coming. But if it weren’t for that moment at Afrocubanismo, I would have never come. But its incredible how this had such a profound affect; insofar as I could arrive here and arrive here with the sense that I already knew a whole group of people. Who remembered me, not as a musician, no, but rather as a person who helped them when they were in Canada. And I remember, after the first time I came, my second goal was to form a group. That is, it was to return to Canada, and form a group of students and return to do the classes here. And so, the next exchange we did was not in Havana it was here. And it remained here and here is where I met my current wife, and the rest is history. It’s incredible. And, I still have many friends and people with whom I do projects. I have about 3-4 people who were there, who have come to do projects here with me, including Michael who is one of my dearest brothers and continue to produce music together. It’s incredible. And there is really where we became friends.
- Llorona Soundbite – Afrocuba de Matanzas
By the time the 1996 festival rolled around, the success of the first Afrocubanismo festival had gained traction, and both international participants and Cuban faculty were eager to return. Surprisingly, even though the 1996 edition of the festival proved to be equally successful, Afrocubanismo was not renewed for a third time. I asked Andrew and Michael for their thoughts on this:
And then the Buena Vista Social Club came out right around that time, ’95 or six maybe. And that’s a whole other story. But, um…You know, we should have kept doing it. Banff would have made a lot of money if they kept doing it when the Buena Vista Social Club hit and became the #1 record, and of course, that’s a whole other story but it was a massive influx of cash. I think politically Banff backed away from it. I think that they were not happy about this incomprehensible thing that took over the Banff center. And so, they didn’t renew it for the third time. It would have been a biennial. Also Carol Phillips got pushed out around that time and she was really the champion of it. If it hadn’t have been for Carol Phillips it never would have happened.
You know, Andy, part of…if you listen to your language: “this thing that took over the Banff Center”. I think it’s important to sort of note that I don’t think…like, when there’s a brass workshop they don’t…this thing was another animal unto itself. There’s never been a workshop that was like, at 5am there is still 300 people tearing the place apart kind of thing. I don’t know how you can explain or express that. This was not a workshop. This was not a “workshop”. This was some other “thing”.
- Xiomara Soundbite – Afrocubanismo Live
In many ways, this ” thing ” called Afrocubanismo was a perfect storm, or perhaps, a perfect descarga. In both 1994 and 1996 the festival enabled a specific blend of intensity, authenticity and focus to emerge, cutting across cultural and political contrasts, and encouraging a range of deep exchanges to occur among participants and faculty. Nearly 30 years later, the ripple effects of Afrocubanismo continue to be felt, and memories of the festival carry on. Perhaps, not in a traditional archival sense, but through living archives: through the surviving faculty members who continue to generously share their knowledge of Afrocuban traditions, through participants who continue to carry forward a respect of Afrocuban culture in their work, through the professional networks that formed and continue to produce cross-cultural collaborations, and most importantly, through the friendships that began in Banff and continue to flourish.
- Cuban Serenade theme
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Cuban Serenade. Thank you to Luis Orbegoso for the live soundbites he shared from his personal archive for this episode. Thank you also to my friends in Cuba–especially the remaining faculty members of Afrocubanismo in Matanzas– who took the time to share their memories of the festivals with me despite the many day-to-day challenges they faced during my visit. Los agradezco con todo mi corazón. Stay tuned for upcoming episodes of Cuban Serenade as Karen Dubinsky and Freddy Monasterio continue to explore the history of Cuban music in Canada. Hasta pronto.
- Cuban Serenade theme
Melissa Noventa is a multi-disciplinary artist and researcher originally from Guelph, Ontario. She has accumulated a wide range of training, performing, and teaching experience throughout her career. Melissa’s work has spanned commercial, academic and artistic settings allowing her to work alongside a formidable list of distinguished artists and institutions from Canada and abroad including some of Cuba’s premiere folkloric ensembles. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Dance) and a Master’s degree (Dance) from York University. Currently, Melissa is entering her fourth year of the Ph.D. program in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, where she is exploring cultural diplomacy between Canada and Cuba through music and dance. Since arriving in Kingston in 2019, she has also worked with Queen’s Afro-Caribbean Student Association dance team, The Grande Theatre, and the Movement market to share Afro-Cuban dance with the Kingston community.