Ed. note: This article appeared in JT‘s June 2017 issue, and was written prior to important recent developments in U.S.-Cuba relations.
In July 2015, when President Barack Obama officially re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, it ended a 54-year political stalemate and commenced a new era of cultural exchange between the island nation and the U.S.
But more than three decades before Obama’s historic rapprochement, Canadian soprano saxophonist, flutist and composer Jane Bunnett had begun working tirelessly to promote Cuban jazz worldwide, and to provide its practitioners with performance opportunities far beyond their borders—including gigs in the States. Bunnett’s Toronto home has also served as a hub for several generations of Cuban players, many spending weeks or months in her guest rooms.
Bunnett’s devotion to Cuban music and musicians began unexpectedly in 1982, when she and her longtime partner, trumpeter Larry Cramer, spotted an ad for a cheap vacation in Santiago de Cuba. Arriving at their hotel, the couple encountered a band that featured trumpeter Inaudis Paisan Mallet. Lugging their instruments, they took front-row seats, eventually sat in, ignited a deep friendship with Mallet that continued until his death in 2014, and were forever hooked on the Afro-Cuban sounds they’d discovered.
Now 60, Bunnett has recorded more than a dozen albums featuring Cuban artists, including 1992’s landmark Spirits of Havana—a two-disc, 25th-anniversary edition was released last summer—and, subsequently, various Spirits of Havana configurations. Her latest Cuban project is Maqueque, an all-female outfit whose eponymous debut album, released in 2014, features Bunnett alongside vocalist Daymé Arocena, tres guitarist and bassist Yusa, pianist Danae Olano, bassist Celia Jimenez, batá/conga player Magdelys Savigne and drummer Yissy García, with all members also contributing to vocal choruses. Last year’s follow-up, Oddara (Linus), showcases the same lineup—minus Yusa and plus violinist Elizabeth Rodriguez—with Arocena and fellow vocalist Melvis Santa as featured guests.
Earlier this year, Bunnett sat down with JazzTimes in her cozy living room, peppered with Cuban artwork, instruments and handicrafts, to talk about her passionate allegiance to the music, with specific focus on Maqueque’s development and evolution.
JazzTimes: Twenty-seventeen marks the 35th anniversary of your remarkable Cuban odyssey. Looking back, what are your impressions of those three and a half decades?
Jane Bunnett: I think we were way ahead of the curve at the time. From the very beginning, we were connected with the most respected musicians. They didn’t want [Cuban] music to be misinterpreted. But when we did break their rules, like when we did Monk’s “Epistrophy,” we were very clear that we were adjusting the rules. By aligning ourselves with all the best people, we got a lot of respect for our collaborations, because people understood our motivation and sincerity, and that what we were doing went beyond friendship with another country to making really great music together.
In creating Maqueque, part of your motivation was to empower female Cuban musicians who don’t get the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
Recently, things have gotten a tiny bit better for female jazz musicians. But three or four years ago, any musician had to ask permission of the government to perform. So if you had a band and wanted to play [at a club], you had to ask the Cuban Institute of Music and go through several levels of government approval. Even if you simply wanted to play at the café around the corner, you couldn’t do so without the government’s OK. So, especially for jazz, performance opportunities have been very limited for the guys and even [more limited] for the women.
It’s also a very macho society. I’d be in a jam session and I wouldn’t see one girl playing. Some of these girls [in Maqueque] have completed 15 years of training and are really, really good, but the guys take what few gigs there are. With our Spirits of Havana, we’ve had Pedrito Martinez come through our group, and Dafnis Prieto and Yosvany Terry—there’s a long list, probably 20 musicians who’ve gone on to great careers, and they’re all guys! So that’s why I decided to do this.
How did you assemble the original Maqueque lineup?
Push came to shove when I was doing a Jazz Safari [a musical expedition to Cuba organized by Toronto’s JAZZ.FM91] in 2013 and I met Daymé in the lobby of the hotel. I was organizing a jam session with a bunch of young musicians that I’d previously brought to Toronto, about 10 of them, and said to her, “We’re doing a session in the cigar bar upstairs. Come and join us.” So she sang with us and was very, very good. She has an unbelievable voice.
Afterwards we traded contact information, and about a month later I was at [Toronto’s] Jane Mallett Theatre doing a fundraiser for Sistering, which is an organization for women at risk. There are usually three or four singers on the program, and I convinced them to include Daymé. She was on the bill with Molly Johnson and Jackie Richardson, and everybody was blown away. She was 20, but her voice was so beyond the years. And that’s how it started. I thought, “Maybe I should try and do a new project with Daymé and put together an all-female group.” It was a total leap of faith. I went down there to check different people out. They had to be a certain personality; they had to have some sense of improvising; they had to be down with their own Cuban music, because some musicians aren’t that interested in traditional Cuban sounds; and they had to be really interested in being open and creative.
How did the first album come together?
Daymé’s father runs a drag club called [Cabaret] Las Vegas, and we rehearsed there during the day—pitch-black, no electricity. The lights would come on for 20 minutes and we’d race to play. It was disastrous! Then we went into one studio and started recording. The piano broke, so we had to find another space, but we managed to complete half a record. I had to go back to Havana to do the other half. I came home after the two sessions and was really scratching my head. I didn’t initially think it was a very good record; I didn’t have any faith in it. I knew it was a real departure from the other Afro-Cuban records I’d done, in the sense that I’d had long-term relationships with all the guys who’d been on the other recordings, and all were male-directed projects with me in the mix doing my thing. Then I realized there’s a different kind of energy about [the Maqueque sessions]. When everything started clicking it was extremely supportive, and it had a different joyousness about it because it was such a new thing. [The women] brought in this kind of excitement, knowing they were doing something that hasn’t been done before.
When you see the group onstage it really is joyous. Sometimes when I walk off the stage I feel really electrified, because there’s an incredible energy that I’ve not felt with male groups. When [Maqueque gets] on the stage, they’re dying to show off what they can do. They’re not only playing their instruments intensely but singing with incredible intensity too, which is such an integral part of the Afro-Cuban culture, with religious chants. We’ve taken those chants and incorporated them into a jazz context. So there’s still the institution of knowing how to work those harmonies in thirds and sixths to make them bounce and sound full. They know where to position their voices because they have training in choral singing. So there’s this great sort of lift. I always remember Steve Lacy saying, “Lift the bandstand,” and that’s what really happens with this group. All the girls have one another’s backs, and everyone feels supported and lifted.
Is writing for this group different for you?
Very. I could not do this same material with Spirits of Havana; the outcome would be very different. Ellington wrote for his band members, and that’s how I feel. We’ve done a fair amount of touring now, and I really know the personalities, and I know what they’re each capable of and that they’re all capable of doing more. We’ve spent a lot of time here in my house—it’s like that high school thing: “Hey, guys, let’s go down to the basement and jam!” They come here to prepare for our tours, we rehearse, then we eat and drink together, have a few laughs, and it’s a family. Our Spirits of Havana [ensembles] have always been like a family, but this is different, perhaps because of their ages—they’re all in their 20s. With the second record, after the first one won the Juno [Canada’s Grammy equivalent], everyone wanted to write, so we decided to pick the best of everybody’s tunes.
Daymé was a centerpiece of the first album but only does a guest spot on the second. Why the change?
[British DJ and label-owner] Gilles Peterson [a partner in Havana Club International’s global initiative, Havana Cultura] came in and sort of gobbled her up, and she’s just exploded. He’s got her everywhere doing everything. She’ll probably make a Nina Simone album. I’m very happy for her, because she comes from a very poor family and she’s now the breadwinner. She’s bought a house and a car and is playing places I haven’t played! But she wanted to be on the second record and got herself [to Toronto] to do it.
For the second album, you added Havana-born violinist and vocalist Elizabeth Rodriguez.
That was interesting. It happened by accident. I needed a singer. We were booked for four nights at Jazz Showcase in Chicago. Daymé couldn’t make it, so I hired Melvis Santa. But she had some commitment in Philadelphia for the first night, and it was about three weeks before the gig, so there was no time to get a Cuban replacement. Elizabeth had Facebooked me when she came to Toronto, said she’d been watching what I’d been doing and would love to meet me. I got in touch with her and asked if she sang. She said she loved to sing, so I invited her over to hear the material. Then she said, “I have a green card.” Well, that was it! She came on the trip and was spectacular, and the other girls loved her. We have this thing. When we see someone, we say, “They’re a Maqueque character” or “They’re not a Maqueque character.” Maqueque means the fiery energy spirit of a little girl, so you’ve got to have a lot of spunk. She’s a fireball and amazing onstage, plays her ass off on violin and is a dynamite singer.
You’re not known for covering pop tunes, but opted to include Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” on the first Maqueque album and Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” on the second.
I was thinking that I’d like to include something that feels like an American anthem and do it with batá drums, [applying] the ingredients I was already using on the record to something that has a North American context. I think it’s interesting for people to see that. It takes it from “this is all foreign stuff” to “this is foreign instrumentation being applied to [something familiar].” It gives the listener a bit of a reference. I had one more song to top up the record, and I was listening to Holger Petersen’s show [Saturday Night Blues on CBC Radio and SiriusXM] and “Ain’t No Sunshine” came on. I knew that was it because I could hear how the batá would fit just perfectly.
“A Song for You” is one of the ultimate love songs. It is so beautiful. That was a tricky one. We workshopped that one for a long time and it wasn’t coming together; it was just too pedestrian. Then we started working with the concept of bringing Afro-Cuban chant into it, and the whole piece took off. When we perform both those pieces in the U.S. there’s always a collective sigh—[American audiences] really cherish those pieces.
What does the future look like for Maqueque?
I’m hoping this group can grow into more places, beyond Latin America to Africa, Eastern Europe, maybe Turkey. I hope to keep this collective together and have special guests and collaborations.
Is Maqueque a feminist statement or purely a musical statement?
Can’t it be both? I think it can’t help but be a feminist statement. The music is not soft. It’s very strong, sometimes even stronger than strong, almost atomic. I think it has to send out a feminist energy.