The Mystical Qualities of Alfredo Rodríguez's Cuba Linda
I. A JAZZ RECOURSE
As he made a right-hand turn onto Malcolm X Boulevard one humid Harlem afternoon, I asked the saxophonist and chekeré player Yosvany Terry about his experience sessioning on Cuba Linda, an album that came to life after an exhaustive itinerary. Under the tender direction of the late Cuban-born, Paris-based pianist Alfredo Rodríguez, the album was recorded in 1996 between Santiago de Cuba and Havana, mixed and mastered in London, manufactured in Canada, and published by Rykodisc, the independent label whose Salem, Massachusetts, offices are now closed. I'll soon return to Rodríguez and the many locations compressed into Cuba Linda. But first, some preliminaries. Terry, one of Cuba's brilliant young musical emissaries who for more than a decade has found home in Harlem, responded this way:
To me, the experience was ... you know when you see the old footage of Miles recording with Gil Evans, it was just one big studio? Everybody at the same time, one microphone. And that was the concept of the recording, in fact, we recorded that at the studio EGREM, which used to be the old RCA studios.
Terry dropped this stunning detail into conversation while negotiating the uptown traffic and interviewer and summer heat. I heard his comment not as an accidental remark upon, but as recourse to this and many other collaborations present during the recording of Cuba Linda. His recourse to the Davis/Evans sessions to approximate his experience came so quick it felt automatic. Even with its stealth delivery, Terry's recourse maintained the heft of its many meanings. It was "an act or the action of resorting or turning to a person or thing for help, advice, protection, etc." and a "habitual or usual visiting of a particular place." By turning to and revisiting a familiar place under the sign of jazz—a sign as elusive and robust as Cuban music—he made other geographies and bodies from across the eras present in the Havana-based sessions. Terry enlivens jazz and Cuban music by evoking them simultaneously. One is not the inclusion or exception or derivation of the other.
Here Terry offers a method of writing about the centuries of collaboration and contact embedded in Afro-diasporic creative traditions that unceremoniously breaks the laws of time and space. He remarks upon but does not elaborate on the seizure of RCA and the subsequent nationalization of the music industry by the Cuban government in 1961. His statement was not accompanied by some customary context that would make its implications clear. Instead we are left with some perceptible and hidden continuities. The delivery of his citation of Davis and Evans was striking for its ease and ordinariness, even if the Davis/Evans and Cuba Linda sessions happened decades apart from each other, even as they came to life in different geographies. Terry marks many musical precedents, not as verifiable points of contact between populations, but as collaborative events actual and imagined. What Terry urges here is a way to feel influence without a map or reliable proof. He presses us to get beyond our surprised reactions to such points of contact and to assume their frequent and well-established assembly.
Although I begin with Terry's jazz recourse to tune up for what follows, and I am awestruck by the work it does and does quickly, I recognize that much rehearsal is required before one can make such recourses of their own. Musicians prepare you all the time, whether you listen as they talk or listen as they play. There are so many suggested assignments that arise in song and elsewhere. In this case, Terry offered a few exercises that lead my interaction with Cuba Linda to the page. More than just a way in, there is something of a baroque scaffolding supporting his conversational detail that calls us into its folds and folds us into other calls. These calls are partly musical. Consider Terry's encouraging return to Davis and Evans and to the many sounds that came before and after them. They are partly geographical. Picture how he makes the studio a palimpsest of revolutions old and new. The calls are also methodological: how might it be possible to version his response into a form of criticism? Terry spurs a return to others who have made such recourses in writing and emboldens you to make some of your own—all at the same time, one microphone.
Cuba Linda is a creative laboratory that troubles the modes and methods of analysis that determine what Cuban music is, where it comes from, and to what and whom we might have recourse to in order to listen to it more closely. On the last page of the liner notes for Cuba Linda, Alfredo Rodríguez tucks this spare though expansive acknowledgment: "Thanks to all of the musicians, also to those who in one way or another contributed to this work." To listen in detail to Cuba Linda is to imagine those who, in one way or another, contributed to the work. This chapter plays in Rodríguez's citational excesses to offer an association of performers and locations as contributors to Cuba Linda and to Cuban music. To help assemble this association, I turn to critics and performers who have boldly modified the scholarly fields and formats used to comprehend the migrations of bodies and the performances they carried in the twentieth century. By tracing the tandem rise of the literary anthology, revue, and record album, I propose a provocative trajectory for the writing about these bodies and performances, especially their failed attempts to cohere them. It is through a few wayward details found in these iterations of the anthological project that I find, as the conclusion of the chapter suggests, modes for performative composition.
These performers, locations, and critics encourage recourses to how one might approach, and approach differently, the structures and effects of Rodríguez's Cuba Linda. My work with various anthological formats—the literary anthology, revue, and album—is an extended rehearsal for listening in detail to the album. Cuba Linda, I argue, is an alternative iteration of the anthological project that resists coherence, demarked influence, and authoritative closure. I perform a close listening of it at the end of the chapter not because it is secondary or exemplary to what comes before it. My groundwork reaffirms a few critical precursors for the writing about race, nation, and music and also suggests the potential of Cuba Linda to alter the past, present, and future of scholarly fields. I record the winding paths that have led to my writing about the album as a way of honoring Cuba Linda as an object and experience that one has to go through a few things for. There is no direct access to this or any magical musical detail in the greater Cuban musical catalog.
My choice to put the album at the chapter's end might frustrate if read as an act of withholding or a slapdash stylistic. Resistance to transparent interpretation remains a tricky operation for some. Even when up-front access to the why of the work is made available—for whatever reason of material survival—reproach is often a response when recourse is made to the personal. It is through my willful demurral of this predicament that I offer the following: I defer Cuba Linda until the end because it has been something that has taken me a long time to find words for. My keyboard has had to be dabbed dry on too many occasions. It has made me read and listen and read and listen. It has forced the private relationship I've had with it public. Its details have motivated countless talks, conference papers, discussions with musicians and their critics and collectors, congregation with those whom find a parallel tone to their own fractured togetherness. It has pushed me to find funding so that I could travel and touch my own history. Part of the deferment was getting familiar with the larger oeuvre of Alfredo Rodríguez, which also meant some time for the work of mourning as he passed away right before I got hip to the album.
My interaction with Cuba Linda is a conclusion I defer, here and everywhere, because it is an active influence on my everyday. To evoke Danielle Goldman whose work makes recourse to Alvin Ailey, "I want to be ready" for the open and attentive commitment to the writing about and enactment of this performance. To write about Rodríguez and his Cuba Linda is to bring a most moved and tireless state of homage to the page. To honor the details of such a life lived and how they were put together as this album requires constant preparation. While I insist upon this time in my own research and in this chapter, I acknowledge performers as agents that we can never know fully. One must be willing to fall and fail. I know that I will never be ready and not just because of my age. I will always be unprepared to talk about this album because it is one of the most powerful arrangements of Cuban sound ever put together.
II. FORMATIVE PRELUDES: BETWEEN HAVANA AND NEW ORLEANS
Alfredo Rodríguez was born in Havana in 1936. His mother was his first music teacher. His father was a builder. On the weekends, his father would make repairs on the Loynaz mansion, one of the most famous and elegant of Havana's residences. Young Alfredo would tag along and spend many hours with the two remaining sisters that lived there. One sister was Dulce María Loynaz, one of Cuba's most important and prolific poets active in twentieth-century Latin American literary circles until 1959. After the revolution, she remained in Cuba but lived out an internal exile by remaining silent. Her sister, Flor, was young Alfredo's godmother.
Rodríguez came to music as a singer, and as was a common practice of the time, started entering in radio contests when he was five years old. He eventually turned to the piano after puberty took his voice. Like so many other Cuban musicians, Rodríguez was classically trained. His dream of becoming a concert pianist began after he saw Arthur Rubinstein, the Polish-American virtuoso pianist whose interpretations of Chopin and Brahms are the stuff of legend, perform in Havana when he was not yet ten years old. His teen years—rife with youthful distractions—turned him away from his practice and into other kinds of revelries. In 1960 at the age of twenty-seven, Rodríguez left Cuba for New York and had to relearn how to play the instrument, this time with the help of the popular Cuban music records that he had grown up with. He studied with jazz pianists Albert Dailey and Bill Evans to reacquaint himself with the instrument and eventually sessioned with some of New York's most notable musicians of the twentieth century: Dizzy Gillespie, Vincentico Valdés, Willie Rosario, and Joe Cuba. He was a presence in bugalu and performed some of the most innovative work on the Fania Record Label. He worked on Patato Valdés's Ready for Freddy, an album recorded in one take and considered a favorite of many jazz musicians such as Art Blakey and especially, Cecil Taylor. After a brief stint in Miami where he worked with Fajardo, the Cuban flautist, he permanently settled in France in the early 1980s. While there, Rodríguez's recordings found successful reception not only in New York, but also in places such as London, French Guiana, Amsterdam, and Dakar.
These figures and locations all form part of the "one way or another" that contributed to Cuba Linda. Their impact is palpable in Rodríguez's biographical and played notes. I pause on his tutelage with Baltimore's own Albert Dailey, the luminous if undercelebrated jazz pianist who worked with Damita Jo DeBlanc, Sarah Vaughn, Stan Getz, and Freddy Hubbard among many others. At a certain point in Rodríguez's playing you will be confronted by an irruptive flourish, a particular furious rolling rumbling of notes packed into a short space. Though this played detail is unique to Rodríguez's work it bears an unmistakable trace of Dailey. These flourishes belong to and in both. It is a möbius detail. And just one of the possible effects that these two players—only two years apart in age—might have had on each other. We can never know where one begins and the other ends.
Together with Terry's recourse to Davis and Evans, this trace of Dailey offers a nuanced sense of the jazz intersections that have long been sounded between the United States and Cuba, and that resound strongly in Cuba Linda. These and a chorus of others confirm what we should all know by now to be true: jazz is also Cuba's music. As the pianist and bandleader Arturo O' Farrill once put it, "the music that we call jazz is Cuban and the music we call Cuban is jazz." Terry, Rodríguez, and O'Farrill urge us to think harder about how these recourses are made especially when considering jazz's nationalistic function, however unwilling, as "America's music." Consider also the embargo and how Cuban and US music, musical commodities, and musicians have not been officially allowed to be a part of one another since the twentieth century's midway. Even in destructive conditions of fragmentation, such recourses are still made.
To make recourse is also to make refuge, and I believe that jazz is capacious enough to not turn its neighbors away. I reiterate a premise of this book: music has been made of the convergence of Cuba and the United States for several centuries even if we don't have all the recordings to use as evidence, even if the affinities were made before they became official nations. As we imagine those sounds—and as we detect them in the music of the here-and-now—it is necessary to recall New Orleans as a thriving matrix of such gathering. That special city, like Havana, is one of the central creative hubs of the New World. It is a city, like Havana, that has long been both a prized possession and primary problem for the colonial occupiers of its past and the disastrous managers of its present. Like Havana, it has been a portal for the collecting and expulsion of bodies, commodities, and living ephemera from both the Old and New Worlds. Both are taken up as domestic anomalies at the same time that they are also called upon to stand in for the nations in which they dwell.
Given their geographic intimacy and the mutually formative histories that have passed between them, New Orleans and Havana might be better described, together, as the front porch of the Americas; an intergulf threshold that can only be written as science fiction given its difficulty to grasp in the present moment. The cities' futurity has perhaps always been their danger. It is why, with inspirational urgency, that Ned Sublette always signs off his public talks with a call to end the embargo of Havana because it is also the embargo of New Orleans. He forlornly notes, "with the embargo still in effect as of this writing , the more than forty years of communications blackout between New Orleans and Havana has clouded our memory of how important that link was, from Spanish colonial times through the 1950s." This clouded memory is tragically present in many minds and hearts on both sides of the gulf, from scholars to musicians, critics and schoolchildren. That music has continued to thrive in spite of this seemingly broken link is the stuff of wonder.
Sublette is among a chorus of scholars who have rightly turned our attention to New Orleans at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries as a cultural crossroads, especially in the rough temporal bookends that incorporate revolutions in Haiti, North America, and France. The specific commercial and cultural linkage to Cuba was further facilitated by the city's Spanish occupation, which lasted from 1769 to 1803. Sublette writes, "The Spanish/Cuban period in New Orleans in one of the most important moments in African American history. For the intensity of its African culture and the relative freedom with which it was practiced, Spanish New Orleans was unique in North America." The ease with which Sublette slides in this period as formative to an African American history is in step with its sound: there is no way one can mention the city-as-milieu without that decisive trespass.
Sublette finds wonderful company in his emphasis on this formative interstice and its impact on music. Thanks to the labors of love by critics such as Leonardo Acosta, Raúl Fernández, Radamés Giro, and Natalio Galán such impacts have been well documented. Leonardo Acosta's indispensible Cubano Be, Cubano Bop: One Hundred Years of Jazz in Cuba is one of those books that has made this one possible. It is deservedly legendary and admirable for the specific attention paid to the results of such crossings. Beyond the shared experience of a colonizing presence of Spain, Acosta refers us to several historical "parallelisms" that brought Cubans into contact with African Americans in the port cities. Acosta notes the profound importance of migrations of free blacks who left Cuba for New Orleans after the abolition of slavery in 1886; the presence of African American troops who were sent to fight in the Cuban Independence War of 1898 (aka the Spanish-American War), and the effects of the early twentieth-century US occupations of the island (which I discussed in the introduction). Raúl Fernández reminds us of the economies of and enabled by music, particularly in the early nineteenth century. As a global port, whose various market lives were echoed by Havana's own, New Orleans brought multiethnic populations together to perform in its diverse venues. From theaters to restaurants, hotels and port saloons, the city facilitated the material living for many musicians. There were also informal, public venues that brought together the port city's itinerant bodies. Fernández points to the city's Congo Square, a performance space that featured drumming by slaves and former slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. These performance practices had been otherwise outlawed in most parts of North America. Other historical ephemera track a Havana opera troupe that had moved its base of operation to New Orleans as early as 1836.