Though he credits the Buena Vista Social Club’s tremendous popularity as part of the reason he went to Cuba three years ago, Habana Sax manager Stephen Bailey says his goal was to find a group or performer that exemplified the island’s current music.
According to Bailey, Habana Sax reflects modern Cuban sounds and culture — particularly the band’s penchant for plugging in, a marked departure from the acoustically inclined Social Club.
“This group was intended to and accurately represents the opposite end of the spectrum” from the Buena Vista Social Club, Bailey explains. If the Social Club reflects the pre-Castro, Son-soaked romance of Cuba in the 1940s and ’50s, Habana Sax builds on and mixes those traditional sounds with jazz, Afro-Cuban, salsa, Caribbean, Spanish and Brazilian musical forms.
The quintet features four versatile saxophone players and one percussionist, a combination Bailey admits struck him as less than impressive — until he heard Habana Sax play.
“I did this cattle call in Havana and met all these representatives from different music groups,” says Bailey, who was then putting together a U.S. tour for Cuban artists.
“From these interviews, I marked down which people I would go see, and Habana Sax did make the list,” he continues — though Bailey confesses he didn’t really expect to get around to actually hearing the band play.
However, after three days of nonstop auditions in Havana nightclubs lasting into the wee hours, Bailey, the founder and president of the Eastern Performing Arts Center Coalition in Delaware, was exhausted and ready for a break.
“I was looking at my schedule for the day, when I saw the address where Habana Sax was playing was right around the corner. So I got cleaned up and went,” he remembers.
His what-the-hell decision proved providential.
“They put me on a wooden chair and started playing, singing, doing all these percussive things on their chests — they had everything!” he recalls. “The African and Spanish influences were there, [including] the modern Spanish influences.
“I had a preconceived notion of what [a modern Cuban band] should be — [an act] that represented the amazing melting pot of influences in Cuba.”
Bailey had found his band.
“I hoped that the group would physically represent that diversity, and they do,” he continues, referring to the five members’ mixed ethnicity.
The group consists of Jorge Luis Almeida (soprano and alto sax), Angel Ballestar (alto sax, flute), Eduardo Fernandez (tenor sax, flute), Evaristo Denis (baritone sax) and Francois Zayas (tumbadora, bongos, guiro — and just about anything else you can strike to create music).
All five musicians hold degrees from the prestigious Cuban National School of Music, and all but Zayas also studied at the Superior Institute of Art and Culture in Habana. While they are consummate performers, these men are also topnotch teachers of music, holding professorships in Cuba.
Ironically, says Bailey, Habana Sax doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to perform as a group in Cuba, where the band members are more commonly known as educators. For this U.S. tour, Bailey had intended to emphasize the group’s dual role by having them do workshops in area schools.
However, the band’s travel visas got caught up in the maze of this country’s new Homeland Security measures, which had changed from when Bailey had navigated the process only a year earlier. “We got the approvals we always needed for the visas ahead of time,” he says. “But the added step was that this had to go off to the State Department and weave itself through all the different departments that had to approve it.”
While the paperwork did finally get approved, the intervening wait meant the band had to reschedule all its show dates. Unfortunately, some things can’t be rescheduled.
“All the presenters in Asheville bent over backwards to save this,” says Bailey, referring to Habana Sax’s upcoming performance at Diana Wortham Theatre, which was originally scheduled for March.
“The thing we’re most upset about is [that] we’ve lost all the extracurricular opportunities to go into classrooms — that’s where [band members] really shine. We’re really disappointed about that because it downplays what the original intent [of the tour] was.”
Still, Bailey remains surprisingly philosophical about the extra precautions the U.S. has taken to secure its borders.
“You’ve got to protect your country,” he offers. “And sometimes when you do that, some of the dolphins get caught in the tuna net.”