What began as an inexpensive vacation in Cuba for Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett has turned into a life’s mission.
Fusing Cuban rhythms with her own brand of ’60s- and ’70s-style improvisational jazz has been the deepest focus of Bunnett’s work for more than a decade, as the performer has increasingly immersed herself in that country’s music and culture.
Bunnett’s 1991 release Spirits of Havana — which is also the name of the group of Cuban musicians she tours with — was deemed a “pivotal recording” by the All-Music Guide and named one of the top 300 jazz albums of all time. But Bunnett considers the group’s latest release, Chamalongo (EMI/Blue Note, 1997) — which also showcases the legendary voice of the late singer Merceditas Valdes — to be the more informed work.
“The first one was sort of an introduction into the folklore,” she explains. “Since then, I’ve done seven years of work in the idiom, and learned a lot more. This record is much more realized and determined, [because] I understand more.”
Cuban music contains a mix of folkloric-based rhythms and chants, jazzy riffs, and overtones of the deep mysticism of the Santeria religion (a blend of African traditions and Roman Catholicism). That combination makes it wholly distinctive from other types of traditional music, says Bunnett. Cuba’s isolation from the rest of the world did much to insulate the singular richness of its music, giving it a purity that Bunnett finds seductive.
“The music is hundreds of years old, and it’s still so intact,” she muses. “This is music that has been passed down in an oral tradition. It takes years to learn the different chants and rhythms. The music was able to stay [pure] because Cuba has been cut off.”
Bunnett equates the Cuban sound with the spiritual and experimental path taken by such jazz masters as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis; she has often pointed out that bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie was the first to promote Cuban rhythms in the U.S.
And setting her soprano saxophone’s voice against a background of ancient Santeria chants evokes no personal or professional qualms for the North American musician.
“A lot of the musicians we play with are also our friends, and because of the nature of the music, they would speak up if we were delving into anything inappropriate,” she insists. “Certain areas are sacred territory: For example, [there are] certain drums [that] can only be used in a religious ceremony. I’ve always worked with people who would let me know if I was getting into any improper areas.”
For Bunnett, though, the need to meld Cuban rhythms with her own sound has become as compelling as her attraction to the indigenous music’s purity. “We’ve set a harmonic nature to the [Cuban] music, and extended it by opening up areas for jazz improvisation,” she notes.
The Spirits of Havana’s eclectic repertoire of hymns and salsas has taken them from concert halls to folk festivals and back again. And while the saxophonist appreciates the rapt audiences in concert halls, she prefers the more interactive experience you get with festival crowds.
“What I really like is when the younger people start dancing,” she says, pointing out that one of the members of her own band is only 17.
The past two years, though, have seen Bunnett reluctantly embroiled in a political scandal, as she and her group have attempted to bypass the anti-Cuban Helms-Burton Law to bring their sound to America. The 1996 law, which imposes penalties on foreigners who do business with Cuba, has cost the group a contract with Sony Records, as well as $40,000 in lost concert revenues.
Bunnett, now on the Canadian EMI-Blue Note label, has always maintained that she has no interest in aiding the Castro regime, and she stresses the importance of divorcing music from politics. To some extent, the fight appears to have paid off: while usually allowed to perform in the U.S., “our visas are always held up until the last minute … which makes things really tough,” Bunnett told one journalist. But asked whether Spirits’ partial triumph over the law has made her group’s success in this country all the sweeter, the performer sounds more weary than victorious.
“The response we get in the U.S. is extremely good, and we feel it has been extremely important to perform for Americans, [but] it’s been pretty tough,” she reports. “I’ve always tried to keep music and politics separate. Music has a nurturing and important emotional effect on people. It has no borders.”