ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

The Cuban Connection

Story & photos by  BOB DORAN


In the mass culture you might blame the interest in Latin music on the Buena Vista Social Club, on Ricky Martin, on Carlos Santana.

"It's a virus that's infecting Americans; it's a severe situation we have here," declares David Peñalosa, leader of Kachimbo, an Afro-Cuban band that calls Humboldt County home. Humboldt is also the home of Bembé Records, a label that specializes in Cuban music. And for the last five years the county has been home to a world-class workshop on Cuban folkloric music and dance.


Peñalosa: Rhythm instigator

[photo of David Penalosa]Peñalosa says he was infected with the virus even before he knew what Cuban music was. He recalls a visit to his sister in Berkeley when he was 12 years old.

"I remember walking across Sproul Plaza and hearing the conga drums. It put a bounce in my step and I had this idea I could do it."

That was back in the '60s when Carlos Santana had just started spreading the Latin bug. "Carlos did more than anyone to bring Cuban music to America," said Peñalosa.

But wait, Santana isn't Cuban, and his band doesn't play Cuban music.

"But the rhythms are Cuban. The Cuban connection has been denied and downplayed in this country since the Revolution, but before it was common knowledge. Even as far back as World War II, Johnny Otis was using Cuban musicians and fusing the rhythms with rhythm and blues.

"The fact is the African-Americans were denied drums and their rhythms. They expressed their African roots with European instruments and basically that's why we have jazz. In Cuba they were allowed to use the drums and because of that they kept their cultural heritage. African-American music was re-inoculated with the African musical sensibility via Cuba and the Cuban rhythm instruments."

Peñalosa started out playing jazz on flute and clarinet, but then someone brought congas to a jam session at his house. "I just flipped out. I totally bonded with the drums even though I didn't know what I was doing. I had been into Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and I was enamored with percussion -- but I hadn't made the switch until someone put the instruments in my hands."

The indirect result was an end to the jam sessions. "The neighbors never complained about the squeaky horns upstairs, but when they heard me play the congas it was like (he beats out a tap, tap, tap on the table) and they shut down the sessions right away. The drums evoke strong emotions. Traditionally in Africa the rhythms activate the libido or they induce trance, and not everybody wants their base chakra activated. But that's really the appeal. So when Carlos Santana put that into his music it was like, `Ye-eah, I like it.'"

He decided to learn more. And when he moved to Humboldt County in the late '70s he brought along his drums and looked around for others who were interested in exploring the Afro-Cuban sound. He played in a world beat band called Tombo and in a salsa dance band called Guateque, but neither one focused on the Cuban folkloric music he was most interested in, so he put together a band to do just that.

"The reason I started Kachimbo was that I felt like I finally had a core of people who were really devoted to the music," he said, "people who would stick with it and last. I was up in Arcata for 6 months and started working with Howie (Kaufman). He played steel drums, but he also played traditional batá drums with me. His friend John Lewis had been playing drums with me, and of course I'd been playing with Jimmy (Durchslag) for many years. I felt like, `Okay. We're all on board; we're all into this.' It was the right combination of people at the right time."

Kachimbo plays a wide range of Afro-Cuban music ranging from the folkloric music played on the island in the '20s to the modern style known as timba. But the band makes the music its own -- and in the end does not really sound like any Cuban band.

"Salsa is dependent on call-and-response singing where a lead vocalist or sonero sings in counterpoint to the chorus -- the style of singing is very specific," said Peñalosa. "The singer must have a mastery of the rhythms and be able to create spontaneous poetry on the spot. The dilemma of starting a salsa band in Humboldt County is that there are no soneros here. I didn't want someone to sing the songs just because they knew Spanish."

The solution: other instruments cover the vocal parts. The trombones may take the chorus part and the flute or sax will handle the counterpoint, turning a vocal style into instrumental music.

"So we are the only instrumental salsa band anywhere, at least as far as I know," said Peñalosa. They add contemporary touches to the old tunes and put a different spin on everything by adding Trinidadian steel drum.

"The parts that Howie and Eugene (Novotney) play are typically handled by a violin section or by the tres, an Afro-Cubanized guitar. The parts are still there, but on instruments that my buddies play. It's a real nice sound and it makes it more a statement of who we are," said Peñalosa.

"We are also one of less than half a dozen American salsa bands that play timba, the newest style of Cuban salsa that blends hip hop beats and funky bass lines with salsa. It's a style that most Americans are not aware of because when they see something like the Buena Vista Social Club or the Afro-Cuban All Stars, they're hearing music from the '20s to the '60s.

"Timba is Cuban salsa of the new millennium. It's influenced by jazz as far as harmonies, but it also draws a lot of inspiration from Afro-Cuban folkloric music, the traditional music brought from Africa. The Cubans have this deep well of African folklore with rhythms that have been passed down from generation to generation. What they're doing now is taking traditional African rhythms and making them into hip hop beats."

The ancient rhythms live on in part because the music is tied to religion. Cuba has always been a Catholic country and the Catholic response to the rituals that came over from Africa with the slaves was incorporation rather than suppression.

"As the slaves would celebrate their different deities, the priests would say, `Oh, that's Saint So and So, fine...' This created a facade of Catholicism behind which the African traditions were preserved. In Puritanical America on the other hand, a slave seen with a drum might be killed on sight. There was no tolerance and the drum traditions were lost. The African-Americans have been able to reclaim their rhythmic heritage by borrowing from the Afro-Cubans."


Durchslag and the birth of Bembé

[photo of Jimmy Durchslag]Jimmy Durchslag moved to Southern Humboldt in the early '70s after graduating from Yale. He had played trombone before attending college.

"I was involved in jazz in high school," he said. "I got back to playing trombone shortly after I started working with Redwoods Rural Health Center (where he served as executive director for 9 years). That was around '76. I knew something about Latin music, but I didn't really get into it deeply until I met David. He was way into it."

Durchslag played along with Peñalosa in Tombo and Guateque, then joined him as a founding member of Kachimbo.

After running the Health Center for nine years, Durchslag went to work for Lieb Ostrow running Music for Little People, a rapidly expanding catalogue company. As the business grew they added records to the mix, starting a label also called Music for Little People. A world music label, Earthbeat, spun off from that and Peñalosa was hired to do some promotional work.

"David and I worked on some Latin releases through Earthbeat," said Durchslag. "That was when we decided to go off on our own. We proposed a sub-label with a focus on Cuban music -- if we could keep total creative control. They weren't that into it, so we decided to do it on our own."

Bembé Records got off the ground with a record called Musica Yoruba by the traditional Cuban combo, Conjunto Folklorico Naçional de Cuba.

"David knew this guy from Berkeley who was the founder of Leopold's Records," said Durchslag. "He would go down to Cuba and come back with boxes of vinyl to sell. They would just pack the stuff up for him. It was like, unknown territory. He was never sure what he was getting.

"One time he came back and found they had packed a bunch of the reel-to-reel masters. One set was an album by Conjunto Folklorico Naçional de Cuba. He didn't have any rights to it, but the tapes were there.

"People have always ripped off the Cubans because of the gray area involved in releasing this music because of the relations between the U.S. and Cuba. It's not illegal to license the Cuban music, but there are limits on what you can do and there are tax restrictions.

"We got the masters and went to Cuba to negotiate a licensing deal with EGREM (Cuba's national record label). We could easily have taken the tape and put out an album and they couldn't have done much about it. But we didn't want to start our relationship that way so we made a deal with EGREM to make it all official."

Durchslag utilized the marketing and distribution skills he had learned at Music for Little People and Bembé was on its way. Since then they have released 15 more albums, including Babalú Ayé by Chucho Valdes and Irakere, an album that was nominated for a Grammy for "Best Tropical Latin Performance."

Somewhere along the line there was a burst of interest in Cuban music brought on by Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club album and the related film. Durchslag has mixed feelings about their effects on the marketing of Cuban music in the U.S.

"People have a very jaded view of Cuban music now because of the Buena Vista Social Club. It's old guys doing old music. There's nothing wrong with it -- it's roots music -- but it's not the current state of Cuban music.

"When Buena Vista came out there was a boom, but there was also a flood of Cuban recordings on the market. All these old recordings were re-released as compilations -- EGREM is notorious for licensing the same music over and over again to different companies. As a result the stores were flooded by a bunch of crap.

"It's very hard for an independent label like Bembé to survive today in general. There's so much out on the market and sales are driven by popular taste. I think (Buena Vista) has kept an interest in Cuban music alive, but we've been promoting a more modern type of music.

"The identity we're trying to establish is top quality and cutting-edge and we're very focused in what we put out. Whether it's folkloric, Latin jazz, timba or the popular dance music, it's all the progressive creative stuff, not just more of the same."


Kaufman: Explorations in dance and drum

[photo of Howie Kaufman]Howie Kaufman grew up in the San Fernando Valley and moved to Arcata in 1982 to study math at Humboldt State. He had been playing drums since he was a teenager -- but not hand drums. In 1984 he met Peñalosa when David came up from Southern Humboldt to teach a percussion workshop.

"By that time I had changed my major to music," said Kaufman. "I had been playing with the percussion ensemble and a couple of the other guys from the music department would get together every Friday afternoon and play. We'd get the congas out and play these rhythms we had found. We were looking at every source possible."

Kaufman shared a house with one of the other drummers, John Lewis. "John had written down all the rhythms David taught at the workshop and we had been using that to practice."

Peñalosa was intrigued when he heard that a group of drummers in Arcata was serious about studying Latin rhythms. "He decided to teach our group as a private class," said Kaufman.

"Up here Kate Bean -- who everyone knew as Cat -- was teaching world beat dance classes at the Creamery. World beat was a term being used all over. Eventually John and I and a couple of other guys became the core drummers for her class.

"The Afro-Cuban scene had started earlier in Southern Humboldt. People were playing batá drums, learning about the Afro-Cuban religion and Brazilian rhythms. It was very focused. The scene here was a little less specific. When David came up it kind of bridged the two communities. Around 1985 he started teaching us just Afro-Cuban. He had a huge collection of recording and videos. We were just devouring the rhythms he was showing us. We had a little group that met every week."

Peñalosa was a strong drummer and a good teacher, but even he wanted to learn directly from Cubans. Eventually they would all get the chance.

"In 1988 a woman from Southern Humboldt, Estrella Quiroga, helped organize a drum and dance workshop in Tijuana, Mexico with Cuban masters. At the time they couldn't come to the U.S. -- there was no way. David and John Lewis went down the first year. I went the second year. It was the first time I had hands-on instruction with someone from Cuba. That really changed everything."

With the classes as a boost, a group of serious drum/dance students from both ends of the county coalesced and gave itself a name: the Afro-Cuban Studies Collective.[photo of shekere]

"That was around the time when we brought the Muñequitos here," said Kaufman. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas is a Cuban folkloric rumba troupe, one of the first to tour the United States.

"Some woman from New York called me to say they were bringing them to the U.S. They had heard there was a scene here in Arcata and asked if we wanted them to come here. I called David and he ended up producing the show. We put up the money and offered our homes as a place for them to stay and it was a big success."

Two years later the Studies Collective brought Muñequitos back but the visit was not so successful. Concert attendance was poor and collective members ended up losing money. But that didn't end their desire to learn from the Cuban masters.

"We thought maybe we could go through the university to bring groups here," said Kaufman. "Then in 1996 the Summer Arts workshops, which had been held at HSU, were moved to Long Beach, creating a void at HSU."

Kaufman got a call asking if he would be interested in starting up some sort of drum workshop. With sponsorship from HSU's Extended Education, a week of drum and dance classes was held.

Kaufman is currently signing up participants for the 6th annual "Explorations in Afro-Cuban Dance and Drum" to be held July 2228 at HSU. The program has grown to the point that participants travel from all over the world to come here and study with 11 instructors, most of them straight from Cuba.

"Howie has created something that's pretty remarkable," said Peñalosa. "It's the biggest assemblage of Afro-Cuban folkloric masters in the country and it's right here in Arcata."

[photo of Luis Cepeda]"Some of our faculty members are as important in folkloric music as Miles Davis is in jazz," said Kaufman. "Those who know anything about this music honor the abilities of Lazaro Galarraga as you would a Miles Davis. And some of the other drum teachers are just as highly respected."

Another drum instructor, Luis Cepeda, (in photo at left) is an expert in Afro-Puerto Rican music from the world-renowned Familia Cepeda. "His father and his mother are responsible for keeping the bomba rhythm alive in Puerto Rico. Luis knows more about bomba than anyone in the U.S.," said Kaufman.

After coming to teach in Humboldt County, Cepeda has decided to settle here. He has also become the newest member of Kachimbo.

In the summer of 1999 Peñalosa decided to take advantage of all the assembled drum talent and make a record.

"I had this crazy idea," he said. "We would take these guys into the studio on their day off to see what happens. It was risky, but we pulled it of. We took everyone down to Big Bang Studio in Loleta and put together this album that just features an orchestra of drums."

Most of the members of Kachimbo are on the resulting album, Drum Jam, by the group Peñalosa dubbed Grupo Exploracion.

"I feel amazed at all the amazing people who I have had the opportunity to play music with, beginning with the Muñequitos," said Kaufman. "I had studied their music for years and there they were playing in my living room.

"It's the same thing with Luis. I look over at him when he is soloing and we're playing together. He's smiling and it's -- well it's just amazing. How lucky we are here in Arcata to have these kinds of experiences."

[photo of Kachimbo] Kachimbo ­ back row, from left, Howie Kaufman, Sebastian Link, Luis Cepeda, Rama Boyd, Michael Stephenson, Eugene Novotney; front row, Jimmy Durchslag, David Peñalosa and Daryl Strom. Kachimbo takes its name from the sound made by the shekere, a beaded gourd (photo is above right)


Kachimbo performs at 4:30 p.m. June 23 at the Mateel Summer Arts and Music Festival at Benbow; July 6 at Six Rivers Brewery Old Town and July 7 at the Iguana in Redway.

To learn more about Bembé Records go to www.bembe.com. Explorations in Afro-Cuban Drum and Dance runs July 22-28 at HSU. For complete information, go to www.humboldt.edu/~extended/afrocuban. For registration information contact the Office of Extended Education at 826-3731. The workshop concludes with a public performance by students and faculty on July 28 at 8 p.m. at HSU's Fulkerson Recital Hall.



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