Despite being off-limits to Americans and stuck in a 1950s time warp, the island of Cuba has given us some of the most hip-shaking, soul-satisfying music ever invented. It’s hard to think of Pennsylvania, which is approximately the same size as Cuba, concocting such a unique and influential sound. Cut through the embargoes, missile crises and Red Scare and you have this: Cuba is a tropical island that knows how to party and its music reflects its people’s love of life.
Take the local dance band Savor, for example. It knows Cuba and its music.
“It’s a naturally happy place, and people are generally joyous there,” Havana-born Víctor Alvarez, Savor’s bandleader, says. “The island is such a paradise, with the sea, the flowers. Music in Cuba is in the streets.”
These days, Alvarez keeps busy by sharing the music of his boyhood with anyone willing to listen. Savor may be one of Santa Fe’s most energetic and hardest working groups. A typical summer week sees the band playing five or six nights, wrapping up on Sunday morning with an acoustic set. Depending on the size and nature of the gig, other local musicians join the group, but the main draw is the trio of Cubans up front— percussionists René Navaro and Ramón Calderon with Alvarez playing mandolin and singing. Since Latin music is so fundamentally danceable, the band tends to draw crowds that love to shake it. (Savor recently played at SFR’s Block Party.)
You’d have to be shot full of Novocain not to crack a 3-foot smile and move your ass to the band’s liquidy syncopation. Savor plays the type of music that has the odd ability to transmit sexiness and spirituality at the same time. And if you’re lucky, you can catch one of Navaron’s blazing ad-lib solos, which can warm the iciest neoconservative heart.
Hearing Savor play is like being handed a gift. This is traditional Cuban music, straight from Havana’s fabled streets.
Alvarez’ mother taught him much of what he knows about music, but he was also educated by his childhood neighborhood. It helped that he lived two doors down from the legendary La Bodeguita del Medio, where well-known musicians were known to mingle with the likes of a guy named Ernest Hemingway. Inevitably, the musicians would pick up their instruments.
“They’d sit and play and I’d go down there and listen from the outside, memorizing the songs and ripping off their licks,” Alvarez says. “A lot of the licks I play today are from those days, from listening to those musicians.”
Like other indigenous music styles, the Cuban sound originated with the rural peasants, arising out of a lush mixture of African and Spanish influences. The sound was adopted and transformed by musicians in the cities to become what’s now the globally recognizable Cuban Son sound, which forms the base for numerous other styles, including salsa and mambo.
“The beauty of Cuban music and the reason it’s so infectious is because it’s informal,” Alvarez explains. “What we play is street music, which is basically a jam session, improvisational. If I were to go to Cuba now, it would be the same music. I’d go outside with my mandolin and others would join in.”
Alvarez’ path to New Mexico is long and circuitous and flush with stories. He left Cuba for Spain in 1966 with the help of a priest and, several years later, he reunited with his mother in New Jersey. Alvarez relocated to Houston and became the bandleader for a 16-piece Latin ensemble The LA Express. While in Houston, he met his wife, Nanette, who is also a musician. Today, Nanette joins her husband and Navaro on the upright bass during their acoustic sets. Watch them together on any Sunday morning and you’ll witness the couple’s connection; it’s as clear as two puzzle pieces fitting together.
Ask any Cuban transplant and you’re bound to be regaled with fascinating tales of escape, exodus and exile. Ramón Calderon, for example, was a hydro-engineer living in the city of Guantánamo. At the tip of the bay sat the American naval base. Calderon watched the water currents, biding his time. One night, when the currents were right, he swam into the sea. His calculations proved correct and the tides brought him to the naval base, where he claimed political asylum.
Forty-two years after he fled Cuba, Alvarez finds himself playing the same music he did as a 15-year-old boy on the streets of Havana. His goal is to educate as well as to entertain. Something deeper sparks behind his eyes when he mentions his homeland, his patria.
“I identify 150 percent with being Cuban,” he adds. “When you’re Cuban, you’re born with a non-erasable ‘C’ on your forehead. So when we play, the music can take me back, as though I’m transported. I always have Cuba very much in my heart.”