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The Cuban embargo has turned the country into something of a time capsule. Deprived for 39 years of the resources needed for the cycles of demolition and new construction that we find in our economy, Cubans have maintained their old buildings as best they can. Most of their cars are American models dating back to the Forties and Fifties. And the music of Cuba's Los Fakires still sounds like something from long ago.
Walker Art Center's performing-arts curator Philip Bither sees this last point as a beneficial effect of the embargo. "I certainly don't support the embargo," Bither commented in a recent telephone conversation, "but because [Cuba hasn't] been carpet-bombed with American pop culture like most of the rest of the world, Cuban artists and musicians have had the opportunity to develop their own unique voices. Cuba's isolation has produced some wonderful results. But finding them can be a challenge."
Take Los Fakires, Cuba's best-kept secret: José Bringues, Martín "Cascarita" Chavez, Rafael Valdés, José Remie, and Gilberto Abreu. Although the group has been together in one form or another since 1962--two original members, including founder Bringues, remain--Los Fakires are touring the U.S. for the first time. (After he was exposed to them during a trip to Cuba, Bither booked them to play at the Walker this Friday, December 7.) And their first recording readily available to American listeners, Mi Casa, Su Casa (Casino Sounds), was released just last year.
According to Bither, Cuba was resistant to Los Fakires' American tour. "I'm not sure exactly what it was," he says. "It might be the fact that Santa Clara has a reputation for being somewhat freer-thinking than most of Cuba. Or it might have had something to do with the fact that Los Fakires simply weren't a priority item on the government's cultural agenda. The bureaucrats might have just been thinking, Why them?"
Cuba's curious reluctance to export this culture might be due in part to the controversial style of music Los Fakires play: son. Back when son first appeared, in the 1920s, Cuban music was still stratified according to class and color in a manner that harked back to the days of slavery. In general, the wealthier, lighter-skinned Cubans listened to European music and danzón, a genteel style of dance music popular in ballrooms. The poorer, darker-skinned Cubans (the majority) partook mainly of the music associated with Santería--a spiritual fusion of Catholicism and the religion of the West African Yorubas who made up most of Cuba's slave population.
Santería grew out of the slaves' attempts to preserve their beliefs in the face of forced conversion. Slaves associated Catholic saints with various Yoruba deities, or orichas, making it possible for them to worship as they liked while making their captors think they were conforming. Still, Santería's mode of worship ran a bit different from your average Catholic mass: Celebrants danced to African rhythms with the hope of being possessed by one of the orichas.
Son provided the first fusion of Santería rhythms with European influences, particularly Spanish folk music. Too "African" to be embraced by the upper and middle classes, it found a lasting home among Cuba's urban and rural poor. And unlike its flashier Afro-Cuban progeny--rumba, mambo, and salsa--it retained a strong provincial flavor. Los Fakires' fondness for the style might explain why they have chosen to make their home in Santa Clara rather than seeking their fortunes in Havana.
Despite the fact that son is from a bygone era, Los Fakires' style doesn't seem the least bit dated. The music sounds strange, yes, and certainly a bit haunting at times, but the strangeness has less to do with the passage of time than it does with a certain sense of place, or maybe displacement. Call it "Africa in Cuba," if you will. The rhythmic underpinnings are minimal: bongos, claves, maracas, and guiro (a ribbed, gourdlike instrument played like a washboard). The centerpiece of their sound is Chavez, the group's highly charismatic vocalist. The call-and-response interplay between Chavez and backing vocalist Valdés pushes the Yoruba elements to the forefront, while guitarist Remie keeps the sound European, as does bongo virtuoso Abreu, on those occasions when he joins in on trumpet.
Surprisingly, it's saxophonist Bringues, the most American-influenced member of the band, who provides the most distinctly "Cuban" (to stateside ears, anyway) element of Los Fakires' sound. Full-bodied and super-sexy in a way that recalls Coleman Hawkins at his best, Bringues's playing evokes images of smoky cantinas and the rough characters who inhabit them at 3:00 a.m.
Ultimately, the strangest thing about Los Fakires is that American audiences had to wait until most of the band members were in their 60s and 70s before finally getting a chance to hear them. (Abreu, the baby of the band, is only 52.) It makes you wonder whom the embargo is really hurting. Only the orichas know what else Cuba is hiding down there.