You can buy tickets with confidence for Cat’s Cradle’s rescheduled Barbarito Torres show Wednesday, Dec. 10–the Cuban lutist and his nine-piece band are safely stateside thanks to the intervention of Senator Hillary Clinton. Torres’ new self-titled album, with strings aplenty (tres, guitar, and lute) and strong vocal harmonies, resounds like a giant autoharp or life-size music box on steroids. Chucho Valdes cameos on a “dueling virtuosos” version of “La Comparsa” that pushes Torres’ country laud into new territory. The Independent talked with Torres last week (in heavily Cuban Spanish) as he works his way across this country from the West Coast.
The Independent: Is Barbarito Torres a continuation of your debut album, Havana Cafe, or were you going for something different with this second self-titled release?
Torres: It’s a continuation, but more advanced. The difference is in the conception, in respect to the arrangements; in the arrangement of the voices, and in the case of the lute, showing a little more what the possibilities are, making the lute more predominant.
Is there a song on the record that has more personal meaning for you?
The one that opens the record, a song that was written for me by my friend [Norberto Shand], “El Ruisenor del Guateque.” It starts out, “Play the lute a little, Barbarito.” It tells a little of my story and where I’m from.
By now the whole world knows that you have no equal as a lute virtuoso, but what is it that makes this instrument special for you?
The lute was my plaything as a child. Later I learned to play it professionally. I developed a very original style. In Cuba it’s used for music called punto guajiro, country music. I play country music, but I also use the lute for all styles of music. In that I am the godfather for new generations for this instrument.
How do you feel about the frequent comparisons of your energy and style to rock musicians?
They compare me to Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. That doesn’t bother me. They are comparing me to cultural personalities, to other virtuosos. I like all kinds of music, for example, the North American jazz guitarist George Benson, Al Di Meola, [flamenco guitarist] Paco de Lucia, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, B.B. King.
Do you like today’s Cuban dance bands?
Yes, of course. I’m from the people there.
Do they ever invite you to play with them?
I’ve worked with Maraca’s band Otra Vision, a famous Cuban singer called Haila Mompie [on Tributo a Celia Cruz], the Afro-Cuban All Stars, I’m always on all their records, and I just recorded with the band of Omara Portuondo. I have plenty of work.
What do you do to relax when you are living at home in Cuba?
See my kids, who are musicians; walk through the streets there and greet people; and listen to lots of music.
What should the world know about Barbarito Torres that we don’t know yet?
You’ve got to keep listening to the records. I like to reveal myself bit by bit, not just on one record. I’ve always got heart and good music.
“It’s changed the way we play certain pieces forever,” says violinist Evan Price of the Turtle Island String Quartet, who showcased their collaboration with Cuban jazzman Paquito D’Rivera at Hill Hall in Chapel Hill Nov. 22. “Now we play Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Night in Tunisia’ with much more fire and much more in the pocket,” Price says. No coincidence, since Paquito claims to have learned his English words from Professor Diz–“So half of them are [bad], you know…”–he joked with the UNC audience.
Respect is mutual, D’Rivera makes clear, saying Turtle Island is “like having the Emerson String Quartet and the Count Basie Orchestra in one.” The classical string quartet, known for their Grammy-nominated arrangements of jazz standards, performed several of D’Rivera’s compositions, including “La Jicotea” (The Turtle), a tune he wrote expressly for them. Composing for the Turtles is a dream come true for D’Rivera, since they combine chamber music and jazz into “strings that swing.”
“Jazz musicians, they don’t want to understand the strings,” D’Rivera says in a backstage interview. “Classical musicians don’t understand the syncopation. It’s a serious gap in the education. It’s very hard for me to write something [and have to explain it to musicians] in both languages.”
“The idea is to blur the lines between improvisation and composition,” contends violinist, arranger, and founder David Balakrishnan on the Turtle Island concept. “People are always perplexed by it, they think string players can’t improvise.” While many elements are written out in standard notation, solos and even some of the background elements are improvised, he says. “We have to be careful not to overuse the improvisation, or it becomes a schtick.”
D’Rivera, playing a rosewood clarinet that looked more like a cinnamon stick than licorice, brought the quintet alive for blues and bossa novas, in between giving lessons in bebop geography: “Danzon is the national dance of my homeland … Czechoslovakia. I’m from the Antillean part of Czechoslovakia.” And later: “Dizzy Gillespie was born in [South] Carolina, in Cheraw. Very close to Cuba.”
Miles, Billie, Brubeck and Jobim rounded out TISQ’s program which ran together like a moody, film noir soundtrack, illuminated by clarinet runs that flashed like lightning on a rainy night. As an encore, “Stolen Moments,” summed up their feelings about this final concert in a weeklong reunion, following last year’s Danzon album and tour. D’Rivera hit every raspy, bent, and blue note conceivable, tapped the clarinet keys as percussion, and made kissing sounds with his reed. “That was good, huh?” D’Rivera said, as the combo had hit their cool zenith.
E-mail Sylvia Pfeiffenberger at email@example.com with your news for Latin Beat.