Cuban Culture Comes to Kennedy Center

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Fábrica De Arte Cubano, a former cooking-oil plant turned multimedia-arts venue, is one of the most fabulous places in Havana, Cuba. Located in the city’s Vedado neighborhood, the place pulsates with contemporary art, high fashion, dancing, film instillations, DJ culture and live music that range from contemporary jazz to hip-hop.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., managed to capture some of that kinetic energy with Artes De Cuba: From The Island To The World, an expansive festival running May 8-June 3. And 400 of Cuba’s finest musicians, dancers, visual artists and filmmakers are taking part. Walking through the Kennedy Center’s Hall of States can transport visitors to Cuba through Manuel Mendive’s towering wood and organic matter constructions. His exhibit, Fragmento De Paisaje showcased ethereal, green and blue pastel-colored images of people, animals and plants, and underscored themes of Afro-Cuban Santeria religion and culture.

Before arriving at one of the ticketed performances at the Terrace or Eisenhower Theater, festival-goers immediately are swept away by some of the free live performances at Millennium Stage, which included La Dame Blanche’s bristling blend of EDM, cosmopolitan hip-hop, opera and cumbia; Luis Faife and D.C. Cuban All Stars’ inviting Afro-Cuban jazz set; and pianist Adonis Gonzalez’s riveting jazz duo with master percussionist Maurico Herrera.

Elsewhere, Cuban art and culture occupied the Family Theater with engaging films, the Hall of Nations with Roberto Diago’s imposing, geometrical sculptures, and the atrium with dazzling vintage Cuban photos, Celia Ledón’s couture costumes made of found objects and frothy late-night parties, complete with Cuban cocktails.

Alicia B. Adams, the festival’s curator who’s regularly visited the island for 20 years, points out, though, that Artes De Cuba isn’t modeled after Havana’s Fábrica De Arte Cubano, which opened in 2014. Her first visit was through the Smithsonian, while she was curating another formidable festival, African Odyssey.

“I was just awestruck by the quality of the artistry in Cuba; the vibrancy of the visual arts, the extraordinary musicianship, the dancers,” she said. “I knew then that there was art there that I would love to present.”

Artes De Cuba’s May 8 opening night was a lavish survey of scintillating things to come. The evening featured world-renowned tenor saxophonist and shekere player Yosvany Terry leading a supple quintet through his mesmerizing composition “Laroko (New Throned King)”; the Havana Lyceum Orchestra’s spirited reading of Jenny Peña Campo’s “Samba Son”; legendary Cuban singer Omara Portuondo’s majestic renditions of Maria Teresa Vera’s “Viente Años” and Osvaldo Farrés’ classic “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas.”

Drummer Yissy García and her five-piece ensemble, Bandancha, gave a gripping performance the following night at the Eisenhower Theater. Introduced to many U.S. listeners by Canadian soprano saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett’s all-female Afro-Cuban jazz combo Maqueque, García often has drawn comparisons to Terri Lyne Carrington, due to her inventive attack and dynamic improvisations.

While she undeniably demonstrated a flair for intricate polyrhythms and fiery momentums, García did away with any strict Afro-Cuban jazz template in favor of a modern amalgams of hip-hop, go-go, funk and post-be bop. Focusing on music from her 2016 disc Última Noticia (Zona), the set aligned García with jazz-funk modernists such as Robert Glasper and Chris Dave, because of her energetic interaction with DJ Jigüe, who provided otherworldly soundscapes and impressive turntablism. He wasn’t her only sparring partner, though. The drummer also engaged pianist Jorge Aragón and trumpeter Julio Rigal in superb dialogue. But the band as a unit, which also included bassist Julio César González, proved greater than its extraordinary individual parts, boasting the flinty group rapport of a seasoned jazz ensemble.

The Kennedy Center’s KC Jazz Club was transformed into Cubano Club May 9-18, becoming the ideal spot to catch other exceptional contemporary Cuban jazz. The highlights included singer Zule Guerra and her Quinteto Blues de Habana. Possessing a lustrous alto and lithe phrasing, Guerra recalled the sunny musicianship of Nnenna Freelon and Charenee Wade, as she delivered sanguine makeovers on “Corcovado” and “What A Difference A Day Makes,” along with some bracing originals. Drummer Dafnis Prieto and saxophonist Terry also performed powerful sets, as they led their respective ensembles through explosive, yet thoughtful, jazz excursions.

To be sure, the imposing Artes De Cuba festival wasn’t short on jazz talent as Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, the López-Nussa Family and the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience helped flesh out the exhaustive lineup. And when incorporated with all the other multifaceted works, the festival offered ample evidence that Cuba is home to some of the world’s greatest artistic riches. DB


On Sale Now
July 2018
Terence Blanchard
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