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Tipsy As I Write This

Posted in A Day in the Life | No Comments »

Tonight I’ve returned home to Cuba.

Oh, wait a second – I’m not Cuban. Or am I? A friend invited me out to a tiny club in Washington Heights this evening to see a band called The Cuban Underground, and although I’m often happy to be a homebody, I surprised myself by wanting to go. She promised that the band played amazing Cuban music, and that was a promise that I could not afford to ignore. I’m from Miami, which is home to many expatriated Cubans, so I’m quite familiar with the culture. The fact that I was also part of a musical Cuban family, regardless of how long ago that seems now, is also important.

I moved to NYC in 1995 with my then-boyfriend, a Cuban piano master. It sounds weird to describe someone this way, but it’s the truth. This guy could play anything, and had been playing everything since the ripe old age of 4 and a half. He had originally taken to the drums (in the form of pots and pans), but his father, also a musician, believed the piano to be a more complete instrument, and would steer his tiny son towards the piano whenever Junior had a hankering to play the pots and pans. Eventually the father’s persuasion won out, and Junior took to the piano like a fish to water. Of course, his son developed a hard, percussive style of playing the piano, so I guess things evened themselves out. The son studied classical piano performance in a government-run conservatory, and after Fidel Castro’s Mariel Boatlift, the family defected to Miami.

Sometime around 1992, the piano master met me, a fledgling singer at the time. Without getting into my own family dramas here, I spent a lot of time with his family, who heartily accepted me. For one thing, to his family, pursuing a career as a musician was a worthy goal. They never asked me who did I think I was to call myself a singer, or when would I get a real job. When I had performances, they would come. When I got the call to audition for Ricky Martin’s back-up singer (this was years before “Living La Vida Loca”), they stayed up and transcribed the Spanish lyrics and translated them for me. When I went on tour with the Spanish singer Rafael, they were my biggest fans. I was their other daughter. I ate his mother’s arroz y plantanos, his sisters’ black beans and rice, and hosted Easter Egg hunts for his nephews. His family didn’t speak much English, so I became conversationally fluent in Spanish. With food that good, a mere “Thank you” in English never felt quite right, you know?

The greatest gift that this family gave me to me was acceptance in my desire to be a musician. In all the world there is nothing else like Cuban music to me – the love, the joy, the pain, and the sadness. Cuban rhythms are strong – like their coffee, and Cubans can play music for hours, singing songs until forever. Sunday afternoons usually meant a party at someone’s house, and La Familia Menendez, my adopted family, would always go – with me and their instruments in tow. They would bring lots of percussion instruments with them so everyone in the party could get a chance to play along. These parties are how I learned the intricate Cuban clave rhythm. I hadn’t really started playing guitar then, so I cut my musical teeth on the Cuban clave with my musical family. And their belief in my talents fueled my own confidence.

I grooved so hard tonight, like a woman with six months to live, slowly realizing that I haven’t listened to live Cuban music since I parted ways with the gifted son of La Familia Menendez. That’s a long time.

I drank Spanish tempranillo wine, and banged the Cuban clave rhythm (never to be mistaken for the Puerto Rican clave rhythm) on my little table, and I felt utter joy. I listened to the older men in the audience croon along with the band, and in this tiny club, I could almost pretend that I was at one of those Sunday parties, singing “Solomenta Una Vez” with the crowd.

You probably wouldn’t detect any Latin flavor in my songs, but tonight I had the wild thought that without the Cuban clave, I may have never released my Supernova CD. But Latin music resides in my musician’s DNA, and I’ll always be grateful for this family who raised me as their own.

By the way, the name of tonight’s tiny place is In Vino Veritas, which I’m probably mistranslating as “In wine, there’s truth”. And I am feeling a lot of truth at this moment.

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