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Concert for very important people


New York— 25 degrees Celsius. light rain

A tall, stocky man yells at us in a Dominican accent to please form a single line. We all hear it but we pretend we don't. No one knows what one is for and what the other is for, no one wants to move. "No and no, no, how is it going to be that we pay so much and we have to get into tremendous rows, how is it going to be that we flee from the eternal Cuban queues to end up in New York paying to do others," says a woman with hair short polished, reddish, perhaps 60 years old. An old man in a cowboy hat grumbles that old people should be brought in first. A well-known musician tells the air that he shouldn't be there anymore, that his friends are already inside.

Through the crowd of people outside La Boom nightclub in Woodside, Queens, two men swing a pair of congas over their heads. The Peruvian woman behind me announces over the phone and in an urgent voice to her friend Lola that they are asking for the vaccination card, so she should hurry up and get a loaner. Other women laugh. I feel a mood of festive impatience. We have decided to ignore the pandemic and there are no masks or much distance between the bodies. The first port is to show that we have passed 18 years, although it is obvious that most of those present tripled it a while ago. So the two rows become four. Metal steps ascend. The men's go fast. Those of women very slowly. 

“And why don't they give us priority?” shouts another Peruvian. "Hey, we give birth to them, we screw up our whole lives because of you, and they don't even give us priority here," replies a Colombian woman with very blond hair and about 50 years old. Laugh. Maybe if I were wearing heels like the ones almost everyone wears here, I'd be complaining too. They check our bags thoroughly. They open my wallet, my tobacco bag, a notebook; they smell me, they pick at my hair but they don't touch my skin. They touch none of us, but they do. "Uy uh uh, be careful there my brother, those pods are not with me, leave the touching," a Dominican tells the security man who checks the pockets of his pants. On a small metal table, the guards make a collection of lighters that they take from the men's clothes. I keep mine in a pocket of my jeans. I think the last time I passed a similar search was to enter the Memorial Museum, where the Twin Towers were. There I found it very logical, here it makes me nervous.

And I realize now, as I write, how absurd it is that to go to a concert they search you so much while it seems increasingly easy to bring firearms into a school.

Upside down country.

In the end, nobody asks for vaccinations. The third and final port is to have a seal put on your right wrist cuff. It's been a little over an hour and a half since I got to the club. I walk across the red carpet of a small lobby and I think that for most of us here, this must be the only red carpet that we will step on in our lives. People with looks fresh from the hairdresser parade. Portraits are made and selfies with logo background The Boom. I have the feeling that most of them have come to see Los Van Van and only later will I see that I was blissfully wrong. Havana D'Primera, the group that opens the night, also summons them, extracts from their lips and bones an exquisite devotion. 

Photo: Marcela Joya.

Photo: Marcela Joya.


It's like sticking your feet in a quagmire and suddenly sinking. Sink until you feel the mud on your tongue and swallow it, swallow it and choke on it, that's how the music hits your body when you walk into this 800-person nightclub. 

I go in and out. I wait outside for something to happen on stage because I want to believe that with the musicians there I can lie to my ears that such volume is not torture and danger. It happened to me when I saw Havana D´Primera, five years ago, at the Casa de la Música in Havana. Alexander Abreu, the leader, began to play the trumpet and my auditory self-deception mechanism was activated: the nausea caused by the horrific amplification of the sound began to subside.

I remember thinking that Alexander Abreu Manresa played the trumpet as if he were plucking on a flute, with a very agile mellow and conciseness in his fingers, to also sing as if he were playing the trumpet —as happened to Chet Baker—, from the rhythmic hit in the departure to the euphonious phrasing of a deep voice raja-heart. I fell exhausted before her lips: so wide, so voluptuous, that when they blow they inflate and move her face like a pigeon's maw. I couldn't stop looking at them despite the climactic energy of the entire band demanding my attention.

Abreu says that he would have liked to learn to play the flute first, but given the shortage of expert teachers in that instrument, in his childhood, he ended up accepting the trumpet. In 2017, when I saw him for the first time, he turned 41 years old. At 20 he had already passed through great schools, such as the National Art School in Cuba, Paulo FG and Irakere. At 22 he was already teaching music and recording the trumpet for the most popular bands on the island, Los Van Van and Klímax, being two of many. He still did not sing, or at least not in public, although since he was a boy, in his native neighborhood of Cienfuegos, Pueblo Grifo, he did it for family and friends. His grandfather, he says, was his inspiration.

Tonight, however, all Abreu will do with the band he founded in 2007 will be to use his voice. He will not play the trumpet and I can assume that it is because he is still weak, perhaps due to the cardiovascular emergency he had last February. As a singer, he began to train during a four-year stay in Denmark and the founding of the Danson Group: his idea and the union of Danish and Cuban musicians who played timba with a tumbao rather vanvanero, with more percussion than winds, more trombones than trumpets, more choirs than verses, and with whom I would hit, but at a local level and of fans of what they misname "Cuban salsa" —because it is redundancy and contradiction—, My music, one of his first compositions.

A theme that, it seems to me, already reflected that lyrical aesthetic that Abreu was going to strengthen with Havana D'Primera: odes to the Yoruba origin, a kind of patriotic vindication, sharp declarations of love and mentions of hope and music as salvation. 

All that that Abreu calls a positive energy and I prefer to just listen without paying much attention because sometimes I find it problematic, sometimes simple. A true Cuban gives his life for his land / lives straight ahead, prepared for combat / and clings to his flag, Abreu sings in They call me Cuba, a song that today is not missing in the Havana D´Primera concerts, which they recorded on the album Around the world (2015) and where, I believe, the fruits of a strange tree, both uncomfortable and sheltering, end up growing. 

Dazzling, yes, for its enormous sound of devious horns with a complex ornamentation that sounds powerfully simple, from 11 stellar musicians, all with old residences in the most wiry timba bands of the 90s, but also disturbing because it cannot help being so that a Cuban —or whoever— affirms that one must give one's life for their land, cling to their flag; that he sings it and wants others to sing it with him: today, look, in 2022.

 I just want you to know what it feels like / when your soul is filled with all my Cuban identity / I am a pure-bred Cuban / and I defend my roots with life. 

Alexander Abreu in La Boom. Photo: Marcela Joya.

Alexander Abreu in La Boom, Queens. Photo: Marcela Joya.


"This is for those who had to leave our land in the 1980s, and for all Cubans,” Abreu announces into the microphone before beginning to sing his favorite song, that one, They call me Cuba. Judging by the intensity of the hubbub in the audience before the inevitable question of so many musicians on stage - where are my people from...? -, at least a third of the audience is made up of Cubans, a majority of Colombians and another smaller number by Peruvians. Americans barely sit. Two Cuban men respond to Abreu's words by waving their flag high. A woman with cloudy eyes and hair tied in a ponytail with numerous fine braids, gets as close as possible to the stage, raises one hand to name herself present, and with the other holds a short and older woman who wears a turban and puts a watchful, intense gaze that he will not let go of the musicians all night.

The two women stick their bodies to the metal panels that limit the border between the VIP area - very important people, for its acronym in English - and the platform. Between them and the musicians there is a narrow corridor through which waitresses pass, almost all of them Colombian, uniformed in black cloth suits, one-pieces that enhance the shape of their hips and leave half of their boobs—very round, large—uncovered in a neckline almost to the navel, in a V. The bar assistants also cross there, short men with buckets full of ice, hookahs and liquors. To access one of the tables in the strip for "very important people" — how strange this sounds — you should have paid 120 dollars and you must consume, maximum among three people, for a bottle that will not cost you less than 350. 

It's a bit scandalous. All. Also the purple light that paints the living room and the blue flashes that spread through your clothes, the thick smoke that blinds you at times, the sad dose of whiskey that the bartenders if you're not a VIP and you manage to order at the bar, the long pantomime smiles of the waitresses. I have already talked about the volume of the sound, but I notice that, with the musicians on stage, I begin to feel it as a rumble silencing another rumble. Because Havana D'Primera plays —and it seems to me that he always, not only here— at the volume of a marching band. 

Again, little by little, however, it is diminishing. We hear:

She says that life is hard for her / with problems / with censorship / that's why she needs a passport... 

So I want, many of us want, to shout it out, to sing it with heartbreak and personification, as if we were the girl the lyrics speak of, as if we could be Abreu. Passport, a song from the group's second album with the same title, put the band under international attention in 2013. It's an album that I have a special affection for because when I returned to New York, after having heard it in I live in Havana, I couldn't put it down, I listened to it for weeks every morning on the long subway route back home, from lower Manhattan to the tip of Brooklyn to the south. 

Because if. Because there is no concise answer as to why one loves, really loves, an entire album. Because it almost never happens and every time it happens the reasons are different and seem to be camouflaged under an untranslatable cloak of emotion. Because everything. Because those trumpets that poke you in the waist and because that romantic voice that even when it says things that are not very sensible, engraves words in your indomitable memory, and because those basses that subside your hips and the blessed choirs that stick to you like gum on the soles. 

I wanted all my friends to hear it. I wanted them to know that if Los Van Van had convinced me that from somewhere in Cuba —above New York— the most impressive advances in Afro-Latin music would always continue to spring forth, and NG la Banda had turned me into a timba faithful , Havana D´Primera had turned me to prefer it. It was not a small thing for me. New York salsa was for many years my only religion. I was wondering if Abreu and his combo of strong musicians who, on stage, respond to each other with the naturalness of those couples capable of completing each other's sentences, could achieve something similar with those who were suspicious of the timba cadence, with those who repeated — they repeat— that timba had one beat left over in the key, that it was impossible to dance, that it almost seemed like an aberration. 

When the Argentine journalist, Laura Trejo, asked Abreu how he had come up with Passport, he replied that it was a night when he was playing to an almost empty house, “looking the sadness of those women who, if they discover linked to tourism, punish and persecute”. He spoke of prostitution without naming it, as in the song. He said that as soon as it was released it was censored in Cuba for several years. A paradox because it was also that song that gave Havana D'Primera its passport to the world. And because, well, Alexander Abreu is not exactly one of those musicians who are on the opposite side of the Cuban State.

Photo: Marcela Joya.

Photo: Marcela Joya.


Next to the two Cuban women, who are now leaning against the panels, there is a man with blown-out blonde hair and cheerful green eyes, who is wearing a T-shirt printed with photos of Los Van Van. He is the only one wearing a mask. He doesn't speak Spanish. Look at the stage as if they were projecting a movie that you must not miss its fast subtitles. He puts his hands in a praying position and swings his torso. Smile. He has had to fight for his position close to the platform. He comes alone, and a fat man with an angry face, Colombian, who is sitting full center in front of the stage and seems to know the managers from the club, he has demanded to be taken out, he has said that it bothers him, although it is more likely that what bothers him is seeing him so close to his girlfriend, to his table, because what, hasn't he paid a small fortune to feel at ease? least for a few hours a very important person?

The common thing, in New York, is to have to see a dance music band in a place designed for non-dance music. The common thing is to dance rocking in the chair of a theater with doormen forced to force you not to get up from your seat. Recently, Havana D´ Primera played in one of those places, in the Bronx. Here, on the other hand, we can dance, but there are many of us who after three songs remain almost static, magnetized to the musicians' gestures like a tongue to ice. Something strange, I think, we prefer to sing and watch, to dance; something very strange that I don't remember seeing with a New York dance music group today.

But in the back of the club, where you enter and pay 70 dollars tonight to see the musicians as distant figures, people dance. Slim young men and women in high-waisted jeans and colored Nike sneakers practice their newly learned timba steps. They have brown and amber skins, but mostly white. Haircuts with bangs on the forehead. Huge round frame glasses. Leather crossbody bags. Beards. Red, blue, orange hairs. Some Afros. They have arrived at the disco almost at midnight, without hurry.

I think that now, in this place, as in few, as almost never, the VIP area is really occupied by "very important people". I perceive a curious hierarchical shift. The smiling woman in her fifties, from Cali, at the table to my left who accompanies the musicians from her position with a güiro. The Cuban couple in their sixties with beautiful suits that seem to have belonged to their parents. The old man with a cowboy hat. The family of Peruvians who rotate a couple of keys from hand to hand. The group of Colombian friends who hum all the songs and pass each other quick shots of Clase Azul tequila—oh, what a shame—as if it were cheap brandy. Women in super miniskirts, super heels and super necklines with very long super decorated nails and men with spiked hair full of gel, Abercrombie colognes and protruding bellies. The blond boy, the two Cubans. Many who sing with their arms raised and their hands shaking as if swatting away flies, many amalgamated in this amatory perspiration. Who but they are the most important people in a concert hall?

And they are, here, now, not precisely because for one night they have been able to pay the price to be.

Start a song we love:

(...) you forgot who I am / I don't know what virus erased your memory / but life is one and each one has its own story... 

is also in Passport, is named you forgot who i am and, as with the other songs on the album, I get the feeling that Abreu and his backup singers are singing to sadness with joy, as who knows, as Van Gogh knew, that it never dissolves, that it is useless, the sadness will last lifetime. It seems to me that their sound is a perpetuation of this reality. 

I would say, yes, that for the theme to be perfect it would be necessary to remove this short chorus: 

(…) Y I'm still the same one who made you a woman... 

We know, however, that such a line means little more than an oversight. We know how far we still are from ensuring that popular music artists no longer perpetuate those bitter models of masculinity, which they may not even realize they do, inside and outside of music. And I don't know how many other things - serious, sometimes ugly - they prefer not to watch, but it seems to me that often we, the audience, end up accepting or passing without question, in certain artists that we admire, positions and thoughts that we would not tolerate in someone close

Long live Cuba! Someone yells on stage and Abreu responds by putting a hand to his chest, where he has a little flag of his country embroidered on his shirt. Then I remember that video of Fidel Castro's funeral in which Abreu declared to the press that "it was a great loss, a sadness that the man who opened a path for them left." It still resonates with me as a kind of contradiction. And now I look at this contrast: the next night I would go to see Spanish Harlem with Paquito D´Rivera as a guest and someone from the audience would shout the same thing —there is always someone who shouts the same thing— Long live Cuba!, to which Paquito would answer: Ha! What's left of her. 

It seems to me two complete gestures.

Photo: Marcela Joya.

The Van Vans in La Boom, Queens. Photo: Marcela Joya.


The main act of the night, yes, should be Los Van Van. Or let's say that, emulating Paquito, the one from what remains of Los Van Van. But on this I have little to say. Perhaps a feeling in borrowed words: that what was walking is no longer walking. And that it is good, that the faithful can put me on the cross. 

But I think that a group that was monumental and spends a good part of its time on stage playing medleys and asking the audience for their places of origin and their mood, has begun to transcend the edge of its own end. Not long ago I felt something similar watching La Sonora Ponceña in the Bronx. I thought they were trying to imitate themselves. Although it is possible that what makes the most poignant thing here is the opposition with the corpulence and vitality of Havana D´Primera. I recently read in an essay by Herta Müller that the imitation of oneself is the trap of the sophisticated originality of the world and this phrase rolls in my mind like a chant while I listen to Van Van. I wonder if it isn't a terrible thing to fall for.

At half past one in the morning “the very important people” do not sustain their enthusiasm intact. It is true that they are somewhat drunk, but also, perhaps, that more people than I could have thought came here, first, for Havana D'Primera. 

Which does not deprive us —of course not— of the joy that Van Van extirpates from the crags of memory.

But the celebration—especially that, the celebration—is different. We celebrate Havana D'Primera because it is heartbeat and impact, present, vivid sensation. To Van Van because it is an egregious past, homesick smoke. We watch Havana D'Primera, sing and dance, in that order. We danced and sang to Van Van, also in that order. I am moved by the contrast and I like to think of it this way, that for once the nostalgic fog that with its density usually covers our eyes now does not permeate our ears, does not transform the modern into noise and makes it difficult for us to listen. It excites me that, however and for whatever reason, at three in the morning the club is still full and some voices together repeat that temba paca timba palli and a thick effluvium of sweat in the air reminds us that in spite of everything we returned, like this, so alive to the soul of the night.  

Marcela Jewel Marcela Jewel He knows how to do useful things, like cut other people's hair and get others drunk, but he prefers to listen to music, write and take pictures. In that order. More posts

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  1. César Zevallos says:

    What a wonderful story. I find it an honest look at music.

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