Tommy Meini: "I'm from nowhere, but this is my music"
Tommy Meini is, I think, one of the people who knows the most about Cuban music, about the little fact, about the forgotten corner, about the forgotten musician, about the album that was never found, about the unknown image in the photo of an orchestra, about the story of a obscure record label, of the unreleased recording. He is one of those who vibrates with our music and its history, and has dedicated a good part of his life to it. He does not flaunt it, he goes through life with a modesty that, depending on the circle in which he moves, can be insane as it leaves room for the false and inauthentic, mimicking the knowledge that swarms so much today in the most diverse media. But Tommy is the undeniable truth of an overflowing passion, which, as a rare confessed privilege, coincides with the work that sustains his day to day. Tommy Meini is the main curator and the person in charge of the Gladys Palmera Collection fund, one of the most important for the history of Cuban and Afro-Latin music, among whose multiple missions is its material preservation, the documentation of its exponents and its increase in quantity and quality. There, due to his knowledge and seriousness, he is the most prestigious voice. But since long before, Meini has been working in favor of Cuban music.
What is your professional training? What studies did you do?
“I'm almost as old as the danzón (laughs).
"I'm not even 50 yet. But my fondness for Cuban music does not come from my training, since I am not an archivist or musicologist, but rather an empirical musician, I play the bass... To get to what I am today, I do not think that a question of training prevails, but of personality, of preferences. and study”.
What kind of family do you come from? Were there or are there musicians in it?
“I was born in France, and although my parents are French, my ancestors are not. One of the first things in which I recognize myself is in feeling that I am not from a specific place. We are a mix. My grandparents were from Cyprus, Spain and Italy. My father taught me to know the value of work and from him I inherited a hard head, the determination to achieve what I set out to do. That has led me to always do what I wanted, or at least try. How does this relate to music? You see… I'm not tied to French music, because I don't feel it's mine; I am more interested in mixtures, miscegenation. We are a mestizo family, but from nowhere: I don't feel French, Italian, Spanish, or Cypriot… I'm kind of a bastard. With this determination that I inherited, I came to music that is not mine, but that I insisted on making it mine, getting to know it and studying it. My mother remembers me when I was four or five years old with records in my hands, without making a mistake when putting them in their covers after listening to them. I remember that the first really mine album was Le bougalou du loup garou —which was not boogaloobut a rock and roll—. As a teenager, I was obsessed with science fiction and it's funny because this album brought together the two things that were beginning to interest me: fantasy and Latin music. I would be five years old. It's very strange... sometimes you wonder: is it destiny, is it the marked path?
How did you get to Cuban music? How did your passion for her begin?
“From that gift, I became a great consumer of records. When I left school, in Arles, before taking the bus to the town where I lived, I went to a market to buy records with the allowance they gave me at home. In the town, the group of friends who were already music lovers, although with different tastes, would get together on weekends to show off the records each one had achieved.
“When I was at university, in Marseille, my thing was punk, no wave from New York, intellectual rock from California. What my parents listened to, obviously, I considered archaic, garbage. But there comes a time when punk no longer feeds me so much, and I remember that on Sud Radio, in France, I started listening to Latin music, and I liked it. He was a student and with the little he had he bought discounted CDs. Of the first, the ones that drove me crazy were the two albums that the Messidor label recorded for Bauzá when he separated from Machito: The Legendary Mambo King Mario Bauza and My Time is Now, both with a tremendous big band.
“As you can see, I arrived late to Cuban and Latin music. Earlier I had bought a couple of Art Blakey records with Ray Barretto, with potato Valdés, but I was looking for something else… this didn't fill me up either. I kept buying records and then I knew that behind the so-called Afro-Cuban music there were genres, something not very clear then, because at that time everything was salsa... I discovered that there are son montuno, guaracha, danzón, bolero... Records become a school, you can learn a lot by listening and reading the information they bring. I then bought a book by Isabelle Leymarie [Cuban Fire. Cuban popular music and its styles], I began to collect information on Cuban music and thus, I continued learning”.
How did this process of discovery and assimilation of Cuban music take place in you?
“I realized that there is more music recorded before… I came across an album by Panchito Riset. He became my idol. Then I bought another one from Pérez Prado. By then I was already playing records in some bars and clubs in Marseille, not as a professional, but as an upstart… Then I realized that I didn't like the music of my parents, but I was fascinated by that of my grandparents! I said to myself: 'What is this music that is changing me and that has me obsessed? I have to go to Cuba'.
“My first trip to the island was in 1996, when I was 24, after two years of pure obsession, changing rock records for Cuban music records, memorizing not only sounds, but also the names of the musicians, literally from A to Z. “I had a tremendous thirst to hear everything. I started with the best known —Celia Cruz, Benny More, Chappottin, Fajardo—, then I went to the best Latin music festival, the one in Vic-Fezensac and there I saw live Celia, Cachao, Oscar D'León, Alfredo de la Fe, Eddie Palmieri, la Aragón… For someone who is getting into this, even for the most knowledgeable, was very shocking to see this in France. I went to other festivals, which showed me that Cuban music was not dead music. An unexpected window opened! They pass Klímax, Cándido Fabré, Omar Sosa, as a continuity ...
“I worked as a plasterer with my father and I got together to go to Cuba to live for three months, having all my time. I went on a direct flight from Paris to Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of son. You had to start at the beginning. After going through all the bureaucratic procedures, I enrolled in the Escuela de Superación to study History of Music. I rented an apartment on Calle Enramada, opposite where Son 14 rehearsed. I felt great in that environment. La Casa de la Trova, La Casa de las Tradiciones, the classes of an excellent teacher (Maritza Teresa Puig)… I wanted to learn to dance, but I wasn't good at it. What interested me was Cuban music and its history. I met a man whom everyone called Padrón Bonet, who had many records and even an original photo of Panchito Riset. I bought the first albums I bought in Cuba from him (I'm going to the moon, by the Orquesta Aragón, several by Benny Moré, Juanito Márquez, and others), and 78 rpm records in their original RCA Victor box. I had to leave many, I couldn't bring them all with me to France.
“On that trip I was also in Havana. There were many people selling records in the old Ten Cents, on Calle Infanta, in Carlos III; I met almost all the vinyl sellers and I became friends with several of them and also with some musicians and musicologists, like Pepe Reyes”.
What did you work on before joining the Gladys Palmera Collection?
“Like many people, I did a little of everything. After studying communication, I organized and curated a photographic exhibition in Arles linked to music and the musicians portrayed by the magazine Les Unrockuptibles. Later I managed Meïssa, an African singer, and then I started working on Jordi Pujol's Tumbao label, totally dedicated to the reissue of sound recordings of Cuban music prior to 1960. I prepared some compilations towards the end of the catalog production, since in the midst of my passion for Cuban music. I also collaborated from my label L'Atelier 13, making a DVD collection of films from another of my passions: the almost artisanal science fiction cinema and the film noir of the 50s.
“Jordi Pujol did an important job in documenting the compilations that he released under the Tumbao label: he began to consider Cuban music, in terms of documentation, at the level of the jazz records released by the Blue Note label, giving importance to the session musicians, instruments, recording date, studio, etc. He spent time looking for the musicians who participated in each recording, for which he worked a lot with Senén Suárez. Before, there was not so much importance given to documentation, to session musicians; the discs lacked that data and this is a bit of Tumbao's legacy, in addition to the compilation of such important recordings”.
What does it give you to be the current head of acquisitions and the Gladys Palmera Collection fund?
“At Gladys Palmera I have been fulfilling a long-cherished desire for almost eight years: to have the tools to rebuild, preserve and tell the story of Cuban popular music. Many will think that with the resources of Gladys Palmera things are easier. It's true; real treasures have been acquired here. But not everyone who has purchasing power like Gladys is dedicated to rescuing part of a story, even a story that is not theirs, is not their culture. It is a mission that we have, animated by the passion for this music that nourishes us. Without passion we could not do everything we do, nor get to where we are getting to”.
What do you consider most important in your work documenting archives related to Cuban and Afro-Latin music?
“Almost obsessive passion and rigor to avoid superficiality in knowledge, to delve and search as deep as possible. That impetus to search every day under the stones is the most important thing in an archive like this. Then, seriousness and impartiality, so as not to focus on what you like, but on preserving what is important for history. You have to be very objective. I have bought many records for the collection that I knew I would never listen to, that I would not like, but that fulfill a testimonial mission; to complete a stamp file, for example. The most insignificant things acquire interest within a story that you have the duty to tell and preserve.
Based on your vast experience on the subject: what collections or archives of Cuban music do you consider to be the most important and representative or complete?
“Like everyone else, the Cristóbal Díaz Ayala collection. For collectors and all of us, Cristóbal is like a godfather, a discoverer. In the pre-Internet era, his collection, his documentary work, his books have always been a reference that culminates in the Record Encyclopedia of Cuban Music. It allowed us to search and find items that weren't posted anywhere else.
“And, of course, the Gladys Palmera Collection, inserted directly into the advantages that the Internet allows. It is a collection that builds bridges. It brings together Cuban music that was recorded on the Island with that produced by its diaspora in Europe, the United States, Latin America and even in Asia; documents the coming and going of African music in the Caribbean and from the Caribbean to Africa again, with the Congolese rumba, the African pachanga, the tasty, etc.; illustrates the continuity of Afro-Antillean music after the 1960s in Peru, Panama, Mexico, among others. Also in New York with the emergence of the boogaloo and then the phenomenon of salsa. Recently we finally acquired the archives of Izzy Sanabria, the great Fania DJ and designer. This perfectly completes our funds, which were more focused on Cuba and the pre-revolutionary period. I would say that the Gladys Palmera Collection is the most complete today”.
What music and musicians do you listen to and prefer?
“Not only Cuban music. I can say that most of what I listen to today is not Latin music. I really like jazz from the Los Angeles area, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, bassist Thundercat, Robert Glasper… Krautrock, indie rock… I listen to a bit of everything, I don't have altars, I'm a big consumer of music, open to everything, to discover talents in each genre, in each movement. Now, for example, I am listening to and enjoying Laneous, an Australian that I really like."
How do you see the health of Cuban music at the moment, both internally and in its global projection?
“Cuba has always been a nursery for good musicians, almost unique in the world, perhaps only surpassed by the United States. Something unheard of for such a small country. However, right now the panorama seems a bit sad to me, almost everyone who is making current Cuban music is outside of Cuba: David Virelles, Dafnis Prieto, Dayme Arocena, Cimafunk... Sometimes it seems to me that it is difficult for many artists emerging, record an album and broadcast it from Cuba. For others who are more positioned, it is easier, as is the case with X Alfonso, a true musician and artist, but I feel that the good that is being done remains in the domestic market, without positioning itself internationally. At international festivals they are always the same names. I would like to see more variety on the international scene, not only from those outside of Cuba, but also from those who are living and working on the island; but this is something that they alone cannot achieve”.
What projects move and excite you at the moment?
“Any project that I may have now is linked to Gladys Palmera because, as I have said before, it is a mission that I have assumed, to preserve and spread Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music. Books, exhibitions, projects, which derive from the defense to the death, rather, to life, of Cuban music”.