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Pablo Menendez : Our Cat in Havana

By Mike Zwerin

ST. MARTIN, 19 December 2002—Earlier this month, Pablo Menendez's funky Yoruba, Afro-Cuban, salsa, bebop fusion septet Mezcla ("mixture") went island-hopping from Cuba to St Martin to perform at the first edition of a hopefully annual Gourmet Jazz Festival. St. Martin claims to be the "gastronomic capital of the Caribbean." Carlos Santana has called Mezcla "the cleanest, freshest water I have ever tasted." The esteemed Cuban pianist/bandleader Chucho Valdes topped the bill.

When Menendez moved to Cuba from the San Francisco Bay area at the age of 14, his father advised him to "remember that it's a third world island. The people will resent you if you try to make them fit into your definition of things. So just keep your mouth shut and try to figure out what makes them tick." He followed the advice; "although," he says with a grin over a plate of lean duck with chocolate sauce: "I obviously no longer keep my mouth shut."

Menendez has been an American residing in Cuba for 36 years. With some oversimplification, he compares his legal status to "a foreigner with a green card in the US." He's talkative, ebullient, a born communicator with a wide musical culture and his hot band works Havana clubs and tours Europe and the US regularly. Current members include the young Cuban lions saxophonist Orlando Sanchez and trumpeter Mayquel Gonzalez. Mezcla's latest album "Akimba" (Khaeon Records) has been nominated for a Grammy in the Latin Jazz category.

Menendez arrived in Havana in 1966, a 14-year old accompanying his mother the blues singer Barbara Dane on guitar. They had just worked at New York's Café Au Go Go as part of a triple bill with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Chambers Brothers. Dane had recorded with Earl Hines, Memphis Slim and others. One journalist called her "this white woman saving the blues."

Growing up in Oakland, he was accustomed to houseguests such as bluesmen Jesse Fuller, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and folk singer Pete Seeger. "My mother was interested in other cultures and she booked several concerts in Havana," Menendez says: "She was prime time news there. Everybody in Cuba knew about her."

He enrolled in the Escuela National de Arte. Living in the dormitory, his tuition, rent, medical care, laundry and so on were taken care of. He studied music and learned Spanish well enough to acquire a Cuban accent. (His grandfather was born in Spain.) By now, even his English is Cuban accented. One year later, at the age of 15, he married Andria Santana, a drama student, now an internationally known Spanish-language actress; they are still married. He has become "part of the local scenery."

Pablo Menendez
Pablo Menendez
Photo courtesy of Mezcla

The first time Menendez returned home in the late '60s, it was by merchant steamer to Canada. At the time, you could only fly to the US via Paris, Madrid, Prague or Moscow. Later, when it was for a while possible to change planes in Kingston, Jamaica, he arrived at JFK to find a customs agent who was, "rubbing his hands with glee. He called me over and said: 'You've been to Jamaica?' I tried to explain that it was just in transit but he went through my baggage looking for cannabis. When he finally realized that I was actually coming from Havana, his wires got totally crossed - it was like a short circuit. He looked at my American passport and asked me: 'So what have you got; rum and cigars?'

"People wonder why there is so much good Cuban music. Is it inbreeding or something in the water or what? Mostly, it's a strong musical tradition combined with good education. Musicians are a sort of elite in Cuba. We are subsidized with a regular salary. It's ridiculously low if you think in dollar terms, but we also get subsidized food, have no medical expenses and our kids's education is free. This is augmented by our hard currency gigs, which get tax breaks. My wife and I live in a nice subsidized house one block from the beach in Miramar."

"Music is a major Cuban export and the government knows that now. I was in Berlin when The Wall came down, I was in Nicaragua when the Sandistas were in power, in LA when the National Guard was called up, my mother and I were chased by Marcos's soldiers when we played for anti-war GIs in the Philippines, and I was in Cuba while people were jumping on rafts."

"When I visit the States I see a lot of musicians who have almost the identical skills as I do. They're bi-lingual, bi-cultural, they know salsa music, play guitar, lead bands, produce. Seeing them I can get a concrete picture of what my lifestyle would be if I ever moved back. They are under so much more stress than I am. In New York, musicians have to work like 20 hours a day to make a living; and they are forced to make an amazing amount of compromises that in my life are just not necessary."

Mezcla in Havana Web Site

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book called "The Parisian Jazz Chronicles : An Improvisational Memoir", for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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