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Portrait: Carlos Maza

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 18 February 2001
- While recording only in France and performing only in Western Europe, Carlos Maza is ambitious enough to hope that eventually his work will ''enlarge the definition of Cuban music.'' Meanwhile, he lives with his wife and two children in Cuba, even though Cubans tell him his music is ''not Cuban enough.'' With his Chilean passport he can live pretty much wherever he likes. He likes the vibe and the ''quality of life'' in Cuba.

Although ''the problem is musical, not political,'' he says, still, his recordings are not distributed in Cuba and he gives no concerts there. Nor has he ever performed in the United States, though that too is not a political problem. ''It's just that nobody ever asked me,'' is how he explains it. He has, however, performed in Chile, but only once, and you can't find his records there either.

His parents took him to Cuba as a baby when they asked for political asylum. Post-Pinochet, his mother returned to Chile, and his father, a mathematician, moved to France. He visits his father often. There are four French albums released under his name, and Universal/France will release the fifth, ''Tierra Fertil,'' in October. Given their intelligence and originality, five albums, two on the prestigious Owl label, by the age of 26 is worthy of note.

He admits that his music is not Cuban. It is ''not 'Latin' at all,'' he says.

''I have other roots. I come from another culture. I have never made music like other Cubans. I believe mine is more open than Cuban music in general.'' His roots are in the Andes. He calls Andean music ''another manner of suffering.''

You must suffer to make revolutionary music, he believes, and that's what he makes. Once more, he reminds us that it is revolutionary music, not politics. It includes classical and romantic ingredients, Brazilian or African colors might be followed by free jazz (Pharoah Sanders had an impact) or musique contemporaine. Folk-tinged extracts influenced by the likes of the Andean singer Violetta Parra alternate between modality, dissonance, banjo-picking and Scandinavian chill. It's not easy-listening, and there's nothing resembling salsa.

It is also with pride that he calls himself a multi-instrumentalist. He plays the piano and several varieties of guitars, flutes, saxophones and percussion, which he learned specifically to play his own compositions. That's all he plays. Only recently has he begun to address traditional structures and improvisation. He neither practices chord changes nor memorizes classic jazz solos. He never learned the standard repertoire. ''Why should I learn standards?'' he asks rhetorically. ''I already have this enormous stock of my own music which has never been played.'' It seems that he composes faster than he records.

Current progressive Cuban pop music is called timba: ''There are thousands of timba bands down there. I don't like timba. It fatigues me.'' Being an artist defying classification would be fatiguing anywhere. Even in France, where his career is semi-viable, being revolutionary involves forever crashing on somebody's floor. For eight years now he has had problems finding places to stay. Which does not particularly bother him. He figures that ''you have to make compromises if you want to play uncompromising music.''

He started to compose at the age of 11. Eventually, his music interested a French producer who paid for studio time. The first album was released when he was 17. A French booking agent became a fan and got him work. Although his music may be uncompromising, it has at least reached the marketplace in one country. He chalks this not inconsiderable success up to ''not being afraid.''

Musical courage, he says, is not encouraged in Cuba. The music schools are so severe that students are forbidden to play sports to avoid hurting their fingers, wrists or embouchures. Such a way of thinking discourages musicians from developing what he considers an essential risk-taking mentality. At least it discouraged him enough to drop out of Havana's prestigious Ecole Nationale des Arts.

All of this is not to imply that he has anything against Cuba. On the contrary: ''The country is not perfect, there are problems, but it's no good criticizing without offering solutions. Remember, the system is only 40 years old, that's a baby of a system. Yet it's been producing so many monster musicians. Why? It's not a miracle. The only 'miracle' is the political will of the government to build enough schools to educate the poor. True, there's a strong musical tradition in the Cuban culture but such tradition also exists in other places without the same results. In Africa poor people cannot afford to go to music schools. So they do not have the opportunity to develop their talent. If I had stayed in Chile, I wonder, would I have become a musician?''

This particular visit to Paris was to promote his new album. As soon as he gets home, rehearsals will pick up from where he and his three young sidemen left off. (That's pretty much all he does in Cuba: rehearse.) In October, he will be returning to tour Europe. It's very difficult to find young Cuban musicians who are willing and able to make the physical, temporal and intellectual investment necessary to play his music.

First they must be musicians who are ''not too timba.'' Hearing himself say this, he laughs out loud. It's not that simple. It's not simple at all. Many conclaves and discussions are necessary to convince them that they will be able to play his music, that it is worth taking the trouble to learn and that it will be fun to play. Only then does it get played. As he says: ''It can get lonely out there.''

Carlos Maza: Tierra Fertil

Carlos Maza Trio: Tierra Fertil

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. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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