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KoSA Cuba 2013

Article by Sean Mitchell // May 13 2013
KoSA Cuba 2013

Contributed by Phil Lamy, Ph.D, KoSa Cuba 2013 Participant and Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Castleton State College, VT

Thank you to Aldo Mazza and all the wonderful folks at Kosa for sharing this story. - Sean

Cuban Percussion great Giraldo Piloto's Havana Fiesta Del Tambor 2013 was the perfect compliment to the KoSA Cuba International Percussion Workshop —a total immersion educational experience complete with a world class percussion festival in a Caribbean paradise!  

With daily classes and performances held at the beautiful Hotel Occidental Miramar, clinics and concerts at the famed Hotel Havana Libre and Teatro Mella, and music throughout the city’s streets, plazas, clubs, and concert halls, KoSA Cuba 11th annual Drum Workshop and Festival was spectacular. 

What better place than Cuba? Walking the cobbled colonial streets and plazas of Habana Vieja—or the modern city, Habana Centro with its mini “Coco Cabs”, Art Deco architecture and its restaurants, theatres and nightclubs—participants immediately noticed that music is everywhere.  Within this incredibly musical and percussive culture, we would experience a full-on cultural tsunami. 

An eclectic group of 25 participants from Canada, the United States, Mexico and Colombia were present  for the KoSA-Cuba 2013 experience--seven days and nights of percussion clinics, concerts, and seeing the sites of this remarkable city and nation.  Havana pulses with an energy, vibe and a sensual fusion of Caribbean climate, complete with colorful 1950s automobiles, its revolutionary history, beautiful and friendly people, and a musical culture unparalleled in the world.  It is, after all, the Pearl of the Caribbean. 

KoSA Cuba 2013 Cuban faculty members represented very best of this nation's musicians: from its past, its present and its future.  To start the week and ground us in our exploration of Cuban music we experienced a class with legendary Cuban ethnomusicologist Dr. Olavo Alen Rodriguez, author of many books about Cuban music, including the acclaimed From Afro-Cuban Music to Salsa.  Dr. Olavo, a knowledgeable, funny, and very gentle soul, gave a fascinating presentation to KoSA participants on the history of Cuban music, its many expressions and the cultural meanings associated with each.  

Next, there were master classes and clinics with father and son drum legends Walfredo Reyes Sr. and Walfredo Reyes Jr.  Walfredo Sr. is among the first percussionists to translate traditional Cuban rhythms to the drum set. Walfredo Reyes Jr., long time drummer with Santana—and just off a tour with Chicago— demonstrated Latin funk grooves with a brilliant bassist guest artist from Norway, Per Mathison . (This class event took place at the Hotel Habana Libre, formerly the Havana Hilton, which  Fidel Castro and his army briefly used as the headquarters of the new revolutionary government following the revolution of 1959. A gorgeous hotel, and art gallery, several of the musical events of the Drum Festival - Havana Fiesta del Tambor - were also held here.) 

Throughout the week our educational clinics featured percussion greats like Juan Carlos Rojas--El Peje-- (the Fish), long time drummer for Chucho Valdez, and 2010 Grammy Award winner on the album Chucho Valdez and the Afro-Cuban Messengers, and Best Latin Jazz Album 2010, Chucho’s Steps.  El Peje gave an exciting clinic on Latin Jazz drum set and also gave several private lessons. 

There was conguero Tomas “El Panga” Ramos, one of the top studio musicians in Cuba. Both a consummate musician and a compassionate teacher, Panga wowed us with his brilliance on conga drums. Like many of the Cuba-KoSA faculty, Panga also made himself available for private lessons and discussion. 

The ever-smiling “El Capitan” astounded with his “Cuban Contraptione”—a unique fusion of conga drums, timbales, bongs, guiro, bells and multiple pedals, including innovative new technologies and instruments for expanding the drummers’ horizons. One of his recent inventions was the “Fusheke” or maracas on a foot pedal ( currently manufactured by LP ).  El Capitan (Roberto Smith )reminded us of why we love the drums, performing later in the week at the Miramar with the Pablo Menendez Trio. 

The great timbalero, Amadito Valdés (best known for his work with the famous Buena Vista Social Club with  Ry Cooder) gave an engaging introductory clinic on Timbales in relation to the Clave.  So many great musicians!  The great Jose Luis Quintana, better known as “Changuito”, famous for his work with Los Van Van and the creation of the “Songo”, shared with us through the week, proving instruction and inspiration. 

Early in the week, our group experienced a nearby street parade where a typical Conga and “comparsa “ was taking place, complete with dancers, a multi-piece marching band and a Carnivalesque atmosphere.  Suddenly the parade stopped cold.  Something significant was taking place...parade watchers and police crowded around a television set outside a restaurant to learn of the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez—a big supporter of Castro and Cuba.  (Chavez’ cancer was treated in Cuba for several months prior to his death.) 

The death of Chavez prompted a historic moment of national reflection followed by three days of mourning in Cuba, which required the cancellation of a few events.  Resourceful KoSA Cuba participants quickly utilized the schedule change to practice their instruments!  KoSA faculty, including Cuban percussionist El Capitan, remained with KoSA participants, accompanying us to a local beach, where many in the group took a break to sunbathe, swim in the aqua blue waters of the northern Caribbean and participate in impromptu jam sessions —right on the beach.  We met an older man holding a line of recently caught fish.  Not trying to sell us fish, he simply wished to know if he could join our percussion jam! He said he was conguero. In Cuba it seems everyone is a drummer! 

And there were astounding concerts: including the spectacular 50th Anniversary Gala for the legendary Los Papines, the conga and vocals quartet of Cuban brothers.  Though three of the original Papines have passed, their children and grandchildren fill out the ranks of this famous family of Cuban musicians.  

Other extraordinary classes during the week were taught by the two Klimax group percussionists, Jean Roberto Figueroa and Julio Lopez. Enrique Pla (the original drummer for Cuban supergroup Irakere) and Ramses Rodriguez (drummer for Roberto Fonseca). Many of the classes would finish with impromptu jam sessions where the workshop participants were joined by everyone in the room such as Changuito, El Peje, Amadito Valdes, Eduardo, Enrique Pla and more. 

Our hotel—the Occidente Miramar—featured music every night, including special concerts associated with the Festival: Pablo Menendez Trio with El Capitan (Roberto Smith) on percussion and other great Cuban artists.  We were equally impressed the Hotel House band, Las Chicas Crystal, an all girl group featured as among the best of in Cuba.  And for those who ventured out into the Havana nightlife, there was even more fantastic music. 

The final Festival Concert featured the finalists in the drumset, congas, and Bata drums competitions.  In addition there were many musical groups and  dancers such as Havana Compass Dance and a spectacular performance by the legendary drummer Giraldo Piloto and his band Klimax. 

Participation in this week of music, culture, history and drums all taking place within this Pearl of the Caribbean—Cuba is a fantasy come true.  If you haven’t yet attended a KoSA Cuba Workshop, it is a must attend event each year.



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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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