Afro-Cuban Dimensions: A Musical Journey From Cuba to Canada tunes into history

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This article by Alexander Varty appeared in The Georgia Straight.

It’s not quite the same thing as being crammed into a cholera-plagued slave ship and then set to work under the blistering Cuban sun, but dancer Danais Yera understands what it’s like to arrive in a new world with next to nothing. And that knowledge is the driving force behind Afro-Cuban Dimensions: A Musical Journey From Cuba to Canada, a sonic history lesson that Yera and the Vancouver Latin American Cultural Centre will premiere this weekend.

“Basically, the concept that I sustain in this show is that of the immigrant, when you move from your country to a new place,” Yera explains, on the line from her Vancouver home. “When I came here three years ago, I just brought two pairs of jeans and a couple of shirts, but also I had my culture, where I came from—and I’m proud to say that I am from Cuba. It’s just a little island in the middle of the Caribbean, but with such a strong culture! That’s the concept that I have been developing: how all these African slaves, when they went to Cuba, they didn’t have anything. All they had was the memories and their culture, and in Cuba what they did was work with whatever they found. They built new tambores, built new percussion instruments, and started from zero.

“As immigrants, that’s what you do,” she continues. “You basically start your life from zero, but with the memories that you have from your culture.”

Most local listeners have some idea of what Cuban music sounds like, if only through exposure to the Ry Cooder–produced Buena Vista Social Club album, and the concert tours that followed its 1998 Grammy win. Great though that recording was, however, it gave only a partial and somewhat nostalgic picture of the Cuban music scene. In contrast, Yera and music director Israel “Toto” Berriel aim to track Cuban music’s evolution from the colonial era through to the present day, with help from an all-star band.

Afro-Cuban Dimensions is based “on a combination of songs that Toto’s had in his mind for a really long time,” Yera explains. “There’ll be some traditional Yoruba songs, and also some classics from Cuban music—not just the Afro-Cuban side, but more like contradanzas. Repertoire from the 19th century, but with some modern arrangements for sure.”

There’s little doubt that the music will be entrancing: although Berriel now lives in B.C., he’s a 12-year veteran of Cuba’s leading rumba group, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. Another stellar percussionist, Puerto Rico–born Sal Ferreras, has been enlisted to narrate the show, explaining how Cuban music emerged from the larger societal merger of African and European spiritual practices.

“We want to take people’s hands and say ‘Okay, let’s jump into this culture and travel, right now,’ ” Yera says. “I really want people to fly with the music and the dance and the storytelling. So it’s not just a concert, but more like the kind of show where you’re sitting and enjoying the music and enjoying the dance and understanding a little bit more about what Afro-Cuban culture is about.

“And then,” she adds, “there will be a dance party!”

The Vancouver Latin American Cultural Centre presents Afro-Cuban Dimensions: A Musical Journey From Cuba to Canada at the Vancouver Playhouse on Saturday (October 31).

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