‘Santiago’ takes Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Cuba and back

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A report by Randy Lewis for the Los Angeles Times.

What happens when musicians from one of the must musically fertile spots on the planet collaborate with peers from an equally vibrant cultural melting pot?

Something like “Santiago,” the first track from the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s forthcoming album, “So It Is,” inspired in large part by the New Orleans group’s 2015 trek through Cuba.

The Times is premiering the track, which Preservation Hall Band leader and bassist Ben Jaffe said exemplifies the group’s “life-changing” interaction with Cuban musicians in 2015.

“It was unbelievable,” Jaffe said this week. “It’s one of those experiences you hope you’re going to have. It’s a journey and it’s an adventure. You’re sharing and receiving at the same time. That’s the best kind of collaboration that could ever take place. When you’re in such an open environment with people who are so hungry to learn and teach at the same time.”

“So It Is” extends a new development in the Preservation Hall Band’s long history, a shift in which the group has been adding original compositions to its deep repertoire of traditional New Orleans jazz tunes that had been its specialty since Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra, opened Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter in 1961. The goal was preserve and protect the Crescent City’s early style of jazz, which at that time was fading into obscurity.

With “Santiago,” Jaffe said, “The idea for that song — the melody and bass line and the pattern of the song — was something we had been playing around with for a while.

“There are different ways you can write a song,” he said. “Sometimes the name of the song comes first, sometimes it comes last. The name of this song came after this experience we had there. When we landed [in Santiago], we went straight to meet a group of musicians who had these carnival bands, like the Mardi Gras Indians we have in New Orleans. They play homemade drums. Some guys were playing the brake linings of a car; others had these ancestral drums made out of goat skin heads.

“That they somehow manage to even exist is a miracle. We rolled up on them and felt immediately at home. We sensed that something familiar was going on, that this could be a corner in New Orleans on Sunday afternoon or a second line parade.

“You have to be in the middle of it and be a part of it. Immediately after that, the song took on a new life: The tempo became more animated, the melody became more precise, the bass line became more defined.”

The result is a marriage of the infectious street parade rhythms endemic of New Orleans bands and the vibrant dance pulse at the heart of much Cuban music.

The album is due April 21, just in time for the band’s debut performances at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, after which the group heads back home to play the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which this year is throwing a spotlight on the music of Cuba.

“It’s great that we’re going to get to see a bunch of our friends again,” Jaffe said, then quickly amended that sentiment. “Really, they’re not just friends, they feel like family now.”

During the conversation, Jaffe expounded on the long historical connection between New Orleans and Cuba, as both served as a key ports on shipping routes between the Old and New worlds in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Music in the regions, Jaffe said, is far more than a form of entertainment — it’s an integral part of daily life and cultural identity for residents of both.

“One of the things I took away from being there is the Cuban people’s awareness of music and the role it plays in their community,” he said. “There is this kind of national understanding that music is an essential and necessary part of life.

“It takes on lots of different forms. You travel from Havana to Santiago, and it feels like two different countries, two different universes.

“The musicians we interacted with had such an awareness of their musical history and lineage, and purpose, it reminded me so much of New Orleans musicians.”

Jaffe said the 2015 visit was “the beginning of a long exchange. We just barely got to the tip of the iceberg. We have plans to go back.”

The Preservation Hall organization helped coordinate bringing a group of students from the High School for the Arts in Havana to New Orleans in January to meet with and be mentored by musicians at Preservation Hall.

“For some of them, it was their first time traveling; for some, it was their first trip outside of Havana,” he said. “Having those students come visit us and spend a day in Preservation Hall working with us — just thinking about it, it’s one of the great achievements of my life to be able to be a part of something that beautiful. These experiences, you come out of them a different person. A better person.”

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