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Field Report: Trova in Santiago de Cuba

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CC Smith, former editor of  The Beat Magazine, has kept busy lately. In addition to helping us sort out all manner of “it’s vs its” -related issues, she recently spent a couple of weeks on the island of Cuba and brings us back this report of a still-vital music scene.   

Trova is the traditional acoustic folk music of Cuba, characterized by beautiful melodies and harmonies, poetic lyrics, heartfelt sentiment, and a guitar style rooted in Spanish classical or flamenco fingerings. Trova takes its name from a derivation of the term trovadore, i.e., troubadour or minstrel. It is the source of much of the repertoire heard in the Buena Vista Social Club recordings, and  is one of the main elements that form the roots of Cuban music.

Cuba’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba is located on the coast of the far eastern end of the island, some 450 miles from Havana. It is considered the cradle of trova, which dates back more than a century but is very much alive and present nearly everywhere in Santiago: on street corners and plazas, in restaurants, bars and backyards. And especially, for over 12 hours a day, every day, it can be found at the Casa de la Trova on Heridia Street.

Like most buildings in Cuba, the Trova House is cloaked with a patina of age and echoes of its history. Like New Orleans’ Preservation Hall for traditional jazz or the Grand Ole Opry of Nashville for country music, the Casa is a cultural center with a mission to preserve a great heritage and to keep both the music, and the musicians, alive. The Trova House’s daily musical fiesta starts at 11 a.m. and continues in four different spaces throughout the building until well after midnight. There’s free admission all day, and a 5 CUC (about $6) entrance fee in the evening, when full dance bands perform in the big hall upstairs for the entertainment of tourists and locals alike.

The Casa’s supervisor, Humburto Ramon Paez Cruz, told me there are 16 to 18 groups in Santiago province playing this traditional music, and that over four or five days each March, the Pepe Sanchez International Trova Festival occurs throughout Santiago province.

In a fortuitous bit of synchronicity, a new album of trova by one of the standard-bearers of the tradition has just been released by Tumi Music: Casa de Trova–Cuba 50s, by Alejandro Almenares, a veteran guitarist who at the tender of age 76 has made his first solo album. His father, Angel Almenares, also a leading trovadore, was a co-founder along with Virgilio Palais of the Casa de la Trova.

From the first note, I was transported back to the well-worn streets of Santiago de Cuba. With exemplary virtuosity, as would be expected from a member of a trova dynasty born into the music, Almenares performs 14 of his father’s and his own compositions on tres and requinto, all in consort with the traditional trova lineup of guitarist, stand-up bass and percussion, and with a team of six solo vocalists standing in on various songs.

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The music ticks along like a precision chronometer in perfect time and harmony. None of the songs were familiar to me–not the same old BVSC standards or “Guantanamera,” thank goodness–but all are buoyant, swinging compositions of boleros and sones, beautifully performed. The warm, comfortable sound was recorded right in Santiago at the nearby Siboney studio.

Two discs are included in this lovingly designed package. The second, indicated simply as “Instrumentals” was a surprise, as it is not just instrumental music, but a remix of the first disc’s selections with the lead vocals replaced by violin, flute and saxophone solos, which then make way for the original vocal choruses. So you can have it both ways according to your mood: trad trova, or trova with a bit of added musical color.

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Almenares plays regularly at the Casa, often with local hero Eliades Ochoa, but unfortunately my travel schedule did not allow me to see him perform. Happily we have this lovely audio memento of the soul of Cuba to treasure.

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