Saturday, September 14, 2013

HdP presents

Happy birthday to you ... Alex blows out the candles on his cake (see below). Photo: Ian Carswell
Havana D’Primera in Sydney. I had fantasised about this. Really. That’s a timba geek in Sydney for you. If you’re in Canada or Europe, there’s a fair chance one or two groups will swing by each year but in Australia, the best you can hope for is to save up enough holidays and money and make the trek to Cuba (22 hours of air time alone).
Japan was awesome: the world’s best timba band plus great food, unbelievable transport, good beds and fantastic showers. It was idyllic. But expensive.
And now HdP were here. in my city.
La llegada. From left: Uyuni (trumpet), Guillermo (congas), Keisel (timbales, kit), Harold (keyboards), Tony (piano), Napoles (guitar), me, Alexander, Alejandro (tour manager), Avis (bass), Dwight (promoter). 
My fellow farandulera, who had accompanied me on a couple of jaunts to Havana, and I met them at the airport. Alex gave me a big long hug. Honestly it hadn’t been that long since we’d seen each other, but hugs are always welcome.
There were a few hiccups with the accommodation: the reserved motor inn was a long way (about 20km) from town (and the venue) and had no wi-fi - an unacceptable situation for a man who is never off Facebook. In any case, the band and getting out and about in the cities they visit - their first request was to see the Opera House - so the location was clearly unsuitable.
After a few hours of frantic negotiations, new digs were found, maxi-taxis were booked and the 17-strong party relocated to Darling Harbour, a short walk from the town centre.
Uyuni, one of the cooks in the group (Alexander is another) was keen to get some ingredients so he could cook up something for dinner, so we took him to a nearby supermarket. He whipped up spaghetti with a tuna sauce and we watched the horrific antics of the British on holidays in What Happens in Kavos.
Napoles, Amaury, Avis and Alejandro in front of an icon.
On Thursday morning we took a small group down to Circular Quay to see the Opera House and the bridge: Napoles, Amaury, Alejandro and Avis. It was lovely unseasonally warm weather and it was a nice walk over Pyrmont Bridge though the city and down to the Quay. Alejandro remarked that it was “like America but without the fat people”.
When we got back we found a second wave including Alexander had set off on their own. (You can see a bunch of Alex’s photos on Facebook.) Back in Napoles' apartment, Keisel was still sleeping - he'd been up all night watching movies - and Uyuni was chilling on the couch. Saliste? I asked. He shrugged, no. Later on I found him practicing trumpet. Well that's all right then.
It was Alex’s birthday on Friday and MFF and I had been trying to organise a party for him. As he’d be working on the day, we were trying to make it happen on Thursday - it wasn’t that easy with all the complications with the tour. Luckily we had lots of generous folk pitching in to make it come off. We just had to get the band there - much harder than it sounds. Still, at 3.30, assorted Cubans started turning up in the lobby and I started sending them off to Bondi in taxis. By the time I arrived in the last wave, the rest of the band was comfortably seat around a large table in the backyard of Tina Harris’ Bondi apartment. Tina is a bass player who has her own great timba band called El Orqueston. She was in the kitchen with MFF and Nadya, who had cooked the most amazing spread of frijoles negros, pork and flan. Flipping hell! Once this banquet was served, the backyard more or less emptied as the bulk of the band commandeered seats near the food.
Cake! Photo: Ian Carswell
It was a fine party. There were girls dancing casino in the sun room, a lot of talking in the lounge room and I don't-even-want-to-know what in the home recording studio. I walked out by the stereo at one point to find NG la Banda's To' el Mundo e Bueno Camara playing and Tony holding court, talking about the song, with Alexander and Harold and Jannier listening. He later told me that he had the vinyl album of En la Calle when he was nine and he listened to it over and over again.
After the late lunch came the cake, supplied by Annabel. We had to get Alex to a radio interview by 9pm. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t keen. But with some cajoling we got him there. It was a working visit after all. It’s not all cerveza and friljoles.
Next stop after the radio station was the Cruise Bar, a regular salsa night on Circular Quay that has great views of the Harbour. Been a while since I’d been down there. It was very crowded. I made my way outside where I bumped into half the band talking to local compatriots. Some bachata was played and some non-Cuban timba and then por fin, Al final de la vida. I danced with MFF then went home.
Friday was the gig but in the morning me and MFF took some guys to Paddy’s Market - your one-stop shop for toy kangaroos, boomerangs and designer knock-offs. Jannier, a keen shopper, could barely be torn away from all the bargains. Uyuni and Jannier both bought new suitcases (Jannier went for the leopard skin, as you would). Back at the apartments, Uyuni was whipping up a lunch that smelt riquisimo, but we had to get Alex to another interview - this one with James Valentine of government broadcaster 702. The building, which also houses television studios, was gearing up for the election the next day and was all abuzz, but we got our security passes and went up to the radio’s office. James was a great interviewer - knew what he was talking about, and played Resumen de los 90. First time timba has been played on that station, I’d wager.
After that I decided to take an HdP break. Went home and collapsed. Didn’t even go to the soundcheck. WTF, right? Oh well.
Got to the venue at about 8.30. Dedicated timberos were staking out territory against an unnecessary barrier (they had been in place at venues in Japan too) so we nabbed some real estate and planted ourselves. I had been a bit worried about the turn out but it was pretty good. I don’t know how many people paid but I guess there were about 400 there – enough for the place to look busy. Every casinero in town and a lot of Latin musos plus a few randoms I didn’t recognise. A Cuban contingent, of course.

The band arrived to Resumen de los 90 - a smart choice given it had had radio airplay earlier in the day. The set didn’t vary wildly from those I had seen in Japan, but having three days off must have re-energised Alex because they played for a good deal longer - close to two hours. The set had my three least favourite tracks in it: Ony Ony, Sabroso, and Amor a la Roca, but they were good choices given the crowd. Sabroso had solos from Tony and all three percussionists, but there was plenty of time to fit all the good stuff in too: Bailarina, El que sabe esta callao, Pasaporte etc. 
The sound was muddy (normal for that venue apparently, but I hadn’t noticed it when I saw Parliament there earlier this year) but the mood was good. The crowd sang Happy birthday and everyone seemed to be having a good time: I moved through the crowd during Sabroso and didn’t see any unfamiliar Anglos leaving.
Afterwards me and MFF went upstairs to the band room to find Alexander chatting to the Cuban consul and a few tired musos sitting around. There was an after-party at Blue Beat in Double Bay - word didn’t really get out about it so it ended up being a lovely kind of private party. When we got down there, someone was blasting out Bailarina from a car so a few of us danced in the street before heading upstairs. Once inside, everyone relaxed: bandmembers danced - including Alexander - something we hadn’t managed to get them to do at the house party. It was a very cool scene. Musos and rabid timberos in their natural habitat; everybody happy. We didn’t leave till after three, dropping Napoles off at his hotel on the way home. The band were leaving for Melbourne the next morning. I wouldn’t be going with them.
NG la Banda is in Japan at the end of the year. Maybe a return trip is in order. Should have paid off this trip by then.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The cave de Yamaya

View from the monorail to Odaiba.
Nothing La Gatita Linda and I had seen in Nagoya had contradicted the previous reports of the city, so the next morning we jumped on the Shinkansen - our last - and zoomed back to Tokyo. Timba HQ was the Asia Centre for Japan Hotel at Aoyama. It has been a while since it has been refurbished, but it's a good price for Tokyo, a pretty good location and the staff are fantastic - great English and very helpful.
Actual books in Jinbocho.
There was no gig on the Friday but we had the Animate Festival press conference at Tokyo's branch of the Cervantes Institute scheduled. We headed to Jinbocho first to check out some edo prints to buy. What a great area - it's the book district. Marvel at the fact that a book district even exists in this day and age, then get your arses down there because it's fucking amazing. I was looking for kamagata-e after our little eye-opening excursion in Osaka, so we went looking for a shop called Ohya Shoba, which had one or two listed on its web site. Strategically placed signs - like Hansel and Gretel's bread crumbs - led us round a corner, up a street, into a left turn and ... back where we started. Highly comical, to be sure, but also slightly annoying. We eventually found it after enquiring at a very modern bookshop and ... it was closed. It looked fantastic through: an old man inside, closing up, was dwarfed by shelves stacked high of old books with unevenly cut pages and piles of paper. He glanced up at us, then looked away. We would return.
We navigated the subway to CI - a chic building,  as CIs tend to be, and finally my involuntary Spanish in Japan paid off.
At the press conference - which turned out to be more an in-conversation-with - were Alexander, Eddy K and Paula Lima, who looked absolutely stunning and was in no way the woman I thought I had seen sing at Fukuoka (have updated that post since then).
They were accompanied by translators for Japanese-Portuguese and Japanese-Spanish - no English - so I got pretty much everything Alex and Eddy said, cause it was all about music, and pretty much nothing Paula said, because, WTF is that language anyway?
It was the usual suff about what is salsa? And what is the future of reggaeton and blah blah. Towards the end when Paula was speaking, the crowd went "ooh!" and it turned out she was going to perform. She brought out a guitarist and percussionist and gave some percussion instruments to Alexander and Eddy and sang a lovely samba. What a lovely voice she has. Actually I have her singing with Sandra de Sa on a great Brazilian funk track by a band called Funk Como le Gusta. This was not that, but it was nice.
Afterwards, La Gatita Linda, Masaco and I went to a nearby izakaya, which was sadly out of deep fried lotus root, but had some other goodies, and specifically good sake. Amen. Also the sukiyaki was good. Some smart-arsed local gentlemen next to us asked if we had wagyu beef in Australia. Yes, actually. :P
Saturday morning we were headed back to Jinbocho, but first, a photo stop at the nearby outlet of the chain of bottle shops, for obvious reasons (see left). Hey they almost got the spelling right.
Once in Jinbocho, I dropped some large on a 200-year-old edo print, though not nearly as much as I could have. Feel like I'm robbing the culture but actually there are a startling number of these still around and in reasonable condition. Bless the peeps that had the sense to save them. La GL went for a new colourful print of some goldfish. Very pretty. Lots of pretty things in this shop. Next we headed off to Yanaka, the old neighbourhood of Tokyo. There is a cemetery there and some old houses. It has a lovely village kind of feel and there are some museums, but the temperature was over 35C and we just bailed.
Body Line, Harajuju
Next stop, Harajuku. Kitty cat ears ahoy, and maybe a tutu. Got the first, literally, with bells on. Didn't think I'd get any of the tutus into my suitcase. Too fluffy. Body Line is amazing - catering to all your goth and Lolita needs. First room was all ruffles. Second was wigs and sailor suits. Music was insane. Shop assistants dressed up and all business. Harajuku in a nutshell. We didn't dally though cause we were starving. Unfortunately that area is, for some reason, the Italian area: every eatery we passed was serving pasta. Tried the top of a swank shopping centre only to find ... Bills, an Australian restaurant. Well that just just seemed wrong. Had seen a sign for barbecue over the road so we headed there and made it just in time to get the lunch specials - one of the great things about eating out in Japan. More wagyu. Yeah! Turned out to be a Hawaiian restaurant but it was pretty Japanese. Petty good too.
Afterwards, on the corner outside, we riffled through hundreds of gorgeously coloured and designed secondhand kimonos at a street stall. Ridiculously good bargains: from $20 to about $160 for embroidered ones, they were mostly silk and all divine. No idea what I would do with one but I couldn't resist.
Back to Aoyama for a shower to prepare for show time. The Animate fest was on at Zepp Divercity, a man made island-shopping mall which would could be towed to Singapore and fit right in. We had to get the subway then the monorail, which was a lovely ride at dusk, over the water.

A very graceful Paula Lima in action.

The auditorium was in a shopping centre, as usual. Eddy K was on stage when we arrived, playing to what looked like a healthy crowd of about 2000. For the first time this trip, there were a lot of Cubans in the audience, including the Cuban ambassador and Julian, who used to sing with Combinacion de la Habana. He's living in Tokyo now, and says he sings with two groups. I asked if he was happy there. He shrugged.
Paula Lima, looking dazzling, hit the stage with a 14-piece band, which Masaco said she had heard was comprised partly of local musicians. One of them served as Japanese interpreter for the evening, as Paula seemed keen to communicate with the crowd. She has a lovely voice and I enjoyed the performance for about 40 minutes but it all got a bit two smooth for me. An hour or so in she did a much peppier song - I would have enjoyed it more if there had been more stuff liek that, with a bit more energy. But that was going to arrive shortly.
Yoko, La Gatita Loca and I scooted over in front of Tony and Avis' positions as the right side (Harold and Napoles) was too crowded. It was still pretty packed though. A guy on his own next to us hung over the crowd barrier, then pulled out a comb and intently ran it through his hair in preparation for Havana D'Primera's arrival.

They came out to Para mi gente. There were no surprises in the set, except that they did Cuando el rio suena again. It seems that after playing it in Nagoya at my request, Alexander had been reminded of what a killer song it was. He wrote on Facebook: "hoy el tema de la noche fue Cuando el rio suena ... Candelaaaaa". Happy to be of service. Will also write a set list at the drop of a hat. Don’t hesitate to ask!
There were too many dancers on stage throughout the night - the ambient beginning of Rio, particularly  suffered from their twirling sequinned presence - and the final song featured every man and his dog on stage vying for their moment of glory but otherwise it was another pretty faultless gig and another fantastic Tokyo memory. Alex and the band were thrilled by the huge, happy, enthusiastic crowd. As usual, he called for tour manager Alejandro "el chino" to “tira una foto" just before he told the crowd to “manos pa riba” so he could Facebook the evidence. He is one of the lucky ones who has an obsession and profession that complement each other.
A mountainous man was guarding the stage door, so we were unable to say goodbye to the chaps before they headed off to Sapporo in the north, a destination I'd decided not to add my itinerary because 1. Too far and 2 I wanted to tool around in Tokyo a bit more.
So we headed out into the balmy night and back into Tokyo's incredible public transport system, where I immediately led La GL onto a train going in the wrong direction. Wah-wah.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Cuando el rio suena - everybody's happy ...

Wednesday morning in Osaka. Lacking in sleep but not gusto, we consulted the excellent Eyewitness Travel guidebook and decided that if we headed off in the direction of Hozen-ji we could check out the temple and some groovy shops - the spiritual and superficial at once. Yin and yang, yo. We were not disappointed in our decision. It is hella groovy down there with crowded corridors that sell all manner of delights opening up onto an awesome square with towering billboards  and kawaii statues everywhere - less Blade Runner in the daytime, but Deckard would be right at home there at night. Needing sustenance we opted for wagyu grill. Mmmmmmm. Then sought out the temple - it was actually the famous moss covered Buddha. Very fucking cool. Then we poked around the shops some. Awesome lacquered homewares and such. I'm keeping my powder dry for Tokyo. Another fantastic shop of amazing design caught our eye - mainly fabrics, a bit Marimekko is style. It turned out to be the shop of a museum that had a ukiyo-e exhibition - or actually kamagata-e, as the woodblock prints from Osaka are known. They were exquisite representations of scenes from the stage plays of day in beautiful colours and minute detail. Absolutely divine. A squizz on the net later revealed they are actually affordable, despite dating from the late 1800s. My credit card is at the ready.
The Shinkansen awaited, so off we went. If it's Thursday, it must be Nagoya! The guidebook has a small dejected passage of this city, the highlight being a tour of the Toyota factory. Seems like Nagoya may be the Newcastle of Japan. A friend of Yoko's who hails from the city had told me in Fukuoka that, "there is nothing in Fukuoka. Nothing."
In any case, we didn't have much time before we had to get ready and head out the matinee. Today the gig was in a shopping centre again, one floor above Tower Records and next to a cinema. (There are Tower Records everywhere, and they alive with people. So much for the end of CDs.)
There was a dance group first who didn't salsa so much as vogue, then another, who danced a reggaeton with a great deal more gusto.
A local band was up next - possibly called Mambe, judging by the embroidery in their naff jackets. They were a mix of Latinos and locals and they were pretty damn good. They started with Despues de todo, sung well by a charming young lady, then continued on with a couple of songs I didn't know, in a more PR/NY salsa vein. One was sung by a chubby young lad with a lovely voice who looked like he was about 15 years old.
Eddy K was next. I backed out into the lobby and chatted with one of ladies working on the tour. She used to work behind the scenes at the circus. Her interesting conversation was far more rewarding than anything Señor K was dishing up inside. Eventually I shuffled back in and edged down the front.  
There were lots of Latinos in the packed house. iPads and phones were waved in the airs and words were sung as the band played a variation on the set that the timba locas had been lucky enough to enjoy every night for the last week. During Pasaporte, Alexander was so tickled at the thought of Latinos so far from home he let the song run long so they could sing the first verse for him. It was sweet. He seemed a little cranky during Despues de un beso - already being played as a kind of speed metal son montuno he stood there with a hand on one hip as if it weren't fast enough, and at the piano break, sang the piano line to Tony to try and spur him on even faster.

Cuando el rio suena es porque Yemaya echó brujería. 
When he picked up the trumpet, I thought, oh Sabroso - but then. Then. I wasn't just Alex and Tony and Avis. Aniel and Guillermo were still there too. This is different I thought. Oh readers, it was different! It was Cuando el rio suena! He started playing the solo - beautiful as always. Then Tony and Avis joined in and it was obvious because it wasn't any son. By the time Napoles came back and was smiling at me I was saying to him, yeah I know, yo sé. Gracias. When the solo was over and the band had started playing the song, Alexander, out of breath, and preparing to sing, just looked at me like, see what we do for you? LOL. Best present ever. It was fucking awesome. It was like the old days in Miramar, 8.50, when the lights have come up, but the band is still playing and no one wants to leave because "tengo noticias que darte pa que camina la Habana entera, vengo a sofocarte, con Havana d'primera".
Eddy K got on stage for La Bailarina but not even he can fuck that little beauty up. That song is 99 tons of funk.
It was a good gig; the crowd was nuts for it. Little bit too crowded for me, and when they did the pared- down slightly heartbreaking Mi Musica, I stepped back from the front so I could have more room to dance.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Oh! Osaka

Alexander in action. Pic courtesy La Timba Loca's iPhone.
I have neglected to mention the Hiroshima Garden Palace's excellent Japanese breakfast, eaten looking out onto the zen garden with minimal koto music playing in the background. An absolute bargain at about $10 and one of the many pleasures of this tour so far. 

La Gatita Linda and I had planned to take in an old samurai castle at Himeji, meant to be quite impressive, on the way to Osaka. But a quick detour into town, including a sit-down coffee at a department store, meant we missed the only Shinkansen that could get us there, and then out to Osaka in time for the matinee-like hour of the gig, so we took our time in the awesome food hall. Once again I wanted to eat everything, but I settled for the gyu tataki and a spinach salad.

We gathered our things and went to the station where the preceding shinkansen was - gasp! - a minute late! It then dallied a further four minutes, making ours five minutes late. Oh. My. God. Unthinkable. There was a little bit of a panic among the uniformed guards. 

Once on the train, we got so involved reading about things to do in Osaka that we almost missed the stop in Osaka - and when they say "we will be making a brief stop", they ain't kidding, let me tell you. That four minute stop in Hiroshima? Pretty sure a head rolled for every extra minute.
Our hotel turned out to be a beauty and on the taxi ride there, I dubbed Osaka the Melbourne of Japan on account of its wide avenues and diverting lanes. 

We didn't have time to see much more before we were frocking up and sallying forth. Last night's gig had been in a shopping centre; tonight's was in an office block. Well of course it was. It was a nice looking club with four levels - one of which had seats. It was pretty full too - maybe 400 or so people and quite a few Latinos. There were a couple of dance performances then a band featuring an old Charanguero who lives in Japan now; skinny dude, very dark-skinned with white hair. Yes, you're right, I should have got his name. Dudes, I am on the road. I am busy. 

Anyway, the metales were terribly out of tune and the female singer just seemed to be throwing notes into the air in the hope that some would land in the right place. A male singer could actually sing in tune, but the brass wasn't doing him any favours, and neither was the dancing show pony of a backing singer, who knocked the pianist's sheet music over just as she had to carry an intro on her own.
Eddy K came on; I stepped out.

Havana D'Primera hit the stage. Plato de Segunda Mesa was added to the set and how lovely that sounded. I think it was the first time I have seen them play it live. Sabroso showed up with solos from Tony, Keisel and Aniel on bateria and timbales, eating up valuable dancing time. We only got eight songs tonight. But one was El que sabe esta callao with a bunch of rumba breaks at the end - a version I had never heard before. Pretty wicked shit. They were just slipping in and out of it of the Afro-Cuban rhythms and into the song and back again. Mad skills.

It was Yoko's birthday and her friend Atsushi was DJing and he had arranged some surprises for her. The first was for Alexander to say happy birthday to her, reading from a slip of paper in his pocket as if he were at Galiano or Miramar. Jajaja. I've always loved that aspect of the Cuban gigs, so suburban chook raffle. When Yoko heard him she was so moved she burst into tears. Bless her. She is just so lovely. <3 font="">

The second was that the after-party at which Atsushi was Djing was doubling as a party for her, and we got the band down there for her. Cool. Fun times were had. 

I wound up talking to my new bestie Napoles some more. Not much of a party guy, but he was there anyway. At one point he told me I was the hija de Chango. I said, I'm an atheist. He said, doesn't matter. LOL.

I asked Atsushi to play Cuando el rio suena. I had asked Napoles to ask Alexander to play it after the Hiroshima show the night before, but they hadn't. So I said to Atsushi, put it on will you? The band don't play it, so wtf. When I told Napoles this he dragged me over to Alexander and honestly I didn't totally understand the exchange but it had something to do with the song. Anyway I went off and danced to it and that was the main thing quite frankly. Had a few pareja dances and overall I have actually danced more this week than I have probably in the last two years so soon I was wrecked and it was time for bed.

Thursday: Nagoya. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hiroshima mon amour

Japanese girl with deer, Miyajima
Monday morning I tooled around the town centre of Tenjin some more before heading off to Hiroshima. Check in isn't till 3pm in Japan and anyway, I was happy to wander around the city and its shops. Tried my luck with espresso coffee again - somebody stop me! - it was terrible. Guy next to me was smoking inside the cafe. A lo cubano. Bought some electrical bits and bobs at Best Denki. Best name ever. Million people staffing the store. Don't know how they can afford it. Had lunch in a stand-up sushi place. Awesome idea, but no so great for n00bs. Had no idea how it worked - tea powder (matcha) was hidden in a ceramic jar in the counter; water came out of faucets mounted there too. A sushi chef stood inside the horseshoe shaped counter fielding requests for nigiri - there was a set menu but I have my favourites: unagi (eel), tomago (egg), tobiko (flying fish roe - love how they pop against your teeth). I didn't see that they had scallop until I was already full. An elderly lady next to me helped the Australian retard figure a few things out. Everyone here is so gracious. It was all fantastic.
Picked up my luggage from the hotel and set off for the subway. I had done a reccie earlier and seen that the underground walkway had a shitload of steps so I stood looking cluelessly around on the footpath trying to figure out which way to go when a dude stopped and asked, in English, if he could help me. He then accompanied me all the way to the gate. He was courteous but not friendly - almost brusque. As soon as we arrived at the platform gates he vanished. Bless you Japanese gentleman dressed in brown.
Just an hour on the ear-popping Shinkansen from Fukuoka to Hiroshima. My hotel, Hiroshima Garden Palace actually had a garden, I shit you not. It was also, alas, literally on the wrong side of tracks. That accounts for the reasonable room rate I guess. Also by Japanese standards it was palatial. So there was that.

Set off for a walk to the right side of town. Thought I might get to Peace Park - the band was staying right over the road from it - but it was a lot further than I thought and night was not far off so contented myself with a cruise through another great department store (depaato) and a stroll by the river. On the way back it dawned on me that the enormous underground domed cavern with benches and video screen called the People's Plaza probably doubles as more than just somewhere you can get free wifi, given the city's harrowing history. Freaked out a little.

People's Plaza, Hiroshima

Got a bento and a wee bottle of sake for dinner and headed back to the hotel. Quiet night in wrestling with the hotel's intermittent Internet.

Tuesday morning my friend La Gatita Linda arrived from Australia, then a bit later Yoko and Mai - wearing bright beachy colours picked us up and we headed to Miyajima, an island about half an hour away.
It's a world heritage site and home to the Itsukushima Shrine founded in 593. The shrine, built jetty like out over the sea, is beautiful and peaceful, even with a truckload of tourists tramping around it, as is the lovely torii, the floating shrine in the sea. We walked up the mountain, through the bush, over bridges with gurgling creeks, to the cable car which took us to the very top where we looked over the islands of the Seto Inland Sea.

Torii Shrine, Miyajima
Down in the streets near the ferry stop where restaurants and souvenir shops squatted side by side, deer chased tourists for food scraps or dozed in the shade. A group of obnoxious young men tried to get one in a bear hug. The deer stood complacently waiting for him to stop. A kangaroo would have kicked his arse.
We ate some anago - a different type of eel, common to the area, then headed back to get ready for the gig. Actually there were still more things to see in the island: a folklore museum,  a temple with Buddhist statues, but we were done in. It was very hot. The cool breeze on the ferry was welcome.
There was no time  for a disco nap on returning home: gigs here are hilariously early, like a Cuban matinee,except there is no show after. Eddy K was opening, playing at 7.45, with Havana d'Primera on stage at 8.15. We could be tucked up and in bed by 10.30. We met Yoko and Mai in the foyer at 6.45 - 6.45! Blue light disco alert. The hilarity ensued when it turned out that the club was at the top of a shopping centre which was of course still open, so we walked in, dressed in our club finery, and mingled with the shoppers on our way to the lift. The door charge was horrific - 8,000 yen, plus 500 yen for a mandatory drink voucher - fine if you like Jack Daniels, not much good for anything else. A bar with a curved glass wall looked down the 11 floors to the bright city lights below. Inside a desultory dance class was followed by a desultory dance performance.
Eddy K was next. It will surprise almost no one reading that I can not report on that as I chose to spend his five or so songs sitting in the bar looking at the view rather than watching his show.
Havana D'Primera came on immediately afterwards. There weren't a lot of people there - maybe 200, but Alex seemed in good spirits and they put on a good show. It featured two of my least favourite tracks - Ony Ony and La figura - but also Despues de un beso, which I am always pleased to hear. The other track that was new to Timba tour of Japan 2013 (TM) was the new cut Rosa la Peligrosa and to be honest I spent the first half trying to work out what was wrong with it. Was someone singing out of tune? Was someone playing out of tune? Neither of those seemed likely, but Lordy, did it sound messy. Honestly it doesn't sound that great on the YouTube clips I've seen either so ... Maybe discord is what they're going for. Rosa is another slow funky jam in the style of La Bailarina, but at the moment she sounds like the latter's misfit cousin. They all looked like they were having fun though - but then they usually do; that's part of their charm - and the crowd loved it; but then they liked everything.
I had worried that Eddy K might mar proceedings by getting up and jamming but the show came and went without a peep. Or a growl or a yell, so yay!
Yoko was disappointed that Alexander didn't play the trumpet. That would mean Sabroso, so I wasn't (I love the solo as an intro to Cuando el rio suena though - reminiscing about the old days again, sorry).
The gig came to an end in a tidy fashion running at not much longer than 75 minutes, which has been pretty normal so far. I remember when they started at 7 and didn't stop until after the fluoro house lights went up at Miramar two hours later. Oops, there I go again.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Timba tour of Japan: Primera, pancakes and pixies

Sunday, August 25

Manos pa' riba! Havana D'Primera at Isla de la Salsa 2013. Pic courtesy Npo Tiempo Iberoamericano.

Got up and headed out to check out the barrio. It was still raining. Almost everyone in Japan has the same umbrellas, transparent plastic numbers bought from the Family Mart, the equivalent of the 7-11 (which they also have). They're about $5 and they're not collapsible, so people leave them everywhere too.
My first task was to find out if I could use an ATM, as last night's dinner had cleaned me out. Citibank FTW. Found an interesting looking side street that led into an arcade - Shintencho - which offered welcome respite from the drizzle and lots of stuff to look at. A mad variety of little shops selling everything from tat to artesan paper goodies. Wound up in a department store called InCube with so much great shit. Awesome Japanese crafty stuff along with designer clothes, but I settled for animal socks (3 for about $10) and a bag strong enough to cart my iPad around in. It's weird being on holidays in a place where there is cool stuff to buy. Went into Tower and checked out the K-pop section but I'll wait till I'm back in Tokyo before I buy that stuff. No sign of Kyary [gasp].
Back in the Shintencho, I went into a trad looking eatery and ordered tamago donburi. They were playing Under the Boardwalk cha-cha-cha instrumental. Seemed appropriate.
Absolutely no pancake-tossing allowed.
I had been looking for genmai cha, a favourite tea I drink at home. Finally found it in a specialty shop. The shopkeeper was so lovely. Gave me a sample of some delicious cold green tea. Everyone in the shops is so amazing, makes you want to give them all your moneys.
Tried to figure out what to wear to the festival in case of rain. My sneakers were still wet. Realised that short of a mackintosh and wellies, nothing would help, so velvet leggings and ballet slippers it was. Bought an umbrella on the way, just in case.

Brazilian show Proyecto de Bola hit the stage not long after I arrived. They consisted of a singer, some dancers and a couple of drummers that came and went. The singer sang well and worked hard but I felt a bit sorry for her, wheeling out all the old classics to backing tracks, including Mas que nada and even Sway. Surely Buble has killed that song forever more. Some of the Primera posse watched from the sidelines, then Napoles turned up and we started talking - he was talking about watching tv here and not understanding anything at all. He was thrilled when he saw a Penelope Cruz movie was on, then he turned up the sound and she was talking in Japanese. Jaja.

Alex and his adoring public. Pic courtesy Npo Tiempo Iberoamericano.
It was cloudy but not rainy, but when he asked if I wanted to watch side stage I said yes, even though that's not ideal. It's really better to be out front; better sound, better view, better ambience. But to be honest I did not want to get rained on again. Yes, I'm a lightweight.

The set was just a little different to the previous night, but sadly no Cuando el rio suena. (Maybe if I ask nicely I can hear it at a later date.) As I suspected, Para mi gente opened in place of Resumen. Oh I remember when it was new! I remember when quite a few of the songs were new, but a lot of them have new coros now too, that I don't know. :/
Three Japanese girls with tiny sequinned skirts and flowers in the hair - like little pixies - danced in the wings next to me, as the band played through a pretty similar set. Pasaporte  - what a song, so soulful - was the only difference, with Para mi gente. Sabroso was pared back to just solos from Alexander and a real ripper from Tony on piano. He is always at his best when he is playing with rhythm and tension as he did then.

The pixies went to the front of stage to dance to La bailarina. Man what a jam that is. The metales are slamming. The bass is so hard. (That's courtesy of Avis now, as the adorable and legendary Yandy has regrettably signed up to tour with jazzista Roberto Fonseca.  Napoles says he still plays with them in Havana whenever he can.) Keisel was going nuts on the congas, laughing and getting up and dancing. Alexander even had some cintura happening there. That was the closer. Sad face.
Towards the end an American girl had joined us and started talking to everyone whether they understood or not. Quite funny. She was having a great time though. Afterwards she told Alexander: YOU DIDN'T JUST PLAY ONE CONCERT! YOU PLAYED THREE CONCERTS!

Jesus I hope she wasn't Canadian. Anyway.

It had started raining during the gig so I was extra grateful for the invitation for shelter. Most of the crowd stuck with it though, bless them. As the band left the stage, Juan Luis Guerra's Bachata en Fukuoka played and the festival emptied.

Transport arrived to take some of the guys back to the hotel, while the rest had a bento. Tony and Harold were discussing what "alaroye" meant. Napoles told them it was just another name for Eleggua. I think we all learnt something. I certainly did. Not sure why ex-Reve singer El Niño is always banging on at him though. That's the next question, I guess.

Timba tour of Japan 2013: Timbeando in Fukuoka

Saturday August 24 (cont)

Alexander and some the Primera posse arrive in Japan.

Arrived in Fukuoka just after 5.30pm - took almost another hour waiting in line for a taxi. I’m gaining confidence in the subways but streets are another matter. They are often written in English too (but not always), but it can be very difficult to find someone who speaks English to ask if you can’t find your destination. After such a long journey I just wasn’t up to that. Taxi driver was very chatty, sadly for him. I don’t have much more in my Japanese vocab than “Wakarimasen” (I don’t understand). Having graduated in Cuba, finally, from automatically going “Yeah … si” I now find I’m responding with, “Si … Hai!”

In my hotel room at abour 5.45 I called Yoko - a local DJ who I met in Havana in 2006. She said, hurry! Get a taxi! They’re almost on! Thank god for her enthusiasm. I was actually thinking of bailing, the rationale being that, well, they’re playing tomorrow. Loca! I did hurry. It was raining outside as I waited impatiently for taxi. “Seahawk Hilton” I told him, and off we went, to the seaside. A lovely uniformed chap directed me through the exceedingly posh lobby to the other side. As I opened the heavy glass doors I heard “el bombo te está llamando soy yo, de primera!” De verdad, baby! I skittered down the wet tiled stairs as fast as good without breaking my neck towards the source of the sound. The woman manning the entrance looked astounded that someone would be paying full price to get in at the end of the day, but HAVANA D’PRIMERA.

The place was full of soggy people dancing. Soggy happy people. Add one more to the crowd.

Al final de la vida, Se te olvido quien soy yo, Amor la roca, Si te olvida quien soy yo and an absolutely knockout Bailarina - the brass in that is monstrous - we danced while the rain bucketed down. The crew was a flat out, keeping the equipment covered. The crowd was all ponchos and brollies. Some bikinis and shorts. I was just there in my usual clothes. Soaking wet. Evs. I was dancing with Havana D'Primera.

Corista Enrique saw me dancing first and waved a smiled, like he wasn’t at all surprised to see me, like, why wouldn’t I be in Japan at one of their gigs. He knows me better than I know myself. Jannier was next, he mimed, what are you doing here? Then Alexander, who shook his head. Later, I shouted “Napoles!” during a lull and was rewarded with a big beaming grin. When they finished he told me to wait by the stage entrance - he ran to get me and placed sidestage, turning to watch me dance. Smiling and sometimes judging me. I hope he isn’t mocking me. He once told me that when I wasn’t dancing to Havana D’Primera, he was sad. I said, dude, when I’m dancing to Havana D’Primera, I’m sad!

There was the obligatory, we’re outside Cuba so we better do a jazz track number. It’s good, cause you know, Alex is a genius, but I almost died of cold. It’s been hot here, but when you’re soaked to the skin and it’s night time, you don’t want to stop moving. Didn’t help that it was followed by my least favourite song, Ony Ony, although I usually get into gear for the coro, “A los doce de la noche, pa que tu me llamas?”, and tonight was no different.

They finished with a truncated version of Mi musica - a far cry from the 17-minute opus of yesteryear that had me practically crying on the dance floor and ascending to a higher plane, but hey, I”ll take what I can get.

The encore was El que sabe este callao. Killer track. But no Pasaporte or Cuando el Rio Suena. Guess they’re for tomorrow. I lost Napoles while I was standing in the wings, catching up with Jannier and trumpeter Uyuni, my former neighbour from Centro Habana. I went with them “backstage” - a series of sodden tents - where Alexander was sitting exhausted in a chair. He called me over for a brief chat. Harold was there too, being funny and goofy as usual. While I was talking to them, the place emptied. It had mostly stopped raining - timing! - and I walked up through the HIlton to find a queue of bedraggled punters waiting for taxis. There was supposed to be an afterparty but the promoter, Santiago, had told Alexander that he didn’t know if people would go as they were completely “parpada” (soaked).

I came back to my posh-ish hotel and peeled out of my wet gear and into something dry. I rang Yoko, who I was supposed to meet at the gig. She said she’d come and get me at 10.30 and we’d go out to eat with a gang of her friends. She arrived at 10.45 and it was pissing down with rain. After meandering through the streets, we realised we were lost and jumped in a cab, which took us in the opposite direction to a traditional style Japanese restaurant, where her gang were already in celebratory mode and a banquet was in progress (4000 yen per head). I asked for sake and a full tumbler of a tasty clear liquid was put in front of me. Everyone else was going with beer or cold tea.

There was a platter of raw horse meat. That was pretty good. And then nabe - meat and vegetables in a slow-cooked broth. Also good. And some oversalted seaweed on cucumber. Too salty. They kicked us out at 1. Some of the crowd went onto the after party.
Yoko and I retired. She had to get back to Tokyo for a gig the next day. I had to prepare for Havana D’Primera tomorrow.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Timba tour of Japan 2013: Part 1

Saturday August 24

Almost lost my shit in Tokyo station. That place is like a small country. Still smaller than  Shibuya though. I am keeping my distance from that place. That's India on steroids. It makes Doby Ghaut look like a stable.
Finally found the JR office to get my rail pass validated and reserve my seat on the Shinkansen for Fukuoka - have to check my UP band to see how much I walked in my quest to get there.
This Shinkansen is nowhere near as nice as the one from Narita. Clearly they save their best for the incoming.  You need that after the  long line at immigration - getting everyone to submit their fingerprints along with a photograph does not make for speedy processing.
Anyway, it's still super speedy. Fifteen minutes from Tokyo to Yokohama. I have one change at Osaka then it's straight onto Hakata, Fukuoka.
The conductors are dressed in beige and bow on entering and leaving the carriages. Everyone brings food and eats immediately on sitting down. Maybe that's because it's lunch time. I will know more after I take the train to Hiroshima. And Osaka. And Nagoya. Yikes.
Was a bit sad to leave Tokyo tbh. Was just getting my Tokyo legs. Masaco, the rumbera I have hung out with in Havana has been an absolute legend. She took me to a fantastic restaurant the first night. Some tiny place - just one bar and one table, commandeered by a large group of young men - run by a hilarious young guy and a beautiful young girl with a shiny thing in her hair. We had a set menu for 30,000 yen. [Update: d'oh! 3,000, not 30,000. See the comments for more corrections by the kind Masaco.]
First was a cold golden corn bisque thingie with a battered piece of fish. Next was a gorgeous clear broth with crunchy bits of something. I thought it was crackling, but Masaco said it was rice. There were chunks of a kind of cucumber (according to Masaco), some intriguing fronds of greenery and slivers of, I'm afraid to say, shark fin. It was amazing. Third was a sashimi. The hilarious young man gave us lemon juice and salt to have with the squid - guys, why did we not do this before? Who has been keeping this secret? The hilarious young man obvs. He has changed my life.
Last was some kind of grilled river fish served with a cured watermelon. Wasn't so keen on this tbh. Partly because I was tired (it was about 11 and it had been a long day - I had been up before 5 in another country) and partly because I was no longer hungry. Top dinner though.
Went back to my teeny, hot little box at the Asia Centre for Japan Hotel. Slept fitfully and woke up for a hilarious hotel breakfast. Spent the day trying to find a solution for my mobile. Epic fail. Given that I'm here for timba, it seems fitting that communications should be as problematic as they are in Cuba. Although in Cuba I had that sorted. I have been there 11 times though. Long enough to get the lie of the land. Or “lay” as they say in America.
I was supposed to meet Masaco in Harajuku for a bit of a shopping trip but for the second time in 24 hours I made the mistake of thinking a taxi could get me somewhere faster than the subway. By the time I got there and spent time trying to get my phone to work (fail) and we finally found each other we had to rush off to Ikebukuru to see a local timba band at a tiny and oddly named club called Relaciones.
We arrived at about 8.20 and they we already playing - after work gig I guess - and the place was packed. They launched into Sandunguera and it sounded good. Very good players, especially the ladies up front, a violinist and flautist. They were later joined by a female trumpet player, also very good, but the whole set was marred by solos that sapped the energy out of their otherwise well-arranged and played timba songs. Still I was the only grumblebum not enjoying it; me and the three year old who tore the place up then feel asleep in his chair.
It was an all Japanese crowd except for myself and Masaco's Spanish friends, until a Cuban posse arrived. One started dancing with a local up the back, then realised there was a dancer at the front - part of the act - so he dumped his partner mid song so he could dance in the spotlight. Stay classy, muchacho.
I left after the first set and had some more adventures in navigation the Tokyo subway on my way home. Then got inari from the corner store for dinner. That's my kind of town.
Next post: Dancing to Havana D'Primera in the pouring rain.