|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.