Optimism Is No Sheer Folly

The most Cuban of American musicians, Pablo Menéndez, tells about his successful tour of the United States and Canada, leading Mezcla, the fusion band he created 25 years ago.

Alberto Dolz

They were more than fifteen minutes of fame. They shared the stage with legends like Earth, Wind and Fire, Crosby, Still and Nash.

Singer and guitarist, Bonnie Raitt, made them company even in the dressing rooms, and Yoshi’s, the famous jazz club in Oakland —where they offered a couple of concerts— baptized a drink in their honor.

In Toronto, Canadians did not lag behind and, gathered at Queens Park by the thousands, they applauded Mezcla. Nothing could have gone any better in the re-encounter of this group with the North American public, and if something was missing it was time for the party to continue.

“It was unbelievable all the things we were able to do”, said Pablo Menéndez, leading guitarist, founder and director of Mezcla, in a telephone conversation with Cubanow, and he still sounded euphoric.

The band, created in Havana in the 1980s and that for a decade had been absent from the United States because Cuban artists were banned in that country during the Bush administration, seemed extraordinary to the average spectator.

“Basically, they lack information on the reality of Cuban music, and many people believe that only salsa and traditional music in the way of Buena Vista Social Club is produced in Cuba.”

Mezcla had its debut at the Jazz Festival of Sonoma, California, where in one day the group performed on three occasions on two different stages. There, part of the contents of their latest record, I’ll see you in Cuba, by Zoho Records, was played.

“Curiously, when we sang it in the United States, it was like an exhortation to do something illegal, because Americans can not travel legally to Cuba,” Menéndez denounced.

The record was titled after a song by US composer Irving Berlin, written in the 1920s, when the then-in-force US Dry Law enhanced alcohol smuggling from the Island.

The Kuumbwa Jazz Center of Santa Cruz was packed by the crowd, and many had to stand through the concert. They also had presentations at Jazz Alley in Seattle, and at Xerox Rochester International Festival of New York, next to Herbie Hancock and Jeff Beck.

At Yoshi’s, Pablo Menéndez sang with his mother, the folklore singer Barbara Dane. They sang Tomorrow is another day, of popular King Pleasure, “a song that causes great impression on people, above all when they see my mother, already in her 83s, singing with me, and besides with the conviction we both still hold”.

In 1966, when Cuba was a secluded state in the Western hemisphere, Barbara Dane was the first American artist to challenge the prohibitions and to tour the Island. She did not come alone.

Paul Menéndez accompanied her, as he always did since a very early age. He remained here to the purpose of attending classes for one year at ENA, the National School of Arts. Forty-four years have gone by and the former trombone player is still anchored to this Caribbean nation.

“I was very lucky,” says the 58-year old guitarist, who formed here a family that has already made him a grandfather.

Menéndez, born in Oakland in 1952, bears the last name of his Asturian grandfather, who early in the 20th century lived in Cuba and later died in New York.

He was named Paul after a black singer and actor Paul Robeson. But his Cuban friends had a hard time in pronouncing Paul, which inevitably became Pol.

Without a second thought, the music student tried to find a solution to the phonetic problem, and he settled for a Pablo in simple Spanish, and as he said: “I devoted myself to learn how to be one more Cuban in the crowd”.

He slept on the bunk beds arranged in the abandoned mansions of the Havana Country Club residential neighborhood, ate the same food and wore the same uniform the rest of the students were given, and never enjoyed a Saturday or Sunday pass for he had no relatives in Cuba he could visit on weekends. And if it were not enough, airway communication with the United States did not exist, and letters would take several months to arrive through third countries.

Eventually, love saved him. “It seems that a young actress at the art school was attracted to me, Adria Santana, and in less than a year we got married. We’ve been together for 42 years and thanks to her family, I was spared. At least I had where to go on weekends.”

At ENA he made good friends.

“Many of my then schoolmates, who are now great artists in Cuba, are of humble origin, and wouldn’t have had the opportunity of studying art. It was impressive,” recalls Menéndez, who followed his father’s advice: “I suggest you keep your mouth shut and try to find out how to mingle better with Cubans.”

With several of those schoolmates he formed a small band at ENA, two of which, Leonardo Pimentel and Emiliano Salvador, invited him to place his talent at the service of an unmatched musical initiative: GES, Spanish acronym for Group of Sound Experimentation, that —conducted by Leo Brouwer— would produce music for cinema and theatre, in addition to his own as leader of a music band of the new Cuban song.

GES was a group that became immersed in the most exotic influences, and also served as music academy since it “opened many doors to future generations. Many of the musical thesis and paths that were inaugurated at the time, still today are at the avant-guard,” he affirms.

From 1970 to 1978, when the GES was dissolved, Pablo Menéndez played the prima guitar of the band. It was a decade of serious shortages. The young American gave the group its only professional electric guitar, purchased in New York early in the 1960s, with the earnings of part-time jobs during two summers.

After some time with the bands Sonido Contemporáneo and Síntesis, Menéndez, still unsatisfied, decided to create his own project. He wanted to fuse everything, to create a sound delta of stylistic convergence, one never before attempted: jazz, rock, son, traditional trova, the new song, funk, blues and even Cuban dancing music like bolero and danzón. And thus Mezcla came to light in 1985.

The rest... a career with almost a dozen records, packed theatres, European and North American tours. Carlos Santana, who keeps the complete collection of the group, said that Mezcla, was “the cleanest and freshest water he ever tasted.”

Pablo Menéndez recalls his encounter with the Mexican guitarist in San Francisco in 1993. “He came to work with me to help us and show his solidarity. It was an interesting and touching experience for me.”

And for the leader of Mezcla that is what it is all about: solidarity. “I was watching a report on doctors that in their free time in Haiti would dress up as clowns. As I saw the joy in the faces of all those children that had been traumatized by so much death around them, I realized that human beings can change life, and that that’s what must be done. Optimism is no sheer folly.”

Translation by Gilda Gil

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