In early September, I went to Havana for the first time as part of writing a series for The GroundTruth Project on the Catholic Church in Cuba, before Pope Francis’s arrival. Hotel Telégrafo, where I stayed the first several days, is on the central plaza a few feet from Hotel Ingleterra, where a band played every night.
Havana Mix was performing the night I sat at an outside table. At the break, one of the musicians circulated among the tables selling CDs. I bought one; the vendor asked where I was from. “Nueva Orleans.”
“Ah, Nueva Orleans!” Did I know the group Cubanismo? It isn’t often you pull into a Communist harbor town with bands playing up and down the street and the guy who sells you a record asks if you know a group whose CD I have treasured since its release 15 years ago: ¡Cubanismo! In New Orleans: Mardi Gras Mambo.
In serviceable Spanish I added that I was friends with the singer John Boutté, who’s on that album.
The guy nearly shouts. “Rafael Duany!”
Out of the cluster of musicians on break strode Rafael Duany, a vocalist on that cosmic record, wearing a white guayabara with a gleaming smile, offering a silken handshake with no idea who I am.
When in Havana, drop John Boutté’s name.
Duany’s eyes lit up like the Vatican Christmas tree. He gave a rapid-fire reminiscence of New Orleans for the recording sessions with ¡Cubanismo! and local artists, of which I caught about 60 percent. Most of his focus was on food: “Gumbo … a la casa de su madre … un mágico sueño!”
My translation: “A magic dream – the dinner of gumbo at Boutté’s mother’s house!”
With a knowing nod I inserted the name of Mark Bingham, who owned the recording studio. Duany nodded vaguely but the night of the dinner at the house of the mother of Boutté had him going on and on. Finally I asked if there would be another collaboration between ¡Cubanismo! and Boutté and other artists. Duany shrugged, asked to be remembered to John Boutté and excused himself.
¡Cubanismo! is the brainchild of Jesús Alemañy, a virtuoso Cuban trumpeter who settled in London and established the 15-piece orchestra, layering robust horns and percussion music. When Alemañy pulled into New Orleans with a distilled version of the orchestra in 1999, he and producer Joe Boyd of Hannibal Records hired Boutté, drummer Herlin Riley, percussionist Michael Skinkus, trumpeter Wendell Brunious, reedmen Donald Harrison Jr. and Tony Dagradi, with additional vocals courtesy of Topsy Chapman.
You have never heard “Mardi Gras Mambo,” “Mother in Law,” “Shallow Water” or the R&B standby “You Do Me Good” played with such verve.
Once back, I called Boutté. The crown prince of Tremé, whose eponymous song served as theme for the HBO series “Treme,” is now a country squire. He bought a spread of acres with a small house out in Lacombe, in the wilds of St. Tammany Parish.
“It’s serene over here, quiet, peaceful – I can even see hummingbirds copulate,” he volunteered when I called.
“Duany was a good cat,” Boutté said. “Duany had his dance moves and his voice, very crisp, achieved a distinctive signature. We all danced when we sang. Being from New Orleans we think we can dance. You go to Cuba, these guys can really step!
“We had Thanksgiving for all the Cubans over at my mother’s house in the 7th Ward. Knock-out gumbo, and after we ate everybody went into the backyard, we started playing percussions on spoons, cans, bottles, you pick it, this mellow groove between Havana and New Orleans.
“My first trip to Cuba I literally broke down in tears sitting in the lobby of the Nacional hotel – the music was that beautiful. Santeria, classical, mambo, the water shows – you’d see these kids hanging out on the plaza and the Malecón, these kids playing classical riffs, even the drummers read music. They knew all the different styles, very well read and smart.
They’re all literate. That makes a big difference. If you can read, you’re rich, baby.”