Although the islands of Cuba and Jamaica lie only 90 miles from one another, never before has there been a full-length album produced that blends Afro-Cuban styles with reggae, dub and dancehall. In this way, with Havana Meets Kingston Jake is pioneering a new frontier of cross-cultural musical exchange.
The album brings together over 50 Cuban, Jamaican and international musicians playing mostly original material as well as covers of classic Cuban songs. Havana Meets Kingston is a two-part album project over two years in the making.
The first single ‘Carnival’ featuring British-Jamaican singer Randy Valentine and Cuban singer Solis was released in February, with the first album due in November followed by the second volume and feature documentary in early 2018.
Jake has launched Havana Meets Kingston onto the global live scene and this October he will perform live at Island Vibe Festival as Havana Meets Kingston Sound System featuring Randy Valentine & Solis. Ahead of the shows, Jake gives us some insight into the project.
What made you want to unite these two previously disparate musical communities?
[Mista Savona] Jamaica and Cuba make some of the very best music on Earth. If you look on a map you will see the two islands are very close, only 90 miles from each other. And really they have so much in common, despite their political and language differences.
Why has there never been a collaboration like this?
This project is the first time a large group of Jamaican musicians have flown into Cuba to record and collaborate with Cuban musicians. We had ten days at Egrem in Havana initially and then many more recording sessions in both Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Kingston to complete the sessions. Over two albums of material were recorded and it's a very unique project.
Why it hasn't happened before? Political, social, economic and language reasons. Cuba is an ex-Communist, socialist state and the people are very poor; the government wage is around $US18 a month. Nevertheless, the government supplies every Cuban with free housing, free healthcare and free education to university level. That is actually incredible and every society should aim for this.
Jamaica on the other hand is a capitalistic society and resource rich, but due to corrupt governments, the IMF, gangs and US interference the people are in a way even worse off than in Cuba. The daily struggle for survival is a reality for ghetto communities in Kingston. On top of this, Jamaicans rarely speak Spanish and Cubans don't speak English for the most part.
Additionally, both islands have such potent and unique music scenes that they are really captivated by their own music to a large degree, and until two years ago there were no exchange programmes between the two islands. Jamaica's music industry is it's biggest export and yet the government still doesn't invest in it properly.
So these are all reasons perhaps why no Cuban or Jamaican record labels or musicians or even cultural organisations have taken the initiative to try and co-ordinate such a big project like this. Yet the time is ripe for this kind of collaboration and after numerous trips to Jamaica since 2004,
I finally visited Cuba in 2013. There, the idea for the project was born. It was so obvious to me that it needed to happen. So I began investigating.
When you contacted musicians to collaborate, what was their initial response?
Everyone loved the idea so much that this is what actually made the project possible in the first place.
The Jamaicans jumped at the chance to travel to Cuba, because they had never been before and they could sense the potential of the project. The Cubans also jumped at the chance to collaborate with some of Jamaica's best and the energy and level of inspiration in the studio was something to behold. Both groups wanted to impress each other. And they did.
Can you describe the resulting sound of blending Jamaican reggae and Afro-Cuban styles?
A focus was on bringing Jamaican soundsystem culture together with Afro-Cuban jazz and rhythmic influences. Think rolling basslines and virtuosic percussion, piano and horns. This is a heavy sound and works easily and beautifully. Check the first single 'Carnival' and the B-side 'Carnival Horns' for a taste. I also wanted to focus on their sublime musicianship; these guys are real masters.
This album is all about the performances and less on the post-production, which I've kept as simple and natural as possible. You could argue that contemporary music is becoming increasingly sterile, with the focus in pretty much all genres now on post-production and AutoTuned (synthesized) vocal performances, which I believe actually stifle and repress deeper, human expression. For me music should be about uplifting people, not brainwashing them.
As a composer, how did you approach melding the two musically?
I created sketches of songs with strong and interesting chord movements and riffs, but let these master musicians fill the gaps and paint in their own styles. I avoided complicated charts or arrangements, so the musicians could breathe and express themselves naturally. And they did, they shine. The Ernest Ranglin instrumental '410 San Miguel' is a great example of this.
The project is being released in two parts; can we expect a big difference between the albums?
Album one focuses a little more on Jamaica. Album two focuses more on Cuba. Nevertheless both records are a blend of styles and languages and the core band – Sly & Robbie, Bongo Herman, Bopee, Changuito, Yaroldy Abreau, Oliver Valdes, Julito Padron and Rolando Luna – is an even mix of Jamaican and Cuban masters. And one of the best bands on Earth.
Did you encounter any political challenges during the project?
No thankfully. The stars aligned. And we had the blessing of some of the most important musicians in Cuba. This really opened doors.
What do you see as the political and cultural significance of unifying Jamaican and Cuban musical styles for the first time?
Our first video trailer for the project went viral at the beginning of the year, over 1.5 million views in a week and without any publicity. It was incredible to witness and I think one of the reasons is that people worldwide are actually hungry to see real music played by real musicians.
Also in the context of an increasingly divided and fear-mongering political climate, I think people are actually hungry to see authentic and positive collaborations between people of different backgrounds, regardless of language or race.
It's a beautiful thing to watch and hear. I love the idea of songs in multiple languages; English and Spanish work together beautifully on this album. It's early days, but one definite positive outcome from this project is it's boosting tourism to both islands and that is a great thing.
You worked with over 50 international musicians; were there any stand-out collaborators?
Everyone. All these musicians are masters and the lesser-known singers and musicians stepped up in their presence. The whole album is killer, no filler. I can't wait to take these musicians on the road.
What has the live response from audiences been when you've performed?
I've only done a handful of shows so far as a DJ focusing specifically on the Havana Meets Kingston project; a recent show in Malta in Europe with Randy Valentine on vocals was fantastic, a real highlight this year for both of us. I'm very much looking forward to more shows like this, and we have a nice run of dates planned for Australia in October.
The larger international shows begin next year, when we take the whole band on tour, which will comprise at least 15 musicians and include the core band of Jamaicans and Cuban artists mentioned above.
How are you feeling about your upcoming performance at Island Vibe Festival?
Excited! Myself and Randy Valentine will be joined by Solis from Havana, so it will a great opportunity to showcase material from the album as well as the first live performances with both of them on stage of their brilliant single together 'Carnival'.
What will that show be like for audiences?
High energy. We'll have live percussion alongside Solis' Cuban vocal acrobats and Randy is hands down one of my favourite live MCs in the world.
Stradbroke Island must seem like the perfect set and setting for this unique showcase?
Yep it's paradise. I never miss this festival if I can help it.
Do you have future plans for the Havana Meets Kingston project?
As mentioned above, we plan to take the whole band on the road and honestly it's one of the best bands in the world. Sly & Robbie alongside members of VanVan and the Buena Vista Social Club, with some of my favourite vocalists from Cuba and Jamaica. It's a unique project and live act. As well as the first album Havana Meets Kingston being released later this year, we have a film planned for 2018 alongside the release of the second album. So much good music to come.
Mista Savona brings Havana Meets Kingston Sound System featuring Randy Valentine and Solis to Island Vibe Festival on North Stradbroke Island 28 October.
Additional Havana Meets Kingston ShowsFri 20 Oct - Manning Bar (Sydney)
Sat 21 Oct - Tanks Arts Centre (Cairns)
Sun 22 Oct - The Corner (Melbourne)
Fri 27 Oct - Bangalow A&I Hall
•update 12 Oct, 2017: Havana Meets Kingston have been announced as part of the 2018 WOMADelaideelaide line-up.