Mar 24 2014

The Crescent City's Conversation with Cuba

By: Christopher Louis Romaguera

 The plaque on the Jose Marti statue on Jefferson Davis Parkway and Banks Street reads (in Spanish): “From the Cuban exiles and their friends in Louisiana to the city of New Orleans, at the closing of the centennial year of his death fighting for the liberation of Cuba. New Orleans 28 January 1996.”

While Spanish, cafecitos, and salsa are sprinkled throughout Miami, New Orleans doesn’t scream Cuba. The exclamation points are rarely upside down here. Whenever asked to compare the cities, I always say something along the lines of “They are very different, yet similar in weird and unexpected ways.” I explored some of the similarities of New Orleans and Cuba, and found roots stronger than I imagined.

The Music
"You got to have that Spanish tinge."
~Jelly Roll Morton


Jelly Roll Morton famously talked about the ‘Spanish tinge’ when discussing his use of the tresillo and habonera rhythm patterns (of the Cuban Contradanza) in his music. In a Library of Congress recording, Morton says: “Now take the habanera "La Paloma," which I transformed in New Orleans style…Now in one of my earliest tunes, "New Orleans Blues," you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.”


Morton implemented the tresillo and habanera rhythms into his music after hearing them from Cuban players. Both of these are simple patterns that originated in Sub-Saharan Africa, and both were transported to Cuba via the slave-trade. Anyone who has heard a second line is familiar with the tresillo. In Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” you can hear the piano playing the Cuban Clave. 


This is not to say that New Orleans music is Cuban music, far from it. These two different places have seen their music grow in various ways. But New Orleanians built off of what was being played in the clubs and streets of cities like Havana and Santiago. To paraphrase a line that is often used for Cuban cigars, it is as if New Orleans music was “rolled with leaves from Cuban seeds.” 


Casa Borrega (1719 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.) hosts a Cuban night every Friday.  The band, Los Caballeros del Son, plays a repertoire of Cuban songs, such as “Rico Vacilon.” Hugo Montero, the owner of Casa Borrega, talked up the band, and told me how he loves Cuban culture, and how “he has a love affair with my father’s country.” In the middle of a story, he points out and introduces me to Ariana Hall, the Executive Director of CubaNOLA Arts Collective. As I started to talk to her, Montero would dance with Ariana’s friend, reminding me of nights in Little Havana, where you wouldn’t know the singers name, but her chekere (a Cuban-drum) said ‘Cuba’ and she’d jump off the stage to dance with you. 


Sam Price heads an Afro-Cuban band called Otra. Otra has played venues such as d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street, and will be playing the Saturday night of French Quarter Fest this year. Price, who is from Slidell, regularly plays at Casa Borrega with people who enjoy playing Afro-Cuban music and are passionate about Latin culture. One of the interesting aspects of Casa Borrega is how it accentuates the relationship of Latino and non-Latino players playing Latin music. Players such as Price and Michael Skinkus can play with Cuban players living in the city, such as Alexey Marti and Hector Gallardo.

The Food
"We are the same roots from the same plant."
~Alexey Marti, New Orleans Con Sabor Latino by Zella Palmer Cuadra

There are many similarities with the food as well. Camarones enchilado (camarones meaning shrimp, enchilado being ,as per my father, "don’t know the translation, but it’s a sauce with tomatoes, spices, etc.") is an old-Cuban dish.  It starts with a sofrito, which is a cooked down sauce that’s base is tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, and oil. Once the sauce is ready, you throw the shrimp into the pot and cook it all together, letting the flavors meld and then serve it on a bed of rice. For anyone who is from (or who has lived in) New Orleans, I have just described to you "Shrimp Creole." In 1803 a large amount of Haitians ended up migrating to Cuba due to the war, and in 1809, a lot of those people emigrated to New Orleans. While we can’t pinpoint where each cultural element stems from, we can safely say every one of those islands enjoys shrimp with red sauce. 


Ropa Vieja (which translates to “Old Clothes”) is a dish that stems from families putting a bunch of leftovers together. While other countries’ versions of Ropa Vieja vary, the Cuban variation uses red meat with sofrito and rice. The Cuban preparation of Ropa Vieja is more reminiscent to how enslaved Africans prepared it on the island than how the Spanish did, as per the ingredients of the sofrito. A variation of the dish can be found at Liborio, a Cuban restaurant (321 Magazine Street) that has been in New Orleans since 1969. Different takes on the dish have sprouted up throughout the city. Three Muses (536 Frenchmen) chef Daniel Esses, who is part-Cuban, has had a variation of Ropa Vieja as a happy hour tapa, which he placed on tostones. 


The daiquiri was invented at the turn of the 20th century in Cuba. While there weren’t ice machines churning out Crawgators and White Russians, the original daiquiri consisted of rum, lime, and sugar and was poured in a tall glass of crushed ice. Mojitos are the perfect drink for a summer day, a Cuban version of a mint julep, and have become more commonplace every day. New Orleans now makes its own rum, something that it used to get in great abundance from Cuba, with the Old New Orleans Crystal being a nice spirit for those two cocktails.


CubaNOLA Arts Collective


CubaNOLA Arts Collective is an organization that “uses the power of live music, dance, festivity and diversity to promote cultural wellness and equity.” I became aware of them when attending a show at Snug Harbor where Jorge Luis Pacheco, a Cuban pianist, was brought to the city by the organization. That night Pacheco captivated the audience in such a way, playing original music and improvising, to the point that I had to find my ground when walking back out to the chaos of a Friday night on Frenchmen. 


CubaNOLA has had a hand in bringing over people like Pacheco, and the duo Omni Zona Franca, as well as helping the Rebirth Brass Band visit Santiago de Cuba for events like ‘Rebirth & Congas en la Calle.’ As their site puts it, they try to “tap into the power of neighborhood traditions to connect communities and tackle current problems by recognizing their historic roots and by having fun together.” 

In the end, the two cities are like long-lost cousins. A ferry used to go from New Orleans to Havana twice a day. ¡Cubanismo! felt at home to the point where they made an album here in 2000. The interactions between the two cultures created a conversation where each got to grow. We got closer with Jelly Roll Morton, and we get closer with every tune that we get to hear Pacheco squeeze out of his piano, and every dance Rebirth shares with those living in Santiago. 


I wish for the people of these cultures to be able to spend more time together, to see what we would be able to create, just like how we wish for our favorite musicians to walk into the bar we’re at, and sit in with the band. As Wynton Marsalis told "60 Minutes" when asked about musical liberation while in Havana, “I say [this] about music and the arts everywhere, because we create community, and we speak to the human soul.”
 Here’s to the communities growing and their conversation with the soul reigniting.

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