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World Music Features

Felix Cabrera

Felix Cabrera

By Tom Pryor
Published January 7, 2006

In Cuba son is the venerable sound that paved the way for everything from rumba to mambo to salsa. In the U.S., we have the blues. But it’s not often that you find a musician thoroughly versed in both traditions. Enter Felix Cabrera.

The two biggest musical powerhouses of the last century were, without a doubt, Cuba and the United States. The popular music of the two countries has had a lasting impact on the way music is heard and made allover the world. The key to it all was African roots. In Cuba these roots are best heard in the son, the venerable sound that paved the way for everything from rumba to mambo to salsa. In the U.S., of course, we have the blues. But it’s not often that you find a musician thoroughly versed in both traditions. Enter Felix Cabrera.

          Born in Havana’s el cerro neighborhood, Cabrera came to States as in 1961, eventually settling down in Union City, NJ just in time to experience the mid-’60s blues revival taking place across the Hudson. “I’ve been a blues fan since ’66,” he recalls, citing artists such as Paul Butterfield and James Cotton as inspirations. “I was hooked.”

          Cabrera taught himself the blues harp by playing along to the radio and formed his first band by 1968. But he didn’t abandon his Latin roots. “The first time I blew a harp over Latin music was over [Eddie] Palmieri’s ‘Azucar,’” he recalls. “It’s the same music. The same slaves that landed in Cuba landed here too. So when it comes down to blowing a blues, I can do it over a chan-chan just as easy.”

          Indeed, Cabrera has had the opportunity to blow with some of the greats of Latin music over the years, and he’s had years to perfect his craft, singing and playing in numerous bands including Ray Barretto, Conjunto Libre and Palmieri himself. But Cabrera’s true love remains the blues, and he’s had years to perfect his craft.

            He’s released a series of albums over the years, beginning with Felix and the Havanas’ 1989 disc Next, followed by ’97’s Jimmy Vivino & The Black Italians, and 2001’s Pressure Cooker. Cabrera’s latest release, For Green (2004, Si Records), is a fresh blast of original blues rock with a slight Latin tinge.

          Tracks like “Josephine” and the Leiber/Stoller-penned “I Keep Forgettin’” offer chugging, roadhouse blues, while slow-burners like “Cold, Cold” and “For Green” showcase Cabrer