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World Music Features

Jesus Alemañy And Cubanismo

By Lissette Corsa
Published January 17, 2008

Renowned for a lean brass section and a freewheeling, danceable jazz style, the powerhouse ensemble Cubanismo is back with Greetings From Havanna. Led by trumpeter and frontman Jesus Alemañy, the group sitrs up a wicked brew of guaracha, son, rumba, mambo, and Afro-Cuban jazz—a full-blown musical assault with so much swing, it could make Congress rethink the U.S.-Cuba embargo.

The recent history of U.S.-Cuba relations has been a nuanced and contentious one, and very few individuals have as deep an insight into the inner workings of this strained arrangement as ace Cuban trumpeter and bandleader Jesús Alemañy. For much of the late 1990s, Alemañy and his Cubanismo orchestra frequently toured the U.S. under the Clinton administration’s push to promote cultural exchange. In 1997, their first stateside gig at the New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival put them at the forefront of the wave of Cuban nationals who performed regularly in the once-forbidden land to the north.

“It was a great time for us,” Alemañy recalls over the phone from his mother’s house in his hometown of Guanabacoa, Cuba, just east of Havana. “It was like an invasion. We would enter as ambassadors of Cuban music.”

Cubanismo spent half of 1999 on tour throughout the country, even appearing on Late Night With Conan O'Brien during a stop in New York City. The band also interspersed their gigs with public workshops, academic demonstrations and lectures, which not only fulfilled their visa requirements under Clinton’s “People-To-People” initiative, but also showed how Alemañy’s open and intelligent approach to presenting Cuban music could sway American audiences. He went a step further by working to rekindle musical bonds from the past that had remained dormant under U.S.Cuba embargo, which began in 1960. While preparing to record Cubanismo’s fourth album Mardi Gras Mambo (2000), Alemañy managed to obtain official backing from New Orleans City Hall to collaborate with jazz musicians from the Crescent City—a project that led Cubanismo to explore the historical connections between the Big Easy and Havana in a modern musical context.

In 2004, the band criss-crossed the U.S. for the last time. By the time that tour ended, the band had delivered its infectiously buoyant Afro-Cuban vibe for audiences at well over 600 U.S. shows in 49 of the 50 states. They had become regulars in jazz festival circuits across the country, and fans had come to take their frequent visits for granted.

That arrangement changed radically in the wake of the events of 9/11 and the gradual buildup of travel restrictions that had been enacted under the Bush administration. “Suddenly we were
In true Cuban style, though, Alemañy eventually found away to circumvent politics and reach fans in the U.S. via Australia—no easy detour. In 2005, Cubanismo had just finished playing at the 16th annual East Coast Blues & Roots Music Festival in Byron Bay, Australia, and met Peter Noble, owner and director of AIM Records. Noble, who had seen Cubanismo perform at the Sydney Opera House, proposed that the group record a new album. Alemañy subsequently regrouped with his Havana-based musicians to record Greetings From Havana, which was released worldwide May 2007.

“It was like starting over from scratch,” Alemañy says, referring to the adjustments he had to make after such a long hiatus from recording. “With all the new technology, the scene had changed on me completely. But the spirit of the project remained the same. We were there to make music that made us feel happy. As always, my idea was to create variations on the rhythms, and for that we had the opportunity to work with some talented musicians—Rolo Martinez and Laito Jr. [Jose de Jesús Hernandez] are one of the best vocal collaborations I’ve ever heard.”

Alemañy has worked with countless musicians over the years, starting out on trumpet as a child. Born in 1962 in Guanabacoa, a former colonial township east of Havana that boasts a large Afro-Cuban population and is regarded<