"I think, before land masses were to be labelled like pets, we were all here and able to make a habitat from our surroundings."
In 2017, the Australian reggae producer Jake "Mista" Savona facilitated a bold project, Havana Meets Kingston: the first full-scale collaboration between musicians from the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Jamaica.
Now, following October's Havana Meets Kingston Sound System tour with charismatic vocalists Randy Valentine (aka Ronald Junior Fritz) and Solis, Savona is touring an all-star Havana Meets Kingston band around Australia - stopping by WOMADelaide. The British-Jamaican Fritz, who leads on the single Carnival, will join Solis, Brenda Navarrete, the influential Sly & Robbie, players from the fabled Buena Vista Social Club and others.
Cuba's buzz Navarrete, who studied percussion (and piano) at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, will sing and play her beloved Yoruba bata drum. "It'll be a little bit of my world," she says, via translator from bustling Havana. "I'll be bringing some of my songs and my percussion. It's gonna be like a seductive performance and it's gonna be a great collaboration."
Fritz met Savona, circa 2014, at the One Love Festival "somewhere in an open field in the UK", he says from his English base. Savona asked the rising star to accompany his eponymous band on an Australian run. They stayed in contact.
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Savona predominantly recorded Havana Meets Kingston over ten days in 2015 at Havana's EGREM studios (where US guitarist Ry Cooder guided 1997's Buena Vista Social Club), with musicians legendary and emerging alike. He flew in the Jamaican contingent, including Sly & Robbie (alas, Fritz cut his vocals back at London's JOAT Music Studio). Their mission? To hybridise Jamaica's sound system culture (roots-reggae, dub and dancehall) with Cuban folk and jazz styles (son, Afro-Cuban, rumba and salsa), while tracking original and traditional songs. It was in Havana where Savona canvassed Navarrete. She admits that "it was a great surprise" to discover that he was Australian. "They asked me if I could do some recording, some parts. I agreed and said, 'Yeah, I can do it.' Then they asked me, 'Can you rap?' I said, 'Yeah, I can rap.'" Navarrete features on the dancehall Heart Of A Lion.
The music scenes of Jamaica and Cuba are remarkably distinct despite their proximity and a common origin in the African diaspora. Fritz - who spent his formative years in Jamaica before migrating to the UK - had scant exposure to Cuba's music because of the Communist country's political isolation. "Growing up as a child in Jamaica, my only insight into Cuban culture came from the limited view I would get from movies and the small percentage shared about Fidel Castro in the news. It was also a part of the language spoken in the unwritten survivors' guide on the island. Knowing that Cuba was just a boat ride away was always good information to have."
In later years, reggaeton has become popular among Cuba's youth - even as its decadence irks authorities - and Navarrete is familiar with the related dancehall. "For Cuba, sometimes it's a little bit complicated because of information coming to us a little bit belatedly, but I do know this form of music," she explains. "I'm a follower of music in general, of different styles. I do enjoy this type of music. We actually know dancehall - we mix it with our own traditions and our own rhythms. But the older generation - the ones who are in their 40s and 50s - may not know it."
Both Fritz and Navarrete have expanding profiles as solo acts. Fritz launched a career as a DJ in 2005, only to segue into becoming a vocalist. He has worked with Major Lazer and, incredibly, cameoed on Wu-Tang Clan's mythic single-copy album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin after being approached to be "a Jamaican representative for this Top Secret Million Dollar Project". He teases, "It was so covert that I couldn't tell you myself what my own track sounded like." Last year he dropped New Narrative, his second album. Meanwhile, Navarrete has performed with the Latin American ensemble Interactivo. This January, she presented her solo debut, Mi Mundo, encompassing her own compositions and classic Cuban songs (in addition to a sublime take on Duke Ellington's Caravan), via Alma Records. "Mi Mundo has been something I've been trying to develop for years," she notes. "It's been a dream of mine for a long time."
The two artists emphasise the significance of Havana Meets Kingston as cross-exchange. Muses Fritz, "I think, before land masses were to be labelled like pets, we were all here and able to make a habitat from our surroundings. Whatever practices brought man forward to will himself dominion or governance over another rippled off into countries and nations being formed. As beautiful as this is, I still notice the division that came from the lines that were drawn. Music being the spiritual experience that it is, sometimes, if not always, manages to bridge that gap between a people."