Tank And The Bangas, CimaFunk And The Soul Rebels Join Forces In Havana : Alt.Latino The 2017 winners of the Tiny Desk Contest travel to Havana with NOLA's The Soul Rebels to connect with Cimafunk, Cuban musicians and history.

Tank And The Cubans: A Week In Havana

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FELIX CONTRERAS, HOST:

From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. And in a special collaboration, this is also this week's episode of All Songs Considered because while Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton are keeping things running smoothly around the Tiny Desk, I am sitting in a park in Havana, Cuba. Why? - because this past week, the NPR Tiny Desk Contest winners, Tank and the Bangas, were part of a historic cultural exchange between New Orleans and Havana that was designed to remind us of a musical connection between the two cities that goes back hundreds of years.

They were invited by the Cuban band Cimafunk for a series of concerts and events that was billed as Getting Funky in Havana that also featured another band from New Orleans, The Soul Rebels, and a youth band from the Trombone Shorty Foundation. This was a jam-packed week full of many emotional moments and incredible music performances. This week, ALT.LATINO and All Songs Considered bring you highlights from a week in Havana.

The first stop was the Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán, Cuba's most prestigious musical institution. History was definitely a theme on this trip, and if the walls of this conservatory could talk, they would tell the complete story of contemporary Cuban music. It opened in 1903, and it moved to its current location in 1942. And it was renamed for a pioneering Cuban symphonic composer. Its alumni include a who's who of Cuban music, going back over a century.

But today, with a beautiful Caribbean morning of crisp blue skies and soft, cool breezes outside, Tank and the Bangas and The Soul Rebels were packed inside with about 150 young Cuban students gathered in a small performance space, and they were there to witness an exchange of cultures. After a band of secondary school musicians from Cuba played some Latin jazz...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: ...A group of high school students who had traveled to Cuba, sponsored by the Trombone Shorty Foundation in New Orleans, laid down some second-line music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: Then, after brand-new instruments were given to Cuban music students by the U.S.-based nonprofits Horns To Havana and the Gia Prima Foundation, the Cuban and New Orleans high schoolers moved upstairs into classrooms to do what kids do everywhere - timidly approach each other as if they were at a high school dance. After an icebreaking jam session in the percussion classroom, these 15 and 16-year-olds tapped into hundreds of years of history that tie Havana and New Orleans together.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: I want y'all to give me a hand clap.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUDENTS CLAPPING)

CONTRERAS: And without conducting a music seminar here on the podcast, let me just explain that this familiar New Orleans beat, sometimes called the Bo Diddley beat, is also a fundamental element of Cuban music and is known as the 3-2 son clave. And by combining these two traditions in this small conservatory classroom in Havana, this group of young musicians closed the circle on two strands of the African diaspora.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: OK, time for a little bit of history, and take notes because there will be a quiz at the end. The Spanish ruled Louisiana between 1763 and 1802. That would be after the French and just before the U.S. purchased that territory in 1803. It's extremely important to note at this point that enslaved people here in the United States were not allowed to keep their African drumming traditions, except in New Orleans.

In his meticulously researched books on both Havana and New Orleans, music historian Ned Sublette points out that during those four decades of Spanish rule, the importation of enslaved people to both cities included large numbers of people from the central West African kingdom known then as Kongo, and they brought their musical traditions with them to both cities. There was significant maritime travel between the two Spanish ports, and along with the commerce, Cuban sailors, some of whom were freed former slaves, also brought music that they played dockside in both cities during their downtime.

Much of popular Cuban music is based on West African drumming, and those same beats and rhythms would eventually seep into the DNA of the music of New Orleans. Now, that is a very simple version of a history that has been written about extensively by real historians and musicologists. And I was kidding. There will not be a quiz.

TARRIONA BALL: Some people in the United States don't even want to be considered African.

CONTRERAS: Tarriona "Tank" Ball is doing some deep thinking about Africa on this, her first visit to Cuba. The Tiny Desk Contest winner says this visit to Havana reignites her sense of pride in her heritage.

BALL: Somebody told me a long time ago, if you take a car from Germany and put it - I don't know - in the United States, that don't make that car a car from the United States. You're just a stolen car...

(LAUGHTER)

BALL: ...From Germany in the United States. You know what I'm saying? That doesn't mean that you was made there. You were taken and placed there. And that's just what it is. You're going to always be African, you know? I definitely feel a mixture of both because of the culture and the tradition mixed inside of what I know, being American.

DARNELL SIMS: A second line is a celebration of that person that passed.

CONTRERAS: Back in the Cuban classroom jam session, African roots are part of high-schooler Darnell Sims' (ph) explanation of a New Orleans tradition, while his new Cuban friend David Raul (ph) translates.

DAVID RAUL: Second line, que es como una procesión así que hacen por la calle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: That history was on full display in what could be considered the centerpiece of this weeklong cultural exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: Members of Tank and the Bangas and The Soul Rebels have hundreds of people following them through the streets of one of the oldest parts of Havana. And it's a reminder, really, of the historic musical and cultural connection that these two cities have. People are leaning over their balconies, witnessing a New Orleans second line.

The procession was led by New Orleans royalty, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, who was dressed in traditional New Orleans Indian regalia.

MONK BOUDREAUX: We're having a good time all the way from New Orleans over here. And the people love it, too.

CONTRERAS: What is it about the cities of New Orleans and Havana? There's some kind of connection there.

BOUDREAUX: It might be. Who knows? (Laughter) Who knows? It happened way before our time (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: Along the way, pretty much anyone who had a horn or a cowbell joined the procession. At one point, 50 students from a dance academy along the route joined in, and hundreds of Cubans watched from balconies and doorways.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Vamos, vamos.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bueno, bueno, está bueno.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Se ve estadounidense, porque se ve que hay ahí, como dejarle así la, la de los morenos, la de los negros. (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Tiene, tiene buen sabor, tiene buen ritmo, gracias.

CONTRERAS: Trombone Shorty, or Troy Andrews, was out in front of the second line and, a few days after the event, reflected on what it meant for him and the hundreds who marched behind him.

TROY ANDREWS: To be able to be in the streets of Old Havana with my childhood friends, The Soul Rebels and Julian Gosin and the kids of Cuba - it was just a wonderful, unexplainable feeling, but a lot of joy and love and conversations musically through the instruments, through us New Orleanians and the Havana - the Cuban people. It was just a beautiful thing. And I forgot that I was here because some of the dance moves and the way people were moving their bodies to the rhythm is exactly what I experience in New Orleans when we do do second lines. And it was freaking me out because I forgot that I was here. That's how I - you know, when I saw the guy - he looks like one of my uncles in Tremé. And the way he was moving when I was - when we were playing, I was just watching him. And I was like, wow, that's very close to what we do, or it is the same thing. And it was just unbelievable, you know? Hopefully, we can do that again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Ladies and gentlemens, tonight we got the radio NPR for all of yous. So we are in Havana hanging out with the New Orlean and Cuba in the Jazz Festival 2020. Am I right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Sí, claro, claro.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Now, the host tonight - we got Felix Contreras directly from NPR. So this is a great, great, great January. We start in the afternoon, and in the night we have the concert of Soul Rebels. So getting ready, bring some water, eat some meal because tonight going to be a crazy night.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

This musical exchange was the brainchild of Cuban musician Erik Iglesias Rodríguez. He is a young singer who also goes by the name of Cimafunk. He and his band have been on the rise internationally after he debuted at the South by Southwest Music Festival last March. When he and his band made their first trip to New Orleans last April, Iglesias says he felt like he was home and felt a very strong kinship with Tank and the Bangas and the Soul Rebels, so he invited them to Havana. I interviewed Iglesias in the back of one of those classic cars you see everywhere in Havana, as he moved between photoshoots with the Soul Rebels.

ERIK IGLESIAS RODRÍGUEZ: ¿Cómo está todo? ¿Cómo está todo?

CONTRERAS: OK, so very quickly. OK, we're in the car. What is it? 1953 Chevy. We're on our way to - from one photoshoot to another with Erik from Cimafunk. You were part of this idea at the beginning to bring this intercambio, no?

IGLESIAS RODRÍGUEZ: Yeah, this was the main - the main stuff was trying to - since they receive us in New Orleans and they give us the great welcome that they do. We play in Tipitina's, start - we start to sing. And that idea, I bring them here and try to make collaborations. All the other stuff is, like, crazy things that we have been trying to create, like improvisations, jam together, record more stuff together, meeting with other musicians here from La Havana. You know, and then we keep inventing things to do.

CONTRERAS: So is this as good as you thought it would be or better?

IGLESIAS RODRÍGUEZ: I wasn't thinking nothing. I just was trying to fix this stuff on - with the team, trying to fix the work. But it's getting, like, super good, man. It's getting super good, super good, super good. Even - we are doing even more things than what we - we are doing even more, seeing that what we are - what we see that we could do. So it's amazing. It's amazing. It's a lot of time now. I don't know. But the time is - look like we have more and more time for more amazing ideas - more ideas to do stuff. And a lot of people getting support. They're supporting both, you know? A lot of people are bringing new idea, bringing new cameras, bringing new stuff. And it's great. It's great.

CONTRERAS: When - at what point in your musical career, in your musical life did you understand the connection between New Orleans and Havana?

IGLESIAS RODRÍGUEZ: I understand definitely in April, the first time that I arrived there.

CONTRERAS: The very first time, April?

IGLESIAS RODRÍGUEZ: Yeah, the very first time. As soon I get there, then I see the environment, the houses, the architecture, the people, the food. And then the music was like, boom oh, we are - this is home too. This is home too. This is Caribbea too.

CONTRERAS: So you didn't know about the history? And...

IGLESIAS RODRÍGUEZ: I didn't know about the history. After that, I would start to share some talk with people - with Big Chief from New Orleans and also with Big Sam Funky also and Soul Rebel. They start to tell me history, and we start to talk. And I realized that, definitely, definitely, definitely, it's like, a big connection - this big, big, big connection.

CONTRERAS: And now you guys - the work that you guys are doing with you and your band and the people around the band - are continuing that connection.

IGLESIAS RODRÍGUEZ: Yeah, definitely, definitely, definitely. That's the idea. That's the idea. Just try to connect - trying to get the main result of the music, the image, the concept and the tradition because New Orleans is a place that conserve the tradition and keep having these roots behave - and Cuba, also. You know, so it's, like, trying to put that together and let know the people that it still - we still have this and all the music that we do, all the art that came from Cuba, it result of something - you know, of something really positive, something that have been influence to us.

CONTRERAS: It's like discovering a little bit more of yourself.

IGLESIAS RODRÍGUEZ: Yeah, of course - definitely. You're discovering a big part of yourself, definitely, definitely. After that, you sing different. You act different. You believe different. It's a lot of unconscious, subconscious stuff that you start to do and then you start to believe that. You don't know how. You don't know why. But it's something that start to catch you.

CONTRERAS: Thanks, man.

IGLESIAS RODRÍGUEZ: Thank you. Thank you, man. Tonight, we're going to rock.

(LAUGHTER)

CONTRERAS: A group called Cuba Educational Travel arranged for the musicians and the nonprofits to arrive in Havana and do their respective work. The Getting Funky in Havana program fell under the umbrella of the annual Havana Jazz Plaza, a jazz festival that, for years, has been presenting jazz artists from the U.S. alongside their Cuban counterparts. This kind of people-to-people contact still requires quite a bit of red tape. But once the forms have been signed and both musicians and music fans arrive at Jose Marti International Airport, the opportunities for life-changing experiences honestly just present themselves.

In this next part of this week's show, we're going to spend some time with the musicians from New Orleans to get their impressions from a week in Havana. The interviews were conducted backstage, in the streets, in restaurants and sitting under a tree on a gloriously bright Caribbean afternoon. First up, Troy Anderson (ph) or Trombone Shorty.

A couple of things, Troy - talk a little bit about what you knew and how important that connection is between New Orleans and Havana.

ANDREWS: You know, when I was 12 years old, I came here in 1998 not being able to put it into words, but the spirit captivated me, and it felt like it was home. Like, even still today, I've traveled all over the world, and it feels foreign to me, even if I've been to places multiple times. When I come here - this is my second time - I feel like I'm at home. So the cultural aspects of both cities - between New Orleans and Havana, it is the same - food, music, culture and community. And that's why I feel at home, I'm guessing. And it's important that we keep that going because the people of Havana, they thrive off of music, thrive off of community and food and the culture. And that's exactly the same thing that we have in New Orleans. And I couldn't ask to be in a better place at this moment.

CONTRERAS: What's always fascinated me is how, you know, the so-called Bo Diddley beat, which is the 3-2 son clave - you know, it's part of the musical language, the DNA of New Orleans.

ANDREWS: It very much is, you know? And that's, like, the basis of our second line rhythm. For all of these years, whenever I'm writing or making music or just at my house, I always think of this place from that time, and it's always in there. So I always listen to a lot of Cuban musicians and collaborated with a few. So it's been a beautiful thing.

CONTRERAS: Musicologists and historians will tell us that part of the reason may be because enslaved people who were brought here were part of the same group of people who were taken to New Orleans, you know, so it could...

ANDREWS: Well, that makes a lot of sense. It could go way back. And to show you how strong it is, it stayed around, and it had an impact on me and everything that we knew - in New Orleans that we created. And with you saying that, I can very much believe that. Yeah. Without a doubt, it's there.

CONTRERAS: Yeah. I've been looking for someone to explain it to me - a musicologist or something. But I think I'm going to have to go back a couple of hundred years.

ANDREWS: Yeah. We got to go back a couple hundred years because it's obviously there.

CONTRERAS: Yeah.

ANDREWS: You know, we just - we can't prove it yet because we have to go do our research. But if you listen to the music and the styles and the rhythms that's been kept around for a long time, it's there.

CONTRERAS: So you're here as a musician, but you're also here as part of your foundation, the Trombone Shorty Foundation, in a cultural and educational exchange. Talk to me a little bit about why that's important.

ANDREWS: Well, I think it's important because I want the kids to get an opportunity to see the world and understand what music can do for the human beings - and bring people together. And also, I wanted to bring them here especially because of the culture. And I wanted them to see how close we were and also get the Cuban kids to play with the kids from New Orleans and we have a meeting of cultures. And it was just very important because I remember, like I said, being 12, it stuck with me. And I'm pretty sure this experience - especially that the kids can't use their phone - they get to have a real experience here. I'm happy about that because they get to be present in the moment. It's - they won't never forget it. And hopefully they will leave here with some music - Cuban music knowledge in their brain to where they can always put that into whatever music that they're going to create. And hopefully we do the same, we leave some of New Orleans here until we meet again.

CONTRERAS: Now just one - a couple more questions very quickly. One of the things I'm doing here is following Tank and the Bangas 'cause, of course, they won our Tiny Desk Contest couple years ago. You know, just sort of keeping track of their career - they got nominated for a Grammy this year. You know, it's a big year for them.

ANDREWS: Oh, yeah, yeah.

CONTRERAS: You know, so talk a little bit about their participation.

ANDREWS: I wanted to bring Tank and the Bangas to it while they're up and coming, relatively young as a music group in New Orleans and around the world. So I thought that it would be a great thing to have here, where they're bringing the music, you know, with the hip-hop and the R&B and the theatrical side to it. And I just thought that it would be great. And also, I'm just a big fan, and I just wanted to see them perform because I don't get a chance to really see a lot of people perform because we always crisscrossing across the world - across the road. And I've been knowing them for a while, and I just thought that those guys and The Soul Rebels would be - The Soul Rebels will be a great addition to this trip.

CONTRERAS: If there's one message that you want to come from this event, this experience, this whole thing - 'cause I know a lot of work went into it. If there's one message you'd like people to know about it, what is it?

ANDREWS: First of all, if you can get here, you have to experience this - once-in-a-lifetime experience. And also, it's just one love. That's it. That's what we're here to do, show our people that we love them. And here we are, collaborating together and making music in great harmony.

CONTRERAS: Members of the Soul Rebels were the hardest to keep up with. They were seemingly all over the city. First up, saxophonist Erion Williams backstage after an opening night performance.

What was happening up there?

ERION WILLIAMS: It all stems from Africa, man, just all the things that we've learned here, you know? It's all stemming from Africa - Latin, Cuban fusion and New Orleans funk and everything in between. Man, that's what we call a gumbo there (laughter).

CONTRERAS: Next, trumpeter Julian Gosin.

How did you feel it up there tonight?

JULIAN GOSIN: It was in my soul, man. It's in the blood. You know, everything comes from Africa. The roots are here. The roots in New Orleans. So it was an easy combination to put together, man. I felt like I was at home, felt like I was at home.

CONTRERAS: And finally, Tank Ball, lead singer from Tank and the Bangas. The invitation to come along on this trip, as well as their recent Grammy nomination as best new artist, are all part of the life-changing events that happened after the band won our Tiny Desk Contest in 2017. And Tank was in a very reflective mood on the afternoon of her last visit in Havana.

OK, so I know it's been a lot to take in. There's been a lot of stuff. I mean, even I can't - I can barely keep up myself.

BALL: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: But I'm just wondering if, in a word, what is your - just a word, what are your impressions after this week?

BALL: Incredible. That's a word.

CONTRERAS: One of the reasons I'm here is to be able to follow you guys and watch how this happens and how this works and then also see what kind of benefits come from, you know, winning the Tiny Desk. But it seems once I got here and I started doing the research, it's more profound than that, right?

BALL: Oh, yeah.

CONTRERAS: It's like it's a deeper connection between New Orleans and Havana. Talk a little bit about how you understand that deep connection.

BALL: Just even walking in the - what is it? - Conga and the second line, you just felt a sense of family, appreciation, love, excitement, all from the people in the balcony - just authentic, you know, genuine. These are all the words I think of when I'm thinking about this unique connection. I told somebody earlier, it just felt like Africans were just dropped off everywhere, and they made do with what happened to them. But the spirit continued and moved on through the rhythm, through dance, something that's completely natural, something that can't be taken away. You know, no matter where they dropped us all, we still found our way back to each other. That's what it felt like.

CONTRERAS: New Orleans is a unique place in the United States where it was the only place where the enslaved people were able to keep their drums, keep that tradition alive. And I think for that reason, the music's always been very special, very syncopated in a lot of different ways, and it's not in the United States, but at the same time, when you come here, it's like it's the other half of the heartbeat, almost.

BALL: For sure, especially when you put it that way. It is like the other half of it because all of it is such a puzzle since we were sort of dispersed, and it's all just kind of fitting right on back together. That's what it feels like. The other half of the tambourine (laughter).

CONTRERAS: How do you think it's going to impact your music?

BALL: I don't know. It definitely - the ladies, the women. Oh, my gosh. I never felt watching the ladies - just so feminine, so sexy. And it makes me want to write more vividly, even more colorfully than before to talk about what's going on in a different part of the world and make me one. I think it'll affect me in that way, you know?

CONTRERAS: Let's talk a little bit - I just - I don't want to take up too much more of your time, but let's talk a little bit more about that second line. That was really one of the most amazing things I'd ever been a part of.

BALL: It's definitely going to go down on my list. You know, I make a list every year of some of the top things that I experience. And I mean, my list get bigger every year. I mean, truly and this - I mean, the beginning of my year is amazing. I mean, like, the "The Morning Show," going to Tokyo, Cuba, you know, experiencing a second line in Conga (ph) all in one moment, walking through the streets.

CONTRERAS: What are you hearing from some of the other members of your band? What are their reaction? What are they thinking?

BALL: They love it. They love it. They want to come back. They don't - we're hearing the history, and we don't like that there are so many restrictions on coming or leaving here because, I mean, as a human being, your right of this earth is to experience different people, different cultures, different traditions, travel the world. Nobody owns no part of the world to me, and I don't really like that. So everybody deserves to know. Everybody deserve the right to happiness and for their - just curiosity. And I don't like nobody putting sanctions on anybody to not explore the God-given world. For sure. I said every artist kind of looks for that moment that is going to change their life, make them do this or do that. Oh, I had this one trip or this happened and I just thought - everybody wants that, you know, whether you admit it to yourself or not. You want something to change you and shake you up for the positive. You want that moment. You know, one of those moments for me was Tiny Desk. One of those moments for me was, you know, winning a national championship with my poetry team in New Orleans. One of those moments was Hurricane Katrina, when I had to leave everything behind and start anew. So you always look for those moments when everything changed for you. And I hope this is one of them because you want that. You don't want to just settle in your artistry at one level and your spirit. You want to grow higher. You want to grow bigger.

CONTRERAS: Thanks, Tank.

BALL: You got it.

CONTRERAS: Both New Orleans and Havana are cities in which music has both a recreational and spiritual quality. It has the power to lift people up. It has the power to soothe. It has the power to help reach out and touch the divine. And this week, for Tank and the Bangas, The Soul Rebels, the youth band of the Trombone Shorty Foundation and Cuba's Cimafunk, it did all of that and more. As we've seen, the music of New Orleans and Havana resonate with history. And this week, Tank and the Bangas added another chapter to their own history as they groove their way forward from winning NPR's Tiny Desk contest by joining The Soul Rebels and Cimafunk in Havana this week. And I think all involved in this cultural exchange would agree that only good things come from musicians celebrating a shared musical history. Thank you for coming along on this special edition of both All Songs Considered and ALT.LATINO from NPR Music. I'm Felix Contreras reporting from Havana, Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLORS CHANGE")

TANK AND THE BANGAS: (Singing) Was I supposed to tell you that I've grown or there's certain things that you should've known? Doesn't winter turn to spring? Don't you see colors changing things? You say I say too much. You say my leaves ain't green enough. You say you can't take that I've changed. Weren't you supposed to do the same?

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