“…people have jazz, have rumba, salsa, they have rock-n-roll, they have son, you know... So it seems logical to have musicians who would also like to play all of that stuff.” --- Pablo Menéndez

A Popular Cuban Music Band

Can you talk a little bit about your work in bringing together Yoruba music with the various styles of music that the band plays and your collaboration with Lázaro Ros which resulted in the Cantos recording?

Pablo Menéndez - When I was in Síntesis we started working on all this stuff. And there was this old idea we had been developing in Síntesis of doing modern arrangements of old songs. As it turned out Síntesis did Ancestros and then Ancestros 2 and now their most recent one, they've continued doing that stuff. For me this in one step in the right direction. But I was mostly interested in taking the cultural essences that were there and applying them to more popular compositions and more contemporary messages. Lázaro Ros, who for years was the lead vocalist or akpón with the


Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba - the National Folkloric Ensemble - had been an advisor on the first record that Síntesis had done. In fact he ended up singing on one of the cuts, Titi-Laye, almost by accident, because he was doing kind of a reference track and it turned out great.

Then I saw him at a party and I noticed he looked a little tired and I asked him if he was not feeling well. He said, "No, I was just up all night transcribing phonetically this song of an African singer that I'm really exited about." And I asked who it was and he told me Salif Keita. And it turned out at that time that everyone in Mezcla was listening hard to Salif Keita's music as well as a lot of African music in general. And Lázaro expressed his interest to me in doing a record along the lines of what he had done with Síntesis, but where the music would not be a "museum piece" but something projecting itself into the future. He mentioned his desire to work with Lucía Huergo, who had been with Síntesis and was one of the main arrangers of the first Ancestros album. By this time she was with Mezcla. He also liked our batá player Octavio Rodríguez a whole lot, and then he and I had a longtime friendship ever since I had first come to Cuba and I used to go hang out to see the rehearsals of Conjunto Folklórico.

So we decided to do the record together, working with Mezcla. And we worked on the project - like for me I was worried that people would confuse us with the work that was being done by Síntesis. It was a similar project, but coming at it from different ends, because in this case it grew out of Lázaro Ros' perspective and our batá player's perspective.

I remember the American producer of the record, Rachel Faro, being overly respectful of the religious aspect. She said, "We should start off the record with the song to Elegguá, and then follow the order that the Orisha are used in the ceremony." And I was saying that it was a pop music record, and that you put the hit on side one, number one, and that sort of thing. And Lázaro agreed with me on that and said, "No, this is not religious music. The religious music is the stuff that I do in a different setting in a traditional way and it's done with different drumming." He was real serious about this, because that is the kind of stuff where the Orisha are going to come down and possess people at the ritual. And this was music to put on stage, similar to the treatment he had been giving the work of Conjunto Folklórico.

I don't subscribe to any organized religion, and I remember at the time that we did that stuff I would explain to the audiences that we were approaching the music in the same way that I would approach doing a Mass by Bach or Mozart without being a Christian or a Catholic. In other words, in terms of the cultural or abstractly spiritual value that it can have. In Mezcla's music we wanted to take some of the essence of this, the drumming, the singing, the spirit which makes it strong, and put that into some of our contemporary music, without it trying to be limited to versions or new arrangements of songs of the Yoruba tradition.


I have a question about a song that you have done with Lázaro Ros and then did in a different version with Mezcla, and that's Ikiri Addá. It speaks of faith. It is apparently is addressed to people who commit their lives to something beyond simply their own selves, which seems pretty rare these days. How did that version come about, and what does it mean to the band?

Pablo Menéndez - When we did the song Ikiri Addá, the arrangement was by José Antonio Acosta, our bass player for eight years and one of the main composers and songwriters of the band. We had just done twenty days in Martinique and we were listening to zouk music every day, at the same time we were doing the arrangements for this record with Lázaro. So, he had the idea of this zouk catá going - you know - tink-ti-tink-ti-tink, tink-ti-tink-ti-tink - at the same time that the batá drums were going. At the same time he used the same sounds that have to do with rock-n-roll or jazz, songs from the Caribbean and west Africa, with guitar and so forth. And I thought that this arrangement was as close as we could get in one song to exemplifying the sound of the band. So I asked Lázaro if we could use this song and make a version of it for the project with him. Lázaro has very wide musical tastes and he said of course.

So I got with singer-songwriter Frank Delgado, the same one who wrote Río Quibú, and he wrote a lyric at the time of the dialogue between the Cuban State and the Church. In fact at that time, Fidel Castro had discussions with the religious community in Brazil and the Ecumenical Council there, and then returned to Cuba and had a big, publicized meeting with the Ecumenical Council here, and there was a big opening in relations and tolerance between the State and the church here. The song is somewhat about that, but is also about tolerance in general towards other people's ideas. And when we sing it - this is a grammatical difference - but it is about faith with a small "f" in the sense of what you were saying. If you commit your life to something then you have to have faith in something that will help you carry yourself through all of this. So, sometimes I will quote José Martí. Martí introduced one of his books of poetry by saying that he had faith in several things - the betterment of people, the utility of virtue, and in "you," which first of all meant his son to whom the book was dedicated, and also I suppose to all of us reading or listening to his poetry. As musicians in Mezcla, we have faith in these things and in the audience, and in ourselves in terms of what we are playing. Each person in the audience may have their own way of describing the world, their own religion, their own philosophy, their own politics or beliefs about how to make things better. But that one thing which unites all of us is that for all of us the road is made with faith - el camino se hace con la fé. So that's basically what that song's about.




Tell us about who makes up the band now.

Pablo Menéndez - Let me start with people nearest to me on stage. Long-time band member Octavio Rodríguez is one of the most important percussionists of the younger generation, someone who has a really profound knowledge of all of the Afro-Cuban traditions. He’s worked in different folkloric ensembles where he has played all of the different styles and all of the different rhythms. He is a master batá drummer, one of the first to evolve the style of playing with just two hands the three drums which are usually played with six hands, and to introduce it into popular music. He’s doing a lot of singing also in the band now.

The bass player is José Hermida who was in the jazz band band AfroCuba for years. He has traveled in Latin America and the UK and played in jazz clubs, things like that. He’s a very versatile musician on bass, all of the different styles that he plays. As a soloist he is one of the most interesting bass players that I have played with.

Our drummer, David Pimienta is someone who has been playing with bands like Diakara with Oscar Valdés and Oscarito Valdés. He has been drumming also with Las D’Aida and Cubanismo. I think that not only is he one of the outstanding Cuba timba drummers but also filled up the vacuum that developed when we no longer had a soprano woman singer in the group because he does a really great falsetto, makes our vocal arrangements sound real good. He is going to be doing some solo singing also. His brother, lead singer Carlos Pimienta, is the latest addition to the band, and is not only a wonderful singer but a great sonero and a former star baseball player.

We have a musician who is one of the great saxophone and flute players in Cuba, Jesus Fuentes, alias Puntilla. He makes a tremendous contribution to both the craziness and saneness of the band, having been a bandleader himself. Our pianist and leader of a jazz group of her own called LeoBand, is Leonor Cabrera. She is an outstanding young jazz performer and also is very talented with all Cuban styles of tumbao and all that.

Let me see did I talk about all seven of us? Octavio, José Hermida the bass player, David Pimienta the drummer, Carlos the singer, Jesus Fuentes the saxophone and keyboard player, Leonor Cabrera the pianist. And, well, Pablo Menéndez from Oakland, California, born and raised in the United States, grown up as a Cuban musician since age fourteen here in Havana, Cuba.

© 1998 - Louis Head

    For more on Mezcla, including a complete discography, song lyrics and audio samples, visit the Mezcla website at http://www.mezcla.org