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Cuban Music Lesson: Arturo Sandoval

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

Jazz is one of America’s greatest cultural institutions, though many of us don’t know a lot about it. Jazz can seem intimidating, like if you aren’t a beret wearing beatnik or Cliff Huxtable you can never truly appreciate it. The truth is that jazz has had several mutations over the years, notably the sub-category of Latin or Afro-Cuban jazz. Starting in the 70’s, American artists like Dizzie Guillespie and Miles Davis worked with Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians to create a tasty hybrid. One of the greatest masters of Afro-Cuban jazz is the trumpet/piano/percussion-playing genius Arturo Sandoval.

Arturo was born in Artemisa, Cuba in 1949. Early on he displayed a deep musical talent, and soon chose the trumpet as his primary instrument. He studied at Cuba’s prestigious Cuban National School of The Arts, where he learned classical as well as traditional Cuban music. But Arturo’s heart belonged to jazz. Growing up in Castro’s Cuba in the 60’s, it was hard to listen to American music. This is due largely to the American trade embargo, but also with the caprices of the communist party censors. Back then, Fidel tried to show the Soviets his commie cred by suppressing any music that was seen as having a decadent bourgeois influence. Arturo bought jazz records on the black market and joined a growing jazz underground. In the 70’s he formed the jazz influenced band Irakere with Chucho Valdez and Paquito D’Rivera. They tried to cover up how jazzy they were by adding heavy Afro-Cuban percussion. Arturo created a synthesis of the two forms, which merged American Be-Bop and Salsa.

Arturo’s new sound came to the attention of Dizzie Guillespie, who travelled to Cuba in 1977. Dizzie had always been a fan of Cuban music, and he soon became Arturo’s mentor. He was able to obtain Arturo a Columbia recording contract and they soon began touring throughout the world. In spite of his increasing fame, Arturo still felt artistically restrained back home in Cuba. In 1990, he defected to the U.S. and left Cuba forever. In the 20 years since then, Arturo has become one of the biggest artists in Latin Jazz. His music has been featured in films like The Mambo Kings and The Mirror Has Two Faces. Muy Caliente actor/director Andy Garcia even made a movie about Arturo called For Love Or Country, with Andy starring as Arturo. His success proves that some things are bigger than our 50 year weiner waving fight with the Cuban government. Politics don’t matter when it comes to jazz, man.

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