It’s a rare opportunity to have a renowned Cuban musical family bring their talent and sound to a small stage at the Ventura Harbor. But the reality of it sets in at Copa Cubana as the (real) Cuban jazz band Amistad Cubana explodes with its first chord.
Amistad Cubana bills itself as “a high-intensity Cuban dance music group.” That, as it turns out, is only part of the story.
The core of the band is in fact the Arango family: the group’s composer and arranger, Feliciano, on bass; Ignacio on guitar; Eugenio on drums and sister Cristina Arango Noa on lead vocals. Julio Valdes from Panama plays keyboard and Robert Felcher, the band’s informal manager from San Diego, is on congas.
While the family comes from Guanabacoa, in eastern Havana, the band on stage this weekend is a matter of accident and timing.
Felcher recalled how he was surprised to learn there even was an Arango family:
“I met Ignacio, the oldest brother, and we started playing together, and we’d been playing together for 20 years. And then he said to me one day, ‘Oh, my family are musicians and they’re coming over to visit.’ I never knew he had this family.”
When you think of Cuban music, the sounds of piano and rhythmic congas come to mind. But the sound that makes up Cuban jazz is much more diverse.
For the novice listener like me, I had to learn about the evolution of Cuban music, and that meant knowing the difference between son and timba. Surprisingly, it meant I also had to expand my knowledge of American music.
“Music evolves,” said Felcher. “So if you go back to the ’40s and ’50s, son was the current dance music of Cuba. That evolved over the years and more modern styles have taken over. Timba is an evolved form of son, and it has a little more funky element to it.”
That evolution, as it turns out, came from 1980s American music. As keyboardist Julio Valdes described it, its influences were rooted in American funk.
“Timba is more Americanized,” he stated. “If you talk to the pioneers of timba, one of them is Feliciano, the bass player. They essentially grew up listening to Earth, Wind and Fire and Tower of Power. If you listen to timba, as I’ve heard it described by other timba players, imagine that Tower of Power musicians went to Cuba and took special crash courses in Cuban music, and then returned and continued to play their music.”
That’s part of the influence. But the musicians in Amistad have also been well-schooled in American and Cuban jazz. In fact, they have been collecting and listening to it all of their lives.
“When I listen to these guys, who are pure Cuban musicians,” said Valdes, “they tell me, ‘Oh, I used to be at home, and our friend would come over with a new cassette,’ and they would really enjoy things being generated by the U.S.”
Turns out that jazz, rock and R&B have been crossing the waters between Cuba and the U.S. for decades, and like many kids growing up with a love for music, the Arango family’s passion was to hear what was new, especially from America.
Now all the Arangos have distinguished music careers. Feliciano has worked with Emiliano Salvador, Chucho Valdés, David Murray and Maraca. Eugenio is a conservatory professor of Cuban percussion and for over 20 years has served as percussionist for prestigious singer Pablo Milanés. Ignacio played for over 10 years in the Tropicana Club in Cuba with Giraldo Piloto and Paquito de Rivera. Cristina has sung with various Cuban groups.
The good news is, Amistad Cubana is returning to Copa Cubana for two more performances on Friday, June 15, and Saturday, June 16. If you enjoy authentic and original Cuban jazz, you should make plans to come listen. The best part: There’s no cover charge. Just order dinner, eat and enjoy.
Amistad Cubana plays on Friday, June 15, 7-10 p.m., and Saturday, June 16, 5-8 p.m., at Copa Cubana, 1575 Spinnaker Drive in Ventura Harbor Village. Reservations are recommended. For more information, call 805-642-9463 or visit www.thecopacubana.com.