The Aussie musician bringing Cuba and Jamaica's best musicians together
Music is a key part of life in both Cuba and Jamaica. Both have produced thousands of amazing artists who play a style of music native to their respective countries but beloved all around the world.
Whether it's the mainstream favourites like Buena Vista Social Club and Bob Marley, lesser known but equally brilliant acts like Pedrito Martinez and Black Uhuru, or just neighbourhood musicians playing music as part of their day-to-day life, both nations have a proud history of filling peoples' heart with song.
The Cubans wanted to show the Jamaicans their best, and the Jamaicans wanted to show the Cubans their best.Mista Savona — Lunch With Myf
Cuba and Jamaica also happen to sit right next to each other in the Caribbean Sea. There’s as little as a couple of hundred kilometres between the two nations.
Yet there is practically no record of any Cuban/Jamaican musical exchange ever taking place.
Australian musician Mista Savona (Jake Savona) has held a long relationship with the music and people of Jamaica. After his first trip to Cuba, he began to think about bringing both of these nations’ iconic music together.
“I’d been travelling back and forth from Jamaica, working with artists there since 2004,” he tells Myf Warhurst.
“In 2011 I decided to hop over to Cuba – the two islands are very close. When I got to Cuba, I realised there was a deep love of reggae there. Particularly in Santiago de Cuba, which is the city closest to Jamaica.
“When I was in Cuba, I was hearing all this percussion and hearing how these elements could mix together so well. But when I got back to Australia and did my research, there just wasn’t any projects that existed like that. So I started to think about how I could finance this kind of project.
“Then, a year later, I was flying a Jamaican band into Cuba.”
This band included genuine reggae royalty Sly & Robbie. We don’t use that term lightly. They are the best rhythm section in the world and have played with everyone – from The Rolling Stones to Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown to Simply Red, No Doubt to Black Uhuru and many, many, many hundreds more.
“I met Sly for the first time in a studio session at Tuff Gong – Bob Marley’s studio – in 2013,” Savona says. “We ended up recording two songs together that night, again this was something that happened spontaneously without any planning.
“He loved my keyboard playing, so we kept in touch a little bit.
“When I had the idea of this project, he was the first person I contacted. He said ‘this sounds great, Robbie is over in Miami, give him a call’. I spoke with Robbie on the phone, he said ‘sounds good, speak with our manager’ and I spoke to the manager and then it was just on.
“They were very helpful. They realise I’m not singed to a major label, that I’m working with a limited budget, so they did it for mate’s rates and for the experience I’m very thankful to them for that.”
Savona had no trouble enlisting artists keen to make this cultural exchange work. In fact it ran so smoothly that he ended up with more than he ever expected.
“In Cuba, everyone that we met fell in love with the project,” he says. “So it wasn’t long before we had dozens of musicians come into the studio. Ten days later I had two albums in the bag.”
Egrem Studios is one of the most fabled recording environments in the world. Most people know it as the place the multi-million selling Buena Vista Social Club album was recorded, though it has captured the music of all of Cuba’s greats for almost a century. If you’re making music in Cuba, you want to be doing it at Egrem.
“It’s an amazing old 1930s studio,” Savona says. “When I started planning this trip I thought it would be amazing to record there, and that’s where we recorded.”
Though it wasn’t just a matter of making a call and booking it in. Savona had to get an old master to pull some strings.
“We were very lucky to have some contacts in Cuba. It was fully booked out, but we have a very good ally over there in Jacinto, who’s an older percussionist and very well connected. I think he personally went to Egrem and said ‘You guys need to move your dates around and make this available’.”
The best thing about bringing together unfamiliar musicians is that they’re out to impress. Savona believes this brought the best out in the musicians from both islands.
“What was wonderful in the studio was that the Cubans wanted to show the Jamaicans their best, and the Jamaicans wanted to show the Cubans their best,” he says. “They’re both such strong musical cultures, but very different.”
The project also hammered home the value of music as a tool of communication.
“We had a massive language barrier in the studio; obviously the Jamaicans don’t speak Spanish and the Cubans speak very little English,” Savona says.
“At the end of the day, as soon as the musicians started playing you didn’t need a vocal language. It’s very much a cliché that music is the universal language, but it’s actually very true.”
The project has been incredibly fruitful, with Savona set to release two albums and a documentary in the next two years. He’s also got sights on putting together a half-Cuban, half-Jamaican band for a world tour later this year.
Savona believes he has planted the seeds for something special.
“I just feel like I’m the facilitator. These musicians are such incredible artists, I just laid the framework and let them do the rest. There was so much spontaneous improvisation and ideas, so these songs took off very quickly.”
We can’t wait to hear the results.