As our ability to access and share information becomes easier, many of the physical barriers that once prevented the cross-pollination of cultures and ideas have been removed. Whether you want to know about the dialects spoken in Tobago or translations of the slang on Migos’ new album, all you have to do is type into your screen. Consequently, if you’re an artist it’s unlikely that you’ll be there first to attempt any given musical combination, but this is exactly what Mista Savona, aka Jake Savona, has achieved with his ambitious new project Havana Meets Kingston.
The album sees the Australian producer and musician bring together two groups of artists, from Jamaica and Cuba respectively, to create an exciting hybrid based on the musical traditions of both countries. Savona visited Cuba for the time in 2014 and was stunned to realise that nobody had attempted to bring the two forms together before. “There’s very little internet in Cuba but when I got back to Australia I did some research and realised there’d never been project actually taking a Jamaican band into Cuba or vice versa, so I started to think about how it could be done,” he said.
“These cultures - Jamaican and Cuban - they’re such powerful music cultures and they’re very self sufficient, they don’t need to look outside themselves for inspiration or approval. I think what I was able to bring as an outsider is just some fresh ideas and perspective and just the belief that this would be possible.
“Even though the two islands are right next door to each other, there’s a lot of barriers - language barriers, as well as the Cuban revolution which really stalled travelling, and economic factors as well. The things is, Cuba’s really opening up now to tourism and everyone’s fascinated by it because it’s so different from anywhere else on the planet, so these things really worked in my favour.”
Having been a regular visitor to Jamaica since 2004, where he notably produced 2007’s Melbourne Meets Kingston, Savona had established a strong network of musicians, including many of the country’s biggest names. When it came time to hand pick his band for the new project, he found he was somewhat spoiled for choice. With a core group, including famed rhythm section Sly & Robbie, legendary jazz/ska/reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin, and Buena Vista Social Club members Barbarito Torres and Rolando Luna, the credits read like a who’s who of legends from both countries, each picked for a specific purpose of what they could bring to Savona’s melting pot of ideas.
“I wanted this bass driven sound and to bring in all this virtuosic Cuban percussion and the jazz piano of Rolando, and just find a way to bring that all together but at the same time not be too busy,” he explains.
Having secured his dream lineup and funding via an Australia Council grant, Savona then booked ten days at Havana’s famed EGRAM 101 studio, the home of one of his key influences, 1997’s The Buena Vista Social Club, in June 2015.
“I loved the sound of The Buena Vista Social Club album and I knew that would somehow give the project a certain tone in terms of the way it was recorded, but also a kind of legitimacy,” says Savona. “It’s the oldest studio in the Caribbean and it’s this beautiful, massive room that all these legends have gone through. I knew somehow that was an important ingredient in the project.”
Importantly, the studio was also the only one in Havana with a room big enough to record the entire ensemble live, which was the only way that Savona was interested in doing it. “For it to be a real collaboration between Jamaican and Cuban musicians they absolutely had to be playing live, and that’s why the record has so much energy,” he says.
“EGRAM has this beautiful massive room and then three small separated rooms where I could put Sly & Robbie. That was really important because it meant that as well as having all the percussion and horns and everything live in the main room, I could have drum and bass and other instruments isolated.
“A lot of the things weren’t working - the mixing desk and the compressors – but the main thing we needed to work was the room itself, and they have this amazing arsenal of vintage Neumann and other microphones that just sound so good. Any small limitations were completely outweighed by the brilliance of these musicians.”
There were times during the sessions that Savona’s ideas and arrangements were met with a few raised eyebrows from the seasoned musicians, but he says that it was necessary to push the established boundaries, while remaining respectful to musical traditions. “With ‘El Cuarto de Tula’, which is basically a son feel, but I got Sly playing a real dancehall rhythm, which the Cubans weren’t used to because it pushes the feel of the music,” says Savona.
“So they were a bit hesitant at first - I was in many ways changing the way that they would normally play their own music - but once the band found their place it sounded great. I didn’t want to go to Cuba and just do a new Buena Vista album; I wanted to give it something fresh. I don’t want to be recycling old sounds for the sake of posterity or something, I actually wanted to bring the traditional sounds with total respect, but also allow for something new to come out of that.”
The same emphasis on natural collaboration was placed on the songwriting; Savona decided beforehand that rather than turning up with written charts and concrete parts for the musicians to perform he would instead just prepare some basic ideas that they could build upon together. “Some of the tracks already had some pre-recorded vocals or samples that I arranged in a Pro Tools session with a click track, but mostly I just had sketches,” says Savona.
“I put them in front of the musicians and within five, ten minutes, the feeling was there. This was a really nice way to work because it meant by not making it overly complex it allowed the musicians to get into the grooves and express themselves, and that really helped bring it to life. Cuban music, especially the horn lines, can be super complex, but I didn’t want to get lost in that, I just wanted to let the music breathe.
“That’s one of the things I love about roots reggae is its simplicity, but it’s actually simplicity for a purpose, and that means the music can take you somewhere very deep because it’s so spacious. Cuban music on the other extreme can be very virtuosic and dazzling in its brilliance, so with this project I can take elements and stay true to both without getting too busy.”
The sessions were so prolific that the ten days yielded enough material for not one but two albums, the second edition of which will be accompanied by a documentary later this year, but Savona’s current focus is the upcoming Australian tour. “Basically our core band that played on the record is touring. We don’t know if we’ll be able to bring them out again, this may be a once off, a lot of the musicians are getting older,” he says.
“It felt like a miracle, the recording sessions, but I never dreamed of taking it on the road, and now I’ve got one of the best bands in the world that I’m touring with, so it’s quite amazing.”