Chopin was Cuban. I heard this from Paquito D’Rivera at an extraordinary concert of Latin jazz he just gave at the Café Central in Madrid. Pianist, arranger and composer Pepe Rivero had transformed the Polish composer’s waltzes and nocturnes into Caribbean boleros and they sounded great.
Chopin’s essence and the sweet cadences of the bolero were there. Treason, no; translation, yes. Paquito translated the musical language of the great European romantic into the melodic speech of Cubans. Mozart, in addition to being the greatest composer of all times, also was (and nobody knew this until Paquito discovered it) a glorious Negro from New Orleans. Paquito — or one of his accomplices, because I’m not sure who did what — transformed the Adagio from Mozart’s clarinet concerto into a melancholy and beautiful blues tune that would have brought tears to the eyes of Louis Armstrong, the best jazz singer with the worst voice in the history of vocal cords.
And “Juanito Sebastiancito Bach,” as Paquito calls him in a chain of diminutives (“so it rhymes with my name”) never knew that his sacred music, composed in dark churches to honor saints and entertain the powerful, originally performed on mournful organs, would give life to danzones, cha-cha-cha or bossa nova.
Astor Piazolla, the great Argentine who is said to have revived the tango, did something else in the hands and voices of these excellent Cuban musicians: he revived the mambo. Through Antillean magic, aided by the spells of pianists — arrangers Hilario Durán and Argentine Darío Eskenazi — the sadness of Buenos Aires became laughter and movement.
The sextet is called Madriz Project. Madriz, with a Z, the way Madrileños pronounce the name of the capital of the kingdom. Paquito recruited them in Spain so they could so battle worldwide. Manuel Machado is the fabulous trumpeter. Pepe Rivero, as I said, is at the piano. Outstanding. Reinier Elizarde, El Negrón, as tall and skinny as an NBA player, plays the bass like the virtuoso he is. Georvis Pico keeps a rhythmic and graceful beat on the drums.
Yuvisney Aguilar (of the ineffable Generation Y) enjoys his percussion so much — beating the drums, shaking the seed sticks or strange Brazilian rattles — and does it so well that I don’t know if he’s paid for working or charged for enjoying himself.
For me, it was a thrill to see and watch the Spanish listeners, white and pinko, singing in Yoruba some rhythmic phrases that, I think, were dedicated to African saints.
Then, of course, there’s Paquito, the band leader, master of ceremonies, pure humor and talent, sometimes on the sax, others on the clarinet, forever praising his colleagues and friends. It was a magical night.
At the end of the concert, a debate began. Do we have the right to play Chopin in bolero time? Yes, of course. And we have the right to rewrite Don Quixote (“A major task, indeed / if another Cervantes could / trim it by half,” wrote González Prada).
And to reprise the myth of Faust, or to retell the story of the great injustice suffered by Edmond Dantes, the Count of Montecristo, and the vengeance that followed. There’s nothing new under the sun — especially that phrase from Ecclesiastes, repeated ad nauseam.
Two days before Paquito’s concert, I had to talk about my novel, The Colonel’s Wife, in a small island of the Tremiti archipelago in the Italian Adriatic. I told my listeners that the book told the story of an adulterous woman and a heroic military man who was cuckolded, to the ire of his fellow officers. “We are not surprised, sir,” said the local historian, a woman named Cristina. “This island was founded by Diomedes, captain of the warriors, when he desperately fled from the arms of the woman who deceived him. Those birds you see on the beach are called Diomedeos; they are the descendants of the sad companions of the Greek hero.”
Not only Chopin was Cuban. So was Diomedes.