Jordan Levin

Mapping Cuban music from the Middle East to Spain, Havana and beyond

Cuban musician Jesús Catalá is part of the La Ruta de las Almas project at Global Cuba Fest
Cuban musician Jesús Catalá is part of the La Ruta de las Almas project at Global Cuba Fest

Most people trace the roots of Cuban music to the rhythms of Africa and the melodies of Spain. But in La Ruta de las Almas (The Soul Route), Cuban musician Pavel Urquiza has mapped an intricate musical network that spreads from the Middle East to Spain to Africa to Cuba and Latin America.

“From Persia to Patagonia,” says Urquiza. His project, which brings together musicians from Iran and Israel, Spain and Cuba, is the centerpiece of the annual Global Cuba Fest concert at Miami Dade County Auditorium on Saturday.

The project’s name was inspired by The Silk Road and The Spice Road. But unlike those ancient trade routes, Urquiza aims to link not products but peoples, religions and cultures.

“For me music is a kind of spiritual luggage that connects us to past and future,” Urquiza says. “It doesn’t matter if we’re Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Communist. It’s beyond all those ideologies.”

Urquiza, 52, says the inspiration for La Ruta de las Almas comes from the divisions he has lived with much of his life. Raised in an ardently pro-Revolutionary family in Cuba, he left for Spain in 1992, disillusioned by the system and the hardship of the economic collapse of the Special Period in the early 90’s. “I felt deceived,” he says. “Supposedly this was a revolution for liberty and equality.”

In Spain, where Urquiza joined with fellow Cuban artist Gema Corredera to form the acclaimed musical duo Gema y Pavel, he encountered a rich mix of people and cultures that began changing his ideas about the political and religious divisions he had lived with all his life.

“I’m Cuban, I was very pro-Palestinian,” he says. “Then in Spain I got to know Sephardic [Jewish] culture. I met Israelis; a good friend from Cuba married an Israeli. . . . I come from Cuba, which is a divided country. I immigrated to Spain, which has had a civil war. Then I went to Jerusalem, where there was a conflict that I don’t understand. I had close friends, and then we’d end up fighting over religion or politics.”

In 2011, as he and Corredera’s duo split, Urquiza began investigating the mix of Arabic, Muslim and Jewish cultures and musics at the roots of Spanish culture, where people from North Africa and the Middle East were a dominant part of the country from the eighth to the 15th centuries. And he began linking those ancient Spanish and Middle Eastern influences to the music of Cuba and Latin America: a greeting used by followers of the Afro-Cuban religious sect Palo, descended from an African tribe with Muslim leaders, almost identical to the Arabic salutation As-salamu alaykum; an Afro-Colombian population whose folk songs sound like ancient Spanish song forms.

“I began to see musical connections . . . in the instruments, rhythms, melodies,” Urquiza says.

Since starting the project, Urquiza has worked with more than 100 musicians to record a CD, videos and a documentary film. The 11-member ensemble he will lead on Saturday includes musicians from Iran, Israel, Cuba and Spain, playing everything from Cuban bata drums to Middle Eastern string instruments. This year Global Cuba Fest, which showcases musicians from the Cuban diaspora and is presented by Miami nonprofits Fundarte and the Miami Light Project, is focused on Cuban musicians from Spain. Also performing Saturday are stellar jazz pianist Iván “Melon” Lewis, known for performing with Spanish singer Buika, and Yadam, a leading young Cuban singer and songwriter. The festival closes on March 17 and 19 with a performance at Miami Light Project’s Wynwood space by jazz singer Dayme Arocena, whom Miami Light executive director Beth Boone calls “a Cuban Ella Fitzgerald.”

Fundarte director Ever Chavez says a community of Cuban musicians focused on jazz, fusion and world music has been drawn to Spain. “There are all these alternative musicians, who have another kind of swing, another project that’s not salsa,” Chavez says. La Ruta de las Almas, Lewis and Yadam represent “contemporary music that is not what people think of when they think of Cuban music.”

Saturday night will also see the release of the Ruta de las Almas CD and DVD. On Friday a documentary film on the project will be screened at the Centro Cultural Español in downtown Miami.

For Urquiza, the musical connections he has found in the Route of Souls are a metaphor, and a map, for linking people together.

“We have the same human roots,” he says. “It’s politics and religion that create conflict.”

If You Go

What: Global Cuba Fest

When: 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday

Where: Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 West Flagler St., Miami, 305-547-5414

Info: $30, $25 students and seniors; limited $50 VIP tickets include CD/DVD of “La Ruta de Las Almas,” (After-party at CUBAOCHO, 1465 SW Eighth St., Miami, free with ticket stub) at fundarte.us

What: “La Ruta de las Almas” film screening

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Centro Cultural Español, 1490 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Info: Free but donation suggested; ccemiami.org

What: Dayme Arocena in concert

Where: The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th Street, Miami

When: 8 p.m. March 17 and 19

Info: $15 to $25, or $50 VIP, miamilightproject.com or 305-576-4350

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