It’s a universal language that everyone understands on the most natural and primal level, responding to rhythm and melody with movement and singing. Havana Maestros’ 2017 album Americuba sees three generations of celebrated Cuban musicians reimagine recognizable American smashes from the likes of Missy Elliott, Otis Redding, Janelle Monáe, Jason Derulo, Chic, B.o.B & Hayley Williams, Ben E. King, and many more with a fire, finesse, and flare reflective of the newfound friendship between the United States and Cuba. The project is arranged by 20-time Cubadisco winner and the “Maestro of Cuba” Emilio Vega and Harold López-Nussa and features timbale impresario Amadito Valdés and laud legend Barbarito Torres of The Buena Vista Social Club™, piano virtuoso Emilio Morales Ruíz, and trumpeter Roberto García.
For the very first time, Americuba unifies some of Cuba’s finest players with timeless songs from America’s popular discography. Produced by Award-winning duo the Berman Brothers—Frank and Christian—it builds a bridge that far exceeds the 90 miles between the countries…
“The marriage between American and Cuban music is very sincere and honest,” says Frank. “They influence each other so much, and that was the story we wanted to tell from the beginning. The idea really came from the Cuban musicians and arrangers, because they are such big fans of the American catalog.”
The musicians congregated in Havana’s Abdala Studios. Complete with a spacious live room, Steinway pianos, and a full-service bar, they tracked every note live, playing along to the original vocal tracks as if the artists were in the room.
“Recording together like that with this fantastic analog technology creates a classic sound,” says Emilio Vega. “The musicians would roll in, meet at the bar, and stay there for two or three hours. When the vibe was right, they would get together and do just one or two of the most beautiful takes you’ve ever heard—played from the soul and heart, not the brain.
That players’ passion drives each composition. A bright and bombastic jazz section booms through Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” [feat. Big Boi], transforming it into a big band anthem that’d be right at home in a swinging fifties lounge punctuated by baritone saxophone and screaming horns.
“It’s that really old school sound,” smiles Emilio. “If you go to Cuba and find an old café, this is what you’d hear.”
The soul of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” takes flight over a simmering salsa shake with the lyrics echoing over a vibrant Latin musical palette. The upbeat swing adds another dimension to the song and a fresh energy carrying the message into a new era. “We wanted a really elegant arrangement for this one,” Emilio continues. “It adds another element to the record.”
Missy Elliott’s immortal “Get Ur Freak On” rhymes seamlessly slip right into the swaggering Cuban rhythms, while Chic’s “Good Times” funkifies a propulsive beat. All of these styles live in harmony under one flag: Americuba.
“The title came from sitting at the bar with the musicians,” explains Christian Berman. “We wanted something that represented both countries in one word. The countries are seeing eye-to-eye at this time. It was important to have both names right next to each other that way.”
In 2017, Havana Maestros will take Americuba on the road with many of the musicians who played on the album. The production will mirror the sights of the city, welcoming audiences into Havana. They’ll perform both Americuba songs as well as Cuban standards. It paves the way for this body of work to not only codify an important historical moment, but make history of its own.
“These two worlds belong together,” Emilio leaves off. “They inspire each other. The door is open. It was important to get this record done. This is a tiny little island Americans were never allowed to go to, but now they can. Music gets the ball rolling towards real unity. We want to highlight this incredible talent. It’s their time to shine. There are so many ways we can collaborate socially, politically, and creatively. We found this beautiful mélange of two cultures. We want people to be inspired to see more and know more of Cuba. We want them to experience it.”