Q: What other jazz artist has devoted so much time, expense and financial resources to bring the riches of Cuban music to public awareness, in spite of countless obstacles?
A: Larry Cramer, her partner in continuously unearthing the intricacies of the island’s music. No one else even comes close.
Just as you would expect Bunnett and Cramer to have expended all of their boundless energy in recording Cuban artists on the CD’s that they lead, on Cuban Odyssey,
they come up with even more layers of meaning within the insulated music that, in many cases, ventured no further than the villages where it was performed until Bunnett and Cramer came along. Their first CD’s of Cuban music took delight in recording, in many cases for the first time, the Havana musicians with whom they formed alliances and friendships. But now that they have left their comfort zone, Bunnett and Cramer are realizing that even more forms of music awaited their discovery in the 18 years that they have been flying to Cuba for artistic inspiration and support.
In between the short beginning and ending tracks, "Arrival" and "Movin’ On" (basically the same theme with different titles), Bunnett indeed takes a journey that does lead her back home again, changed and wiser, as in an odyssey. The significance of her year 2000 trip cannot be underestimated because it allowed her to appreciate the music even more. Traveling to the port city of Matanzas, to Cienfuegos and then to the countryside town of Camagüey, Bunnett and Cramer joined in with the local musicians (and in the presence of a Canadian film crew) to document generations-old music that had rarely, or never, had been recorded. The remaining tracks were recorded in the state-owned Egrem Studios in Havana, where their friends join them on Cuban choral number of "Quítate el Chaqetón," Cramer’s and 18-year-old Thommy Rojas’ trumpets soaring above the singing. "Ron Con Ron" once again combines 9 voices with a driving percussion section and horns. Fittingly, Bunnett includes a previously unreleased track, "A La Rumba," featuring the legendary Merceditas Valdés, who was a powerful presence on Bunnett’s Chamalongo
CD, which Valdés recorded before her death.
Bunnett has set up a thematic basis for most of her albums. Ritmo + Soul,
for example, musically pointed out the similarities between American blues/spirituals and Cuban Santería prayers to the various gods, expressed in song. On Cuban Odyssey,
she has documented her musical quest. One track each is included from Matanzas and Cienfuegos. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas involves singers and percussion in opposing meters, and Bunnett recorded the tune in the city center in the presence of large numbers of families. In Cienfuegos, Los Naranjos de Cienfuegos warns of the devil with a fairly simple song form heard in Mexico as well.
But it’s in Camagüey where Bunnett--and the listeners of the CD--find the biggest surprise: a 10-voice choir without accompaniment that sings in neither Spanish nor Yoruban. Rather, these are descendants of Haitian slaves, and yet their music is the most solemn and seemingly the most derived from Western harmonies. Far away from Havana, and from much of Cuban civilization, the people of Camagüey, while possessing the fervid regard for music of most other Cubans, developed their own densely arranged choral sounds that leave little room for musical instruments.
In addition to supporting Cuban music, Bunnett and Cramer support Cuban youth by providing opportunities for several young artists on Cuban Odyssey,
including 18-year-old pianist David Virelles, the young batá drum player Vladimir Paisán and Rojas mentioned above. Beyond their support of Cuban musicians, Bunnett and Cramer have arranged humanitarian assistance for students in Havana as they have helped arrange the donations of thousands of dollars worth of instruments, reeds, parts and sheet music badly needed on an island where such things are in short supply.
There is no doubt that Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer found their life’s calling. However, recognition of their achievements has been sporadic, most recently through the awarding of Canadian Juno Award, the equivalent of the Grammy Award. The odyssey that began with their vacation to Cuba in 1984 continues. It will never end as long as Bunnett and Cramer are able to uncover even more musical gems during their travels in Cuba. Cuban Odyssey
represents the latest installment in their continuing adventures.