Exploring Cuban influence on American music

Radio DJ and Cuban music expert Toni Basanta is set to explore how Cuban music has influenced jazz at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library on Feb. 15. (Observer courtesy photo)
Radio DJ and Cuban music expert Toni Basanta is set to explore how Cuban music has influenced jazz at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library on Feb. 15. (Observer courtesy photo)

By Matt Sutkoski

Observer correspondent

Sometimes, it seems all musical roads lead back to Cuba.

If you listen, says Toni Basanta, a Cuban music expert who lives in Richmond, traces of Cuban music are in the tracks of pop, jazz, funk, rock, R&B and other genres of music so many of us listen to.

Basanta is scheduled to discuss how Cuban music permeates mainstream American music, particularly jazz, during a Feb. 15 talk at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston.

Basanta will trace the Cuban musical influences in America, starting with the Mambo Kings of the 1940s. He’ll discuss how the Mariel boatlift, a huge emigration of Cubans to the United States in 1980, served to freshen the influence of Cuba on music. Basanta will also touch on the Music Bridge in 1999, when, during a relative thaw in the frosty relations between the United States and Cuba, American musical luminaries such as Bonnie Raitt, Mick Fleetwood and Gladys Knight traveled to Cuba to collaborate with top musicians in that country.

All these events and others have continued leading to an outsized Cuban influence on American music, Basanta said.

You hear Cuban influence in obvious places, like the jazz of the Mambo Kings. Basanta suggests listening to other greats in the jazz world who incorporate tastes and textures of Cuba, like trombonist Wayne Wallace, jazz singer and composer Nnenna Freelon and the late Cuban pianist Paquito Hechevarria.

The sounds of Cuba are all over pop music, too, Basanta said. They can be heard in music from Madonna and Sade, even Barry Manilow. Hechevarria was a musician for Gloria Estefan and had a hand in many of her hits, such as “Conga.”

Basanta said another great example of Cuban influence in pop music is in the 2004 hit “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5.

Cuban influences make their way into other music genres because they always seem fresh, Basanta said.

“Cuban influenced music has never sounded old—on the contrary,” Basanta said. “If we think of three of the most influential bands each with a voice of their own—it comes to my mind Santana—that has been a powerhouse with many Cubans during all its history, Earth Wind & Fire and Rare Earth, for instance,” Basanta said.

Basanta said he hopes the people who listen to him at the library gain a new appreciation of how Cuban music increases the depth of much of the music people enjoy.

If anyone can convince an audience of that, it might well be Basanta. A Cuban immigrant who studied music in that country, Basanta has a huge collection of Cuban music and is an authority on the subject.

You can hear him on WWPV, the St. Michael’s College radio station and via The Radiator, 105.9 FM, the Burlington radio station backed by Vermont music promoters Big Heavy World.

Basanta also has a cable access show called “The Cuban Bridge” on Mount Mansfield Community Access in Richmond.

It looks to Basanta that Cuba, small and politically isolated as it is, will continue to loom large in music.

“(There are) a fine sampling of composers, bandleaders, soloists in constant demand who are pushing the boundaries, recording and creating a sound of their own without denying the inevitable influences, as there’s so much music in the air,” he said.

For instance, Los Angeles has a growing population of Cuban immigrants who are working with the likes of pianist Lyle Mays from the Pat Metheny Group.

If forced to pick, Basanto says his favorite Cuban musician is the jazz pianist, composer and arranger Chucho Valdes, largely because of his versatility and strength as a musician.

Basanta’s presentation, “Another Kind of Revolution: Cuban Influence on Jazz” is at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 15 at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library. Admission is free and open to the public.