Cuba in the Mix

Cuba in the MixCuba in the Mix (Urban View, August 30 – September 12, 2000)

Oakland native Pablo Menendez came to Cuba from Oakland in 1966 when he was only 14 to study guitar at the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA). He planned to stay for just a year but fell in love with the culture and the music and never made it back home. Today, at 47, he’s created a name for himself in the Cuban music scene with his band Mezcla, which he founded in 1985. The word Mezcla (“mix”) describes both the divergent African and Spanish roots of the Cuban culture and the band’s music itself—a blend of rock, reggae, jazz, salsa, son, and merengue. Mezcla has toured Europe and the U.S., stopping off in 1998 for a homecoming performance at Ashkenaz in Berekely. In May, I met up with Menendez in his second-story flat in the seaside Havana neighborhood of Miramar to talk about Cuban music, politics, and solidarity.

UV: How did you end up coming to Cuba to study music?
In 1966, my mother Barbara Dane, the singer [and] longtime resident of Oakland, was the first performer from the United States to visit Cuba after the blockade. She visited this arts school, Escuela Nacional del Arte (ENA), and she was very impressed with the way young people were involved in the transformation of their country. She thought it would be a very good idea for me to study music here. I came thinking that I would be here for a year. The end of that year coincided with the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia. It was an intense period for Cuban youth, and I asked if I could stay another year and then another and this went on until 1969 when I went back to the Bay Area to visit for the first time.

UV: Who were you studying with in Cuba?
I studied classical guitar with Isaac Nicola, but at the time that type of discipline didn’t fit in with my rock-and-roll mentality. In junior high in the Bay Area, I was in a couple of rock bands and then I started at ENA. I also ended up starting an electric guitar department here in 1991.

UV: How can Cuba use its unique musical tradition to boost its economy without commodifying its music?
Cuba has many export items that the world loves, but for me the main thing about the world knowing about our music is that it gives them a chance to learn about our souls and spirits above and beyond certain clichés that have been taught to them about Cubans. The older generation (members of the Buena Vista Social Club) achieving such unbelievable success at this stage of their careers is an inspiration to artists of any country, not only in Cuba where they have been loved and admired always—not forgotten and discarded as the film implies. I think unfortunately that there are always some negative aspects of massive fame. For example, certain styles of music are now exported more than others. It would be sad if everyone in Cuba started to play only old-timey music from before the 1950s.

UV: One of the songs on your latest CD, Rocason, is called, “Lo Que Me Amarra Aquí” (“What Makes Me Love it Here”). At your last performance, you said you sing this to explain to people who ask when you’re on tour why you’re going to go back to Cuba. What is it that keeps you here?

PM: I came down to see what the revolution was about, what was happening in terms of music and culture, and then I got caught up in the whole musical movement.

UV: Are you working on setting up something in the Bay Area?
Yeah, hopefully this fall. Havana has always been one of the world’s greatest mixtures of all times, but Oakland is also a world center of this same culture and mixture. Also, my mother was just down here…with some representatives from Mayor Jerry Brown’s office because Oakland is becoming the sister city to Santiago (in eastern Cuba).

Before I left the Bay Area, I didn’t speak Spanish. Now I go back and discover a whole world of Spanish-speaking families that have been there for hundreds of years. Recently I saw a documentary on the birth of West Oakland and the transcontinental railway and the whole development of black Oakland culture, the blues being the part of music I was brought up with. And these are all things I am very proud of. I never fail to mention that I’m from Oakland when I give interviews.

UV: What was it like coming to Cuba from Oakland?
When you move from one culture to the next, one language to the next, you have to have an open mind, an open heart, have some knowledge and love for your own culture and security in that. You have to know your own language well and I think that for musicians, because you’re used to reproducing sounds, it’s easy to learn a new language. I think if someone was to ask me after all these years what I would say a revolution is all about, I’d say it’s about transforming society. Whereas the U.S. policy towards Cuba has been very solidified and stale, to put it mildly, Cuba has been changing constantly. The 1970s were not like the 1960s, the 1980s were not like the 1970s and were nothing like the tremendously hard times of the 1990s when 80 percent of Cuba’s trading partners disappeared after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

UV: How informed about Cuba is your U.S. audience?
PM: A lot of times there are people who know nothing about Cuba and I think when they see Mezcla, it helps them to learn about Cuba. Maybe it’ll make them stand up against all these war-like measures against Cuba, like denying the sale of medicine or food. I’ve always thought that the best, most diverse music can provide a kind of microcosm, a microscopic view of how many possibilities of living together and supporting each other there are.