Concert Preview: Preservation Hall Band Bringing 'Tuba To Cuba' Tour To Playhouse
RIDGEFIELD — In an exclusive chat with The Newtown Bee, Preservation Hall Jazz Band leader and tuba player Ben Jaffee said his ensemble is thrilled to be able to share the music they created around their career-changing 2015 visit to Cuba with local audiences. The beloved multi-generational group is headed in for a show at Ridgefield Playhouse on Tuesday, October 22, at 7:30 pm.
In addition to the traditional New Orleans material that is a staple of every PHJB show, Jaffe promises the Ridgefield audience will feel the beat and the passion of breakout Cuban singer-songwriter Yusa, who is along for this very special tour. The group’s “A Tuba to Cuba Tour” is inspired by the recent documentary of the same name, which follows the band as it retraces its musical roots from the storied city of jazz to the shores of Cuba.
At a moment when musical streams are crossing with unprecedented frequency, New Orleans has remained the point at which sounds and cultures from around the world converge, mingle, and resurface, transformed by the Crescent City’s inimitable spirit and joie de vivre, according to an advance.
Nowhere is that idea more vividly embodied than in Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has held the torch of New Orleans music aloft for more than 50 years, all the while carrying it enthusiastically forward as a vibrantly musical living history.
Jaffe reminds fans and newcomers alike, “A Tuba To Cuba is as much a soundtrack to our documentary as it is a collection of songs that we wrote and recorded during the filming and after its completion.
“The writing and recording of our previous release, So It Is, began before our first trip to Cuba in 2015,” Jaffe continued. “We had no idea that it would become the album it would until we returned home from that first trip. The A Tuba To Cuba soundtrack is comprised of a combination of songs that are both in the movie and new songs that aren’t in the film or couldn’t have been in the film because not until we were able to watch it ourselves, we were again inspired to put that spirit into new music. Our five years exploring the Cuba-NOLA history has been inspiring to say the least.”
Our interview with Jaffe began by looking back to the first time he started hearing Cuban influences in music.
The Newtown Bee: Was it your dad who provided you with your first exposure to Cuban music?
Ben Jaffe: It's interesting. The second album my dad produced in the mid-60s had a song on it called "The Peanut Vendor." And it was an extremely popular Cuban song at the time around New Orleans. There was sort of a Cuban craze sweeping through America, and "The Peanut Vendor" found its way into New Orleans music as popular music finds its way into jazz all the time. So that was a song his band would always play and I always found myself responding to the rhythm. I never knew what they were singing about because they would do it in kind of a Creole patois. Jelly Roll Mortin called it "the Spanish tinge" — this thing in New Orleans music that always attracted me to those particular songs — that kind of Rumba to it.
The Bee: When did that exposure bloom into a genuine interest in the broader culture of the island?
Jaffe: I guess I was in high school when I decided to take a deeper dive and started becoming fascinated with various musicians. Back then there was no YouTube. So to come across an album of Cuban music, or Colombian music, or Haitian music, it was a little window of new information. And I guess I'm still on that journey of musical discovery. When we went to Cuba, it totally opened up this other box that had been taped up and sealed and put up on a shelf for the last 50 years.
The Bee: Was there a specific moment when you discovered a reality that was completely different from any preconceived notions you had before you arrived in Cuba?
Jaffe: (laughing) It was exactly like I thought it was, and so much more. Coming from New Orleans, I'm familiar with how people perceive our city, and how our city actually is. I see it in the eyes of artists who come here. I tell people you can come to New Orleans with your hands in a prayer position and your head bowed, or you can come with your hands opening wanting New Orleans to give you something. I prefer the hands clasped position.
We knew when we went to Cuba, we wanted [to convey] that same attitude as we want to see when musicians come to New Orleans — head humbly bowed and hands in a prayer position. And that's why so many doors opened for us there.
The Bee: The last time we spoke, we talked about how you were dedicated to not only sustaining and keeping the PHJB relevant to new generations of listeners but also exposing the band to new audiences. So I imagine you were pretty excited about the opportunity to do both with this Tuba to Cuba project?
Jaffe: That was one of the great, great pieces of putting this "Tuba to Cuba" project together. We knew we were going to be sharing this experience as a small group of musicians traveling together. It was exciting and also a bit frightening because we had never shared these intimate moments before with other people in this way.
I told the band that we share intimate moments with people every night at Preservation Hall. There's no more intimate environment than Preservation Hall — you are baring your entire soul when you play there. It's just you and the music.
So we realized that what we were doing [in Cuba] was a natural extension of what we were doing already. The most nerve wracking part for me was being sure the story was being told properly, in a meaningful and respectful way. So the documentary really shows a band experiencing a metamorphosis — in real time.
The Bee: Did you have to tweak the instrumentation to achieve the sound the band wanted to produce to capture that Cuban flavor?
Jaffe: We spent time not so much with the instrumentation as we did deconstructing the songs and instruments, and their relationship with New Orleans. That instrument connection was most interesting to me. While they use specific instruments to serve a certain function, we worked to find instrumentation that served the same function in our music.
As we walked around Cuba, we discovered groups that were only percussion. But they tuned their drums to produce a harmony and melody within the percussion. And we found commonality in the shared tradition of call and response. You could even hear that call and response in the rhythms. So seeing how these African and Spanish influences mixed with their indigenous music was all very fascinating to me.
The Bee: Did you come away from this project applying some of what you saw and learned from the musicians there to the way you will play tuba going forward?
Jaffe: Actually, until we got there, there were no Sousaphone tubas in Cuba. That was one of the things I wanted to change, so I have since brought two tubas to Cuba, and now there is a tuba tradition beginning in Cuba. But
Cuba also did have an influence on my playing. I started playing more rhythmically. I had to find ways to adapt my style of playing with an instrument that wasn't usually played in the Cuban music performance.
The Bee: So you have single-handedly influenced the musical history timeline of Cuba... who gets to do that? Isn't it incredible?
Jaffe: I mean, yes, but we don't think about it that way. We think that there is someone interested in learning this instrument and I can be a conduit to facilitate this. And it wasn't just tubas. This year I brought an upright bass down there to give to a young bass player I met. And there are a lot of other bands and musician that have done this as well. But it's complicated because it's a Communist country. But we find a way through music to circumvent these political divides and just get to the human issues connecting with people through music.
The Bee: Without giving too much away, what can you tell our readers about the integration of Cuban singer-songwriter Yusa and other "special guests" into this concert experience?
Jaffe: Yusa is an incredible performer and multi-instrumentalist we met in Cuba. And it's a huge opportunity to help share her music with others. It's actually a tremendous responsibility of ours to do that, sharing the music we encounter and the people we encountered. We're also looking forward to bringing all these influences we've experienced over the past few years to the stage. There's really no greater joy in the world for us.
For tickets ($67.50-$167.50) call 203-438-5795 or visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org. The Ridgefield Playhouse is a nonprofit performing arts center located at 80 East Ridge.
For more information about Preservation Hall Jazz Band and their foundation, visit preshallfoundation.org.
Check out a video preview of Yusa with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band: