Mista Savona’s Havana Meets Kingston (HMK) hybridises divergent tropical genres and comprises many players. But while it could be marketed as a highbrow, jazzier Major Lazer, this trailblazing concept album is so much more. It represents the first significant cross-exchange between performers from the neighbouring Caribbean islands of Cuba and Jamaica.
Melbourne keyboardist, producer and DJ Mista Savona (aka Jake Savona) has long pursued an interest in Jamaica’s reggae scene. In 2007 the onetime member of the hip-hop outfit Illzilla presented Melbourne Meets Kingston on Elefant Traks. Initially, Savona explored Cuba in 2013. Astonished to learn that there had been no major collab involving Jamaican and Cuban musicians, the riddim kid decided to make it happen. Two years on, he and a Jamaican posse – including Sly and Robbie (drummer Lowell “Sly” Dunbar and bassist Robert “Robbie” Shakespeare) – arrived in Havana to record with locals, legendary and emerging, for 10 days at the fabled EGREM Studios. It was here where, in a proto-Diplo curatorial move, American guitarist Ry Cooder supervised 1997’s mega-hit Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) album – a celebration of Cuba’s pre-revolutionary music, notably son cubano music. Cult German director Wim Wenders subsequently filmed a documentary. The BVSC phenom is credited with starting Cuba’s musical explosion. The album landed in the Top 10 in Australia.
HMK freely pays tribute to BVSC. Two of the marquee guests come from that very ensemble – Barbarito Torres being a virtuoso of the laúd (a Cuban lute), and Rolando Luna the ‘Club’s’ young pianist. What’s more, the HMK fold have cut fresh versions of BVSC favourites like ‘Chan Chan’ (composed by the late trovador Compay Segundo), which opens the set. Here, ‘Chan Chan’, elevated by the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ Félix Baloy and trumpeter Julito Padrón, has a dancehall flavour. Also familiar is ‘Candela’ which features the Cuban Francisco “Solis” Robert and British-Jamaican Randy Valentine as vocalists. Yet another BVSC staple, ‘El Cuarto de Tula’ is transformed into a mega-cultural jam with the sonero Maikel Ante, El Medico (a Cuban family doctor moonlighting as a reggaeton rapper) and Jamaica’s Turbulence. Expect salsahall to become a thing.
Today, Cuba fascinates westerners. As one of the last Socialist states, it’s endured both America’s austere trade and travel embargoes and the demise of the USSR. Still, post-Fidel Castro, Cuba has allowed its citizens greater freedoms. The country is experiencing a tourist boom – Communist hardliners pragmatically recognising music as a revenue stream (even Beyoncé and Jay-Z visited in 2013). Ironically though, Cuba has ‘banned’ the reggaeton so popular with its youth on the grounds of obscenity – and misogyny.
As such, though the influence of Jamaica’s traditional sound system culture is evident on HMK, Cuba’s romantic and flamboyant Latin American styles – son, Afro-Cuban, rumba and, from the New York diaspora, salsa – tend to dominate. The marvellous Beatriz Márquez’s ‘La Sitiera’ with Luna might easily have fitted on BVSC. Nonetheless, Sly and Robbie provide HMK’s backbone. The studio dons are also adept fusionists, having worked extensively with Grace Jones in her ’80s art-dub phase.
The most hybridised HMK songs are the originals. The catchy lead single ‘Carnival’ – again featuring Solis and Valentine – isn’t unlike something from the Haitian Wyclef Jean’s 1997 debut The Carnival, only with more dancehall than East Co’ hip-hop. Indeed, while in affluent western countries, BVSC has been co-opted as bourgie in-store music, HMK remains street. The roots reggae ‘100 Pounds Of Collie’ – blessed by eight vocalists, among them the resurgent Prince Alla – is an unambiguous “herb anthem”.
HMK stands as a wonderfully festive project. However, the biggest revelation of this soundclash lies in its obvious organicism. Savona may yet have his own countercultural brand.