The sights and most notably the sounds of Havana, Cuba, inspired artists ranging from
R.E.M.'s Peter Buck to Spearhead's Michael Franti during what is being remembered as
a brief, but unforgettable, stay in that country.
Many of the 43 artists on board for the cultural exchange program in "Music Bridges
Around the World," left with ideas for their own music and memories of a beautiful place;
while for others it was foremost an educational experience.
Franti, a member of the San Francisco hip-hop group Spearhead, said the Cuban
musicians he worked with during a songwriters' workshop in Havana last week taught
him new rhythms he plans to incorporate into his music.
"They're not used to going off the 'one' beat. It took me a long time to get into their
rhythm," Franti said, as he mouthed an example of a Cuban rhythm that grabbed him.
Another visitor, David Was, half of the funk-R&B duo Was (Not Was) and a columnist for SonicNet’s Addicted To Noise website, said he found
Cubans' emphasis on music over commerce refreshing. "Their work was done for its own
sake, but they had as much energy as anyone I've ever worked with," he said.
The two were among the 43 musicians who traveled to Havana last week to participate
in "Music Bridges Around the World," a songwriting workshop and cultural exchange
event that culminated in a concert Wednesday before more than 40,000 fans at the Karl
In all, 40 songs were collaboratively crafted by the native Cuban artists and the visiting
pop musicians, most of whom were from the United States. Twenty-two of the songs
were performed live, said Bill Martinez, an attorney and producer who helped organize
the weeklong program.
Participating musicians included guitarist Buck, blues-rocker Joan Osborne, singer/bassist
Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood, singer/songwriter Lisa
Loeb, the Indigo Girls, ex-Police bandmates Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, soul
star Gladys Knight, rocker Peter Frampton, R&B singer Montell Jordan, Jimmy Buffett and legendary producer/songwriter Burt Bacharach.
The exercise was unscientific: Martinez, Franti and Was said songwriting groups were
chosen by drawing names from a hat. From there, the groups worked from hotel rooms in
the Hotel Nacional writing songs. As the week unfolded, the groups competed for time in
three demo studios set up in the hotel's conference rooms. Members of the groups were
allowed to switch partners.
The event was the brainchild of veteran songwriter Alan Roy Scott. Using the "Music
Bridges" name, Scott has organized similar workshops in Russia, Ireland, Romania and
In late February Scott was brimming with confidence that the stay in Cuba would be a
success. "There's a creative excitement there. I thought it would be a cool place to go,"
he said. "This is a virgin run. That's the cool thing."
Martinez, the lawyer who helped Scott obtain the necessary licenses for the event, said
the week lived up to Scott's expectations. "It was historic. It really felt like an opening [to
future collaborations]," he said.
Was (born David Weiss), who travelled along with partner and überproducer (Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan) Don
Was (born Donald Fageson), said such exercises traditionally make him cringe.
"Songwriting hell is having to meet someone and then [having] to start writing a song,"
he said. But he added that the men he worked with, a vocal group known as
Cachybache, turned out to be ideal collaborators.
The three crafted a ballad, "Come," which made the final cut for the show. "It is longing
for the absent, whether it be a lover or God. They wanted to write something that could
be about anything. And that's the way we did it."
Was found a few surprises and a few happy accidents along the way. He raved about the
level of artistic freedom in Cuba, about the presence of a musical vanguard that
embraces jazz as much as it does pop or folk. In one spontaneous session, one of the
participating Cubans took a tape of an electronic hip-hop beat Was had brought and
added a funky piano solo to it.
"That got thrown down heavily," Was said. "He lathered it up with this wild, wild sh--."
Franti, who has earned critical acclaim for his work with Spearhead and, a decade ago,
with the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, worked on three songs with two groups. Not
content to stay boarded up in a hotel room, he ventured out into Havana the first day with
his two Cuban partners to explore ideas. The first came on their bus trip and resulted,
naturally, in "Can't Stop This Bus." The song, which he described as a hybrid of hip-hop
and Cuban folk, also made the list for the concert.
"It was a very emotional trip," Franti said of his residency. "There was a lot of joy, a lot of
sadness, a lot of connections on a basic human level."
He was struck by a political dichotomy he perceived during the trip. "First of all, there's a
big misperception in [the U.S.] that the Cuban people are oppressed. In fact, the opposite
is quite true. The people have health care, and they have the highest education level of
any nation in the world."
Even so, Was said he was alarmed to learn that his counterparts in Cachybache make
only $5 a night for their performances.
"The culture may be strong, but it doesn't make up for the inability to get a loaf of bread,"
he said. "Life is not easy down there."
The songs for the final concert were voted on following a listening session involving all
Talking about the show, Franti, Was and Martinez all named an identical highlight: Joan
"She was wonderful," Martinez said.
"Joan Osborne kicked a--," Was said. "She had a real swagger to her." Osborne and her
collaborators crafted a sweet soul tune reminiscent of a four-chord American pop song,
according to Martinez. She is currently working on an album for release this summer,
according to her publicist.
The final night began with a group rendition of the classic Simon and Garfunkel ballad
"Bridge Over Troubled Water." It closed with greetings from Cuban leader Fidel Castro.