Havana good time

Brave Combo's Joe Cripps goes to Cuba, becomes friends with Peter Buck, and talks to Castro

It is not every day a man gets to fulfill his dream, much less find that when it comes true, it's so much better than the fantasy. Too often our reveries end up in a discarded heap. Most of us have no stamina to fulfill them, and eventually they dissolve into regret. Man, what could have been.

Joe Cripps--for years the percussionist in Brave Combo, though lately a man of many side projects--had always fantasized about going to Cuba, forever imagined playing with the Cuban percussionists whose music he collects. But he always figured it would remain just that, a desire just out of reach, especially given how difficult it can be to get a visa from the Treasury Department to travel to Fidel Castro's island paradise. The tiny Communist country, collapsing further in on itself every day, might as well be a million miles away to a musician from Denton who just wants to jam with some guys whose records he owns. That just doesn't happen in real life.

Still, that didn't stop Cripps from doing the research and finding a lawyer in San Francisco, Bill Martinez, who could handle the paperwork for him. That was eight months ago, and Cripps pretty much gave up from the get-go. There was just so much paperwork to climb over, too much nonsense to conquer. It would have stopped there were it not for Cripps' fortunate timing.

It just so happened that Cripps wanted to go to Cuba just as a group of U.S. musicians--among them R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Burt Bacharach, Bonnie Raitt, the Indigo Girls, Don Was, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Osborne, and Lisa Loeb--was preparing to head over as part of a program called Music Bridges Around the World. It was to be a sort of cultural-exchange program: U.S. artists would go to Cuba for a week, write songs with their Cuban counterparts, and then perform the best collaborations at the end of the week during a concert at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. Cripps isn't joking when he refers to it as a giant, international version of the Rock Lottery, a regular event held by the Good/Bad Art Collective in Denton during which local musicians form impromptu "bands" for an evening.

At first--about two months ago--Martinez told Cripps he had been invited to Cuba by something called the Music Institute International, though Cripps had no idea what that meant exactly. Like, was he going to have to fly himself to Miami? Who would pay for the trip? And what was the Music Institute International, anyway? Martinez, a board member of Music Bridges, then told Cripps he should go to Cuba as part of the exchange program--which further baffled the percussionist, who was already scheduled to leave for Cuba at the end of March, the same time Music Bridges was getting under way. So much information and so little time to take care of it all, especially since Cripps was out on the road with Brave Combo.

Suddenly, his dream had turned into a surreal, logistical nightmare. He couldn't figure out how his desire to visit Cuba suddenly got hitched to this political, goodwill ambassador kind of...well, thing. He didn't even know how to describe it, much less understand the ramifications of his visit. And there was no way he could know where it would end.

It wasn't until he received his invite from Music Bridges founder Alan Roy Scott that his questions were answered, at least in part. In the letter, Scott explained that the Cuban trip was the fifth such event his organization had put together, the first four taking place in the former U.S.S.R., Romania, Indonesia, and Ireland. The purpose of the event, Scott wrote, was "to show that cultures can truly be brought together for a moment through the art of songwriting, and to get the various participants back to the basic roots of why they do all this, to make music, make the world a little better through it."

It all sounded good to Cripps. The only thing he couldn't figure out was how he ended up as part of the whole shebang. Martinez explained that there weren't many Americans going there who knew much about Cuban music, and that Cripps' love for the son would make him a valuable bridge between, say, Burt Bacharach and pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdez. Cripps might not be as famous as Jimmy Buffett, but his qualifications made him more than valuable.

"But I literally didn't get information until Friday afternoon, and I was scheduled to leave that Sunday," Cripps recalls. "On Friday, I got my formal invitation and the list of who was going and the schedule. Then, when I looked at the list, it was all a little overwhelming from both sides, the Cuban and American artists. It sounded like a big Rock Lottery, drawing names out of a hat and the whole nine yards. I thought, 'This is bizarre, but let's see where it leads.'"

Eventually, it led him to St. Louis, where Cripps found himself in an airport terminal surrounded by the likes of former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Don Was, Lee Roy Parnell, Peter Buck, Bonnie Raitt, Woody Harrelson (yes, Woody Harrelson), and a dozen other musicians all headed for Miami. Once in Florida, the assembled artists--who also included the Indigo Girls, R&B singer Montell Jordan, Mick Fleetwood, and Tuatara's multi-instrumentalist Barrett Martin--waited another hour before heading to Havana. There was still paperwork to be filled out, formalities to be endured--which, of course, left plenty of time for rock-and-roll schmoozing.

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