Havana good time

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

In the end, Cripps ended up befriending Buck and Martin, bandmates in Tuatara. When Cripps introduced himself to Buck as one of the members of Brave Combo, Buck responded by saying, yeah, sure, he'd seen the Combo a few times. Big fan, man. And Martin, like Cripps, had a fondness for Cuban drumming; the two would end up taking lessons from a local percussionist when they arrived in Havana. It didn't hurt that Cripps had only recently returned from San Francisco, where he cut some tracks with former Dallasite and frequent Earl Harvin collaborator Dave Palmer--who, not so long ago, had done some playing with Buck and Martin in Tuatara. Add Andy Summers, some water, stir--and voila, instant friendships all around.

"I appreciate the bizarre and the fact that, hey, I've been thrown into this very strange situation," Cripps says. "I didn't really have any expectations. It was just such a weird situation that it's one thing to be around guys like that and to be intimidated in that way, but we're also all together in a very weird situation. It just adds to the intimidation, but it also equalizes things. Like, 'Well, here we all are, and you guys don't know what to expect any more than I do, and I probably know more about Cuban music than you do, but I don't even know if that'll even enter into this.'"

Upon arriving in Havana, the musicians checked into the Hotel Nacional and were handed their itineraries. They were told that the next morning, they were to go downstairs and literally have their names picked from a hat. At that point, two Cuban musicians and two American musicians were to go off into their hotel rooms, write a handful of songs, record them in makeshift studios located in the hotel, and prepare for the concert at the end of the week. Cripps' collaborators ended up being Me'shell Ndegeocello, vocalist Equis from the Cuban band Sintesis, and another percussionist who sort of split after the sessions began.

Sintesis had a rehearsal studio nearby--in an abandoned synagogue, no less, one full of monitors and high-tech equipment, and so much for the hotel room. Eventually, Cripps' group expanded as the week went on: Montell Jordan drifted in one afternoon and stuck around long enough to lay down vocals on two of the three tracks the band wrote the very first afternoon. Ndegeocello didn't sing on any of the material they wrote; she was instead relegated to playing bass. Rapper A+, who just released his debut Hempstead High, also stopped by, as did members of Sintesis. From the looks of videotapes Cripps brought back with him--along with a box of cigars and a few CDs--it turned into an old-school jam session, we-are-the-world style, with Cripps and a handful of other percussionists pounding out riddims while Ndegeocello thump-thump-thumped in the background. And there's Jordan, sitting on the stage soul-humming to himself, mostly.

Cripps' session sounds like paradise compared to the others. Buck was paired with former Eagle J.D. Souther and a Cuban musician who didn't speak English and kept losing the lyrics written the day before. Barrett Martin ended up in a group with Peter Frampton and a woman who didn't much care for any ideas Martin threw out. As such, Martin ended up playing with Cripps' posse. "We had a rockin' scene goin' on over at the synagogue," Cripps says, smiling.

During off-hours, the musicians were supposed to stay together, which they did to a certain extent--when it came time to drink at the end of each night, more or less. They had been told, inexplicably, that their visas didn't allow them to travel through Cuba. But that didn't stop Cripps, Buck, Martin, and Summers from one day renting two cars and going off to see the countryside. It was either that or playing in the official softball game, and no way was that going to happen.

Cripps and his posse of newfound buddies--who came to include Harrelson and Chieftains frontman Paddy Moloney--spent a good deal of the trip eating and drinking their way through their stay; nothing washes down a meal like a glass or two of Havana Club. But Cripps did accompany the official contingent to the March 28 baseball game pitting the Cuban national team against the Baltimore Orioles. Cripps had one of the best seats in the house--just a few rows behind home plate, close enough to capture intimate, count-the-pores close-ups of Castro on his video camera. For God's sake, he was mere feet away from the bearded Communist--close enough to off Castro, Bay-of-Pigs style.

"No, no, no, man," Cripps says, when it's suggested to him he could have whacked the man. "Goodwill ambassador," he insists, tapping his chest. "I'm like Louis Armstrong. I'm no CIA stoolie."

In the end, the culminating event--the closing-night concert at the decaying Karl Marx Theater, with its peeling backstage walls and high school auditorium vibe--wasn't the most riveting concert the United States or Cuba has ever witnessed. From the sound of Cripps' tapes, not to mention his own description and those of journalists who attended the event, the show was somewhere between maudlin and overwrought.

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