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.

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.

The organizers had pared down a week's worth of songs to the choice 25 and ended up with so much English-language schmaltz about how happy everyone was to be in Ha-va-na, Ha-va-na, it's a hell of a town. Or something along those lines. But that's going to happen when musicians ended up playing songs they hadn't written--and hadn't even heard till they were on stage, which was the case when Cripps backed Buck and his group--and when the all-stars opened the show with a (oh, Lord) rousing rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Apparently, no one told them that's how you're supposed to close the show. And in the category of Worst Idea Ever, Woody Harrelson ended up writing lyrics with Bonnie Raitt, most likely after smoking some of his all-hemp apparel.

"Some of it sounded very American, very ballady," Cripps says. "A lot of them had the overriding lyrical theme of, 'We're of two worlds come together.' But there were also some very cool things. Some groups really clicked and opened up to one another and got a really cool mix. Joan Osborne had a really cool song with strings and flutes. But it's a big experiment." Montell Jordan sang one of the songs Cripps' group had written; Equis performed the other.

Immediately after the concert, as night turned to the wee small hours of morning, Cripps and the rest of the musicians were hustled in a van over to the Palacio del Gobierno for a meet-and-greet with Castro. The artists were taken in a single-file line down a hallway to a reception area, where they were greeted by Castro, who had exchanged his olive-greens for a suit and tie, along with his interpreters and, of course, guards. The musicians were summoned one at a time to meet Castro, shake his hand, maybe exchange a few brief words (or, in Bonnie Raitt's case, a brief kiss on the cheek). Cripps was introduced to Castro as "a percussionist from Texas," and the two talked for only a couple of minutes.

"I said, 'It's been a dream of mine for a long time to come to Cuba, and Cuban culture and music is a passion of mine, so it's great to finally be here,'" Cripps recounts. Cripps, who earlier during the trip had purchased a collection of Castro's speeches translated into English, also informed him of his light reading. Castro told him he wished he had a copy of his best speech, delivered at the University of Venezuela, so he could give it to Cripps. Cripps was too frightened to ask Castro to sign the book of speeches he had in his pocket; the guards had told him not to approach Castro with anything in his hands (though Andy Summers got his book signed later).

The conversation over, they shook hands once more, and for the first time in his life, Joe Cripps touched the flesh of history.

"No matter what I think about him, it's like, 'Wow, there's history standing right there,'" Cripps recounts, trying to reconcile his disdain and awe. "I don't know if I've ever met anyone this historical face-to-face. That transcends whatever he's done or why he's famous. It's like, 'You're Castro.'"

In the end, Cripps' videotapes provide the rare proof the event even took place. Though there were more than 200 journalists on hand, and the concert was aired on Cuban television, there are no plans to release a CD of the event; there are too many legalities involved, since the Cuban musicians aren't allowed under government rules to profit from their trade. A documentary crew was on hand, guided by Medium Cool director Haskell Wexler, but there are currently no plans for the release of a film. If--"and that's a big if," Cripps says--anything were ever released, it would be for charity or educational purposes. That's fine with the Americans, who weren't allowed to keep tapes of the songs they wrote and recorded--their "demos," as they kept referring to them.

The ramifications of an event such as this will likely never be felt, at least until the 71-year-old Castro is dead and the United States lifts the trade embargo crushing the life out of the island nation. When all is said and done, when the echoes have long faded from the Karl Marx Theater and Peter Buck's back on tour with R.E.M. and Jimmy Buffett's safely stowed away in Margaritaville, the Cuban musicians will still have to live on their $17 a week and fight to get their music heard beyond the closed shores. Cripps often refers to the event as one that forever changes his life. Only time will tell how--beyond, of course, the friendships he hopes to maintain with Barrett Martin (who will visit Cripps in Denton at the end of April), Peter Buck, Andy Summers, and the handful of Americans he hung out with during his week in Havana.

"For me, I had been trying to get down there so long that this was finally a dream realized for me," Cripps says. "Cuban music to me is just the most fascinating thing, the most amazing music. It's so alive...You come away from it changed.

"There are a lot of complex feelings being there. You do look around and see some things and say to yourself that it's not all bad. But now you can't even buy medicine, and all these homosexuals are being put in work camps. Nobody has any money, and the place is falling in on itself. There was a lot of talk about that when you're out at dinner. But when you get to the music, music's such a part of the culture, and the spirit of the people is just incredible. You get inspired by it, and you can count on it. It makes sense, and you focus on that and lose yourself in that. You lose yourself in it."

The question he can't yet answer: Just what did he find?

Scene, heard
It's that time of the year again: Fry Street Fair, otherwise known as Denton Rock City. The annual daylong rockfest gets going at noon on April 17, and once again, the 26 bands on the bill will be playing all afternoon on three stages, with each band getting about 35 minutes in the sun. Pops Carter and the Funkmonsters kick it off on the Main Stage, followed, in order, by the Commercials, Doosu, Dooms U.K., Slow Roosevelt, 420 Blues Band, Baboon, and Reverend Horton Heat. On the Delta Stage, the lineup begins with the industrial-goth balladry of Gropius, followed by Hollowpoint, Union Camp, International Sparkedome, Bedwetter, Clutch Cargo, Chomsky, Beef Jerky, and Bowling for Soup. The Cleaners get things started at Rick's Place, followed by Valve, Fixture, Riot Squad, Slave One, Loveswing, cottonmouth tx, El Gato, and Buck Jones. Tickets are $12 at the gate.

Send your Fidel Castro speeches to Street Beat at rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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