More than a decade ago, Alan Roy Scott, founder of Music Bridges Around the World, dreamt of bringing together musicians from different countries and traditions to play together. His approach of uniting artists who normally wouldn't meet has taken him to several countries, including Russia, Romania, Indonesia, Ireland and, most recently, Cuba.
With the success of the Platinum-selling Buena Vista Social Club (produced by Ry Cooder and performed by Cooder and a host of top-notch Cuban musicians) and of Rykodisc's Cubanismo! series, many more Cuban acts are touring the United States, and the popularity of Cuban music has soared. So, in the fall of 1997, Scott began exploring the possibility of a collaboration between songwriters and performers from the United States and their Cuban counterparts, to take place in Cuba.
"I chose Cuba because timing was important," he says. "Their music has reached international consciousness within the last few years. Even someone outside of the circle couldn't help but notice the incredible explosion of Cuban music everywhere."
In recent years, few U.S. musicians have had a chance to travel to Cuba, much less work there-not only because of the existing trade embargo, but because of the high emotional and political stakes involved. However, this didn't deter Scott. "That seemed to me to be the perfect reason to do it: a chance to prove that music is a communication tool that transcends politics. Cuba seemed like a natural choice."
Scott enlisted songwriter and collaborator Todd Smallwood to help organize this event. "I'd known Alan for several years," says Smallwood. "We'd written a song on the record Celtic Harmony that sold just under a million copies. Alan asked me to bring some friends to his Music Bridges event in Ireland. I called Jeff Healey, and a group of us spent a week there writing songs. It ended up with a concert in Dublin-everything went really well."
The plan was to pair Cuban and American musicians to work together and record songs in Havana over the course of a week. Toward the end of the stay, a selection of songs would be perfomed and recorded live.
"I invited Mick Fleetwood and several other of my friends," continues Smallwood. "We had a lot of help. Linda Livingston at BMI was supportive, and between us we were able to get Bonnie Raitt, Peter Frampton, Gladys Knight, Lisa Loeb, Indigo Girls, Joan Osborne, J.D. Souther and Burt Bacharach. One thing led to another, interest spread through word-of mouth and it got big."
Others to make the commitment included Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers, Duncan Shiek, Montell Jordan, Don Was, Jimmy Buffet, Me' Shell Ndegeocello, Lee Roy Parnell, Dave Koz and actor Woody Harrelson. Some of the Cuban artists who came onboard included Chucho Valdez, Pablo Menendez, Juan De Marcos, Carlos Varella, Pablo Milanes, Papa Terry and Los Van Van.
As momentum began to build, Smallwood invited Jerry Merrill to assist in engineering and eventually to co-produce. "Jerry brought in his friend Joel Geldermann, who offered generous, no-strings financing for this event. Jerry and I then traveled to winter NAMM and got a great response there. Tacoma Guitars and its sister company, Kurzweil, came onboard, with Tacoma eventually donating 25 beautiful guitars to the Cubans. Mackie Designs was also extremely helpful. They offered us not only four 32*8 mixers and ten HR16 studio monitors but two Digital 8-Buses to mix on. Argosy donated studio furniture for the consoles, and Latin Percussion donated percussion instruments."
The pair also had good fortune when Ed Cherney agreed to record the live show. This led to another lucky break. "Ed contacted Lisa Roy, who connected us with Audio-Technica. With the help of Ken Reichel [A-T vice president in the U.S.] and John Phelan [A-T's international marketing consultant, Latin America], we were able to use over 100 Audio-Technica microphones, which was amazingly generous!"
Hartley Peavey also helped with an extensive array of gear, and came through at a crucial moment. When it was discovered that most of the drivers in the venue's sound system were blown, Peavey sent replacements down on his boat, along with Lad Temple and a crew of technicians to help out with the show.
Musical preparations leading up to the concert were quite hectic. Artists had as little as four hours to compose songs. The three studios assembled in meeting rooms of Havana's Hotel Nacional were there to serve up to 200 artists, so the high demand led to the studios being dubbed "One-Take Studios." Adds Merrill, "There were only three engineers: Dennis Mays, Rick Cowing and myself. We were trying to make the best of a challenging situation, but that's what engineering is all about. Listening back to the tracks now, there's very little that needs to get fixed."
Once all the songs were mixed to DAT, a group of Cuban and American listeners stayed up until 4 a.m., selecting 24 songs to be rehearsed and performed within two days. Merrill remembers, "It was an incredible show. A free concert for the music and art students of Havana's schools. About 5,000 people packed the Karl Marx Theater, and David Hopkinson of Zeta did a wonderful job as front-of-house engineer. I don't think they'd ever had quite a show there."
At press time, there is no indication when the public will get to hear a recording of either the studio work or the concert. However, two production companies, Sir Reel Film, and Evil Twin Productions, along with cinematographer Haskell Wexler (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Thomas Crown Affair, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) captured the event on film, and perhaps that document will find its way to U.S. theaters.
In the meantime, Smallwood and Merrill continue to develop material under the name No Borders Productions. This production company has a Web site (nobordersproductions.com) with a narrative description of the Bridges event, written by Merrill. "The Cuban people opened their hearts, and often their homes, to receive us," he writes. "There was little political posturing, from either side. The friendships and musical collaborations that took place have forever changed those involved."
Alan Roy Scott's various projects now take him to Australia, Germany, Peru and the Middle East. He is currently collaborating with Smallwood and Will Jennings (Titanic) on the finale song for UNICEF's Campaign for Street Children. The song will be performed on December 11, 1999, by 197 singers-one from each of the countries on the globe. At press time, more than half had confirmed.