A physical bridge never connected the United States and Cuba, but a little over a half century ago, before Fidel Castro came to power and the United States initiated a trade embargo against the island nation, citizens of both countries could drive their cars onto ferry boats and travel the ninety miles between Key West, Florida, and Havana. Since the embargo, artists have worked to creatively connect the two nations, but few have done so as persistently and successfully as guitarist Pablo Menendez.
The Oakland-born Menendez has lived in Havana since he went there to study music in 1966 at age sixteen, and has spent the past 28 years as the leader of Mezcla (meaning "mixture"), an internationally known band that fuses American jazz and blues with Afro-Cuban music. Menendez returns to Oakland with Mezcla to play Yoshi's on June 26.
Menendez's mother, veteran Oakland-based blues singer and political activist Barbara Dane, defied the US ban on travel to Cuba in 1966 and became the first American artist to perform in that country following the embargo. Castro came to her hotel to personally thank her. According to Dane, she was caught off-guard by the prime minister's surprise visit, but during their three-hour conversation, she boldly asked him if he'd help arrange for her son to attend Havana's Escunlena Nacional de Arte for a year.
Menendez recalled welcoming the opportunity. "Young people in Cuba were being offered the possibility to change the whole reality of their country and go out and change the world," he explained by phone, following a performance in Leavenworth, Washington. "In the United States, young people were being offered the possibility to be drafted into the war to defend the oil in Southeast Asia. I found myself in the most exciting place you could imagine being. I was going for a year — and it's gonna be 47 years this October."
The first time Menendez attempted to bring his band to the United States, in 1993, the George H.W. Bush administration denied his Cuban musicians visas. Fortunately, his pianist at the time, Rebeca Mauleon, a US citizen who had been studying in Cuba, was able to recruit Carlos Santana and members of his band as subs for a concert in San Francisco. Menendez was finally able to bring his Cuban players to this country during the Clinton administration, but was again blocked during the presidency of Bush II. The group's current US tour is its second since the election of Barack Obama.
Much of the repertoire of the current five-man edition of Mezcla features centuries-old, Afro-Cuban folkloric music. "They're basically songs from the Yoruba people of what is now Nigeria or Benin that have been kept alive in spite of all the cultural genocide of 500 years," Mendendez said. "These songs are part of the living tradition of one of the major religions of Cuba, which would be called Regla de Ocha. Sometimes people refer to it as Santería. Calling it 'Santería' assumes that what the slaves told the slave owners — 'Oh, yeah, we converted to Catholicism' — was true, but it's certainly not.They worshiped Yoruba gods that are called Orishas. Giving them Catholic names was basically a survival technique they used with the slave owners who wanted them to convert or else. The agenda of the slave owners didn't win. You couldn't imagine life on this planet without the survival culture, the resistance culture, of the African diaspora."
The influence of Regla de Ocha on Mezcla is more culturally significant than religious per se. "Some people ask me, 'Are you a believer?' or 'Did you convert to this religion?' which would not be strange because, actually, people from Japan or the United States or Sweden or Germany have converted to that religion," Menendez said. "But I'm basically an atheist, right? I was brought up by Barbara Dane, you know. Give me a break."
Menendez and his bandmates — percussionists Octavio Rodriguez and Roberto "El Capitan" Smith, bassist Jose Hermida, and violinist and pianist Julio Valdez — include rumbas, jazz, and a version of Irving Berlin's "I'll See You in C-U-B-A" in their setlist.
While in Oakland this week, Menendez plans to visit his mother, who is now 86, and attend the ninetieth birthday party of his harmonica-blowing father, Byron Menendez.
The guitarist, who remains a US citizen, is grateful that he can bring Mezcla to the United States, but is not entirely pleased with President Obama's policies toward his country of residence. "Cubans don't need anything more than a visa and plane fare to leave Cuba anytime they want, but US citizens are not free to go to Cuba now," Menendez said. "We hope that things will open up because there's so much great music happening in Cuba that people would enjoy going down there to listen to."
Until then, Menendez will continue working to unite his native and adopted homelands. "Musicians have always opened up a lot of bridges and ways of communicating. I always tell people in Cuba that I'm from a place of bridges: the San Francisco Bay Area. To build bridges between Cuba and the United States and be able to make music together is one of my life's works."