Cuban Brass

The other sound of Havana


HABANA SAX at the Top o’ the Senator (249 Victoria) May 7-12 at 9:30 pm. $25-$30. 416-364-7517.

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people’s perceptions of cubanmusic have been deeply influenced by Wim Wenders’s Buena Vista Social Club documentary, featuring Ibrahim Ferrer et al. performing the chan chan. Imagine a sax quartet with virtuoso percussion that blows away this stereotype with a sound that mixes traditional Afro-Cubano music with Latin jazz, funk, pop and hiphop. That would be Habana Sax.

“As a quartet of saxophones, we are unique,” says bandleader Jorge Almeida through an interpreter from the Grand Opera House in Delaware. “People who see us say they could never have guessed such diverse music could come from just saxophones.”

Legend has it that promoter Gary Topp, the man who first brought the Ramones to Toronto in 1974, was sitting by a campfire in northern Ontario when he tuned into a magic frequency on his short-wave radio.

When Topp came back to Toronto and did a little digging, he discovered he’d been listening to Almeida and his band. He had to bring them to Toronto to see them play in person.

Habana Sax begin their six-night stand at Toronto’s Top o’ the Senator on Sunday (May 7). Their first-ever Canadian tour resumes in July, when they’ll cross the country playing festivals from Halifax to Vancouver.

A Habana Sax show is memorable for its choreography, as the musicians switch instruments and even rap. But the modernity of their sound doesn’t mean it isn’t Cuban.

“We incorporated percussion into our music about 10 years ago,” explains Almeida, “to reinforce the accents, the very essence of Cuban music. Anything we play will always include the rhythm and soul of Cuban music.”

Judging by the trail of critical acclaim, their music appeals to all ages, whether you like to dance or not. But with its time changes and stylistic fusion, it’s also innovative in a way that other musicians always notice.

“Like they say in Cuba, between tomatoes and tomatoes you can sneak in an apple,” Almeida reasons. “We try to play all kinds of music that people will like, but we sneak in music with a complexity that might go over the head of the non-musicians in the crowd.”

Steve Bailey, the promoter who first brought them to the U.S. last year, when Topp picked up their signal, can’t stop himself from interrupting on the speakerphone. “You can tell the players in the audience, because as soon as the band starts their jaws hit the floor and they can’t pick them up until the end of the show.”

The four sax players are all professors at the Cuban National School of Music, and the percussionist plays with the Cuban Symphony Orchestra. But elitism has no place in the band.

“We understand that different people have different expectations of our shows. Hopefully, our diversity will always leave people with a desire to hear more. Every time we start a new song I want people to ask, “Now what are you going to come up with?'”

There’s only one last thing you need to know.

“We are all single and good-looking,” laughs Almeida, “and free for an evening out after the shows.”

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