Artist Profiles: Alexander Abreu

Alexander Abreu Manresa was born September 6, 1976 in Cienfuegos, Cuba. He comes from a family of nonprofessional musicians, including his grandfather who taught him to play the tres guitar.

As a boy, he wanted to be an athlete, but his mother took him to a school that tested abilities and he got the highest scores in music. Alexander started studying trumpet at age 11 and credits his mother for inspiring him to practice and pursue his career.

Originally, Abreu wanted to give up the trumpet and take up the flute, but his teachers understood his talent and insisted, predictively, that he stick to the brass instrument. At 18, the young musician moved to Havana to continue his studies at the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), a breeding ground for Cuba’s best musicians. He graduated in 1994 and later would return as a professor, teaching trumpet.

In Havana, Abreu found himself at the focal point of the timba music upsurge that rocked Cuba in the early 1990s, marking an exciting evolution in the way Afro-Cuban dance music, or salsa, was performed. He played for six years with the innovative band of singer Paulito FG, one of the leading stars of the timba wave. Abreu’s skills were forged in this powerful ensemble, working together with two musicians he considers his greatest influences – Carmelo Andrés, his trumpet teacher; and producer/arranger Juan Manuel Ceruto. Several band-mates from this influential ensemble would go on to form part of Havana D’Primera, including Ceruto.

Abreu has also played and/or recorded with virtually every major act during one of the most exciting and creative eras in Cuban music. He was a member of the popular and esteemed band led by singer Isaac Delgado, who now lives in Miami.

Alexander Abreu

As a highly sought-after studio musician, Abreu has recorded with top acts in different styles, including famed dance band Los Van Van and powerful fusion group Irakere. He has also worked with poetic singer-songwriters such as Pablo Milanés and Amaury Pérez, who played trombone in Havana D’Primera. In addition, Abreu was recruited for previous all-star projects, such as the touring timba band named Team Cuba and the Grammy-winning Cuban roots recording “La Rumba Soy Yo.”

After the Cuban dance music scene started declining in 2000, Abreu traveled to Europe and spent time in Denmark, where he was invited to give master classes in trumpet and Cuban music at the jazz conservatory of Copenhagen. During an extended stay there, he joined Grupo Dansón, a band composed of Cuban and Danish musicians, serving as arranger and composer. Abreu appeared in Europe’s top music festivals and in 2002 he performed on the same stage with Sting, Lou Reed and James Brown as part of the benefit concert “Pavarotti & Friends.”

The time he spent performing abroad helped Abreu avoid the consequences of other Cuban timba bands, often considered too tailored to a home crowd and too hard for outsiders to dance to.

“I believe that to live outside of Cuba for a time has been one of the keys to the hallmark of this group,” said Abreu of his band. “Because I learned how to interact with people that don’t speak the language. I learned how to spread that same happiness and energy….You have to be precise with the rhythms and arrangements. You have to make sure that they are understandable, that they are solid, that they are clear, so that people understand.”

By 2007, Abreu was back in Havana putting together his own band. The aspiring bandleader returned home with only an developing concept, inspired by a New York salsa band he had seen in Copenhagen. There, he had watched the Grammy-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra, a group of veteran salsa musicians who came together with a common determination – to recapture some of the original sound and excitement of the great salsa bands of the 1970s. The group, led by pianist Oscar Hernandez who had played with salsa greats such as Ray Barretto and Ruben Blades, managed to generate enough nostalgia to initiate a one-band salsa revival, touring the world and recording various popular albums featuring star vocalists such as Blades.

That served as an inspiration to do something similar with session musicians in Havana,” said Abreu. “It gave me the strength to come to Cuba and say, ‘I can do it here.’ From that idea, basically, Habana D’Primera is born.”

Abreu brought together an ensemble of experienced musicians who had played with some of the best bands of that exhilarating era, a golden age of contemporary Cuban salsa and timba. Concerned about the decline of Afro-Cuban dance music, Abreu decided to continue the great tradition started by the very bands he had played with, such as Paulito FG y Su Elite and Isaac Delgado.

Since 2000, many of the leading timba stars had left Cuba, including Manolin, Isaac Delgado and Carlos Manuel, all of whom were Abreu’s colleagues and collaborators. In the meantime, young fans in Cuba flocked to foreign pop music styles such as rock, rap and reggaeton, leaving the legacy of Cuba’s rich native dance music to decay.

Alexander Abreu and Havana D’Primera

For Abreu and his new band, the challenge of generating a revival was overwhelming. No new Cuban dance band had managed to break into the top tiers of popular music acts since the turn of the century, when Cesar Pedroso broke away from Los Van Van and formed his own band, Pupy y Los Que Son, Son. Record companies, radio stations and nightclubs all focused on the latest fads, especially reggaeton which had removed salsa off the music charts. Amazingly, so many deejays had turned to reggaeton that there was no place to dance salsa in the capital of the country where the music was invented.

The crisis gave Abreu the opportunity to build a grass-roots fan base just like the timba pioneers had done at the start of the dance music movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That was known as “the special period” in Cuban history, a time of extreme economic difficulty when bands were forced to practice in the dark due to frequent blackouts and try out their material on stage due to a lapse in record production. For a while, Cuban dance music was all about the live performance, a need that helped stimulate creativity. Following his predecessors, Havana D’Primera began working live shows, building a following the old-fashioned way, one fan at a time.

Before long, fans were packing Havana d’Primera’s regular Tuesday shows at Casa de la Musica, a club and cultural center in the residential Miramar section of Havana. Even though they had not yet released a record, loyal fans memorized song lyrics from the live shows.

The weekly concerts were essential to the band’s development. Soon, the unknown band started to develop an underground buzz.

Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera – Haciendo Historia

Havana D’Primera recorded its first album Haciendo Historia in 2009.

In 2012, Abreu performed as an actor in the movie 7 Days in Havana, in the section “Tuesday Jam Session” with Serbian film director and musician Emir Kusturica.

The album “Cantor del Pueblo” won the Cubadisco Award in 2018.

  • Published in Culture

Embassy of Mexico to award Cuban artists

The Mexican Embassy in Cuba will present the Cultural Merit award to Cuban dancer Viengsay Valdes, choreographer Alberto Mendez and cultural official Reinaldo Mendez, it was announced at a press conference.

The award will be presented at the close of the 'Cultura a lo Grande' concert, performed by the Mariana de Gonitch Singing Academy and scheduled for November 18 in downtown Havana's Cathedral Square.

During the event, Valdes will also be presented with the Tropical Gypsy distinction, annually awarded by the capital's Provincial Directorate of Culture to those who contribute to the development of Cuban culture.

For the occasion, first dancer, actress and singer of the National Folkloric Group, Zenaida Almenteros, will join the Okantomi company to perform the Habanera 'En el claro de la luna,' written by singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez.

  • Published in Culture

Tribute in Spain to Cuban culture and foundation of Havana

Cuba's embassy in Spain was the scene Thursday of an emotional gala in honor of Culture Day on the island and 500 years of the foundation of Havana.

The Cuban National Culture Day evokes every October 20 the composition of the national anthem, the work of the patriot Pedro Figueredo, just 10 days after the beginning of the independence struggle of 1868.

'Our anthem is a direct expression of our Cubanness, and in its letter it contains many of our essences,' said Cuban ambassador in Spain, Gustavo Machín, before a large audience gathered in the legation of the largest of the Antilles in Madrid.

'Not only the verses, which urge to combat, to fight for independence, and express the defining metaphor: To die for the country is to live, which is essentially in line with what is considered Cubanness today', Machín said of the fervent notes of that song.

The diplomat said that culture in his country grows fresh in these times, fertilized by these roots, against wind and tide.

'One can understand, then, that without freedom and independence there would be no Cuban culture, and without Cuban culture, we would lose independence or have no reason to fight for it,' he emphasized.

Regarding the capital of the Caribbean nation, that next November 16 will be half a millennium old, he recalled that it was one of the first seven villages founded by the Spanish Crown on the island.

The ambassador took advantage of the evening to share with those present the victory achieved the eve at the United Nations, where for the twenty-eighth time the international community overwhelmingly condemned the US blockade imposed on his country.

The gala was enlivened by Cuban troubadour Ismael de la Torre and his compatriots Andres Puig, a well-known painter and sculptor who donated several works to the Caribbean nation, and singer Arahi Martinez, former member of the Anacaona female orchestra.

The celebration was attended by several ambassadors and representatives of the diplomatic corps accredited in this country, members of Cuban resident associations and the solidarity movement with the island.

On behalf of the Spanish Government, Juan Pablo de Laiglesia, Secretary of State for International Cooperation and for Latin America and the Caribbean participated.

  • Published in Culture

Trump Bans Govt. Funding of Cuban Cultural, Education Exchange Programs

US President Donald Trump has banned his government from funding educational and cultural exchange programs with Cuba, Russia, Syria and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as published in the Federal Register.

The United States will not provide non-humanitarian or nontrade-related assistance to these countries, nor provide funding for officials or employees of the governments of Cuba, the DPRK, Russia and Syria to participate in educational and cultural exchange programs for the 2020 fiscal year, according to the document released on Monday.

The Memorandum was sent by Trump to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and claimed that the measures came in response to alleged human trafficking practices by these countries.

Trump also instructed the United States Executive Director of each multilateral development bank and before the International Monetary Fund to deny any loan or other use of his funds for the aforementioned countries.

The latter restriction also covers countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Burundi, China, Gambia, Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and South Sudan.

The new measure adopted by the Republican president comes after the United States included Cuba in June on a list of countries that according to Washington breach the minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking, despite the island’s zero tolerance of that phenomenon.

In the particular case of Cuba, the US executive pointed to alleged poor working conditions for doctors on state missions abroad, as part of the growing attacks against a solidarity program of great international recognition.

The recent measure also comes after the government of Miami, Florida, passed a resolution also in June asking Congress and the Federal Executive to ban the contracting of Cuban artists, in order to impact cultural exchanges with the island.

  • Published in Cuba

German Theater takes home the ‘Raquel Revuelta’ International Award

Two German theater directors have been presented with the International ‘Raquel Revuelta’ Award granted by the Cuban Writers and Artists Association –UNEAC- at Havana’s 18th Theater Festival Oct. 19/27. The awardees are Berliner Ensemble’s General Director Oliver Reese and German artistic and theater director Michael Thalheimer. The prize is named after Raquel Revuelta, an important Cuban TV, radio and theater actress and director.

At UNEAC’s Rubén Martínez Villena hall, the ceremony took place with outstanding performing art figures from all over the world being awarded. On hand were Deputy Culture Minister and President of the National Performing Arts Council Fernando Rojas; UNEAC’s President Luis Morlote Rivas; Germany’s ambassador to Cuba Heidrun Tempel and the embassy’s cultural attaché Petra Röhler.

The award-winning artists have expressed their gratitude to Havana Theater Festival organizers for such a high honor, to Cuba and to Bertolt Brecht's legacy. ‘It is a great honor for us to be able to stage The Caucasian Chalk Circle tomorrow and the day after tomorrow at the Martí Theater at 7:00 pm, already in the festival’s final days. We know the great importance that this Brecht piece has for Cuba. For an actor, for a director, the ensemble is the most important, because it is at the center of creation,’ said Oliver Reese.

For his part, Michael Thalheimer stressed: ‘20 years ago I was in Cuba as a tourist. I was a practically unknown theater director. At that time I fell in love with this city. I promised myself that I would return and never thought of this opportunity of being invited to the Festival, let alone, to receive the award. I have always enjoyed the kindness of Cubans, the passion, the life, the joy of this country. ”

Cuban playwright and critic Norge Espinosa said the eulogy, in which he stressed the need to reconnect with Brecht's work over and over again: ‘Take him out of the museum, review his poetry in times of social media and so many disturbances, show his works to audiences as if you were attending a spectacular debate, it is necessary from time to time. That is why, Brecht has survived tributes, dates and formal celebrations, attacks and excessive praise, because deep down he was a poet and the world cannot seduce the habitable, if not heard in the voice of poets.’

  • Published in Culture

Cuban Company Acosta Danza Announces UK Tour

United Kingdom stages will soon host the presentations of the Cuban company Acosta Danza, which will perform a selection of the best known pieces from its repertoire, informs today a statement from the institution.

Under the general direction of Carlos Acosta, between October 28 and November 23, the cast of dancers from the Caribbean nation will arrive in the cities of Norwich, Edinburgh, Birmingham and London, where they will perform four performances in the Sadler's Wells theater.

According to the official note, the programme includes the play Satori, a choreography by Raúl Reinoso based on concepts of Zen Buddhism, with music by Pepe Gavilondo; as well as the duet Fauno, by the Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, inspired in the legendary La siesta de un fauno, by the Ukrainian Vatslav Nijinsky.

The piece entitled Paysage, soudain, la nuit, by Swedish artist Pontus Lidberg, inspired by the footsteps of Cuban rumba, which features scores by Leo Brouwer and Stefan Levin, while an artistic installation by Elizabet Cerviño serves as a stage design, stands out in the selection.

Each presentation will close with the staging of Rooster, by choreographer Christopher Bruce, with music by the British band The Rolling Stones.

The announcement also states that at the end of the British tour, the company will travel for the first time to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, where it will offer two performances.

  • Published in Culture

Frank Fernandez evokes Alicia Alonso at Ibero-American festival

'For Alicia Alonso, Ave Maria by Schubert,' the famous Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez offered at the opening of the inaugural gala of the 25th Ibero-American Culture Festival.

The event takes place in the eastern province of Holguin, about 734 kilometers east of the capital, from 24 to 30 October, and the composer was the deluxe guest of a ceremony that ended Thursday with the Teatro Eddy Suñol applauding.

Wearing mourning clothes, Fernandez assured Prensa Latina that Alonso's death left him speechless, because Alicia is a piece of the Homeland, this cannot only be seen as the death of a personality.

Her legacy was transcendental, so I wanted to give something spiritual to her and maybe that is why my most emblematic theme, perhaps the one that has lasted the longest in time, has been the love song of the great rebellion and I arranged that officially all programs say 'dedicated to Alicia Alonso,' he emphasized.

It's a token of my respect, my affection and my sadness, because somehow this song, although full of vitality and love, also has a touch of lyricism and tenderness, he said.

  • Published in Culture

Artists receive decoration at Havana Theater Festival

Cuban and foreign artists received a relevant decoration in homage to their trajectory and artistic commitment, to the Havana Theater Festival that arrives this Wednesday at its fifth day of activities.

The Cuban Ministry of Culture honored Ernesto Llewellyn, artistic director and general manager of the Babul Folkloric Ballet Company, and Ladislao Navarro, founder and general manager of the Fragmented Dance Company.

Both teachers deserved the Distinction for National Culture in tribute to their performance and dedication at the head of two emblematic dance ensembles, located in the province of Guantanamo.

For its part, the Provincial Assembly of People's Power recognized the playwrights Miguel Rubio, from Peru; Jose Luis Ardissone, from Paraguay; Pablo Cueto, from Mexico; Manuel Santos, from Argentina; Claudio Rivera, from the Dominican Republic, and Javier Aranda, from Spain.

These personalities received the Seal for the 500th anniversary of the city, a distinction that recognizes those who contribute to social and cultural development, their long professional career and social commitment.

The meeting was hosted by the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba and became a clear expression of the interest that this branch of the performing arts awakens in playwrights, actors, researchers of the world.

  • Published in Culture
Subscribe to this RSS feed