Who could imagine Bob Neuwirth in Cuba? Over the years he appears as a creative partner to artists from Janis Joplin ("Mercedes Benz") to Bob Dylan (Don't Look Back, the Rolling Thunder Revue), John Cale, T Bone Burnett and many others. Painter, poet and "instigator," with a 40-year creative trail stretching from Paris to San Francisco, Neuwirth has been described by England's Mojo magazine as "arguably the most underrated singer/songwriter of the last ten years." But who would have thought he'd create one of the best albums of the current Cuban music explosion?
Neuwirth was inspired to explore Cuban music by visiting Cuban groups at a Lincoln Center concert. As Neuwirth's interest in that country's music grew, a mutual friend introduced him to the great Cuban composer/arranger/pianist Jose Maria Vitier, whose work includes the score for the Oscar-nominated film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberries and Chocolate).
Havana Midnight is the outcome of the resultant collaboration between Neuwirth and Vitier. It is neither an audio verite snapshot of Neuwirth's 1999 recording trip to Cuba, nor a collection on which Neuwirth tries to sing Cuban music, nor an album of Cuban musicians trying to play his folk/blues-influenced songs. It is a true picture of artists from very different traditions finding, or creating, a common ground.
"This album is a crossing of paths," Neuwirth explains. "It started as an experiment, an attempt to see if cross-cultural art could be successful." Vitier, whose parents are noted Cuban poets, responded to Neuwirth's lyrics, while Neuwirth found a kinship with Cuba's "nueva trova" movement, a folk-style, politically aware form of music that swept Latin America in the '60s. Vitier suggested a collaboration, and his country's Institute of Music invited Neuwirth to Havana for a "fully-hosted" cultural visit.
The recordings with arranger Vitier and a small core of top Cuban musicians only lasted a week, but yielded nine lovely, low-key songs -- all Neuwirth originals -- that reflect his journey and surroundings, including the calm, seductive "Havana Midnight," the stark ballad "The Call," and "Don Quixote," Bob's ode to the changes Cuba is undergoing. The instrumental accompaniment is wonderfully subtle and understated without losing its distinctively Cuban flavor.
Reviews"A more accessible stepping stone into Cuba's music than even 'Buena Vista Social Club' an album of the year!"- Mojo