With Love from Havana: Hilario Duran “Contumbao” and Co Woo at Jazz Fest

by Monika Viktorova

A frenzy of fingers on keys, Hilario Duran “Contumbao” starts off his first show at the Yardbird Suite with an infectious improvisation, bringing smiles to his bandmates and the audience. The congo drums kick off and everyone around me starts bobbing along, the beat transporting us somewhere tropical with whirlwind urgency. The time to dance is now and it’s all anyone can do to stay in their seats.

Hilario Duran “Contumbao”, born in Havana, Cuba in 1953, is an acclaimed pianist and composer who relocated first to the United States and later to Toronto, Canada, in the 1990s. Born into a musical family, Duran was exposed to an eclectic mix of music as a child and picked up the piano at age 6, reproducing music he’d heard by ear before starting formal training at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory of Music in 1968. After completing military training, he became a professional musician, playing piano for Los Papa Cun-Cun Ensemble, where he learned about Cuban music styles like montuos and tumbaos. His prolific and unique use of the latter, a form of repetitive bass figures, gives him his nickname,  “Con Tumbao”.

By the second song, everyone around me is bobbing their heads in time with the music, Duran and his band our Pied Pipers hooking us with the irresistible rhythm of the track Segundo Encuentro, off of Duran’s new album Contumbao. Jorge Luis Torres “Papiosco” revs us up on the congos, whose beats play off the drumming of Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez to create a synergistic base on which Duran’s piano and Roberto Riveron’s bass build. I can’t dance salsa but by the end of the song I feel a single-minded imperative to learn, as if the music has reordered the molecules in my body and primed them to respond to it. The song reminds me of a trip to Cuba I took when I was just 17, to a night in a famous cabaret listening to similarly impassioned notes and beats that create a summer rhapsody.

Duran’s music, magnetic to its listeners, has rightly garnered numerous accolades in the Canadian music scene over the years. In 1991, Duran met Canadian flautist Jane Bunnett, who invited him to perform on her recording Spirits of Havana that went on to win a JUNO award in 1992. In the late 90s, Duran met the drummer from tonight’s performance, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, and the two began a longstanding successful collaboration. (A formal shout out here to the couple sitting next to me who were at the show for Hernandez- having seen him in Fernando Trueba’s documentary film about Latin Jazz, Calle 54. I know what I’m queuing up in the middle of winter when I want this music to transport me back to the invincible summer in its notes and rhythm.)

Duran began gaining wide critical acclaim in 2001 when his album, Havana Remembered, a collection of traditional Cuban music from the 1920s – 40s received a JUNO nomination for Best World Music Album. After signing on to Canadian jazz label ALMA, Duran recorded his album New  Danzon, featuring Hernandez on drums and Occipinti on bass, which then won a JUNO in 2005. The following year, Duran’s second album Encuentro en La Habana, which was recorded in Havana, was also nominated for a JUNO. He created and toured with a Latin Jazz Big Band, hitting major jazz music festivals and recorded the 2006 From the Heart with the ensemble, winning the JUNO Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year. The album was also nominated for a Grammy. In 2011, Duran resumed his prodigious collaboration with Jane Bunnett and the resulting album, Cuban Rhapsody, went on to win a JUNO for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. But if my listing of his awards hasn’t convinced you yet to listen to Duran on whatever music platform you frequent, perhaps his infectious sense of humor will; when introducing the band to the audience after their opener, Duran plugged the CD’s for sale in the lobby, saying “You buy the album if you like the music. If you buy it and you don’t like the music, give it to someone else you don’t like”. I posit that giving Duran’s Contumbao to your enemies is a great way to turn them into friends.

I’ve only been to Havana once, but Duran captures its spirit so masterfully in Contumbao, which was recorded there, that recalling the memories of the city’s hot, humid and lightly fragrant night air is suddenly easier. Everyone is leaning forward now, almost vibrating with their seats as they are pulled in from the music’s magnetism. The third song, Guajira 2016, was written to embody the musical traditions of the Cuban countryside, normally played on acoustic guitar. The congo drums and the piano are a little more downtempo but no less hypnotic. I imagine a drive through the lush Cuban wilderness, the jungle a green blur rushing past you while the sky extends out in an endless blue, meeting out beyond the hills the other endless blue of the ocean.

The next number is decidedly more uptempo, Hernandez and Torres starting it off with as a bewitching duo. This song makes me think of slipping on espadrilles and putting my hair up in bun to walk down to the beach, a dash of red lipstick, a straw fedora and a crime novel in tow. The band brings the atmosphere of Cuba to life, as if they’d had it bottled and let is splash out and wash over us through the music. They play a few more songs, including a nostalgic number called Parque 527, composed as homage to the memories of the neighbourhood in Havana in which Duran grew up. And then, the set ends, and the sizzle of Havana’s summer heat, which we can almost feel, fades with the last slow notes of piano. Like a beautiful dream you struggle to hold onto after awakening , Duran, Hernandez, Riveron and Torres’ performance lingers long after the last notes play.

Photography courtesy of TD Edmonton International Jazz Festival