Proyecto Nega is a studio work and not a working band. Fidel Morales is the leader, arranger and also, he plays drums (the drumset, or “trap drums”). The singer is Teresa García Caturla, who was a trova singer (I think) in the 1950s. She is in her 70s, but still has a graceful stage presence. You can tell she was a beautiful woman in her youth. Also of note is the timbal player, Amadito Valdéz, who was part of the Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban All-Stars projects. The video production is superb. Note the beautiful lighting, and the moving vignettes of Teresita García Caturla’s childhood reminiscences of her mother.
Non-Cubans should note how many people it takes to achieve the rhythm of the song, bongos, congas, cowbells (campanas), drum set, and then there is the “percusiones menores” (I guess its like “minor percussion instruments”), the clave sticks and maracas (technically the campana is in this category). Pay attention of the pattern played by the bass. It is typical latin bass, setting up a beautiful counterpoint. The rhythm is entirely Cuban. The song structure is also Cuban. Note the way there is a repetitious vocal riff by the backup singers (they call this “coros” in Cuba–like choruses, I think), and Teresa García Caturla trades off with the coro singers with these extemporaneous vocal leads called “guias.” This is all very Cuban.
The harmonic structure, however, shows heavy influence of American jazz. There is a beautiful interlude, or bridge played by the piano player, which to me shows an influence of Bill Evans, or maybe Oscar Peterson. Then there is the instrumentation…just looking at the brass section reminds you of big band swing.
Its like jazz is the car body, and it rides on a cuban chassis. I love this, how the melody kind of floats over the percussion. All good Cuban music has this feel to me…its kind of breezy. There are so many variations you can do with this idea…like American blues.
One final thought is the dancers. In Cuba the dancers in the audience are like performers of equal importance as the musicians. There is no “proscenium arch” around the stage. The dancers are sort of on the stage too. As an aside, this reminds me of Duke Ellington’s famous performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the 1956 Newport Jazz festival. Ellington’s sense of elegance and importance to the African-American community on the 1930s and 40s, that the audience never danced, they held them in such reverence that they wanted to watch, thinking, “I’ll buy the record and dance at home, but as long as I’m here I’ll just watch.” At Newport, there was a probably wealthy, attactive blond woman who started dancing in the aisle while the Brazillian-American tenor sax player, Paul Gonzalves, played his solo. Ellington gave Gonzalves a hand signal to keep playing chorus afer chorus to keep the spirit alive. He played something like 25 choruses of the song, and the audience went wild. Later Ellington described that performance as maybe his best feeling in his career.
Back to Proyecto Nega, note the fluidity and gracefulness of the Cuban dancers. It’s a sense of pure elegance, sensuality and gracefulness that they project, in wonderful time to the very complex rhythm. It’s a sight to behold.