This was not a good day. Immigration officials in Cuba had brought an American and two Canadians in for questioning. Their paperwork was not in order. Rules had been broken. They had been doing work in Cuba without the proper permissions! Questioning went on for a couple of hours, with each person individually questioned.
Fortunately this story has a very good ending. The three in question are, in fact, the principals of Muxia Music, a new audiophile record label focused on culturally important traditional music. And I was being a bit dramatic as the Cuban authorities were serious but professional and courteous. They were simply doing their job. Indeed, they let the men go and suggested that the Ministry of Culture might be able to help with the proper permissions and work visas. But Jim Laurel, Lee Lockwood and Andrew Spindor were not out of the woods yet. The questioning had happened on a Thursday and the team looked forward to visiting the Ministry on Monday and getting their paperwork in order. Then, on Friday, Fidel Castro died. The Cuban government shut down for a nine-day mourning period. Jim and crew soon had to fly back to Seattle and Vancouver where they are based.
By then, they had spent lots of time in Havana, Santa Clara, and other towns making recordings of local musicians in theaters, churches and even at the famed Egrem Studio 101, where the blockbuster Buena Visa Social Club was recorded in 1996. Along the way, the Muxia team had made lots of friends among some of Cuba’s best and most well-known musicians. And this was valuable as Cuba’s politically influential musician’s union would save the day. Every musician in Cuba is automatically enrolled as a member of this union named UNEAC. Soon the Muxia team had a bunch of letters of recommendations and UNEAC facilitated the issuance of permissions and work visas.
Not long after, Jim, Lee and Andrew returned and recorded, Lo Que Dice Mi Cantar (What My Singing Says), by Trio Palabras. Widely known in Cuba for two decades, with frequent appearances on national television and radio shows, Trio Palabras has never been heard outside Cuba and this is their debut international release. This beautifully recorded album was debuting at Munich as Jim Laurel showcased some tracks after Abey Fonn played tracks from the new Jennifer Warnes album. I loved the harmonies I heard and I began talking to Jim in the hallway and found the adventure of location recording (something I also do) in Cuba fascinating. I wanted to learn more about Muxia Music and their recording process, so I reached out to Jim after the show and we spoke by phone.
But I had never heard of Muxia before. How did this all get started? Jim is an accomplished photographer and loves street photography. He had been traveling to various places for photography including Cuba before the recent travel restrictions hit. He captured people on the street and these photos give a real sense of life there. Jim had an idea to start bringing a field recorder to capture sounds, thinking it might add ambiance and richness to his slide shows. On one of these trips, Jim brought a Nagra Seven field recorder with a stereo pair of Sennheiser MKH8040 microphones, and recorded several bands, including a Cuban quartet in a forest just outside of Holguin. He was struck by the richness and depth of Cuba’s musical tradition, and the wealth of talent among its people. And yet, he found that there are precious few pure acoustic recordings of this material available done to audiophile quality standards.
Back home in Seattle, Jim began searching the Web to see if there was anyone else already doing this sort of work, and happened across a few videos of sessions that had been recorded by Canadians Lee Lockwood and Andrew Spindor using a Nagra VI. Jim reached out and the three realized they shared the same passion for this wonderful music and a spirit of adventure for recording it on location where it lives – a trio of modern-day Alan Lomaxes!
After a series of meetings to flesh out ideas, they committed to doing a major professional recording in Cuba. Lee had some musician connections in central Cuba which is a kind of a hub for Cuban music, their Laurel Canyon if you will. They wound up in Santa Clara (Central Cuba) where Yenkys Gonzalez Gomez, a local sound engineer and close friend of the project, introduced them to the members of Trio Palabras: Vania Martinez, Leane Perez and Nubia Gonzalez. In a small museum in the center of Sant Clara, they auditioned by performing a stunning acapella version of “Luna Llena”, which left no doubt that these talented women must be brought to a wider audience. After all the official permissions had been sorted out a year later, Trio Palabras joined the Muxia team at Studio Eusebio Delfin, in Cienfiegos, in the very heart of the region where Cuban “Trova” was born. The resulting album is simply beautiful music that has spectacular layered harmonies with Latin cadence and flowing melodies. Lo Que Dice Mi Cantar is already making a splash, having just been named as a winner in the 22nd annual Cubadisco festival. This is the most prestigious event in the Cuban music industry and an international showcase of exceptional musical talent and culture.
You can listen to the album tracks here.
Muxia’s production process has all the bonafides: audiophile recording, mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, pressed at RTI on 180-gram vinyl. But Jim pays as much attention to the recording process as he does to his brilliant photography. Muxia’s principal recording engineer, Andrew Spindor, uses Merging’s Hapi and Horus interfaces and quality microphones from Neumann, Royer, AEA, Gefell and Josephson. PCM is done at 24/192 and the songs you hear on this album are pure. No editing. No overdubs. No Autotune. Three takes were done and Jim and team chose the best one, imperfections and all.
Now, of course, Cuba has some logistical challenges. In one instance, Lee Lockwood tried to book time at the end of a December with the studio. He asked the studio if they could take the last week in the month. The studio said sure there was no one booked for that week. So Lee said okay, we will take it. Oops, the studio informed him that they couldn’t accept the booking because they had used their allotment for electricity that month! In another instance, Jim tells about arranging a bus booking for transporting musicians. In this case, the bus company could not provide transportation because they had used their gas allotment for the month! Lee said okay, we’ll pay for whatever diesel is required. Nope, they responded, the allotment was what it was. Yet the overall impression one gets in talking to Jim is that despite these idiosyncrasies, the Cuban people are warm, well-educated and rich in culture. There is much to discover there.
Here is where you can find the recordings:
So what’s next for Muxia? I will let Jim sum it up…
“We have several more projects cooking for Cuba, and we’ll be back there in October to do another recording as well as organize logistics for early 2020 sessions. Next up for us will be a new record from Nuria Rovira and the French band Compagnie Aurea. Nuria is Catalan by birth, Spanish by nationality and lives in Paris. And so, the record will celebrate musical influences from all three places, along with both Gypsy and Moorish influences. It will be sung in three languages: French, Catalan, and Spanish. We’re really excited about this project as the music is unique, culturally fascinating, and beautiful to hear. We are still deciding on the studio, but it is likely that we will record this in Lisbon. We’ll track it in DSD256 with Pyramix and our Merging Hapis. In addition, we’ll do a real-time 2-track mix direct to tape, most likely direct to our trusty Nagra IV-S. Here are a few links to videos Nuria has done. ‘Just playing around with my friends’, as she says. Can’t wait…”
It’s far too rare that I write about music but I plan on changing that. I just had to tell you about this remarkable Cuban recording that several of us discovered in Munich. Despite some challenges that might work as a humorous story in a Jimmy Buffett song, this music has made it into our hands and dazzled our ears. I’m going to keep an eye on this label. I hope you do as well.
All photos by courtesy and with permission of Jim Laurel.