The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

Cubenco, Anyone?

Cubenco, Anyone?

FROM THE LEFT SIDE OF THE BALCONY | Flamenco isn’t just heel-stomping music anymore.

Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba came of age in Havana playing Cuban music and jazz. He later branched out to all kinds of genres, from European classical to Mexican ballads. Now, in a special Bay Area appearance, he’s embarking on a new adventure that combines jazz, popular Cuban music, and flamenco. I call it Cubenco.

In a phone call from his home in Florida, Rubalcaba explains his upcoming collaboration with Spanish gypsy flamenco singer Esperanza Fernandez. She had become interested in the music of Cuban singer and composer Benny Moré (1919-1963), who was one of the first popularizers of the mambo.

The two wanted to create a musical bridge between Cuba and Spain. Moré was one of the great composers in Cuba. Was there a parallel musician in Spain around that time? They agreed to incorporate the music of Manolo Caracol (1909-1973), one of the great flamenco composers in the Spanish Roma (Gypsy) tradition.

The Rubalcaba/Fernandez project is called Oh Vida! (Oh Life!). Nobody has embarked on such a project before, according to Rubalcaba. “The idea is to inject some Cuban flavor into the flamenco music of Manolo Caracol and inject some Gypsy flamenco concepts into the music of Benny Moré, looking for where it fits in a natural way, not forcing anything,” says Rubalcaba.

Creating this Cubenco musical fusion won’t be easy. The instrumentation and historical roots of the two genres are quite different.

By comparison, musicians in the United States and Cuba long ago combined Cuban son (often called salsa) with jazz to create Latin jazz. But those styles shared similar instruments and common roots in the rhythms of Africa. Flamenco is trickier. Traditionally, flamenco groups rely on guitar, rhythmic hand clapping, and vocalists. Flamenco rhythm has Roma roots in Europe and the Middle East.

So Rubalcaba and Fernandez will have to create something entirely new. Their combo will resemble a jazz group: piano, bass, percussion, and vocals. The percussionist will play standard instruments such as congas and cajon (rhythm box), as well as provide rhythmic clapping.

I asked, tongue in cheek, if Rubalcaba was studying flamenco piano. “In flamenco, there’s not a long history of piano,” he says with a chuckle, although it has been used in recent times. “Obviously, the guitar has been the dominant instrument.”

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he continues. “It’s very difficult for a flamenco group not to have a guitar and for the responsibility to be on the piano for accompaniment. It will definitely be a challenge to have the piano be the central instrument for this project.”

Challenging, but eminently doable. I think the fusion of jazz and Latin with other styles is one of the most exciting frontiers in music today. Now Bay Area listeners will have a chance to experience Cubenco, an entirely new genre in the making.

Rubalcaba and Fernandez perform Oh Vida! on March 9 at Herbst Hall in San Francisco. The program is part of the Bay Area Flamenco Festival, which runs March 1-9 with performances in San Francisco and the East Bay. For more details, visit


Since the United States imposed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1960, Cuban musicians have had a hard time performing here. And American musicians have had to lie to U.S. border officials to play in Cuba. I’ve been reporting from the island since 1968 and written many times about this craziness. My book, Dateline Havana, has a chapter on Cuban musicians and the blockade, as the embargo is called in Cuba.

The U.S. government has subjected Cuban musicians to an arbitrary visa process, often forcing them to cancel U.S. gigs at the last minute. By law, Cubans can’t receive fees for their performances, only travel expenses and per diems. The result is a lot of money passed under the table.

U.S. musicians, like everyone in the United States, can’t visit or perform in Cuba, except under limited rules allowing cultural exchanges. Nevertheless, the Havana Jazz Festival and other events are often filled with U.S. artists anxious to absorb the country’s wonderful musical vibe.

Pianist Rubalcaba says the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba last year has improved conditions somewhat for musicians.

“It’s a lot more flexible for Cuban musicians to come here,” he says. “It’s now somewhat easier for musicians and all Cubans to get visas to enter the U.S.”

Rubalcaba, like most Cubans, would like to see the blockade end. “The blockade against Cuba has been obsolete for a long time,” he says. “It’s more negative than positive for both countries.”

For decades, the U.S. policy on Cuba has faced international opposition. Every year for the past 24 years, the U.N. General Assembly votes to condemn the embargo, with even close allies such as France, Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom voting against the United States or abstaining. The 2015 vote was 191-2, with only Israel supporting the United States.

Rubalcaba correctly points out that the United States has no business interfering in Cuba’s internal affairs. “Cuba’s future needs to be determined by Cuba itself and what happens within Cuba,” he says.

The Obama administration took a positive step by finally re-establishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba. It’s time for Congress to end the embargo as well.


The Center for Asian American Media holds its 34th annual film fest March 10-20. Formerly known as the Asian Film Festival, this year’s event includes locally and nationally produced cinema to be shown in San Francisco and the East Bay. For listings see:


A couple not to miss: From March 9 to April 3, ACT ( presents Realistic Jones, a play in which Samuel Beckett meets Jon Stewart, as one critic wrote. And the multitalented star of Fargo, Frances McDormand, headlines a Berkeley Rep ( production of Macbeth through April 10. Out damn spot. You betcha.

Oakland journalist Reese Erlich writes this arts and culture column every month. Follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich, on Facebook ( or contact him by email,

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