Since she began visiting Cuba in the 1980s, Canadian jazz saxophonist-flautist Jane Bunnett has been on a mission to bring the best of the island's music back home.
Going back to her breakthrough, Juno Award-winning 1991 album Spirits of Havana, she and musician-husband Larry Cramer were way ahead of the curve that crested a few years later when Ry Cooder collaborated with the Buena Vista Social Club, and her ongoing explorations have yielded numerous Latin jazz recordings, two documentary films and hundreds of concert appearances.
The group they formed, also called Spirits of Havana, proved to be a valuable showcase for a number of musicians,including notable Cuban players like pianists Hilario Duran and David Virelles, the latter of whom has gone on to perform with Ravi Coltrane and was named one of the 10 best piano players in the world by the New York Times.
But even after all of that, Bunnett realized that there was still a key part of the story that hadn't been told.
"It dawned on me that not one woman had been in our group since we started Spirits of Havana, and I thought it was time to put a new project together and see what happens," Bunnett says from Toronto, before her trip to the East Coast with her ensemble Maqueque to perform the opening night St. Matthews Church show at the Halifax Jazz Festival on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Bunnett and Maqueque also host a free jazz lab at the Halifax Central Library on Wednesday at noon.
Taking its name from a term that translates as "the energy of a young woman's spirit," Maqueque recently released its second album Oddara, and watching Bunnett perform with this group of remarkable musicians, it's not hard to feel that surge of energy and spirit in their rhythmic interplay and deep-seated groove.
As with Spirits of Havana, the group is proving to be a valuable opportunity and springboard for its members, and as its leader explains, it's the general lack of these kinds of opportunities back home — and a certain amount of old-school chauvinism — that makes this project so important for its members to gain the kind of experience and confidence that is putting them on the world stage.
"There are few enough performance opportunities, all over the world, and in Cuba it's even worse because you have to get government permission to do anything," says Bunnett. "You can't just walk into a coffee shop or a bar, like you could in Canada, go up to the manager and say 'Hey, I'd love to play here, we'll pass the hat or you pay us from the door,' and you've struck up a deal and you're playing your tunes.
"In Cuba, you have to go through various layers of government to get permission. There aren't those kinds of private places where you can strike up your own deal, and among the few people that are out there playing in La Zorro y el Cuervo (Havana jazz bar The Fox & the Crow) and places like that, there's a real pecking order, and most of it is guys. But these girls get all this training at the conservatories that Cuba is so proud of, and you never see them out playing on the scene. Maybe in a hotel lobby for tourists, where the repertoire has been somewhat dictated to them, but rarely in a situation where it's original music in some sort of creative venture."
In fact, it was in a hotel lobby where it all started, when Bunnett and Cramer met then-teenage singer Dayme Arocena on a trip to Cuba with supporters of Toronto's Jazz.FM91 station. The couple had organized a private jam session for their fellow travellers, and just before heading to the ballroom, they struck up a conversation with the 17-year-old.
"I found out she was a singer, and invited her up," recalls Bunnett. "And she was really good, she sang beyond her years, and I left her my iPod because I thought she should be listening to more jazz, and it's hard to get material there.
"Then a month later, I was involved in a benefit called Dynamic Divas that raises money for women at risk, and I convinced the powers-that-be to let me bring Dayme up from Cuba, and she brought the house down. People said they'd never heard anything like it, and that was the start of the idea for Maqueque."
On her next trip to Cuba, Bunnett met up with more musicians to see who was available to join Maqueque, and wound up conducting shaky rehearsals in a space with unreliable electricity. But as with most venues in Havana, it had character.
"It was a bar for drag queens, where they'd have contests at night to see who was the best-looking," she says with a laugh. "The government turns a blind eye to it and allows the shenanigans to go on there. It's not a private club, but they're allowed to use this crappy pisshole of a place to do their thing.
"We went in there, and sometimes we only got 25 minutes of rehearsal because the lights would go out, or the amps wouldn't come on, and we ended up doing our rehearsal in the studio as we were recording the first album. The whole thing was really chancy."
Bunnett calls Maqueque's self-titled debut "a huge leap of faith," considering the technical issues they had to sort out once they got the recordings back to Canada and started mixing and mastering. But despite the members' lack of studio experience, and the occasional malfunctioning instrument, the results proved to be more than worth it.
"Crazily enough, that record got a Juno Award. So then we started to do some travelling together, and we really got to know each other at this point, as a group, and it seemed we were really on to something," she says.
"Now we have our second record, Oddara, and the response to the group has been really overwhelming. I couldn't be more pleased with the power of the group, the way everyone contributed music to the record, and the way the group sounds as a unit after more touring. It feels much closer, in terms of personalities.
"To me, it's a phenomenon, and it's given me a lot of new energy to work with because everyone's so excited and they can't wait to get onstage and see what they can do. There's an enthusiasm and a real joy that just radiates from the bandstand. People have told me there's a power they can feel coming from the girls' playing that's very, very strong."
Since the debut, Maqueque's lineup keeps evolving. After recording vocals for Oddara, Arocena departed for a promising solo career, plus there's a new bass player Cecilia Jimenez, and the addition of a violinist, Elizabeth Rodriguez, along with singer-pianist Danae Olano and percussionists Magdelys Sevigne — who also sings — and Yissy Garcia.
"It's really exciting for me to see this group work as a collective," says Bunnett. "As people move on, you go out there and find somebody else, because there are so many talented young women out there who want to do something like this, but really don't know how to go about doing it.
"It's kind of an abstract thing to say, 'I want to go out there and play jazz.' It's unusual, there's no guarantee that you're going to be successful at it. But if you're part of a collective like this and everybody's got your back, helping each other play better and get stronger, it's very rewarding."
TD Halifax Jazz Festival - Wednesday lineup
Main Stage: Jo Mersa Marley (Bob Marley's grandson), Jesse Royal, 8:30 p.m. ($30)
St. Matthew's: Jane Bunnett & Maqueque, 7 p.m. ($35)
1313 Hollis: With Strings, 8 p.m. ($20/$15)
The Carleton: Keith Hallett, 11:15 p.m. ($15)
Main Stage Free Daytime Concerts: Son Latino, noon; Ally Fiola & the Next Quest, 1:15 p.m.; Quinn Bachand's Brishen (Stingray Rising Stars), 2:30 p.m.; Riot Squad, 4 p.m.
Free Jazz Labs: Jane Bunnett & Maqueque, Halifax Central Library, noon; Inti Gonzalez, Halifax North Memorial Public Library, 1 p.m.