Toward a New Cubanity: How Pavel Urkiza Forged the Sound of Gen-X Cuba and Brought It to America

Pavel Urkiza was a voice for a lost generation of Cuban musicians. Now, with Cuban-American relations the friendliest they've been in more than 50 years, he's becoming an anchor for an expat community in Washington.

Oct 1 2015, 1:50pm

Photos by Nebiyou Elias

On a balmy August evening, musician Pavel Urkiza warmed his fingers on his guitar with an anxious, fast-paced flamenco as waiters at Sam’s on the Waterfront, an upscale restaurant on Maryland’s Chesapeake Harbor, readied his sound system. This was Urkiza’s first show there, and his jazzy Latin style would be a first for most customers. As Urkiza began to scat the blues in Spanish, they stopped their chatter and turned to listen to his unique global fusion.

"I'm from Cuba and I've just come here after 22 years in Spain. I came for love," he revealed as he nodded to his new bride Ana María Kleymeyer, a native of nearby Arlington, Virginia. After meeting at one of Urkiza’s shows in Geneva, Switzerland, they married last February and relocated to Annapolis, Maryland. And now Urkiza, a Cuban musician who is internationally acclaimed for his savvy modernization of his home country’s musical traditions, was playing at a local marina.

Customers clapped and raised their glasses—definitely to love and at least some to the re-establishment of US-Cuba relations, more than five decades after Cold War tensions prompted the Kennedy Administration to impose an embargo with a travel ban for American citizens in 1961.

Tickled by the unusual appearance of a bona fide Cuban, an Irishman with a long white beard leaned across the bar and whispered that he was a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway. He said he wanted to see the American writer’s old stomping grounds in all their 1950s nostalgia before the island is overrun with a resurgence of American tourism and development. Congress hasn’t made any moves to lift the embargo, but increasing numbers of Americans are already traveling to Cuba on legal people-to-people delegations.

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Scenes like this one have been a constant since Urkiza launched his career in small American venues across the Mid-Atlantic earlier this year. And they’re downright astonishing to modern Cuban music fans who know Cuba is not just old cars, fat cigars, and glitzy casinos. Urkiza is a symbol of a Cuba in constant cultural evolution. In his three-decade career, Urkiza has released acclaimed albums on his own and as one half of the popular duo Gema y Pavel. He’s worked with a range of acclaimed musicians that includes Spanish band Ketama, Cuban pop and fusion singers Albita Rodríguez and Descemer Bueno, contemporary Cuban jazz phenomenon Yosvany Terry, and the most celebrated female voice of the Buena Vista Social Club, Omara Portuondo. He’s also shared the stage with Puerto Rican mambo king Tito Puente and legendary Cuban troubadour Pablo Milanés.

Nobody is as astonished as Urkiza himself. Growing up in Communist Cuba, authorities said America was the enemy, and Cubans who sought refuge there were gusanos (worms). Now his weeks are filled with intimate US performances. One of these is a Sunday gig at Rumba Café, a quaint Latin bistro located a few blocks from the brand new Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC, where he exposes newcomers with to a concoction of original Latin blues, jazz, and Afro-Cuban styles, then humors their traditional expectations by inviting his wife, the daughter of a Cuban exile, to sing old Cuban duets alongside him.

Urkiza’s multifaceted style is rooted in the social and political complexity of his life story. He was born to Cuban parents studying in the Soviet Union in 1963 and raised by relatives in Havana, many of whom were government officials and artists who espoused egalitarian ideals such as free education and healthcare. One of Urkiza’s biggest influences was his grandmother Raquel Revuelta, an iconic actress in Cuban theater and film who promoted a more flexible version of Marxism through the arts.

“She was a humanist. I think that’s what gives my music a theatrical subtext,” he said. Urkiza’s grandparents had come of age with the romantic crooning of the post-bolero or filin movement of the 1940s and 1950s. Their children grew up during the early years of the revolution, a time defined by the idealistic folk-rock sounds of the nueva-trova. Urkiza liked both, but he wanted something deeper, as many of these artists had abandoned small pubs for state-sponsored stages. He found it in the religious ceremonies of the Afro-Cuban community. The revolution had dismantled segregation, and the music and spiritual practices of the Yoruba tradition were just beginning to receive state recognition as an art form.

Urkiza began experimenting with what he would later call filin progresivo. Romantic but folky; bluesy, jazzy, but decidedly Cuban, the sound won him an official tour performing for Cuban troops backing leftist rebels in Angola in 1988. A year after his return, the Berlin Wall crumbled, and Cuba’s once egalitarian economy, backed for two decades by the Soviet Union, went into rapid decline. The US dollar was introduced, but only at elite stores where foreigners and government officials shopped. Most stores could barely stock their shelves, and the Cuban peso became almost worthless.

“Cuba became two countries,” Urkiza said, of the class divisions that emerged.

In 1990, Urkiza and female vocalist Gema Corredera created the duo Gema y Pavel. While their goal was to spread their progressive musical filin, their collaboration also served to express their existential concerns, like whether the revolution was living up to its ideals. At several concerts, they took a pause from singing and simply strummed the guitar while reading the text of a Cuban peso, which specifically says the bill has “unlimited legal course” and must be accepted anywhere in national territory.

The crowd would go wild. It made a statement without landing them in prison. Still, they wanted to expand their professional horizons, so in 1993, the duo defected during a theatrical tour of Spain. The country had everything they could imagine, but even European audiences boxed Cuba into older musical genres.

“We really had to earn our frijoles through interaction with people who didn’t always come into venues with the idea of listening,” Urkiza said.

They recorded their first album, 1994’s Trampas del Tiempo, in Spain, and followed it up with a successful European tour. Then, hoping to expose the world to new Cuban styles, they returned to Havana to record a compilation album titled Habana Oculta with a collective of the same name. It featured Gema y Pavel’s own filin progresivo as well as the island’s latest musical trend, rocason—rock n’ roll with the traditional Cuban son, the roots of what is now commonly called salsa. The collective relocated to Spain and changed its name to Habana Abierta. Gema y Pavel continued to produce them while simultaneously working on their duo albums Cosa de Broma (1996), Síntomas de Fe (1999), and the wildly popular Art Bembé (2003). On the latter, a tongue twisting high-energy son number called “La Lengua” featuring past-paced, multi-scale chanting to warn of the dangers of gossip, was so infectious that the song's co-author Descemer Bueno recorded his own version for his album Siete Rayo and many others have reproduced it on stage.

In 2007, as polls among Cuban Americans in South Florida shifted to embrace the idea of more open relations with Cuba, Gema moved to Miami, as did several members of Habana Abierta. Urkiza stayed behind in Madrid, releasing Desnudos (2007), ), the last of the Gema y Pavel collaborations, and then going solo with the release of Momento (2012) and Filin Progresivo 2004/2014.

He then took a different cultural route. Prior to relocating to Annapolis in 2015, he made several trips across the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, South and North America, and the Middle East to create a global music album and documentary film project called La Ruta de las Almas. Urkiza weaves interviews and recordings he produced of 85 other musicians to compose an artistic rendering of the roots of Ibero-American music. He plans to release both this fall.

“The featured cultures are profoundly interconnected,” he said. “You realize we’re all essentially the same, and it doesn’t make any sense to be fighting. If you were to peer down from the universe, what are we but a grain of sand?”

That’s about how he felt earlier in the spring when he first started playing at Rumba Café, his name casually scrawled on a chalkboard advertising the evening’s entertainment, to fewer than a dozen Sunday night customers, but it wasn’t long before word of his residency spread to fans. On subsequent Sundays, the number of patrons grew and his show became a sort of communion of fried yucca, mojitos, and praise for Urkiza’s signature style.

He has also inspired other local Cuban artists to collaborate much the way they did back on the island. One evening, Cuban jazz artist Luis Faife walked in on his way to a neighboring gig and pulled out his soprano sax. He gave Urkiza a subtle nod and then slipped a soulful solo into his colleague’s distinctive chord progressions. En route to the same gig, percussionist and recent Cuban émigré Emilito del Monte took a seat on the Peruvian cajón he was carrying and thumped a complex rhythm. Urkiza responded with a Yoruba chant, as though this spontaneous jam session had evoked the gods.

On a break Urkiza took a swig of red wine and grinned euphorically.

“It’s like that song ‘Corazones Errantes’ I wrote with Vanito Brown,” he said, referring to a number from Desnudos he wrote with one of his collaborators from Habana Abierta. “The road is about winning and losing without knowing…”

The night before Cuba raised its flag in Washington, Urkiza played to a packed house. Most patrons were Cuban. They included exiles, economic migrants, children of émigrés, and official Cuban visitors arriving straight from the island. They filled every last corner and cut it up on the dance floor.

Cuban émigré Isabel Alfonso, a troubadour, blogger and founding member of Cuban Americans for Engagement, slipped onto the stage to blend her vocals with Urkiza while her American musician husband, Benjamin Willis, co-director of the United States Cuba Now Political Action Committee, clinked out rhythms with the Cuban clave. Hugo Cancio, a Cuban émigré from the massive 1980 Mariel Boatlift, a Miami entrepreneur who negotiates business deals between the Cuban government and American pharmaceutical companies, and more recently, the founder of a Havana-based web magazine OnCuba, stood to the side smiling contentedly. With or without the embargo, the future was upon them.

As the night went on, more and more non-Cubans wandered in off the street to check out the vibrant scene and even join in the dancing.

“I feel I’m going to be part of something important here. Americans are so accustomed to the sound of the Buena Vista Social Club. I think I open a door for them—a door to a more contemporary Cuba,” Urkiza said.

Julienne Gage is a Washington-based journalist who has covered Cuban music and current affairs in Havana, Miami, Madrid, and Washington. Follow her on Twitter.