Harold López-Nussa’s music has been a mirror in which a part of the newer generations of Cuban instrumentalists has looked. Harold has entered jazz with a very personal language, guided by his interest in expanding the concepts of jazz in Cuba and merging them with other genres. An example of this heterodox vision with which he defends music is his new album Te lo dije, in which he recorded an experiment never before carried out in the Cuban music scene: combining jazz with reggaeton.
The song is called “JazzTon” and it was a collaboration with Randy Malcom, one half of the popular urban music group Gente de Zona. For this recording, López-Nussa has already received some criticism from the most purist, who have accused him of not respecting jazz or of violating some supposedly sacred precepts of the genre. However, he acknowledges that he expected further questions for having given shape to this idea, which was born from his own interest in sound exploration after having seen one day how Santiago Feliú, in his iconoclastic tradition, played, like a child, with the rhythmic cells of the reggaeton.
“I thought I would get more negative reviews for having combined reggaeton with jazz. I’ve received some from people who believe that we’re disrespecting jazz. They are conservative people who find it a bit difficult to see how others go beyond the limits. The song stays in a complicated territory because it’s neither jazz nor reggaeton. That was precisely what caught our attention. The idea for this theme occurred to me one day when I saw Santiago Feliú years ago. He started playing to the rhythm of reggaeton. He began to irregularize it and I based myself on that together with my brother, Ruy, to create this theme. It’s about irregularizing the main cell of reggaeton. I shared the idea with Randy, whom I’ve known since I was a child because I used to go to the parties he had at his house when we were at the Amadeo Roldán and at the National School of Art. He really likes music and getting out of his comfort zone. It was really challenging and we plan to continue experimenting with these types of fusions. It’s been one of the riskiest things I’ve done so far and we’re going to continue developing it. We really enjoyed it and we put a lot of love into this song. We’re not clowning around. There’s a very serious work in harmony, rhythms,” Harold pointed out in his apartment located in a populous neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, where he lives with his wife and his little daughters.
“JazzTon” is one of the songs on his new album, an album in which the musician had the pleasure of thoroughly experimenting with different rhythms and releasing a string of ideas that circulated like a whirlpool through his head. To record this hybrid composed of tributaries from jazz and reggaeton, he also spoke with Gente de Zona’s lead singer, Alexander Delgado.
“Randy loved the idea from the beginning. I had also thought about Alexander but he was scared because he’s not like Randy, who has musical training. He told me that he might not feel comfortable. In the end, we did it with Randy,” says Harold, who is one of those artists who believe, above all else, in the freedom of music. That’s why he considers it a field of constant experimentation and creation. He affirms it while he moves his hands and body as if each word were a current. He laughs when he recalls the recording process for “JazzTon” and reveals that that experiment didn’t stop there.
“Now we’re working on something else within the same line within jazz and reggaeton, which is going to raise more criticism,” he jokes. “I like to experiment and now that I’ve had the time to be at home, crazy things come to my mind and I have people who follow me.”
Harold is 37 years old and, with 8 albums in his repertoire, he is one of the maximum representatives of jazz in contemporary Cuban music. He has always been very attentive to the sound and the legacy of his roots, something that he made clear on the album in which he recorded a tribute to Los Van Van with the songs “Van Van Meets New Orleans” and a version of “El baile del buey cansao.” He called Cimafunk to record this song; the result was a song with an imposing staging and an infectious rhythm.
“It’s an album with which I wanted to get a little more involved with Cuban popular music. There’s a song called ‘Timbeando,’ a kind of rapprochement between jazz and timba. ‘El buey cansao’ is a tribute that I personally wanted to pay to Juan Formell and Los Van Van, one of my favorite groups. In fact, there’s another song on the album called ‘Van Van Meets New Orleans.’ It’s a fantasy about what would have happened if instead of being born in Havana, the Van Van had emerged in New Orleans, a city that reminds me a lot of Havana because of its architecture, its people. I always thought of Cimafunk to record this song.”
How was the recording process with Cimafunk? Had you worked together before?
“Since I saw him for the first time performing covers I loved his work and then I saw him in Interactivo. It seemed to me that he could give the different and modern touch that I wanted with my version of ‘El buey cansao.’ It was crazy because I recorded the song without talking to him. I thought I could sing it but I didn’t even know it. We did the distance work. I recorded the music and then I spoke to him to tell him that I had the music and wanted him to sing the song. I sent it to him and he loved it. He took his time and I really liked what he did. It came out better than I had thought.
“Later, with the video, I was lucky to have designers Raupa, Mola and Edel. We’ve been friends for many years and they made my first video clip about 15 years ago. They are incredible artists. They spent a long time giving shape to the story and in the post-production of the video. I’m quite happy with the result of this work, particularly this year which has been so frustrating for many. For me, in the beginning, it was very hard, but I’ve been fortunate that these projects that I’ve been working on since before have come out and they have allowed me to look for other ways of creating.”
According to Harold, creation and family have saved him from stress, from his being away from the stage and the uncertainty of quarantine. He has learned, among other things, to use social networks and edit his own videos.
“The last time I played was at the Havana Jazz Festival. I’d been touring for many years, doing concerts in many parts of the world. Being away from that has really been very difficult for me. I had a really hard time during the first part of the pandemic. Luckily I was at home, with my wife, my daughters, who helped me out with that. I’ve seen other jazz musicians who have talked about how not being able to play has affected them and, to be honest, it hasn’t been easy for anyone. I still miss the stages a lot and I’ve adapted by force to survive amid the uncertainty of the virus and the pandemic. But at first, it was very difficult. I’ve gotten positive things out of it like learning to use the networks and edit videos on the computer, something that I never thought I could do. I’ve invented projects with musicians from a distance. Somehow I’ve continued creating and that makes me happy. But I still miss playing a lot.”
Jazz fans in Cuba regret that they don’t have many spaces where they can listen to groups and most of those that exist are expensive. What do you think about this context?
“Jazz consumers in Cuba aren’t actually people with a high purchasing power. They can’t go to places like La Zorra y el Cuervo where the cover is very high. These spaces are designed for an international market. It’s a shame because one plays in theaters and realizes that there’s an audience that likes jazz and consumes it. The alternatives of private places aren’t accessible to many people because of the same problem. It’s a very complex situation.”
What do you think can be done to change this unfavorable situation for the consumption of Cuban jazz?
“There would have to be some kind of subsidy as many clubs have in other parts of the world in order to survive, because they aren’t really solvent. Jazz clubs aren’t solvent because they have very high prices and don’t make much profit, but they have grants from individuals or they have another fund that allows them to support themselves. I really like doing concerts in theaters because they are accessible to people, but musicians don’t earn money with those shows.
“Every time I do a concert in a theater I have to invest from my pocket. I have to pay a truck to bring me the instruments, if a microphone is needed, the payment has to come out of my pocket, if I want to do a spot too. It doesn’t weigh me down because playing is my passion but all musicians can’t do that. There comes a point when you’re saturated a bit to keep insisting. We’re subsidized and companies have tried to create strategies to change that a bit and sometimes they pay for the process involved in holding and promoting a concert. And that makes it possible to breathe at least with the promotional expenses. It also happens that sometimes the company doesn’t find me a job and I have to pay for it anyway. It’s an unfair mechanism.”
In a recent conversation, your uncle, Ernán López Nussa, told me that all the musicians in the family had a very close professional relationship. Can you explain to me what this process of interaction or consultation is like when someone has a new project on the horizon?
“We have a very strong musical communication. Ernán and my dad looked at my last album a thousand times. When we have a project we consult it among all. That dynamic does not fail. We trust a lot in the criteria of the other. I trusted a lot in the criteria of my father, Ernán, my brother. Music is a career that involves a lot of work. It’s not a one-way road. It has many ups and downs. Frustrations. I’ve been fortunate to have very strong family support. I remember when I got out of school and did my military service and decided to experiment with other music than classical. I had criticism from the teachers because I was a good student and they didn’t want me to disengage. At 4 my brother played the piano and at 8 he improvised on drums. Instead, I played exactly how I was taught in school. At that stage, I had a lot of support from my family and my friends, who were ahead of me. I live in a constant state of nonconformity. I’m never satisfied with what I do. I always think there’s something to improve. Sometimes that search for perfection can asphyxiate me, but it’s what encourages me to keep improving and learning. That’s one of the points of reference with my family.”
*(The program A coffee with Alicia is subtitled for our English audience)
Do you think that one of the albums you’ve released best summarizes your creative personality?
“Herencia is perhaps one of my most personal albums. I recorded it in France in 2008. I think it’s more intimate because of the compositions and it defines quite well what I am.”
There are many musicians of your generation who have emigrated and have developed their careers in other countries. Have you ever thought about following those steps?
“I’ve always liked the idea of living in Cuba. I’ve been very afraid of getting away from this land, from the people who are here, from my family. I have a very strong attachment to Cuba. I’ve sometimes considered spending time in Europe, for example. Other times I’ve thought of the United States. But the momentum has never been enough to take that step, which for me is big. I see it as something very difficult to do. Cuba has its bad and good things. I’m interested in being a musician who expresses himself from Cuba. Living in Cuba and participating in international festivals has its advantages and disadvantages. So far I’ve chosen to live here and it’s been going quite well for me.”
Many artists talk about their success stories and prefer to ignore the darkest or most terrible moments. During your career do you remember a moment marked by frustration?
“I had several moments when I thought about quitting music, especially when I was a student. I remember once I went to a contest in Italy when I was like 14 years old. I had won all the competitions in Cuba and I went and came in as 14th place. It was a tremendous frustration for me. I didn’t understand it. When I saw those guys playing in an incredible way it was frustrating. I wondered if it was really worth so much effort if I couldn’t measure up to the world.”
Do you think musicians who live outside of Cuba maintain a different style of defending jazz?
“I think they have different ways of playing. Being in a place conditions your way of thinking, living, eating, playing. They play with musicians from other places and interact with other cultures. They also look at their heritage from another perspective. Possibly we here are looking more outward than the musicians who live in other countries. When you leave you look more inward, to your roots. That was also said once by Paquito de Rivera and he is very right. There are differences that seem very positive to me. Almost everyone I know who lives outside of Cuba has successful careers and has made great music. I follow what my colleagues do abroad. They inspire me a lot. There are several pianists of my generation with exceptional quality such as David Vírelles, Axel Tosca, Abel Marcel, Alfredito Rodríguez.”
In recent years you have played frequently in Europe. Do you think you have more audience in those countries than in Cuba?
“In recent years I’ve worked more outside of Cuba. Unfortunately, my records don’t come out in my country, although I’m always willing to publish with Cuban record labels, but it takes a lot of work for me. Te lo dije is my third album with a U.S. label. Of those three, I’ve only been able to license one in Cuba. I’ve done 7 or 8 with other foreign labels. I’m not famous in those countries but I’ve played frequently in some places in the United States and Europe, such as France, Germany.”
Why haven’t you been able to present your albums with Cuban labels?
“I never get tired of talking to Cuban record labels for them to record them and put them in the store. I don’t want money or anything, just for the album to be there, accessible to Cubans. But they aren’t interested. It was not for lack of desire on my part. I’ve tried with several of them. I’ve recorded with labels that have the right to my records for the world except for Cuba. And I’ve tried hard to get them out here but I’ve had no results. First I was recording my first albums with a French label and then with a U.S. one. It was difficult for me to leave the records free for Cuba because at that time there was a rapprochement with Cuba and they thought they could sell their records here. But they succeeded. Then I had the album and in Cuba nobody recorded it for me.”
Do jazz festivals in Cuba meet the expectations of musicians and the public?
“I like to think that the Jazz Plaza is an important festival. Surely it has its flaws but in its last editions, the programming has been quite important and respected. It has proposed special concerts and international artists have come, especially from the United States, of great impetus. People are taking it seriously. It’s a plaza that must be defended and improved. I hope one day they can pay the musicians. At the festival, everyone gets paid, except the musicians.”
How do you think the historical censorship of several great artists who left has affected the new generations of musicians?
“It seems to me, a great mistake to censor the musicians who left. You can’t mix politics with music. They have been erased. For example, I got to know the music of Bebo Valdés on a trip to Panama. They put on a record of his and I was amazed. From there I started looking for all of his work. Now politics is a little softer with musicians who leave as long as they don’t attack the politics here. To me, it seems that it has hurt our musical history because it has caused young people not to know some works.”
How far would you like to go with your music?
“As far as possible. I’m sick of self-criticism. I always want more. I don’t know if there’s a cap but I think I still have a lot to do and say.”
Cuba is experiencing a time of crisis and uncertainty due to the serious economic crisis and the new monetary changes in the country, among other causes. Are you concerned about something in particular in the Cuban context?
“I’m concerned about the economic situation in the country. Living from a queue to queue and that anxiety to buy something seems terrible to me. There’s a lot of uncertainty. And that’s not good for anyone. Hopefully, these changes are for the better.”