Interview with Cuban jazz violin virtuoso, Omar Puente

Did you always want to be a musician, how did it happen?At home back in Santiago de Cuba I was always around instruments – keyboard, drums, violin, marimba. There were always records playing from Nat King Cole to Rachmaninov to Benny Moré, from Roberto Faz to Tchaikovsky – classical and Cuban.

My father was a doctor, my mother a nurse. My father used to play violin, not brilliantly but well enough to pay for his medical training. I think it inspired me to see him play. My father said to me if you learn the name of this string I will give you a candy when I come back. I named the string and got the candy.

From age 8 I went to Esteban Salás Conservatory school in Santiago, a state school with music specialism. In the morning you did maybe maths and geography then in the afternoon, violin, harmony. I spent a year at another school to become a medical doctor like my father – but that wasn't the life for me. After a year I went back to music then at age 13 went to Havana to study at ENA (Escuela Nacional de Arte) – on my own. Two or three years later my family went to live in Havana too. I learned whatever you want to do, do it right. You practise and you get results.

What or who were your main musical influences when you were growing up and studying in Cuba?After ENA I went to ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) in Havana at age 18 for 5 years. At that time we still had the link with USSR and in fact when I finished ENA I was due to go to the Moscow Conservatoire but a new higher education institute was built in Cuba – ISA – for all arts not just music and the quality of teaching was high. There were very good Russian classical music teachers who taught the right technique, the right way to practise. So we had the classical background and also Cuban music.

ISA produces great musicians – my contemporaries were Miguel ‘Anga' Diaz, Oriente Lopez, flute player, Gonzalito Rubalcaba was one or two years younger than me, like Omar Sosa. We were very lucky. We were alongside students of painting, dance, ballet, batá drums, theatre, and everyone had an influence. I was playing Prokofiev, Bach, but also music from Brazil, the Beatles and jazz tapes were passed around, of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson.

In 1979 I saw a band called Weather Report at Karl Marx theatre – that concert changed my life. Five excellent jazz musicians but influenced by African rhythms , plus jazz with electric and rock elements, the band leader sometimes played 5 keyboards. When the concert finished I walked out and I knew I wanted to play like that, I wanted to make people feel the way I felt at that moment. I knew I wasn't ready to play like that yet, but it was clear Weather Report were changing the way jazz was played. In fact I met the drummer Peter Erskine many years later and he told me he hadn't been ready to play such avant garde music either!

You have lived in the UK for years now – and worked with many British and Cuban musicians. What do you think about the Cuban music scene here? Have British audiences changed?

When I came here people saw Cuban music as an exotic new thing – "what's that rhythm that makes people dance?" Now there are more Cubans, more people going to Cuba, lots of dance teachers, people learning salsa. The way I see Cuban music is that it is this little thing that never stops growing and absorbing whatever is around it, wherever it is. We can't really call it Cuban music here – it's different to in Cuba. You have to see the music in its context. In Cuba its hot so the doors are open, you hear it on the street. But I believe the knowledge of Cuban music is much greater now.

You are known by CubaSi readers for your great dance music at social events, but you also work with British jazz musicians such as Courtney Pine. How has that influenced your music and do you think you have influenced them too?

I think I've been really lucky in my life. In Cuba I had the opportunity to play with Ruben Gonzalez, I played with Chucho Valdes at a Jazz festival – but also in England with Courtney. Just to play with Courtney is like a master class every time – the guy is ridiculously good. My playing now is completely different to 10 years ago. I hope I have influenced them as well one way or another.

The Simon Bolivar orchestra from Venezuela has electrified the classical world – what was it like working with them?

Now that is something special that reminds me of Cuba, because they are a bunch of young musicians who really are fearless – they just want to play and have learned to play together. Some have only learned to play within the orchestra – that is the Sistema. They were so enthusiastic and some had never played jazz but they tried and I think they did a fantastic job because they work together as a solid group. In Cuba you learn with a teacher but at the same time you learn with your friends. I played in the school chamber orchestra and later in a proper symphony orchestra. Education is so important in Cuba. That is how it is with the Sistema and Bolivar orchestra. I am proud to work with them.

Your visit to Nigeria a few years ago seems to have had quite an impact on you – tell us more about that.

I went to Nigeria to play at Lagos Jazz festival. It was touching for me for various reasons. The people I travelled with were Courtney Pine's band and one way or another they have a similar background to me – with Caribbean roots – family and musically. Someone back in my family must have been taken as a slave to Cuba and that is the same for Courtney and the others whether Martinique, Montserrat or Jamaica. So being there you see someone in the market and you think they might be family. That is why I wrote the tune Motherland Pulse.

‘From There to Here' is your debut solo album, and a very impressive one with 9 of your own compositions and others arranged by you. Why do you think it has taken you so long to make a solo album, and why now?

Somebody told me everything happens for a reason. Maybe I could have made an album 5 years ago, but with the death of my mother, Debbie's campaign and court case – they took priority- now those things have passed I can focus on my music. I believe that everything started in Africa, born in Cuba and developed in England. I've been gathering all this information since 8 years old, listening to different vibes, different styles of music. I came to England to develop and be influenced by different musicians. That's why at this point now I was ready to make this album that I believe is a solid base from which to take a new step in my life. Now it's me and my music and I am extremely happy. The album has the carnival and Santiago de Cuba influence with the Chinese trumpet, the classical string quartet, the funk, the straight ahead jazz, the gospel vibe, the celtic vibe, the bata drums – all I've been seeing and absorbing.

How did you come to make the electric violin your instrument, more than acoustic violin?

A very good acoustic violin can cost £10,000 up to a million pounds. Meanwhile I can get a really good electric violin and play it. Secondly, nowadays with technology your instrument has to be able to compete with the sound when performing. Of course, I still have my father's acoustic violin which put food on the table for 3 generations. My black electric violin was a birthday present from Debbie 13 or 14 years ago – I call it "my Mrs". I also have a new 5 string violin but that one is still my Mrs.

What are your top 5 Cuban music tracks?

Impossible – my list would be too long! But I there are musicians who made a break in the music to develop something else. Barbarito Diez , Orquesta Aragón, Chucho Valdés and Irakere – they really brought a new sound to Cuban music. Also Original de Manzanillo, Roberto Faz, Lili Martinez on piano.

Source: CubaSi magazine, journal of Cuba Solidarity Campaign

Catch Omar Puente's album launch show Tuesday 17 November at the Jazz Café, London NW1 – click here for more details

Buy Omar Puente's debut solo album: From There to Here released October 09 by Destin-E World Records.Available from http://www.cubaconnect.co.uk