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A tree without roots has no future
I am in Bradford, where Cuban violinist Omar Puente now lives, with his wife, Debbie Purdy. At the moment Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis (MS), is in the news. At the beginning of August, five law lords backed Debbie Purdy's appeal to have the law on assisted suicide clarified. She had called for the Director of Public Prosecutions to define the circumstances in which Puente, or someone in a similar position, might face prosecution for helping a loved one end their life abroad. Purdy's appeal was headline national news for days. She was ecstatic; the law on assisted suicide will be clarified.
However, the debilitating effects of MS vary. Today is one of Debbie's bad days. She has to remain in bed, so my interview with Puente takes place in Debbie's bedroom, where the violinist can be available should his famous wife need his help.
Puente was born in 1962, in Santiago de Cuba, three years after the Cuban revolution of 1959. "Everyone has to enjoy the time that they live in," he says. "People say that they'd like to have lived in the era of John Coltrane, or Miles Davis. But I've had the opportunity to play with Cuban pianist Rubén González, one of the greatest Cuban piano players. Unfortunately, he wasn't discovered until he was 80. But I had the opportunity to play with Chucho Valdés once, in the Havana Jazz Festival."
Puente says that Weather Report changed his life. "In 1979, I saw the band play live in Cuba: Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Zawinul and Peter Erskine. I wanted to play that music, though I knew I wasn't anywhere near being ready. To understand such music was a big jump. "The gap was massive." Puente learned a lot from listening to tapes. A tape would be shared between young Cuban musicians, listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis or John Coltrane. "We would share information," he says. "Teaching each other, particularly the harmony."
Puente began playing in Cuba. "My father, who was born in 1902, was a medical doctor," he explains. "He played the violin. Making money through the violin during the 1920s helped him to pay for his medical career. My parents listened to all types of music from Nat King Cole to Rachmaninoff. That was the ambience I enjoyed as a boy. We had Caribbean music, Latin music, and classical music." Puente shows me a faded monochrome picture of himself at the age of five, a little boy wearing white shorts and white socks, playing the violin.
Debbie Purdy explains: "In Cuba, there are lots of dynasties. I think it's to do with the instrument being available, and kids not being timid about taking it up." For instance, there are claims that in the extended family of Israel 'Cachao' López (kah-CHOW), there are more than 30 bassists! Puente has a cousin who plays violin with Pablo Milanés. He has a cousin and an uncle who both who play in Orquesta Aragón, one of the big Cuban dance bands, and Puente's brother plays viola with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba.
At the time Puente was learning, every instrument was available. "Nobody told me to play," he says. "I picked up the violin. I was never pushed to practise. I played baseball, I ran in the street, as young boys do."
Purdy explains the ethos: "If other people in the family, particularly the men, take the violin seriously, that helps. Boys want to be like their dads."
"I continued my classical music education," says Puente. "I came to the point where my parents said to me: "Would you like to be a doctor?" I took a year out to begin to study to become a medical doctor. But I came back to music."
At thirteen, Puente won a scholarship to study music in Havana, the capital, where he went alone from Santiago de Cuba. A couple of years later his mother moved the entire family to Havana. There, Puente studied Paganini, Beethoven, 'lots of scales', and played chamber music. "I was very lucky, because I had a lot of Russian teachers. The links between Cuba and Russia were very strong," he says.
The Russian approach to violin teaching was very different from Western systems, being much more prescriptive, dogmatic and strict. Puente studied piano, harmony, theory, choral singing, chamber music and aural training. "If you have talent, you work. If you have no talent, you work twice as hard! I learned a lot from my teachers, but I also learned a lot from my friends, as well," he says. "That period was the best time of my life."
Puente recalls that after the Berlin Wall came down (1989) the situation in Cuba was bad. The American embargo was codified into law in 1992 with the purpose of maintaining sanctions on the Castro regime as long as it refused to move toward democratisation and greater respect for human rights. "Because of American embargos, there was no petrol and little food," remembers Puente. "We took double basses on our bicycles. Life was tough, but people were healthier because they had to walk."
People became very creative. "We didn't have strings for our instruments," he says. "We had to get telephone wire, peel it, sand it clean, then put it on the violin. We had to play carefully, to avoid cutting our fingers. Telephone wire is copper, and makes a fantastic A string. We had no rosin, so we had to get resin from trees, to put on the bow." Resin, colophony, a solid form of the liquid exuded from conifers, helps the bow hair grip the violin strings.
As for horses tails being stolen for bow hair, if they'd had any horses in Cuba, they would have done that, too, suggests Purdy. Puente remembers that in his parents' front garden there were no roses, only tomatoes, and potatoes. But, as in Britain during the blitz, education, health and culture were all sustained.
Puente started to play in a Cuban band, touring overseas with an ensemble of fourteen or fifteen musicians. Only then did Puente began to learn English. Between 1992 and 1994 the Cuban band went to Monte Carlo twice, then to Singapore, to support Whitney Houston, Tony Bennett and, memorably, the Count Basie band. "I saw those Basie gentlemen walking onto the stage, and I knew from they way they walked that they would sound brilliant," he says. That Cuban band spent a month in the Bahamas. Then, while working in Singapore, Puente met his future wife, Debbie. Their relationship blossomed, and led to his move to Bradford, England.
In the UK, initially Puente met great prejudice against the violin. Attempting to work as a musician in Britain, Puente describes his 'plan B', which was to buy a double-bass, and take work playing that, since there seemed to be such resistance to jazz violin. "He wore a sombrero and pretended to be Mexican," says Debbie.
"I had the opportunity to play with musicians like Denys Baptiste, Rod Young and Robin Mitchell," says Puente. "I wanted to play jazz. Through my violin I can say who I am, which is really hard. When people hear me, their first reaction, which they intend as a compliment, is to say: 'Man, you just remind me of Stéhane Grappelli.' But I don't want that; I don't sound like Stéphane Grappelli." He laughs, and adds: "I don't look like Stéphane Grappelli, either." By this time Puente was teaching both at Leeds College of Music and at Trinity College of Music in London.
"Meeting those British musicians was a step in my career," he says. "Meeting Courtney Pine was yet another step. Any time you play in Courtney's band is like a workshop, because he gives room to others. I was absorbing and practising. At the beginning, living in England was very tough, but I think I've found my voice."
"I had the opportunity early this year to work with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, from Venezuela, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. We had a two-hour rehearsal, after a big concert at the Royal Festival Hall."
"At the beginning, they said Omar could have seven or eight musicians," says Purdy. "There were sixteen of them at the two-hour rehearsal. Then, when they got on stage there were 37 members of the orchestra!
"It was a fantastic experience, wonderful," says Puente. "They are not from privileged backgrounds, and they swing. I believe that jazz is always going to be alive. Different people like different kinds of jazz, in the same way that different people will like a different kind of suit. But jazz is a kind of music that allows you to be free. Every generation, every ten or fifteen years, somebody comes up with a different kind of jazz. But a tree without roots has no future."An edited version of this article was first published in Jazz Journal, October 2009. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden
Omar Puente album, From There to Here (Destin-E World Records, 777-G20011962)