Mr. Amram, who first visited Cuba in 1977, returned last week for the 33rd International Jazz Plaza Festival, a six-day event that drew Cuban jazz veterans like Chucho Valdés and the Orquesta Aragón, as well as rising stars like Ms. Arocena and Yissy García. Despite tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba from the United States, the festival relied heavily on American performers, including Joe Lovano, whose first trip to Cuba was in 1986, and Randy Weston and Dee Dee Bridgewater, who were visiting for the first time.
However this year’s event took place under a cloud of renewed uncertainty for many Cuban musicians. Since the Trump administration’s withdrawal of diplomats from Havana in September, the United States Embassy here has stopped processing visa applications from Cubans, who have taken to traveling to a third country to apply for visas to the States.
But visiting musicians like Mr. Amram and Ms. Bridgewater spoke of their role as cultural ambassadors who could touch hearts in spite of political borders. “My being here is my way of saying, yes, Cuba, yes, you all amazing musicians, I stand with you,” Ms. Bridgewater said at a news conference, raising her fist in solidarity. “I am your sister in music and that is all I care about.”
When HemisFair '68 opened its gates on April 6, 1968, scores of dignitaries, world leaders, and A-list entertainers passed through San Antonio over the next six months. Not all were invited as performers. Percussionist George Coleman came, not as a participant in the fair, but as a street performer, a busker. He was interesting, an entertainer, and eventually a downtown fixture who came to be known by the nickname, Bongo Joe.
Arriving as an accredited participant was the composer/musician David Amram. He had been invited to compose a musical score for a film by Francis Thompson. Called U.S., the movie was made to be viewed as a feature presentation at the U.S. Pavilion. David Amram describes how he came to be part of the project:
“When he (Francis Thompson) asked me to do the film, and I saw the script by W.H. Auden, the great poet, I just said, boy, I know I've gotta do it. He was like a real serious guy who saw film making as an art, and he said 'It's going to be shown – I don't know if you've ever heard of it – in San Antonio.' I said, you mean San Antonio, Texas? He said yes. I said oh, my Heavens, I've been there for years, off and on. It's one of the greatest cities I've ever been to in my life. I'd love to do it just to be there.”
Amram already had an impressive resume. He had been chosen by Leonard Bernstein as the New York Philharmonic's first composer-in-residence. He was also known in jazz and folk music circles as one who didn't recognize the arbitrary construction of walls between the varied genres of music. He moved within the circle of writer Jack Kerouac, collaborated with Alan Ginsberg, Dizzy Gillespie, and Joseph Papp. Forget about uniformity. It was all about creativity.
Amram had early successes as a film composer, but had little interest in committing his life to Hollywood. He needed musical collaboration to feed his soul, and he has found it over the decades with the likes of Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, and Paquito d'Rivera. It's easy to understand that David became restless in those early days of April, 1968, and why he jumped at the opportunity to meet street musician Bongo Joe.
“They knew I had written the score for this film and they read my bio and said oh you were the first composer-in-residence at the Philharmonic, and you played with Dizzy Gillespie and did all these things . . . there's a guy here, he was a great traveling musician and he finally settled down here in San Antonio. I said, oh, what's his name? They said, they call him Bongo Joe. I said, I'd love to meet him. It's easy. Just come out on the street here tonight, around 8 or 8:30, and he'll be there holding court and playing.”
Soon, Amram found himself face-to-face with Bongo Joe, being grilled by the street percussionist.
“So I come out and there's this guy, he was playing all these different instruments. I said, wow, this guy was fantastic! So I went up to him . . . I had my carrier and my French horn which I always carried with me back then. He said, aw, you're a musician. What do you play? Do you play with anybody? I said, I'm here doing the score for this film and he said, oh, so you're a composer? Do you play too? I said sure. He said, what's that thing around your neck? And it was my ocarina, so he said, well let me hear that. So I played 'beddle, bee, beep, beep' and he said all right man, just play some blues.”
Fifty years after that first encounter with Bongo Joe, who passed away in 1999, David Amram still speaks with clarity and admiration about his encounters with Bongo Joe.
“Every night after I was done with my duties as the composer for the film, I went to see and hang out with Bongo Joe. It was amazing!”