Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances

Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances

Sarah Willis traveled to Cuba in search of salsa only to discover a new world of creative possibilities. The horn player, a member of the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, made her first trip to Havana in 2017, fueled by a passion for Latin American dance. That might have delivered joy enough for most musical visitors. But Willis, open to the diverse culture and vibrant energy of the island’s people, took time out from the dance floor to lead a master class for Cuba’s horn players and was introduced, in turn, to the young musicians of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and their inspirational conductor José Antonio Méndez Padrón. The consequences of that meeting proved little short of miraculous, opening the door to Willis’ first Mozart y Mambo album and ears to some of Cuba’s most talented classical musicians. The Mozart y Mambo proposition—to record Mozart’s horn concertos in company with traditional Cuban music—found favor with the adventurous, Paris-based label Alpha Classics. Any doubts about the project were blown away by Sarah Willis and her new friends in Havana, who together delivered one of the biggest classical hits of 2020. They’ve raised the bar higher still for its second iteration, Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances, which sets Mozart’s first two horn concertos in company with the first-ever Cuban horn concerto, a joint work created by six of the republic’s top young composers. “To make this happen in Havana, where it’s incredibly difficult to organize anything, where you have power cuts, where you don’t have good recording halls or good instruments, was a true odyssey,” recalls Willis. The sessions, held in the church of San Felipe Neri, began at 10 pm, when street noises dropped below deafening daytime decibel levels. “I brought a recording team with me from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall and a camera crew from Deutsche Welle to film a documentary about the first Mozart y Mambo. I did everything I could to get it off the ground. But the biggest thing I had to do was combat this attitude of ‘Why on earth are you doing this?’!” Willis could have taken the easy route by recording Mozart’s four horn concertos with one of Europe’s leading chamber bands. That, she notes, would have made a “nice” album. “But that’s absolutely not how I work. I like to make people smile. I like to surprise them. And I love Cuban music so much that, for purely selfish reasons, I wanted to learn more about it. So, we mixed Mozart with mambo because they go well together. Then we put it out there, not knowing if the world was going to like it. Was it too cheeky to mix Cuban rhythms with the Rondo from Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3? I had no idea.” The world, online and off, liked it a lot. A taster video of Rondo alla Mambo, based on the finale of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3, scored 8.5 million views within weeks of its Facebook debut; the full album, meanwhile, proved a critical and popular hit. “It didn’t do badly,” says Willis with a smile. “Everyone has their favorite thing, whether it’s Irish folk music, Indian ragas, or whatever,” she notes. “But Cuban music gets into my body. That’s why we commissioned the Cuban Dances concerto for our second album.” Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances contains the right ingredients for another hit album. It moves seamlessly from Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 2 to the first movement of the Cuban Dances, “Tamarindo Scherz-son,” a joint composition by Pepe Gavilondo and Yasel Muñoz based on the classic Cuban son rhythm. Willis channels her inner Don Lusher in the sultry “Danzón de la Medianoche,” Yuniet Lombida’s exquisite evocation of a big-band trombone solo, before launching Wilma Alba Cal’s plaintive “Guaguancó Sencillo” with a Mahlerian horn solo. The party continues with two tributes to their soloist, Jorge Aragon’s delicious “Un Bolero para Sarah” and “Sarahchá” by Lombida and Ernesto Oliva, complete with castanets and chorus, and closes with Oliva’s “¡Ay Comay! Un Changüí pa’Sari,” a veritable banquet of bold tunes and catchy cross-rhythms. The recording also includes arrangements of María Teresa Vera’s song “Veinte Años” and the equally popular “El Bodeguero” by Richard Egues, featuring solos from two of the last surviving members of Buena Vista Social Club, vocalist Carlos Calunga and güiro maestro Enrique Lazaga. In addition, there’s an homage to Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute in the form of Edgar Olivero’s “Pa Pa Pa,” performed by Willis and The Sarahbanda, her project’s Cuban salsa band. While barking dogs, the cries of nocturnal bread vendors, and even a resident cricket crashed several fine takes, they proved powerless against the album’s unstoppable energy. Willis originally intended to record each of the Mozart concertos in different countries. “But I realized I wasn’t done yet with Cuban music or with my musicians in Havana,” she reflects. “There’s an incredible bond between us. I find that I can be much better as a horn player when I perform in an environment where I’m 100 percent supported and loved.” Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 is in the cards for the partnership’s third and final album. And what of its companion pieces? “You’ll have to wait and see. Let’s just say we’re saving the best for last!” Mozart y Mambo has gained an unexpected life beyond the recording studio, morphing into a project to raise funds to buy new instruments for Cuban musicians and support Cuban students who want to study abroad. “We already have two players going to Germany, one going to Madrid, two going to America,” observes Willis. “It’s amazing! I think this really is the project of my life.”

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