'Havana Blue': Finding inspiration in Cuba

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'Havana Blue' rehearsal

Jessica Wolfrum, left, and other members of the River North Dance Company rehearse for "Havana Blue," which unfolds in six movements with two musical interludes. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune) (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune / March 29, 2013)

“I suffer a great deal — I have degenerative spinal cord disease,” says Chaves. Its effects are seen in a slight limp as he works with his River North dancers.

The time he spent with Alonso and otherwise soaking up Cuban culture, however, transcended such issues.

“It was just beyond inspiring and enriching,” Chaves says. “I had this moment of, ‘Oh my God, I get it. I belong here (in Cuba). It's calling me.' It felt like home. I didn't expect that. I didn't think it was going to be as enriching. The arts, the richness of the culture … really kind of sent me over the top, over the edge. It just filled me up.”

Davis, too, was profoundly affected by the experience, in part because he has been searching for his ancestry — musically and otherwise — for so long. Many years ago, he says, he embarked on what he calls “a trek of understanding the African roots of jazz.” In 1996 he traveled to Brazil and discovered “how slavery in South America was so different from North America, and how it affected the music and the growth of the music.”

The trip to Cuba represented an extension of that mission, a “quest of musical self-discovery” in an island nation that, like the United States, was linked to Africa via the slave trade.

In Cuba, Davis spent days and nights improvising with Cuban musicians — in restaurants, hotel lounges, on the streets and alleyways of a city that never really pipes down. He played “literally everywhere except for in the cab,” says Davis, with a laugh.

When he began spending time with the octogenarian Cuban musician Orlando Lopez Alonso, who tapped out complex rhythms on a hollowed-out log with a stick, Davis says he achieved a kind of breakthrough.

“Orlando took us on a 5-mile walk through old Havana,” recalls Davis. “During lunch, I asked him important questions about his African ancestry. … He took us back (in conversation) to the very village in Africa where his grandfather lived.

“I said: ‘As an African-American, I don't know who I am. I can trace my grandfather — I know that his family was from North Carolina. That's it.'

“And he said: ‘You are from Nigeria.'

“‘How do you know?'” asked Davis.

“He said: ‘The way you play.'

“I said, ‘But I was (musically) trained.'

“And he said: ‘No, you are playing what's in your blood.'”

For the first time, says Davis, he gathered a sense of where his ancestors came from.

Having thus immersed themselves in Cuban culture, Chaves, Davis and colleagues returned to Chicago and began work on “Havana Blue.”

Chaves encouraged his River North dancers to improvise movements based, in part, on what he had learned.

“The take-away for me, which I did expect,” he says, “was how rooted (Cuban dance) was in African dance, and how much that played a part in the development of Cuban dance. So I came home with the idea of not wanting to re-create, but to be inspired.”

Davis began composing music in a different way. Instead of staring at a blank page of score paper, he began drafting musical portraits of specific people and places he had experienced.

“We didn't want to necessarily come back with an expose on Cuban music and create Cuban music,” says Davis.

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