The twice-a-year festival is May 13-15 in Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain and as usual is nearly sold out. As of press time, tickets remained only for Friday and Sunday.
“World Fusion with Cuban Spice” is the theme of the 42nd LEAF. Several leading acts are from Cuba.
Top headliner Juan De Marcos Afro-Cuban Allstars, is still based out of Havana. The band plays the main stage Saturday, May 14, 8:15-9:45 p.m. De Marcos has been a “lead composer for the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, one of Cuba’s most famous bands that has just wrapped up” its 50th-year tour, noted Performing Arts Director Ehrez Cruz who brings acts to LEAF.
A unique treat is Danay Suarez, who turns 31 this year. She is a “virtuoso reggaeton and Afro-Cuban jazz artist” born in Havana, and making her U.S. debut at LEAF, Cruz said. She headlined a major Colombian hip hop festival, before 120,000 fans. Reggaeton out of Puerto Rico fuses Latin rhythms and Jamaican dancehall with hip-hop or rapping in Spanish. Suarez plays May 13 at 9:30 p.m., in Eden Hall.
She follows vibrant newgrass of the Jon Stickley Trio (at 7:30 p.m.), which swept several Music Video Asheville awards in April.
Pedrito Martinez, 42, grew up in Old Havana, and lives in Brooklyn. He began his musical career at 11, as vocalist and percussionist with such Cuban legends as Tata Guines and Yoruba Andabo, Cruz said. Martinez plays lakeside Friday the 13th at 8:15 p.m., then follows Suarez in Eden Hall at 11:15 p.m.
Thawing of U.S. relations and the trade embargo with Cuba is gradually freeing travel between the neighboring, longtime political rivals. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s communist, Soviet-influenced Cuba Jan. 3, 1961 in the peak of the Cold War, but reopened an embassy there last August.
This upset many Cuban-Americans among others still upset over decades of repression in Cuba, and concerned how Americans might be received there. But for many others, it gives hope for enriched co-existence. And it renews curiosity about what was once the top Caribbean playground.
This week Carnival made the first cruise from the U.S. to Cuba in over a half-century, arriving Monday. On Jan. 26, the two nations signed a pact restoring air travel starting with charters and transitioning to 20 daily public airline flights to Havana, Cuba.
Travel from the U.S. is initially still strictly limited by signed affidavit to a dozen purposes for general-license travel, such as educational programs and arranging professional events or competitions, according to reports. No longer must the organizer have to wait until the event to go to Cuba. And Americans now can bring back up to $400 worth of souvenirs, including $100 of famed Cuban cigars.
LEAF founder (in 1995) and Executive Director Jennifer Pickering twice visited Cuba for a month at a time — legally with a visa from the Commerce department. This was 12 and 10 years ago. Officially “I was photographing,” she told The Tribune. “The photo journey was extraordinary. Cuba is a place that is so beautiful and creative. Every moment was riveting … I have been seeking to reconnect with the Santeria dancers with whom I spent time.”
Culturally, Pickering emphasized, “the brilliance of the music and art is incomparable to any place I have ever experienced. The music takes me back to the smells, colors and sounds of Cuba, while inviting me to dance and dream.”
When asked what about the music moves her emotionally, Pickering said “Cuban music has a depth, beauty and excellence that is so precious. It makes you want to dance, cry. You feel alive!”
LEAF has long promoted international music, including hypnotic Afro-Cuban dance sounds. Ehren Cruz enthusiastically described Cuban music: “From the big band garacho sounds, to salsa, to timba, to bolero, samba, afro-cuban Jazz, and even a new wave of ‘reggaeton’ emerging from Cuba … the islands music packs a big punch in all genres.”
Specifically, “Cuba is known for its powerful brass, dynamic rhythm section, sensual melodies and lyrics, and a sense of fiery passion at the heart of their music culture.” Cruz added, “ I personally enjoy how Cuban music moves your soul to dance, and can turn any room (or field for that matter) into a heated dance party from the very first conga thwack!”
Afro-Cuban percussion common in the Caribbean puts African tribal beats into compositions with up to four Cuban “percussion setups” with such “folkloric” instruments as cowbells, Cruz explained. “The driving force of this heavy percussive element woven together with rich vocal harmonies paired with sensual dance creates an extremely unique artistic flare” and much “fire.”
Cruz said communication is opening due to a dramatic “political, social and cultural shift in U.S.-Cuba relations … Right now, we are capturing a great opportunity to share the beauty, power, and integrity of Cuban art traditions.”
Perceptions of Cuba can be “clouded with a complicated past, laden with dramatic and unfortunate events,” Cruz said. “Our goal at LEAF is to shine a light on a country filled with incredible musicianship, provocative dance, and a resilient art culture. Despite all barriers, Cuba has remained a prominent influence of Latin music and culture throughout the world.” For schedule and tickets, call 686-8742 or check http://www.theleaf.org/the-festival/.