The day after I interviewed Jainardo Batista (see my previous blog post), I interviewed Aaron Halva, both of whom were members of Mo’ Guajiro and continued to collaborate under a number of (somewhat comical) variations of this name for many years. Aaron has since gone on to Broadway with Indecent (which is playing through tomorrow, August 6, 2017!) as not only a musician performing in the production, but as co-composer and co-music director. That summer day in 2015, Aaron and I spoke at length about how a white American from Iowa learned about Cuban music, decided to make a tres, taught himself to play, and played Cuban music for over twenty years. Here are some excerpts:
RL: I wanted to talk first about your background, how you got into music. You’re from Iowa, right?
AH: Yup, I was raised in a small farming community called Nevada, near Ames. There was music in my house, my mom had a piano and a guitar. My grandma Blanche played organ in the Methodist Church, and she had one of those organs in her house with bass notes in feet. She could read music well. And my grandpa Bud collected 8-tracks, records. I remember the first time I heard Scott Joplin, ragtime, on record, man. That blew my mind. I attribute a lot of the reason I like Latin music to ragtime. It’s syncopated music, it just has so much bounce to it.
There was amateur musicianship around me, kind of to a shameless degree. I remember when I was 10 and I had just started to play guitar my dad would wake me up around midnight, his buddies would be there, and they’d have come home from the bar and he would want me to play a few songs for them. So it was like this key, this knowledge that could get me into the adult party, as a very young kid. And it was scary at the same time, you know, getting woken up by a group of drunk farmers… And that might also be why I didn’t have too much expectation for it, it never occurred to me that you would try to play music to be famous.
RL: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
AH: I was listening to rock and roll and blues music primarily when I was in Iowa, when I moved to California I got introduced to funk music, early blues, and bossa nova, and samba. That was really the first Latin music that I heard was Brazilian music, which again blew my mind… From there it wasn’t too big a jump when I finally heard Cuban son music. Nick Woloschuk sent me a tape in college and that was the third mind blowing experience, hearing Cuban music.
RL: How did you start playing tres?
AH: I had a Puerto Rican neighbor, Junior Rivera, who owned a record store on 5th Ave. and he would play Latin music and sometimes I’d go in there and be like “what the hell is that?” and he’s like “that’s a tres. It’s this” and he had one behind the counter and he pulled it out and handed it to me. And I thought “holy shit, I need to make one of these” and he drew a little diagram on the back of a receipt showing how to string a tres if you’re going to convert a guitar.
RL: I didn’t know that that was possible.
AH: Well, you know, you’re supposed to have equipment for it, I basically ruined my guitar trying to do it, it was a terrible job. Honestly I did it with a loose drill bit and a pair of pliers, and I gouged holes in the saddle and the nut. And that was the tres that I played on for about seven years…
And that was a magical moment for me, the day that I got that guitar to tune up and have the tres strings on it, it was steel strings on a nylon string guitar, and I will never forget that day in that apartment. Because the strings kept breaking, I couldn’t get them up to tension because it was such a terrible job I had done, and I didn’t know exactly how to tune it and when I finally tuned that fucking guitar and those chords rang out, it was a spiritual thing for me, I just sat in that room for hours just hitting the strings and just kinda slowly figuring out what it did, but more than anything, just being mystified by the reverberations of that instrument… That’s kind of when I decided, “I think I can try to play this guitar, ‘cause it has three strings, it’s not too complex [laughter], I like the sound of it enough that I could give my life to it right now for as long as it takes.” And I had all those tapes of Septeto Nacional, Cuarteto Patria that Nick had given me, and I had begun to collect stuff from Junior, Isaac Oviedo, who is, still to this day, probably my largest influence, he and his family, his son Papi, were the strongest influences on my early tres playing and I owe so much to their flavor and their intention on the tres. I didn’t hear Pancho Amat and all those cats, the heavyweights, ‘til later, and I realize their virtuosity now, and kind of how much I missed, not that Isaac wasn’t virtuosic, but he was in a different way.
RL: So you’re listening to this stuff and basically teaching yourself?
AH: Yeah. Junior didn’t even give me a lesson, he showed me how to string it and I just went home and, with those tapes, tried to figure out how they were playing it. And if you listen hard enough you could also figure out what notes they were playing what strings on because the tres has the two double strings so I got to the point where I would try to hear how they’re phrasing their baqueteo they call it. The montuno of a tres player from the 30s and 40s is very different from how you play the tres now. It’s this picking pattern that you could equate to some kind of antiquated bluegrass picking style. And people weren’t really doing it, not even Junior did it, you play salsa totally differently. The way you play a 1920s or 1930s son was like how I learned to play the tres, it’s what I thought you were supposed to do, you know. I hadn’t even heard salsa yet, really, I probably heard it on the street but I hadn’t really tripped out on it. All I had were those Nacional tapes and Isaac Oviedo and Isaac had his own style, too.
RL: But you didn’t actually see how they were playing?
AH: No. It turned out to be difficult later because I had developed bad habits, you know, because I never saw anybody play it. I went through different phases of when I took lessons from Nelson Gonzalez and from Papi Oviedo, I had to really kind of start over, just because of the way they played, the way they picked it. It wasn’t so much, you know, the notes are the notes, you either know those or you don’t, but the approach to holding the pick, those things I had kind of just learned on my own, and it wasn’t really the way you hold a pick for the tres.
RL: And you switched because it was easier?
AH: It was not easier. It was so much harder.
RL: So why didn’t you just play your way?
AH: Because it sounds different, it really does. And when I heard them do it and saw them do it in front of me, I said “Holy shit. That’s why it has such a percussive sound,” because you don’t hold the pick like you gingerly pluck a guitar, like you’re trying to shred on a heavy metal guitar, you have the action so low that you just hold the pick and barely move it, with the tres you hold it as if you were holding an oud or like an uña, a long pick, and you would hold it lengthwise in your hand and pluck it with a very different motion, and when I first tried it I thought “fuck, this is terrible,” it was like starting over. And for several months I remember telling the band, Jainardo and Nick, Tony, I said “Yo, guys, I’m going to be suffering for a while, I just want you to know I’m working on this shit, and I gotta turn the pick around, I gotta do it now because if I don’t I may never ever do it.” And it was painful, there were so many gigs when the pick would fall out, I couldn’t hold it! It would squirrel around, I would put sticky shit on it, which I don’t have to do now. Now it seems natural to me…
I saw Papi play in his living room in 2001 and that fucking blew my mind. The sound that came out of that guitar, how he held it, and almost thrashed it with the pick, a little bit abusively at times [laughter], it was very pronounced and he meant every note, so hard.
RL: That was the first time you went to Cuba?
AH: Yeah. I stayed about two months, in Vedado, and went to the University of Havana for a five-week Spanish course. I learned a lot there… I found Papi after a couple of weeks and took lessons with him… It was a life changer. That was one of those moments when I thought “OK, you gotta check why you’re doing this, because a lot of people are really fucking good at this.” You know, I knew that, I knew the bands in Cuba were the best at that. But when you go over there and you see the level of young kids, people on the corner with a shitty guitar just shredding it, and making it work. You come back and it really makes you think “What am I bringing to this? What do I have to offer this tradition?” First of all, sincerity, and truth and all those things that we hope we all bring to our paths, but what can I offer? Even if it’s just to keep the music alive in a sincere fashion. Which it was for many years, that’s all it was for me. To keep that alive and try to play it as purely as you can.
RL: What was the songwriting process like for Pueblo Alegre?
AH: Nick and I would kind of hammer out the forms of stuff. Ian (Betancourt) wrote (the song) “Pueblo Alegre” by himself. “Saludos” Nick and I wrote together, I would come out with a piano riff, Nick would add melody, and we’d bring it in to the band, and they would recommend how to put it together and how to get the sections going in an interesting way that abided the clave. We had that flavor of getting all together in our little apartment, and all five or six of us just go at these songs, to the point where you’d hit a wall and keep going and try to figure out what you’re going to do, like hell or high water we’re going to finish this song. Which never happens to me anymore, I don’t know anybody that would write that way, you just get called for a project, nobody has time for that shit. Maybe rock bands do it, but I don’t know any Latin bands that do it. It was a very collaborative album in many ways.
RL: When you finished recording, did you play all those songs out at the weekly parties?
AH: No, not a lot of them. We played “Pueblo Alegre,” we played “Cumambo,” we rarely played “Saludos.” We played “Gato Negro” sometimes. But some of those tunes never got in our live repertoire because we were a son band, really, and we made this salsa album, which I always thought was counterintuitive, but it was a hell of a lot of fun. It was kind of how we wanted to sound, but we couldn’t do it live because we couldn’t afford it, we didn’t have the concept of a salsa band in us, it’s not what we wanted to play. I guess if I had been a better piano player we could have just done that, but I was terrible. And I really wanted to play son. But we didn’t really write a son album…
And a lot of bands keep writing songs every month, we weren’t that kind of band. It took great energy to get things written. Everyone could create, everyone was creative, but to bring a number to a band and have a new song is a difficult thing. And one thing that is left out of conversations is the desperate repetition of material that takes place to keep a band alive. You hear Jazz musicians talk about it who have played tunes more times than they may have liked to, or maybe they made a relationship with it and were able to figure out how to love it every time. That’s kind of what you needed to do. Son music was the only music to me that was that magical that it didn’t matter to me how many times I played it, I could still be there and not be bored.
RL: Now you have a much larger repertoire. How many songs did you have, back at the Louisiana days?
AH: Probably about 18, our goal was to have 3 sets.
RL: And now?
AH: Probably 50-60. Which isn’t a lot, I mean you think about sufi music, Indian classical, I don’t know, bluegrass, where people tell so many stories. I look at son like, you better know 100 sones. I feel like a failure because I don’t know that many.
RL: That’s a pretty high standard.
RL: Besides expanding your repertoire, your sound has just continued to get tighter as the years go by. Jainardo’s voice, your playing, it’s on a completely different level than when I started seeing you. The bassists that you’re playing with, Jorge (Bringas) and Pedro (Giraudo), such amazing bass solos (at Cienfuegos).
AH: Great guys. What a pleasure, what an education to play with Pedro and Jorge, what a blessing. That’s one of the reasons it’s lasted this long for me. If there weren’t cats like, like Jainardo, Jorge, Pedro, Chincillita, Edgar Pantoja, people that still give a fuck about music, I wouldn’t be doing it. I mean why do it, there’s no money, there’s no security, you rely on your brothers and sisters.
RL: That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, the amount of money that musicians make in the city, the dynamics of how they set a value on their work, what responsibility musicians have in the amount of money that they get paid.
AH: I mean, you’re looking at a trajectory that, I don’t even know, it’s one of those strange fields where, you’ve made it, you’re famous, whatever that means, you’re Marc Anthony. Or you’re an international jazz artist, in the middle. And then below that, there’s everybody else. Or you’re on Broadway, you’re on TV… In other words, there’s a small percentage of jobs where you can make a decent living. And then the rest of us just suck it in terms of how much you can make. And yea, musicians can undermine our own worth taking whatever gig. But at the same time there are four guys behind you who would do it cheaper than you.
RL: But is this productive way of thinking?
AH: It’s not an attitude, it’s a reality. It’s not just how you look at it. You turn down a gig, somebody else is going to take it. If I had looked at the reality, I would have quit 15 years ago. What you saw in music were a bunch of very stubborn individuals not paying attention to how their future looked-
RL: -But what if the four guys that you’re imagining behind you also did the same thing?
AH: You’re talking about building a union. That’s what they did on Broadway, that’s why there’s only so many jobs available. There’s no union of salsa musicians, there never will be. Don’t ask me why, that’s a whole nother question… That’s a good thing to remember as a DJ. You are building your life on a forgotten class of worker. I don’t mean to make my situation any harder than it is, I’m here alive, I got shoes on my feet. But the scene was built on people who were very stubborn, stubbornly driving into the future, with no light in terms of “this is going to get better.” Any asshole would have switched their job… To be a musician, you have to eat so much shit and forget about your future. That’s a point I really want to put down on the map here, because people don’t talk about it, it’s not fun, it’s not interesting, but you know what? You give up your life for it…. I like to think that I’ve brought the value of the group up a little bit, when I talk to people on the phone I’m not just going to give them whatever for however much they want any more, there’s certain standard for me, and it’s still a ridiculously low amount of money. It’s still stupid low… How you can keep a band alive is changing. I saw a salsa band in the Puerto Rican day parade at sunset park, I talked to some of them, I knew a couple of them, they were all dudes, 40s and 50s, 16-piece salsa band, and they sounded good. Two of them were supers in a building, everyone had a job. You’re not talking about day-by-day musicians that play salsa. If you have a salsa band in New York, 9 out of 10 of the guys are not 100% musicians, as in, that’s not all they do. That’s what will keep salsa alive, you live with your mom, or you’re a super… Musicians don’t get paid. Recorded music is worth nothing to a musician… Against those odds, and in the face of that, you still have people who love to make music. Isn’t that a miracle? Smart people, too, man. Musicians aren’t just drug addicts and idiots. Musicians are some of the smartest, most sensitive people I know. And they still wanna do it.
RL: How has the music-making process changed, from Mo’ Guajiro, to Nu Guajiro, to Nu D’Lux and Funky Guajiro?
AH: As I said at first it was really collaborative. With the last album we did with Nu Guajiro and the last album Jainardo and I did, Funky Guajiro, I would write melodies and song structures and Jainardo would write lyrics and help with choruses and stuff. So it was much more isolated. But I will say this: writing has always been for me, especially for a dance band like this, it’s feeling something. Stepping back from your computer and playing your instrument, or standing up, hunting it down in a physical way. Especially with Cuban music, and a little bit in theater too. You have to be sure that it’s going to move people, and the only way to know that sometimes is to stand up and to play, and move while you’re playing it, or record yourself playing it and play over that while you’re dancing or while you’re moving… So even though it’s more isolated, it still has to be physical for me… And as Jude Duverger will tell you, “if it doesn’t move you, it’s not going to move anybody.” It doesn’t always mean you’re going to write a good song, it just means it started from a place that was spiritual or mystical, because of how it makes you feel, you actually feel it in your arms, like some kind of tingle you get from a certain melody or a certain chorus. So for me if that isn’t there, if I don’t really buy the chorus, there has to be some nucleus of the song that I believe in. And then I can get together with Jainardo and Jorge and be like “yo, check this out, what do you think of this.” And they’ll be like “OK I don’t buy that part, but this part I really like.” And that’s when the rewrites start. Because for people to remember breaks, they have to be good and logical. We don’t have that much time, your song has to be so catchy that people fucking remember it if you’re going to play it again.
But this is the thing about writing too, who am I writing for? Why am I doing this? Why am I still writing for a band that ultimately is not going to allow me to pay rent? You know, you should never ask yourself that, that’s dumb, you’re just going to write music because you have to, right? David Byrne once said in an interview “some days you just get up and write because it’s your job and you have to and you don’t necessarily write interesting things.” I like that attitude, just keep writing shit.
RL: I feel like to some extent it’s a matter of faith. I mean, I’m writing this blog, I don’t know how many people are going to read this. But I’m going to write it and try to get more people to read it.
AH: Well here’s something for you to think about. Imagine if for the last 20 years of your life you had written a blog, and it was worth $100…. And on the 21st year, you went to write your blog and four people read it. And nobody wanted to pay for it. And as a matter of fact, people talked over it while you were reading it to them. That’s a little bit of what it feels like to be a musician in this world. And that’s a choice we make, this isn’t a complaint I’m making that people need to listen to me more, it’s just a reality. I’m trying to draw a line between the creative act and the crushing desolation of people not giving a shit about your music because you have sold it short… Because you have chosen to play somewhere where people don’t listen…
But faith is a huge part of it, that’s what’s kept me alive, is faith in music in general. Every couple of weeks it’ll hit somebody, and somebody will say something to me or I’ll just feel the energy coming back to you, and you realize, you are healing people, you are.
RL: Yea, but I agree, it should be something like Louisiana, it should be a roomful of people just vibing their balls off with the music and everybody just transported away from their shit for a moment, for a night… and having that primal connection to the music, that’s older than civilization, it’s just something in our DNA.
AH: That’s what I love about it. You’re part of this continuum that is so ancient, you don’t even know what’s moving you anymore sometimes. The strings and the vibration of drums. That’s the mysterious part that you can’t put down in an interview, and you can’t quantify.