Felix Cabrera: Interviews

Interview: The Blues Get Cuban (September, 2004)

by Luis Tamargo, Latin Beat Magazine Web Site (off-site)

Born in Havana in 1949, the Cuban blues singer/songwriter/harmonicist Felix Cabrera came to the U.S. in the summer of 1961. He lived in Miami for three years, moved to New Jersey and was infected with the blues virus by the original Paul Butterfield band at a New York City club.
Since he organized the A-Train Blues Band, back in 1974, Cabrera has always refused to be categorized as only a blues musician. Cabrera’s Cuban heritage is an unmistakable part of his sound, as clearly documented on She Put Him On a Diet, the last track of his most recent recording (For Green, Si Records, 2004), Authored by Cabrera and his singing partner (Jimmy Young), the aforesaid composition must be regarded, according to my best knowledge and belief, as the most authentic fusion of U.S. blues and Cuban rumba ever recorded. This historical assessment motivated the following dialogue with our blues brother from another planet…

LUIS TAMARGO: What happened after you discovered the blues, back in the 1960’s?

FELIX CABRERA: I flipped out and bought a harmonica. I dabbled in various bands and went up into the mountains, around the Woodstock area in 1968, before they organized the famous festival, and nothing was really happening. In fact, we almost starved to death. We were panhandling; five of us bums. The only thing we had going for us was a beautiful ’56 red Thunderbird convertible, so we wound going up and down Route 28, looking for gigs where there were none.

LT: How did you hook up with the 1920’s blues sensation Victoria “The Queen” Spivey?

FC: After forming the A-Train Blues Band, we were barely surviving, playing straight-ahead Chicago blues in a couple of places in New York City, but then Victoria showed up at one of those gigs. She took a liking to us and invited us to her place. She said, “We’re gonna record you guys.” Her place was located at a housing project, across the street from King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn. She lived somewhere between the fifth and seventh floor. We dragged all our stuff up there, and there she was, laying on her bed facing us. We stood, facing her, and I remember she was drinking champagne, “Hi, baby, how are you?” she said. We tried to record, but two of the band members weren’t too hip to the situation; they didn’t dig the way that we were recording in a living room, with one mike hanging from the ceiling.

LT: Tell me about the harmonica players that influenced you the most (plus any assorted vocal references)

FC: Paul Butterfield and James Cotton were the first heavy-duty harmonica players that I saw in the 1960’s. Keep in mind, of course, that Butterfield was obviously influenced by Little Walter, who was dead by 1967 or 1968 but left a sort of musical lineage. The other guy was Big Walter, another Chicago monster, who played LA CUCARACHA in a small New York club, back in 1976 or 1977. I also dug (not in any order) vocalists Eric Burdon, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Jack Bruce, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, George Jones, and Charlie Rich.

LT: It appears that you have also felt the influence of harmonicist Charlie Musselwhite.

FC: Yes. I heard a release by Charlie in 1969 called Chicago BlueAll Stars that included a version of Ben Tucker’s Coming Home Baby, and after they played the head, the piano player goes into this montuno thing in a blues pattern. A couple of years later, I was listening in my car to Eddie Palmieri’s Azucar, so I pulled out a couple of harmonicas and realized that I could vamp on that stuff. This is why I’ve been messing around with the harmonica in Caribbean-style bands (let’s not call it salsa anymore, please), by sitting in with Ray Barretto, Larry Harlow, Conjunto Libre, etc.

LT: In 1980, you co-led The Internationals, a group that mixed blues with classical overtones

FC: That’s when I joined forces with violinist Alan Carriero. I always liked classical music, and he had these ideas of mixing Debussy and Rachmaninoff with blues. We opened for Big Joe Turner and James Cotton.

LT: Four years later, you organized the group Felix and The Havanas

FC: The first gig we got was opening for James Brown at New York’s Lone Star Café. We also opened up for Wilson Pickett, Bobby Blue Bland, Dr. John, etc. The band lasted for five years before it suddenly broke up. I'm sure it was my fault!

LT: What about the septet of guitarist Jimmy Vivino & The Black Italians? Are there any real “black Italians?”

FC: I played harmonica with them for five years, including every Thursday night at Downtime. Jimmy is of Sicilian descent, so that could make him eligible to be classified as a “black Italian”

LT: Are you the only Cuban-born harmonica-playing blues musician of our times?

FC: There is another Cuban guy, Carlos del Junco, who lives in Canada and also plays harmonica. I don’t really know much about what he does, but I don’t think he is a singer. Considering the fact that we were almost the fifty-first state (Cuba, that is), we always had that North American influence, and we’ve always known that good U.S. music always had that Latin/Caribbean/Cuban tinge….

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