Interview: Mister Savona describes the importance of the Havana Meets Kingston project

As one of Australia’s leading reggae and dancehall producers, Mista Savona definitely has a wealth of knowledge to draw on when it comes to not only creating new pieces of music, but also bringing together the timeless influences of the artists who forged the genres he’s loved for so many years.

With the new Havana Meets Kingston album, Mister Savona has brought together the vibrant Cuban and Jamaican cultures in producing an album of music that transcends language barriers in celebrating the passionate and indeed flavoursome music that has spurned a language all its own.

Tour dates are set to bring Havana Meets Kingston to audiences to the Australian east coast in 2018 before heading to New Zealand, so to stoke the fires of excitement in the lead up, we find out some more about how this project came to be…

What has this project meant for you, in terms of bringing this blend of musical cultures to a global audience?

This project is the first time a group of Jamaican musicians have flown into Cuba to record & collaborate with Cuban musicians. We had ten days at Egrem in Havana initially (the famed studio where Buena Vista Social Club was recorded), and then many more recording sessions in both Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Kingston to complete the sessions. The energy in the studio was electric and you can hear that on the album – it’s a very unique project.

One thing that really excites me about this album is the mix of languages on the album, Spanish, English and Jamaican patois. Jamaicans rarely speak Spanish, and Cubans don’t speak English for the most part. But when these musicians took up their instruments in Cuba, language barriers melted away. And that is one of the most important things about this album and why it’s doing so well – in an increasingly divided and fragmented world, people are actually hungry to see projects that successfully bring people of different nationalities and backgrounds together. It’s a joy to watch, and a joy to listen to.

What has been a particular highlight that still sticks out for you, when it’s come to the making of this record – what propelled you forward in studio if/when there were moments of creative challenge?

To be able to watch and listen to these master musicians at work. Sly & Robbie, Ernest Ranglin, Barbariro Torres, Rolando Luna and so many more on the record. Over 60 musicians across 15 tracks! These are master musicians and their playing is actually breathtaking. The level of inspiration and joy in the studio meant that we were easily able to overcome any small logistical challenges that happened along the way. We are bringing this core band out from Jamaica and Cuba to Australia in March next year for WOMADelaide and a string of sideshows. It’s a 15 piece band full of legends. I can’t wait for people to see this live act!

Your career has been littered with many achievements – when you look at modern music and the way young musicians and producers are working in different genres together, what is impressing you the most?

Well with Havana Meets Kingston, I actually wanted to turn back the clock to an era when musicianship is No.1. There is so much modern music I love, but production techniques have become too important now, and this really overshadows the musicality for the most part. It is also making a lot of contemporary music really soul-less. For example if singers are out of tune, add autotune. If musicians play out of time, chop and edit them up. If it’s poorly recorded, just add lots of plugins and sound FX.

There are now very few musicians or studios in the world that are still capable of making an album like Miles DavisKind Of Blue or The Congos‘ Heart Of The Congos. Egrem in Havana is one of them. So although this album is full of contemporary sounds, the way it was performed and recorded in Cuba is more like an old 1950’s jazz record.

There’s no doubt people look up to you for creative guidance and inspiration, who were those people for you when you were first starting out?

My mum’s vinyl collection! As a teenager I struggled to find musicians or people that could teach me the sounds I wanted to make, so I turned to all these old records. I would sit at the piano, transcribing solos by Wynton Kelly and McCoy Tyner, trying to understand how their minds worked. Later I was inspired by my friend’s in Melbourne making hiphop, and watching them work old samplers like the Roland 808 made me realise beat-making is something I could do too. Living in London in my early 20’s and meeting so many legendary Jamaican singers made me realise this was the world of music I wanted to work in.

I first went to Jamaica in 2004 with Jesse I of (of Chant Down/PBS FM fame) to record my Melbourne Meets Kingston album, and that trip gave me the confidence and knowledge that eventually led to me to the Havana Meets Kingston project. Of course, every single musician, teacher and sound engineer along the way has taught and inspired me in different ways.

If listeners of Havana Meets Kingston are coming to this kind of music for the first time; how would you advise them to kickstart the journey of musical discovery from then on?

I began my musical journey with jazz, blues and classical music in my teens. Soon after 60’s rock, in particular Jimi Hendrix, which led me to ‘world music’, particularly traditional music from Africa and India. Soon after I discovered Jamaican music, particularly roots reggae from the 70’s which is still some of the deepest music ever created. Artists like Augustus Pablo, Burning Spear, Yabby You, Dennis Brown. This also led me to hip-hop and dancehall music. In my early 20’s I first heard the Buena Vista Social Club album (it’s an incredible album), and from there expanded my knowledge of Cuban and Latin music.

If people are interested in expanding their knowledge of the music, just Google the music of the many artists on my record! For instance Cornel Campbell, Randy Valentine, The Afro-Cuban All Stars, Irakere, Los Van Van, The Heptones. They all have brilliant careers, and by following their music it will give listeners a deeper understanding into what Havana Meets Kingston is all about. For anyone that loves music, or is an aspiring artist, I encourage them to listen to as much diverse music as possible. Expand your musical worlds. Tune into independent radio and turn off those commercials!

HAVANA MEETS KINGSTON TOUR DATES

March 8th | The Tivoli, BRISBANE | Tickets
March 11th | WOMADelaide, ADELAIDE | Tickets
March 14th | Enmore Theatre, SYDNEY | Tickets
March 15th | Forum Theatre, MELBOURNE | Tickets
March 17th | WOMAD NZ, NEW PLYMOUTH | Tickets