Primo Cubano brings Caribbean music to Maine

Posted Nov. 18, 2010, at 6:12 p.m.

The musical revelation Paul D’Alessi was waiting for happened six years ago when he and other Mainers traveled to Cuba as part of the Brunswick-Trinidad Sister City Association. Brunswick and the Cuban city of Trinidad have been sister cities for decades, and members of the group took a trip to the Caribbean nation for two weeks in 2004. While there, D’Alessi heard son music performed live, the traditional Cuban style made popular in America in the last 20 years by Buena Vista Social Club.

Six years later, D’Alessi is lead guitarist for the Portland-based band Primo Cubano, a five-piece group playing traditional Cuban music. Primo Cubano will play at 7:30 The Grand in Ellsworth, as a benefit for WERU 89.9 FM.

“I had the music inside me, so to speak,” said D’Alessi. “I didn’t know much of anything about how to play it, but it was a lot of fun to start unwrapping it. I’m always learning more and more. It’s such a rich tradition. There are endless things to figure out about it.”

Before Buena Vista Social Club, the popular 1998 album and film featuring an array of longtime Cuban musicians, few Americans really knew anything about son. Years of sanctions both economic and social kept much of the world outside Cuba in the dark, but the vibrant, clever, polyrhythmic genre has been alive and well in Cuba for more than 75 years. D’Alessi got to see the music played live on multiple occasions.

“We saw all these son bands, and as I started delving into it I realized what a really rich tradition it is, with a lot of different branches to it,” said D’Alessi. “My dad listened to some Caribbean and Latin American music when I was growing up, and I always really liked it, but it was one of those things that I’d put on the back burner until I finally went to Cuba.”

The Cuban instrument D’Alessi wanted to learn was the tres, a six-stringed guitar with three sets of two strings tuned to G, C and E. When he returned to Maine, D’Alessi bought a three-quarter-size guitar and strung it as you would a tres before eventually tracking down the real instrument online.

“It’s set up to play repeating rhythmic cycles,” he said. “The soul of the music is all in the rhythm. It’s really fascinating.”

By 2006, D’Alessi, also a guitarist for Maine reggae band Dani Tribesman, had assembled a crack group of musicians to play Cuban music with him. Trumpeter Marc Chellemi, conga player Lenny Hatch, vocalist and percussion player Eric Winter and bass player Duane Edwards all have performed with Primo Cubano since the beginning. The band has a regular gig at Havana South in Portland, playing both Cuban music and salsa-inspired tunes.

D’Alessi is also studying with the University of Maine at Augusta’s Latin Ensemble, under teacher Andres Espinoza, learning not only son but also other Latin styles, such as salsa, rumba and drumming styles.

“It all branches out into all kinds of different genres,” said D’Alessi. “Some are sacred, and some are just for fun.”

Those gigs have earned them a small but devoted following composed of salsa dancers and members of the Latin and Hispanic community in southern Maine.

“Local people really appreciate it, because you very rarely hear music like this out and about,” said D’Alessi. “In particular, when we play for Hispanic people and even Cuban people, they’re almost kind of shocked to hear it. People are very curious.”

Primo Cubano will play at 7:30 tonight at The Grand in Ellsworth. Admission is $12, and proceeds will benefit both WERU-FM and The Grand. For information, visit www.primocubano.com.

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