Gai Bryant: ‘Cuban music has helped me enormously to cope with loss’

By this stage, Gai Bryant‘s name has been synonymous with Afro-Cuban and Latin Jazz. The saxophonist, composer and big band leader has been a champion of the genre for years and on Sunday 8 April, her outfit, Palacio de la Rumba, is bracing up for a very special performance at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, featuring Grammy Award nominated Cuban pianist and composer Elio Villafranca, as well as Adrian Medina’s troupe of Australian-based Cuban dancers.

So when I got the to speak to her over the phone, I basically had one question for her.

Gai Bryant

Q: Gai Bryant, what would you say to people to make them come to Caribe?

A:I’d tell them that it’s a mix; the group itself is a mix of Australian, Latino and Cuban musicians and artists, and the music comes from that; it’s also a mix of traditional Cuban styles, infused with all the influences that come from the musicians in the band, which are mainly coming from a jazz perspective – the harmonies are slightly more contemporary and there are a few differences in the form and the architecture of the pieces, than than of traditional Cuban music. In other ways we try to be respectful to the Cuban styles that were trying to incorporate in the music.

It’s going to be a celebration of Elio Villafranca’s music; he is completely invested in the language of bebop, but he also brings the culture of Cuba with him, because he’s Cuban-born and knows all these music styles, so they become seamlessly part of the jazz compositions.

What’s really interesting is that the jazz language in his music has made it really easy for most of the musicians here to relate to. The group that we’re playing is a smaller version of Palacio De La Rumba, which is a 19-piece big band. We’re also working with Adrian Medina and four Cuban dancers, who are based in Sydney.

They are not there for the entire performance, but for particular pieces, doing a traditional dance that nobody here would have seen unless they’d gone to Cuba. For them, it’s an opportunity to share their culture and for me it’s an opportunity to share how the dance and the music work together, how aligned they are. When you are talking about Cuban music, because the dance element is so entwined, it seems like a very natural thing to present.

It’s been an interesting experience as a band, because we’ve been able to interact directly with the dancers and that’s been fantastic. They are part of the band. The most interesting thing for me is the interaction between the front line players and the dancers. Musicians are starting to solo differently and think about their solos, anticipating what the dancers will do; and you can see the dancers anticipating the instrumentalists as well. It’s an interesting process, I think we’re at the beginning of something.

For me it’s very personal. I first got involved with Cuban music because one of my brothers had started traveling back and forth to Cuba; he loved to dance and he was learning Spanish, and then he started falling in love with Cuba; whenever he came back, he would bring CDs and music with him.

At the same time, I had an opportunity to do a research PhD at the Sydney Conservatorium – I wanted to become a big band composer, prior to that time I had not done any big band composing – and I thought it would be great to combine the love for that music and explore it.

The project became really special for me during that time, because both that particular brother and my big band tutor passed away. So the project became very emotionally charged for me and has taken on a life where it’s also about the memories of other people and their passion and there are a lot of people who’ve had loved ones pass and they feel the connection as well. Adrian Medina says that when you’re playing that music is like you’re praying. You are trying to do that for the memory of somebody else and you are doing it as a celebration of them and a celebration of all the things that they loved and had a passion for. So it becomes really special on so many levels and goes way beyond just putting some dots on a page. I don’t know if it is because of the intentions that I had, or because the band knows, they know about my history, but they definitely help me manifest anything that I want, I can’t do it without them. Music has helped me enormously to cope with loss.

What else would you like to know?

Ellio Villafranca in Caribe with Adrian Medina’s Con Clave Dance and Gai Bryant’s Palacio de la Rumba is on Sunday 8 April at 3pm at Riverside Theatres Parramatta.