Slow transition


North Hampton’s Parma Recordings travels to Cuba

When Bob Lord traveled to Cuba in November, he saw constant reminders of how much life has changed in the five decades since the U.S. first imposed its embargo on the country. Basic things, like regular running water, Internet access, and electricity were hard to come by. As Lord sat on the edge of a fort in Havana’s bay, a colleague pointed to the Malecón, the city’s seafront esplanade. The skyline was almost the same as it had been when the embargo began in 1960, though after 55 years, the buildings were falling apart. Nothing had been added — the man told Lord that there’d been no new construction in decades.

“Things are changing, but it will take time,” Lord said in an email to The Sound.

Lord is a musician, producer, and CEO of North Hampton-based Parma Recordings. He was recently named one of Musical America’s 30 Professionals of the Year, a designation given to “the drivers of opinions who are shaping the industry,” according to Musical America.

That Lord was in Cuba at all is something of a major change. He was there for recording sessions with a number of Cuban musicians. It’s a collaboration that only became possible after President Barack Obama announced in December 2014 that the U.S. would begin normalizing relations with Cuba.

The recordings won’t be released until sometime in 2016, Lord said. But work on the project began in May, when he made his first trip to the country after travel restrictions were eased.

“I was so impressed by the music and musicians I met and heard while there that I decided to return,” he said.

He’s keeping the details about who he recorded with a secret until the album is finished, but said, “The players we worked with in November are some of the very best in the country, including members of groups like the Buena Vista Social Club, Irakere, the National Symphony Orchestra, and more.”

“People are people, and it is the governments who have difficulty engaging. — Bob Lord

It’s not unusual for Lord to travel in search of new music and musicians, and many of Parma’s releases are recorded in studios around the world. Every place and every musician brings a new dimension to the music, and Lord said the sessions in Cuba were no different. Though “a small handful” of Cuban musicians perform and record internationally, according to Lord, collaboration between Cuban and American musicians has been “virtually non-existent” since the U.S. embargo began decades ago. Those years of relative isolation have produced “highly refined sounds and styles,” Lord said.

Lord and the musicians recorded a variety of pieces, from small jazz combo songs to classically oriented chamber works. “In the big band jazz material, the bass and piano parts were subtly re-worked and Cuban percussion — bongos, congas, guiro, casaba, cowbell, etc., — was added. … In other pieces, the difference is a more general one, such as the music for the women’s choir, which we recorded with English and Spanish texts (combined) … Even when there were no alterations made to the score, there was still a clear imprint made by the Cuban musicians on these pieces,” he said.

Since the U.S. shifted its Cuba policy last year, change has been slow. The U.S. reopened its embassy in the country and, earlier this month, commercial flights between the two countries resumed. In the studio, the musicians were focused on the project, Lord said. “Musicians are musicians, and when we’re recording, we’re focused on one thing only: music.” But, in general, the Cuban people he worked with are simultaneously excited, impatient, and skeptical about the evolving relationship between the countries, he said.

For his part, Lord hopes to see the embargo end sooner rather than later. The policy is a folly, he said, and has outlived its functionality. He believes that musicians and artists can ease the ongoing transition. “People are people, and it is the governments who have difficulty engaging,” he said. “It’s the people of each country who can normalize relations, if given the chance. Music has provided this function before throughout history, and I think we can do it again.”