Billy Gibbons Makes His Cuba Debut at the Havana Jazz Festival

February 17th, 2016

This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story, plus features on Texas chef and guitarist Dean Fearing, the Gretsch exhibition at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, Ash guitarist Tim Wheeler, and our annual Motoring section featuring stories on the latest motorcycles and the vintage guitar and car collections of author Jonathan Kellerman, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

BILLY GIBBONS’ HAVANA AFFAIR: On a whirlwind trip to Cuba, the ZZ Top guitarist discovers that the country is about much more than cars, cigars, and communism.

By Chris Gill | Photos by Ian Fisher

BillyGibbons-motoring-mainAs one might expect for one of the biggest bands of all time, ZZ Top has played shows all over the world in far-flung locales that include Moscow and Buenos Aires. Havana, Cuba was one of the few places that the band hadn’t played, so when ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons received a surprise invitation to play there back in 2014 he initially assumed that the promoter wanted the band to appear. However, as details of the invite unfolded the gig turned out to be quite different than what Gibbons expected. Instead, the promoter wanted it to be a solo show and he wanted Gibbons to appear at the Havana Jazz Festival.

As much as Gibbons wanted to experience his first-ever trip to Cuba, there were just a few problems with the scenario, namely that Gibbons didn’t have his own band as a solo performer and the music he played could hardly be considered jazz. But there was one significant silver lining to the prospect, and that was the fact that Gibbons had booked studio time to record some solo tracks over the upcoming weeks. While Gibbons had previously recorded enough material to fill four or five albums in the past, suddenly he had a new spark of inspiration and direction that was entirely different than anything he had done before and was perfect for making his long-awaited solo debut.

The result of those sessions was Perfectamundo by Billy Gibbons and the BFGs, which surprised longtime ZZ Top and Gibbons followers with its lively Afro-Cuban rhythms, various songs sung in Spanish, and even occasional hip-hop flourishes. It wasn’t a total departure from the blazing blues-rock that made ZZ Top famous however, as every song features smoking guitar solos with the first-class tones that have earned Gibbons many a disciple amongst the guitar cognoscenti. Now Gibbons had the tunes and the band he needed to make that sojourn to Havana a reality, and the promoter happily booked him for the 2015 Havana Jazz Festival.

“I had never been to Havana before,” says Gibbons. “I really didn’t know what to expect. I know a handful of people who have been there, and not a single one could describe it in words. They’d just say, ‘You’ve gotta go!’”

Gibbons and his bandmates the BFGs (keyboard/B3 players G.G. Martine and Mike Flanigin, drummers Melanie DiLorenzo and SoZo Diamond, and percussionist/DJ/rapper Alx “Guitarzza” Garza) made the short flight from Miami to Havana on Thursday morning December 17. Before they left, they hit the Guitar Center in Miami to stock up on drum heads and visited a dollar store to stuff a few extra duffel bags with provisions like toothpaste and band-aids to hand out to people they met on their trip.

“We brought along a bunch of necessities because the people over there don’t have anything,” Gibbons explains. “It’s remarkable how robust they exist without too much complaint. They can’t really complain anyway, because if they do they’re asking for it. Uprisings are very quickly extinguished. They’re now in the third generation since the curtain closed, and the youngsters over there don’t know any different. They grew up with it, so it seems normal to them.

“In a strange way there’s a different kind of freedom over there,” he elaborates. “The Cubans are liberated from the constant bombardment of billboards and advertising—buy this, you’ve gotta do this. The only billboard that I saw was a picture of Fidel from the end of the revolution. It was surreal and quite enjoyable.”

From the moment that Gibbons landed in Havana, he instantly recognized that he was in an entirely different world. “The officials at passport control were all females about 26 or 27 years old,” he says. “They all had matching uniforms, and they were wearing sexy see-through tattoo pantyhose. There were no guys, and no guns. Once we got into the city, the buildings were all crumbling and distressed, and the infrastructure was in need of repair. Everything was in need of repair. Everyone knows about the plethora of old Fifties American cars there, but until you’re surrounded by them, it’s hard to comprehend. It was car, pretty girl, car, pretty girl, car, pretty girl—just an amazing sight to see.”

While making his initial venture around Havana, Gibbons decided to get a closer look at how the Cubans managed to preserve so much vintage American steel. “We turned a corner and were looking about 15 streets deep towards the capitol building down at the end,” says Gibbons. “We started cruising towards the capitol, and along the way there was this guy with a red-and-white 1954 Cadillac convertible. The hood was up, and a couple of guys were leaning over it. As we passed by I took a quick peek under the hood and saw it had a Peugeot four-cylinder diesel engine. You gotta hand it to them. That was born out of necessity. These guys are so resourceful. Nothing goes to waste. Even a metallic gum wrapper will get turned into a piece of art.”

The ingenuity and resourcefulness of Havana’s people was on full display at the first night’s show. The band was playing at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a former cooking oil factory that musician X Alfonso converted into a live music venue, art gallery, and restaurant with the backing of the Ministry of Culture. “We were in high cotton from the get-go,” raves Gibbons. “The room where we played was a big, wide-open space with walls covered by 45s, old vinyl LPs, and album covers. They also had some posters on the walls—Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley, James Brown, and a ZZ Top poster! When I saw that I knew we were in the right place.”

Logistics required that the band travel as light as possible. “The only gear I took was my ’61 Les Paul with the weird sideways Vibrola and pinstripes,” says Gibbons. “That was it. Dude, we were flying by the seats of our pants. I was playing through the venue’s Peavey Vintage amp with two 12-inch speakers from the Seventies. G.G. Martine was playing through a borrowed 2×12 amp of unknown origin, and Flanigin was pumping through the club’s 4×10 Hartke. Alx Guitarzza, our man in the back, had also brought his own DJ gear, but that was it. Believe it or not, as hodgepodge as the gear was it worked pretty well.

“We hit the stage at 11 p.m. that night,” he continues. “Brother it was steaming! It was so hot and the venue was packed. Some of the people had been standing outside waiting to get in for nine hours. They were pumped, primed, and ready to rock. There were about 1,500 people shoehorned in there. At one point I looked out at the audience and there were at least 50 iPhones flashing at us filming the whole shebang. I was totally surprised to see that. We were the only act that night, and we played about two hours. They were wanting more…”

This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story, plus features on Texas chef and guitarist Dean Fearing, the Gretsch exhibition at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, Ash guitarist Tim Wheeler, and our annual Motoring section featuring stories on the latest motorcycles and the vintage guitar and car collections of author Jonathan Kellerman, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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Comments

  1. Posted by Jeff Hughes on February 18th, 2016, 20:19 [Reply]

    Always good to read about Billy Gibbons.

  2. Posted by Bill Reifsnyder on February 25th, 2016, 14:26 [Reply]

    Was in Havana for the 2015 Jazz Festival at the same time as Billy Gibbons. I agree whole heartedly with his assessment of Cuba and it’s people. Socialism seems to be working for the Catro regime. All musicians I met were happy and played with great enthusiasm.
    The only downside to my trip were the boorish American tourists, especially at the theater the BFGs played. Instead of appreciating the Cuban musical contributions, they were obsessed with “selfies” during the performances. Totally embarrassing.
    Otherwise, an inspiring musical/cultural adventure.
    Thanks for the article. L

  3. Posted by Bill Reifsnyder on February 25th, 2016, 14:31 [Reply]

    Was in Havana for the 2015 Jazz Festival at the same time as Billy Gibbons. I agree whole heartedly with his assessment of Cuba and it’s people. Socialism seems to be working for the Catro regime. All musicians I met were happy and played with great enthusiasm.
    The only downside to my trip were the boorish American tourists, especially at the theater the BFGs played. Instead of appreciating the Cuban musical contributions, they were obsessed with “selfies” during the performances. Totally embarrassing.
    Otherwise, an inspiring musical/cultural adventure.

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