Fresh from the tobacco-growing highlands of Cuba and groggy from air travel, the seven members of Valle Son arrived in Los Angeles this May for their first concert in the United States and first-ever trip to the country.
The next day, they flew to New Mexico. They met Hollywood star Julia Roberts. She invited them back to her home. Saxophonist Livian Hernandez Sanchez was impressed but not surprised.
"Livian said (Roberts) was really great," said Chris Dray, a friend of the band and director of the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. "But he's seen a lot of American movies, and he said life is like television here. You arrive in L.A., you get on a jet plane, you meet a movie star."
Four years ago Valle Son was the house band in a monastery-turned-hotel in their home of Vinales, a town of 4,000 in the Pinar del Rio province. Since then, Valle Son has taken its first trip in an airplane and become the first band in the village to travel outside of Cuba.
Valle Son has visited the Yukon twice and recorded its first album (Son de Cuba) at Old Crow Studios in Whitehorse in the summer of 2000. The group is in the middle of its first U.S. tour and will play twice in Juneau: 7 p.m. Friday at Marine Park and 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Elks Club. Tickets for Saturday's show are $15. The show is being produced by Juneau's Heather and Antonio Diaz and is sponsored by the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council.
The Diazes will help host a free Latin dance workshop at 8 p.m. Saturday before the show at the Elks Lodge.
Valle Son was supposed to play in Juneau in 2000 and 2002 but had trouble securing visas. They were denied entry last September just three days before a scheduled show at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall.
"This tour is very important for us and for the people in Vinales," said rhythm guitarist Jesus Hernandez Sanchez, the band's lone English-speaking member. "When we go back, we will tell them how everything is, and it will be an experience for them also."
Valle Son's random connection to Whitehorse, and the band's eventual first trip out of Cuba, began with a trip Juneau storyteller Brett Dillingham made to Vinales in December 1998. Dillingham and his ex-wife stayed at a downtown hotel, La Ermita, which advertised live music. Valle Son was the house band.
"You've got all shades of skin, males and females, and they've got the sound," Dillingham said. "Then they started coming out and doing some of the dancing. There was a black gentleman, real tall. He was a great dancer, and he really showed people how to dance. How often does a band member come out and start whooping it up with the audience?"
Dillingham told his friend, Dray, about the kind people he met in tobacco-rich Vinales. Dray flew to Cuba on Jan. 1, 2000, and ended up staying a few nights at La Ermita. Once again, the house band was Valle Son.
"I didn't pay attention at first," Dray said. "The reason I didn't notice was because they were playing without a singer (Lazaro Wilfredo Rivera Dueñas). He was watching the baseball championships. They finally dragged him out of the bar. He had an exquisite tenor voice."
Dray invited Valle Son to fly to Whitehorse and play a concert in the Yukon Arts Center. They accepted immediately, even though they didn't think anything would come of it.
"Jesus later told me that tourists always say crazy things," Dray said. "They're living in a village, and some of them don't have food. Who would believe someone that says they're going to spend $25,000 to bring them to a foreign country?"
Dray was serious. But Valle Son needed six months to secure work visas from the Cuban government. One of the conditions was they had to have enough work for a month. Dray set up shows in the Yukon at parties and weddings.
"(Traditional Cuban band) Buena Vista Social Club made a big difference in Cuba," Sanchez said. "It was a great thing for them to come to the United States and show what the Cuban music is about. The Cuban government wants to show what we are doing, so we never had problems in that way. It was harder to get permission from the United States embassy."
In Whitehorse in the summer of 2000, Valle Son met David Petkovich, part-owner of Caribou Records. He wanted to put out the band's first compact disc. It was recorded for free at Old Crow Studios in Whitehorse.
"It was their first time ever in a recording studio," said Jay Burr, who runs Plughead Productions, his independent production facility, out of Old Crow. "When you have six or seven Spanish-speaking people, it's hard to filter through all the ideas and feedback. I was pleasantly surprised at the end of three days, come supper time, we were approaching completion of the project."
"Buena Vista was all traditional, as far as Cuban standards," Petkovich said. "Valle Son does play a lot of them, but with a different energy and different instrumentation: nylon-string tres guitars, stand-up bass, saxophone, bassoon, vocals and percussion."
Valle Son plays traditional son, a form of Cuban dance music that preceded contemporary salsa and incorporates danzon, the national Cuban rhythm. Son is an explosive, acoustic mixture of salsa and rhumba. The inclusion of bassoon and saxophone is atypical, an experiment to blend voices and create new sonorities.
"Revolution is very important in life," Sanchez said. "Creation is beautiful. Cuba is a place where there is a great cultural movement. For us to find work, we just had the idea to start something different so that people would be interested."
The members of Valle Son all come from musical families. But unlike Buena Vista members, and many Cubans musicians who have become popular in the United State, they were born after Fidel Castro's revolution.
"The members of Valle Son are not wealthy people at all," said Dray, who married a woman from Vinales and has been back to the town eight times since 2000. "These are young musicians, of the people. When I met the tres quitar player (Pedro Hernandez Gonzalez), he was playing air guitar, just so he could show up and get paid. None of them are communists. None of them are politically involved. They are people who live in town and play music for a living, and they're an enormously positive group of people."