With love from Cuba: Pablo Menendez returns to Bay Area with his band Mezcla

As a ridiculously precocious junior high school student growing up in Oakland in the mid-1960s, guitarist Pablo Menendez spent a good deal of time hanging out on Telegraph Avenue, soaking up the cultural ferment. While words like “revolution” were being tossed around the UC Berkeley campus, he plunged headlong into the real deal at the first opportunity, moving to Cuba at the age of 14.

Menendez had joined his mother, the great Bay Area folk, jazz and blues vocalist Barbara Dane, on a year-old trip to the island and decided to stay, where he went on to play a vital role on the Havana music scene as a producer, sideman and bandleader. He returns to the Bay Area next week for performances at Yoshi’s in Oakland on Wednesday and Kuumbwa on Oct. 2 with his acclaimed combo Mezcla, a group he founded almost 30 years ago to bring together various musical traditions (mezcla means mixing or mixture).

“I was in this great jazz group with a very young Gonzalo Rubalcaba,” Menendez says, referring to one of jazz’s most revered pianists, “and a band Sintesis that mixed symphonic rock with Cuban rhythms. I was touring with my mother a lot and doing studio work. It got to be a little bit much. Having a band called Mezcla allowed me to do all the different styles in one place.”

In Cuba, Mezcla isn’t so much an ensemble as an extended family of musicians. On a recent Havana gig dozens of players who’ve been associated with the group over the years cycled on- and offstage. For his U.S. tour, Menendez has winnowed the combo down to a quintet, though past Bay Area performances have turned into actual family reunions with appearances by his mother and sister, flamenco singer and Bay Area Flamenco Festival impresario Nina Menendez.

Even distilled to an economically viable touring unit, Mezcla packs a rhythmic wallop with percussionists Roberto Smith and Octavio Rodriguez, a renowned babalawo priest in the Afro-Cuban religion Santería.

“Roberto is playing bongos, congas, timbales and drum set, plus clave, guiro, and singing,” Menendez says. “Octavio is a conga master who is also one of the first people to play the three sacred bata drums all at once by himself. Together, they sound like 10 people.”

Anchored by the band’s longtime bassist Jose Hermida, the group also features Menendez on guitar and vocals and multi-instrumentalist Julio Valdez, who made his Bay Area debut with Mezcla at Yoshi’s in 2012.

“Now he’s playing violin, piano and singing,” Menendez says. “He’s a great jazz soloist, and he’s younger than the band itself. I’m the oldest member, but I feel more connected with the youngest one.”

So how did Menendez survive in Havana as a lone 14-year-old? It turns out that Cuba’s celebrated music education system provided the physical and temporal structures he needed to thrive.

“They had schools with dorms and dining rooms set up tuition-free, based on talent, for poor kids from all over the island,” Menendez says. “I was just from a little bit farther away than the other kids. The school took care of me. After that, I got married when I was 15 and moved in with my in-laws.”

His wife, Adriana Santana, went on to become one of Cuba’s most respected actresses, and their son Osamu Menendez Santana is a bona fide rock star who has cultivated a following on the island as well as among Cuban exiles in Florida.

“He can perform live on a TV show in Havana on Friday night, then turn around and perform live on a TV show in Miami on Saturday,” Menendez says with fatherly pride.

Outspoken in his support for the communist government, Menendez first gained attention as a participant in the emerging Nueva Trova movement, collaborating with singer/songwriters Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes. He has performed internationally with Mezcla, and released a series of excellent albums, most recently “I’ll See You in C.U.B.A.” (Zoho).

He’s celebrating the band’s 30th anniversary with a DVD recorded live in Havana, “Pablo Menendez & Mezcla: Todos Estrellas del Jazz Cubano,” though the project is all but unavailable to the vast majority of Cubans.

“People don’t have any way to play DVDs in Cuba,” he says. “We’re going to try to put it online.”

Contact Andrew Gilbert at jazzscribe at aol.com.

Pablo Menendez
and Mezcla

When and where: 8 p.m. Wednesday at Yoshi’s
Oakland, $25,
www.yoshis.com; 7 p.m.
Oct. 2, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz, $22-$27, www.kuumbwajazz.org

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