Music News & Reviews

Menendez’s Cuban quintet makes first visit to South Sound

Although he’s well known in the world of Cuban music, guitarist Pablo Menéndez didn’t move to Cuba till he was a teen.

Menéndez and his band Mezcla — which plays a mixture of Cuban jazz, rock, rumba and salsa — will perform in Olympia and Tacoma next week.

He moved from his native Oakland, California, to Havana to attend a prestigious arts high school. His mother, singer and activist Barbara Dane, had toured in Cuba, defying a U.S. State Department ban on travel there, and was able to arrange the opportunity.

Dane “was front page news for weeks in 1966” when she toured Cuba, Menéndez said. She even met then-Prime Minister Fidel Castro.

“I was very inspired to go someplace the U.S. government said you couldn't and also to go to a music school in a country with some of the greatest music in the world,” Menéndez said.

The plan was for him to spend one year in Cuba, but Menéndez wound up staying. He founded Mezcla in 1985, and the band has since won critical acclaim, including a nomination for a Latin Grammy in 2002.

Carlos Santana compared the band to “the cleanest, freshest water I have ever tasted,” according to Mezcla’s marketing materials.

Life in Cuba had many advantages, he said. “I was meeting people from all over the world in Havana, and great music was everywhere. Music gets so much support, starting with music education, tuition free, based on talent.”

Cuba also guarantees work in music for professional musicians, he said. “We tour worldwide and live solely from playing music at subsidized prices for people to hear.”

The worldwide touring has at times been complicated by the United States’ blockade of Cuba, though. During both Bush presidencies, the Cuban members of Mezcla were denied visas to perform here.

Menéndez has come to the United States without the band several times, including in 2009, when he performed at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia as part of the Jazz Guitar Summit, a concert he calls “a high point of my life as a guitarist.”

Mezcla has toured in the United States multiple times in recent years. The band’s next album, “Pure Mezcla: Life at Yoshi’s,” was recorded at the famed Oakland Club, where the band will play again next month.

This will be Mezcla’s first time in Olympia, though.

“I love Oly and its people,” Menéndez said. “And I love it that now we are able to get all the way from Cuba to Oly to play. That is almost a miracle.”