‘It wasn’t easy’: how a Melbourne DJ united Jamaican reggae with Cuban salsa

Back in 2018, Australia got a treat: a 15-piece band of Jamaican and Cuban musicians, flown around the world as an unlikely supergroup.

It was the dream project of Jake Savona, a producer, arranger, keyboardist and DJ from Melbourne now living in Byron Bay: the live version of his cross-cultural fusion album, Mista Savona Presents Havana Meets Kingston.

And now he’s determined to do it again. Only this time, he wants to go all the way to Carnegie Hall.

The tour had been a rare and, ultimately, final chance to see some giants of Jamaican reggae live on stage. The following year, guitarist Winston Bo-Pee Bowen died of a heart attack. Then in December 2021 bassist Robbie Shakespeare (of legendary rhythm section Sly & Robbie) also passed away.

Savona says it was a tough project to make happen.

It wasn’t easy and there were huge expenses, he says. We needed a thousand people at each venue just to cover costs and … we actually lost money [on the tour]. But I don’t regret it for a second. It was so important to make that happen and a chance to see a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated show. Australia was the only country in the world that got to see the full line-up, so we were really lucky.

Since 2004, Savona had been regularly travelling to Jamaica to record local musicians and vocalists for his solo albums. This resulted in collaborations with reggae and dance hall stars like Sizzla, Capleton, Horace Andy, (Massive Attack) Alton Ellis, Anthony B and Big Youth.

Then, while on holiday in Havana in 2014, he had a vision of blending Jamaica’s roots reggae and heavy bass with Cuba’s son, timba and jazzy salsa flare. Savona was surprised to discover that, despite their close proximity, a collaborative musical project between the two Caribbean islands had apparently never been tried.

Thanks to an Australia Council grant, he went back to Havana with Sly & Robbie, Bo-Pee and Jamaican percussionist Bongo Herman, playing with the city’s top musicians at EGREM studios, best-known for 1996’s Buena Vista Social Club album.

More than 50 musicians and vocalists participated in multiple recording sessions across both countries: renowned Cubans such as Barbarito Torres, Rolando Luna (both from the Buena Vista Social Club band), Changuito and Brenda Navarrete, and Jamaicans such as Ernest Ranglin, Prince Alla, Cornell Campbell and the Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles.

With its mix of original material and traditional covers, the album was signed for international release, nominated for Best World Music Album in the 2018 ARIA Awards, and the tour culminated in a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

By the time the pandemic struck, Savona had completed more recording in Cuba and had enough tracks for two follow-up albums. He wasn’t able to return to Cuba until April 2021, when, during a four-month working trip, he completed further recordings and filmed a slew of music videos.

About half of Havana Meets Kingston Part 2 features music from the original EGREM sessions and the other half is brand-new recordings. Many of the same musicians (including Sly & Robbie and Bo-Pee) from the first album appear again.

Cuban percussionist/rapper and singer Brenda Navarrete (dubbed the Cuban Rihanna by Savona) gets increased profile across three tracks, while recent breakout Cuban star Cimafunk (who ignites the fiery funk-fusion of Beat Con Flow), and Jamaican vocalists Clinton Fearon (The Gladiators), Stevie Culture and Micah Shemaiah make stand-out appearances.

With this record, I wanted to highlight the originality of the project, explains Savona. And, two of the tracks on the new album, Siempre Si and We Are One, were both recorded at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studio in Kingston.

With the world reopening and with it live music, Savona and the Havana Meets Kingston band finally made their Cuban debut at the Havana World Music Festival last month. They will perform festival shows across Europe in July. But Savona also has a new vision.

My dream is to take this show to Carnegie Hall in New York, he says firmly. We’ve done Royal Albert Hall and I want to play Carnegie. It’s on the cards and we’ll push for it in coming years.

Mista Savona Presents Havana Meets Kingston Part 2 is out 3 June on ABC Music.

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