Bill Caballero turns his trumpet towards Roy Robinson. Robinson lights up. His hands flail back and forth from one conga drum skin to another. Then Caballero’s wailing trumpet takes up a response. People watch the interplay and burst into applause. Now three kids from Point Loma High School, Evan, Annie and Chris, point their trumpets up and launch into “Hay Burner.”
I take a glug from my Horchata Golden Stout with its cinnamon-vanilla flavor and look around at the crowd. This whole scene tonight is a crazy-good mix of ages and ethnicities, from school kids to 80-year-olds, all grooving to this stuff, much of it music from famous Cuban bands such as Irakere. I hear songs like El Cuarto de Tula (“Tula’s Bedroom”) and think I’m witnessing a rebirth of the Buena Vista Social Club, that famous grouping of Cuban musical luminaries caught on film in 1996.
Yes. That’s what is happening. This weekly Latin jazz session at Border X, this Chicano brewpub on Logan Avenue in the heart of the Barrio, is taking off. The beauty of it? Anybody good enough can come play. It’s all kicked into life by the trumpeter-leader Bill Caballero. And talk about jam session? People jam this room every Thursday night.
I rest my stout on a table shared by Francisco, a Brazilian, and Victoria, whose dad came from Havana.
“He would love this,” she says.
Because what we’re seeing is, uh, Latin Jazz? Or is it Cuban jazz?
“Cuban jazz is Latin jazz when Cubans are playing it,” says a nearby guy, Victor.
The atmosphere is set by the Latin art on the walls — Frida Kahlo, of course, plus drawings of countless local personalities such as Ramón “Chunky” Sanchez, and Laura Rodriguez, and cross-cultural sayings like “Sin maíz, no hay país.” And “Is it pronounced ‘Ha ha ha!’ or is it ‘Ja ja ja!’?”
Caballero is overjoyed to be able to do his thing here. In David Favela, the guy who started Border X, he found a soul mate.
“I knew it was the place as soon as I walked in,” says Caballero. “I just had a gut feeling.”
So how do you create a band playing this tight Latin jazz if it’s just a disparate group of musicians who roll up on the night?
“I always have a core group,” says Caballero. “Bass, guitar,piano, stick drummer, hand drummer. Then you can build from there.”
Could a wannabe like me come down and join in?
“I’m always inclusive,” he says. “But I tell anyone showing up, ‘Leave your horn in the car, and just come in and listen. Get the lay of the land. If you can play that set, tell me. If you’re pure of heart, I’ll work with you.”
Could this be the next Buena Vista Social Club? Or does Caballero worry success will spoil it? “Well there are a lot of faces coming — brown, black, white — who are people of means. But homies, too. They’re holding their own.”
Any advice to first-time Anglos in the audience?
“Yes. Don’t try too hard. Don’t dance some stupid cucaracha dance. Don’t yell ‘Arriba! Arriba!’”