Last week, an 80-minute documentary titled “Two Beats One Soul” premiered in New York to a select crowd of insiders who witnessed first-hand, the making of an album on the island of Cuba.
Featuring footage captured by the lens of filmmaker / director Billie Woodruff, the too-short visual feast compliments the audio treat already released in tribute to one of the world’s most admired Caribbean locations.
Showcasing theaqua, blue Caribbean Sea, time-honored, well-preserved vintage cars, monuments throughout the island-capital, the personal visa offers a visual keep-sake of the “One Love” experience a diverse assembly of musicians shared while beating a deadline to record an entire album there in two weeks.
Talents from Puerto Rico, the Cape Verde Islands, Jamaica, the USA and Cuba toiled non-stop, around the clock in Havana to complete the project envisioned by Ray and Vivian Chew.
According to the executive producers acclaimed for helming separate and joint initiatives in order to execute an idea they collaborated to engage less than a year ago, they partnered with Mark and Kathy Grier to travel to the formerly forbidden island to US tourists and American business interests.
The couple’s aim was to fulfill a challenging mission most corporations, record companies and millionaires might not have encouraged or embarked.
Alleged to be the brainchild of Vivian who first visited the Spanish island in 1999 returning on and off five times until 2016 — she proposed that her husband Ray record an album on the revolutionary location renowned for defying America’s dictates.
Together the music-loving, Black couple whose combined experiences gleaned from working in the record industry and music production had daringly launched RVMK Records, a label devoted to providing soulful music — since then in association with their Chew Entertainment team successfully produced concerts at Carnegie Hall and other auspicious venues.
Like Lucy and Ricky Ricardo — without comedy routines — the pair is accustomed to pooling their talents.
Together they successfully executed and coordinated the official presidential inaugural ball in 2009 serenading Barack Obama, the first Black president and his wife Michelle to dance as the entire world watched. Ray pulled it off with ease pairing with Beyonce to provide an enticing musical medley.
As unprecedented as that historic challenge is recalled, time was of the essence for the Cuban mission. Often consumed with demanding projects such as the Miss Universe Pageant, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the full-time duty of directing music for the “Dancing With The Stars” TV reality show, Ray’s calendar was already full in 2017.
Similarly, Vivian’s hectic schedule traveling through time zones orchestrating global presentations, touring with artists to Europe and Dubai and coordinating premium private affairs with pop artists, a two-week period from June 24 to July 7 provided the only opening to fully execute the ambitious undertaking.
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Once confirmed as viable to their proposal and those of 35 multi-cultural, talented musicians, singers and composers the tropical escapade was a go.
Ray’s ideal was to collaborate with creative individuals on a task to write, arrange and record an original album during the limited time-frame.
The fact neither individual spoke Spanish nor had ever tested the possibility of working in a Communist country they proceeded with cautious optimism that the project might demand full internet service, reliable electricity, dependable artists, minimum government / political intrusion, compatible relationships, tasteful foods, punctual transportation, clarity with communication and a myriad of other take-for-granted necessities probably slow to achieve in the once Russian-aligned revolutionary destination.
They arrived in the middle of the region’s hurricane season when frequent power outages could imperil or stall production.
That did not deter them from checking into a hotel, dropping their bags and securing Ab Dulla Studios as their base of operation.
The couple’s enterprising idea was supported by German Antonio Martinez.
Due to his country’s open policy with Cuba, and his familiarity with the territory, Martinez’s access to services and individuals enabled expeditious transactions which without his assistance which might have delayed the delayed due to prohibitions from US restrictions.
Relationships with popular singer Eric Benet, Josh Milan, Puerto Rico’s talent Louie Vega and his Cape Verdean partner Anane, Jon B, and other artists contributed to the creative, fortnight endeavor.
“The caliber of experience was like working with Quincy Jones,” Jon B explained.
Like the historic “That’s What Friends Are For” musical collaboration of pop and r & b artists of 1985, the assembly sealed friendships and understanding of unity of purpose.
Film footage revealed that all talents “checked their egos” at the airport.
Jon B’s “Havana Moon” composition scored five minutes and 57 seconds of melody and tempo enhanced by Cuban collaborators who added beats and rhymes to the single.
“I had 30 minutes to write the lyrics.”
“One of the things we wanted was that the music would be written in Cuba, and that the project would take two days,” Ray explained.
It rained, it was hot and the electricity went off periodically.
“None of that stopped us.”
Word of mouth proved more reliable than the internet and daily Cuban talents flooded the hotel lobby asking to participate.
Some auditions and rehearsals were conducted on the gritty, sidewalks; others in alley ways.
“I left Cuba in 1998 and just happened to be there,” Brighton Beach, Brooklyn resident Xiomara Laugart said.
An acclaimed singer and actress who portrayed Celia Cruz in the 2008 Off-Broadway musical “Celia” Laugart and her charismatic, talented son Axel Tosca joined the percussive ensemble.
When all was said and done, Laugart added Afro-Cuban embellishment contributing “Zun Zun,” along with accompaniment on “Este Son Me Basta.”
Eric Benet discovered “The Rhythm” while enlisting a group of quick-learning locals to echo his vision.
Friendships developed, camaraderie established and in two days, the couple had made their deadline.
By Sept. 30, 13 songs had been mixed, packaged and ready for distribution to the world.
The Chew couple offered free distribution of the album to Cuba and Spanish territories.
Thirty five musicians returned to the island in January 2018 as guests invited to perform at the Havana Jazz Festival, which annually attracts tourists from Europe, Asia and Latin America.
On a night the collaborative, recording stalwarts were billed to perform, a two-hour black-out impeded the on-time start at Teatro Mella.
There to see and hear the collaborative titled “Two Beats One Soul” patrons waited 120-minutes in the dark, unsure whether or not the show would go on.
Moments into the two-hour juncture electricity was restored. To see and hear the jubilation that ensued is worth the viewing of the documentary.
After filing into the venue, the crowd was treated to 13-songs, and a full compliment that premiered a showcase of Latin fusion, Latin jazz and rhythm and blues.
The album also features “Sounds of Cuba,” a hybrid that includes Ray Chew with Red Foxx, a Jamaican dancehall talent.
“I could not have made a record in Cuba without including a Jamaican artist,” Vivian said.
“I am an honorary Jamaican.”
Chew who signed and supervised the recording, production and distribution of Shabba Ranks’ two Grammy winning albums, is also renowned for signing reggae super-group Third World to Polygram Records before moving to SONY Music where she also signed dancehall vixen, Patra, young deejay / rapper Little Vicious and produced a “Reggae For Children” album which included recordings by Shaggy, Damian Marley and others.
Shaggy was tagged for the Havana project but was unable to join the creative assembly in time to meet the deadline. Instead, his colleague and longtime associate Redd Foxx represented.
“Although Jamaica is 90 miles away from Cuba, I felt as if I was stepping into the unknown,” Foxx said.
“I had never been there but feel proud to have been included.”
Shaggy gets a nod with Ruben and Gabriel Rodriguez on the much touted “Asi” single.
Included in the visuals are moments with Sergio George and Jean Rodriguez who deliver classic, infectious, foot- stomping cadence to “I Can’t Live Without Your Love.”
Josh Milan, Axel Tosca and Little Louie provide narration and explanation of the party-hearty syncopations on “The World Is A family.”
And Cuba’s own Manolito Simonet who co-produced with Ray Chew on the flavorful “Caliente” explains the collaborative with Ruben and Gabriel Rodriguez.
Distributed by Sony Music Latin (USA) music by Milagros Hodelin (“Me Enamore”) and Etian “Brebaje Man” (“Sounds of Cuba”) provide added reasons to experience the soul and oneness embargoed for more than half a century. Hear it if you can but see it because you must.
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