Messages from Masters: Bobby Carcasses

by Ella Campbell

(Pronounced Car-Kuh-SAYS)

Bobby Carcasses is a Cuban musician who was born in Jamaica and raised in Cuba, where he developed his art when he moved from Santiago to Habana in 1956. He is an artist by all counts: he plays instruments, sings, dances, paints and draws. When asked where his musicality was inspired, he said that he was “born singing.” He can play congas, saxophone, piano and flugelhorn. While in school, he wanted to drop out in order to focus on music and art, but his mother did not approve of quitting school. She insisted that he find work if he was going to quit, so he dropped out and got a job at a cracker packaging factory. Once he moved to Habana, he said “I realized that I can live life as an artist and have reason.” He studied opera, practicing in the walk-in refrigerator at a burger joint he later worked at. (Burger joint in Cuba? We were surprised too.) He also studied ballet, which is “another world of art,” when he decided that he would audition on a television talent showcase. From there, he was hired into a vocal quartet and made his transition from singing opera to singing Cuban popular music, and jazz. The music he creates is a combination of traditional harmony and new musicians putting their modern spins on it, and his son leads a music group called Interactivo.

Carcasses has another son, of whom he said “My son has autism.” The people in the room looked at each other, as if they thought he hadn’t meant to tell them that. “I am speaking about this because this is part of my life: it is a part of my art.” Another part of his life, and his art, is his wife. “When I was 12, my wife was 5. I never thought that little girl would be my wife. And, my wife? And we never have discussion. We only have love for each other.” He also said “My wife. She is fat.” The way he said fat, was not the way we say fat. He said “fat” the way we say “big.” In a beautiful, endearing way that makes us all wish we had MORE TO LOVE!

Bobby is a very charismatic man in person. He was very excited to be in the United States, watching students of jazz. I believe that he found so much joy in listening to American students because it is similar to us listening to him. When we watch a man who grew up playing and perfecting Cuban music, dance and rhythm in Cuba, we realize how little like him we sound, or will sound. We grew up with beats two and four, we grew up with swing. We grew up with the blues. Even when we try not to play that way, it leaks out anyway. I think our performances were so inspiring to him because he was watching Americans play the blues. After hearing three groups play three different blues, he went up to the front of the class and asked “If, if you can? Please. Play another blues?” and he stood there, in the middle of the band, and sang along. There immediately was brotherhood between all of the musicians.He is a man who very much understands the meaning of the blues “I am very happy. I am happy to be here because people of every country are the same. We all have different problems, but as people, we are always the same.” And everybody wants to hear just one more blues.

He explained this brotherhood between musicians. He studied jazz for most of his life, and had heard about Rodney Whitaker before traveling to Michigan. “Five minutes after meeting Rodney the first time, we were playing music. And we were like old friends.”  Music has the power to bring people together from across the world — and create brotherhood within minutes.

A man of many instruments, Bobby insists that the voice is the most divine. It is the only instrument you cannot see. We cannot watch how it works, and we cannot watch the mechanics of it.  It can imitate every instrument, and everyone plays their wind instrument in an attempt to sound as vocal as possible. You know you’ve all been playing something when someone shouts “Sing!” or when you haven’t been playing well and someone’s advice to you is to “Sing through your horn” or “imagine the lyrics.” We use our voices to speak, and we use our voices to sing, and we use instruments to imitate this, and create dialectic music.

Both Cuban music and jazz are dialectic. The dialogue in this music not only happens between musicians, but it happens between cultures, and it happens between the people and their leaders. The musicians in jazz are obligated to improvise, and this improvisation creates steady forward movement and development in this music. As Cuban music and jazz continue to evolve, they still have the same African rhythms in common, “in Cuba, the music is African and Spanish, and sometimes we just don’t know if what we’re playing is Spanish or African. And in Brazil, the music is African and Portuguese. In America? Jazz is African and American.” This combination of cultures, the relationship between colonizers and the colonized, the slaves and slaveholders, means this music is liberation music. And in Cuba, politically, jazz, the music of America, is the music of the enemy.

However, the lovers of jazz know that this is music of the people. It is from and for everyone, and the audience of jazz is an educated and intelligent one. It’s history is deep and complex, and it doesn’t separate itself from classical music. A good example of this, Bobby pointed out, is Gershwin. He is right in the middle, between opera and jazz, and both forms of music embrace and respect his work and each other’s interpretation of it.

Bobby used the history of the relationship between Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza to describe the dialectic and brotherly nature of Cuban music and jazz. (Click the previous links in order to learn about them.)

Bobby spoke mostly about the human spirit and our relationship with each other and music, but he also had a bit to say about practicing and performing too. Some of his first experiences as a professional musician took place in a vocal quartet. In that quartet he learned to master writing for four voices and “if you can master writing for four voices, you can write a symphony.”

In his youth he would practice entertaining for an hour. He would sit with a piano, drums, his horn and his voice and attempt to be entertaining and fresh for an hour straight, alone. He was a one-man show, and he would perform blues, rumba and boleros in an attempt to stay interesting. This is a wonderful idea. Take one hour, and play tunes through, utilizing whatever skills you have, if you can play piano for a tune, then play your horn for a tune, then sing a tune, and see if you can be entertaining and enticing for the entire hour. It’s very challenging! Pick tunes that contrast in key, tempo and feel, and see if you can convincingly, excitedly and meaningfully play each one different from the others.

While he consistently reminded us to play with meaning, he also reminded us to “relax. Know that you have time. You may think the time is getting away, but it’s not.” You do not have to chase the time – as in tempo and the amount of time you are on stage. Be playful and relax into the time. Let it settle, and make it feel right. Dance with more than just your fingers and face. Only moving the parts of your body that mechanize the instrument is not enough to make the music settle, you must dance with your entire body, and you can make the time feel good. Making the time feel good is far more important than fitting as much information as you can into it. You can always get up and play another tune.

Finally, if you respect the music, and if you are going to attend masterclasses, and you take lessons, and you go to concerts, go there armed with questions. The musicians must know you are honestly interested in their music and their knowledge.

Bobby is an avid believer in the power of yoga, and making his spirit whole. Through yoga, meditation, and a belief in reincarnation, he discovered a world full of possibilities. “Knowledge is something. Wisdom is another thing.” He has also become very comfortable with honesty and people. Which, when you think about it, finding people comfortable with being truly honest with people is very rare. “The truth is the only thing I can give. It is the most beautiful thing you can give.” But he does not only find his spirit through yoga and meditation.

His drawing is also a form a meditation for him: “when I finish a drawing, I can look, and my spirit is realized.” Developing his human spirit and his spirit for life are also different. He believes that “we develop our spirit for life in groups. … When you play, you are entering a cosmos where you all know each other and are good friends. When you finish playing, you come back. Don’t think about anything except giving yourself. Offer your heart. You don’t have time to think.

He is very rapidly approaching the age of 74 and he works as hard as he can every time he performs.
He jokes about dying on stage from working so hard, but then he said, very soulfully
“If I die? Wonderful, because I died doing something important.”


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