OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS Q&A with Conor Guilfoyle, Havana ‘che

As Ireland’s leading exponents of authentic Cuban music, Havana ‘che are a high-octane 10-piece salsa band who play everything from timba and salsa classics to rumba and guguanco guaranteed to get you grooving. For Hotter than July online in 2020, Havana ‘che will kick off our online performances on 17th July at 7pm, bringing their high-energy music that says ‘Hotter than July’, from Dublin’s Camden Studios straight into your living room!

Ahead of their performance, bandleader and drummer Conor Guilfoyle told us a bit about Havana ‘che’s history, being bitten by the Latin music bug as a young musician, and how he’s thinking about music in lockdown.

WATCH Havana ‘Che perform for Hotter Than July’s live sessions on IMC’s Facebook or YouTube, on Friday 17th July 7pm and Friday 24th July, 7pm.

Could you tell us a bit about how Havana ‘che came about as a band?

There’s a little pre-story to it - I went to New York back in 1984 and got into Latin music and then came back to Ireland and set up some Latin bands - bands that preceded Havana ‘che, including one called Dig Dis. Then I went to Cuba in 1994 with two members of that band Nigel Flegg and Gerry Godley, and when we came back I set up Havana ‘che.

The name is actually Havana Ache (pronounced ah-chay) - people always think of Che Guevara, but it’s actually Havana Ache, ‘Ache’ is a sort of blessing from the Gods. The band back then was much more Cuban in style, it’s what we call Cuban timba. Since then we’ve been going on and off in different versions. Back then in the late 90s and 2000s when there were more Cubans living in Ireland and the place was booming and then with the economic crash, so from 2008 it was hard to run a 10-piece band for several years.

What’s happened now is that I’ve reconfigured the band, with a new repertoire. We’ve been in rehearsals with this for the last six months. The whole idea was to relaunch it this May/June, but of course we had to put everything on hold. So what you see in Hotter than July will be the online equivalent of that new launch.

What style of music is it that Havana ‘che are performing, how is it different from other Latin styles?

As I was saying in the early stage we did more of what was called Cuban timba, which is a style that was developed from another style called songo. It became very popular in the mid-90s in Cuba, and it would have much more funk influence in it. You’d use a drum set and have 5-string bass, and it’s much more urban in that way.

This later version of Havana ‘che is more of a salsa band, in that I’d play timbales, it’s more geared towards salsa dancers, we’d play quite classic repertoire. A lot of it would have been originally written even in the 70s, when salsa as we know it became hugely popular.

And what was it about this style of music that really appealed to you?

I’d never grown up with Cuban music, I’d never heard it until I went to New York as a student, and then it was all around me, the whole Latin music thing, coming out of every car, all around the neighbourhood. I got bitten by the bug very badly.

I was studying there at a place called Drummers Collective, and one of the teachers, Frank Malabe (who has passed away since then) was playing on the Latin scene there. I started studying with him, so I was really deep into learning about that scene.

I’d really be known as a jazz drummer more than any other style, so I feel like I have two hats, a jazz drummer hat, and a Latin hat.

How are you finding the whole lockdown situation and being a musician within these restrictions?

The lockdown thing I have to say has been very difficult for me. I’ve never not played with someone for this long in my forty-year career, it’s just never happened and I really miss it. I’ve had these sessions playing in my house, which we haven’t been able to do, so I’m hoping to get that back this week, Tommy Halferty and Derek Whyte, are coming over for a session for an hour soon. And it’ll be the first time I’ve played with people since March 10th I think.

I have seen some really interesting videos. It’s a really difficult technical process to try and be creative within that pre-recorded, everyone over-dubbing on top of each other without having real interaction. I’ve done a few of them myself and I have seen a few very nice creative videos. And I think it’s started a new thing, so even when we go back playing live, whenever that is, I think still people will do these video collaborations it’ll become part of the mainstream. And the production values will get better and better with it, of course.

Havana ‘che have done a lockdown video for my 60th birthday. On this day 30 years ago, I played this tune ‘Swing La Moderna’, at Whelan’s live, in one of the early salsa bands, a band called Dig Dis. So I thought, quite appropriate that we do a lockdown quarantine version of this song, and it’s released online.

What would you consider essential listening for Cuban and salsa music?

If you’re going for Cuban music, a great singer is Isaac Delgado. He’d be very much Cuban style or a group like Los Van Van, who are sort of timba-style and have been around for so long, they’re an institution!

In the Puerto Rican style I love people like Eddie Palmieri, Rubèn Blades, Willie Colon Mulenze Gilberto Santa Rosa etc

El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico would be another one, Sonora Ponceña, both are salsa bands who have been around forever and are still going. Oscar d’León, a Venuezalan singer, he’s probably the biggest salsa singer in the world. I could keep going and going!

Whet your appetite for Latin music with our playlist of Conor’s recommendations here on Spotify.

WATCH Havana ‘Che perform for Hotter Than July’s live sessions on IMC’s Facebook or YouTube, on Friday 17th July 7pm and Friday 24th July, 7pm.


Proudly presented by Improvised Music Company in association with Dublin City Council, Hotter than July has become a staple of the Dublin summer calendar, celebrating the cultural diversity of Dublin city through music and dance from around the world. This year, from the 17th to 26th of July, you can access 10 days of events on Facebook and YouTube, including short performances of everything from Cuban dance music to Indonesian gamelan, songs and story-telling for young audiences, and chances to participate through instrument-making workshops and an online choir!

See the full Hotter than July programme HERE.

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