An Interview with Cuban-born harmonica ace Felix Cabrera: The Blues is an opportunity to express myself

"The SOUL of the blues in N.Y is jazz, salsa and R and B.. I should say it was.. There is nothing original musically happening in N.Y today. Only tourism."

Felix Cabrera: The Fusion Soul of Blues

Felix Cabrera was born in La Habana, Cuba. He listened to music on the radio since he was 5....not only his native music but also Bill Haley and Nat King Cole. His musical activity at that time was beating conga patterns on benches with school friends....

Then to the U.S. ....Miami: Continued to listen to the radio...first r & b record heard was "Hit the road, Jack"...started singing a bit with records...did a lot of dancing in after school hops...albeit alone....

Then to Union City, New Jersey: Continued listening radio....sang along with Levi Stubbs and Eric Burdon....heard Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and was caught by the sound....went out and bought a harmonica...saw Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield live and was hooked....bought more harmonicas....played along with records....saw BB King, Albert King, Otis Rush, James Cotton and Muddy Waters....also, Cannonball Adderley, Charles Lloyd and Chico Hamilton and started liking jazz...played with various bands until, in 1974, he and Arthur Neilson formed the "A  TRAIN BLUES BAND" .... one of the first Chicago styled Blues bands in the New York metropolitan area.  The band  backed up and recorded with VICTORIA SPIVEY  and North Carolina bluesman TARHEEL SLIM  besides doing their own gigs.  Felix also played duets with Honey Boy Edwards.

Blues Unlimited writer Andre Hobus saw Cabrera perform at MAX's KANSAS CITY and wrote about his...."fluent harp techniques". In the next few years  Felix experimented with the diatonic harmonica in Cuban music and  co-led THE INTERNATIONALS...mixing blues and classical overtones. They opened shows for BIG JOE TURNER and JAMES COTTON.

New York City: In 1984 he formed FELIX AND THE HAVANAS, recording  "NEXT!!", which was released by  the SKYRANCH record label in France...the opening gig for this aggregation was for JAMES BROWN at the LONE STAR CAFE in New York City...they opened for the Godfather of Soul another 6 times...they also opened many times for Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells, Bobby Blue Bland, Jr. Walker, Wilson Pickett, Dr. John, Lonnie Mack, Marcia Ball and others.... Felix was the inaugural act at MANNY'S CAR WASH, the renowned  New York Blues Club...he performed on NPR's program BLUES STAGE, hosted by Ruth Brown..

In the late 90's, Mr. Cabrera joined Jimmy Vivino and the Black Italians.  They became a Thursday night fixture at the Manhattan Music Club, DOWNTIME...Felix was then backed up by Vivino and Co. and released his second CD,  "CUBOPS CUBLUES" ...Vivino and most of the Black Italians became the MAX WEINBERG SEVEN on the CONAN O'BRIEN SHOW on NBC T.V. ...Felix has also been on stage in MARK NAFTALIN'S MARIN COUNTY BLUES FESTIVAL where he performed with Naftalin, Jimmy Vivino and the late great drummer BILLY DAVENPORT.  It was in Marin Country that Felix re-discovered the rage Butterfield favorite "East West".

After working with Jimmy Vivino for many years, he again became a band leader....the formation of  "The Felix Cabrera Band"  led to the recording of PRESSURE COOKER with a distinguished  group of old friends....Arthur Neilson and Vivino on guitars,  Drummer Bill Schroeder,  Keyboardist Danny Louis, Bassist Phil Butler, Giovanni Arencibia on Congas, and the horns of Jerry Vivino, Howard Johnson and Mark Pender.


Interview by Michael Limnios


When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?

Right after seeing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop two times  in NYC in November/December 1966


Who were your first idols? What have been some of your musical influences?

Bob Dylan got me into buying a harmonica and Paul Butterfield got me into playing it. Butterfield Blues Band of 65/67 with Bloomfield, The Electric Flag, Booker T and The MG's (Stax), Procol Harum (only the first 3 recordings), James Brown's Band, Coltrane with McCoy Tyner, Eddie Palmieri's Bands in the late 60's, early 70's here in N.Y. One more important one. The Mothers of Invention from 66/68. Not so much the comedy but the music was outstanding....it helped get me into jazz...so did Butterfield. Muddy Waters with Spann and Georgia Boy Johnson in 67 it was that I saw them. And Cotton in 68...those were GREAT bands along with the other ones that I mentioned.


"Back in the 60’s, Blues still had that jazz swing. No more.  Lots of players who come from a heavy metal/rock background are filtering into the “blues” mix."

What were the first songs you learned?

The songs that I learned were from most of the first and second Butterfield albums, the first two James Cotton on Verve, The first Canned Heat with Al Wilson on harmonica and the “Chicago-The Blues-Today” series on Vanguard…I played along to those songs endlessly. In particular “The Work Song” and “East West” by Paul Butterfield. I liked the fact that it wasn’t all blues.


Which artists have you worked with? Which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best?

I have opened for James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Blue Bland, Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells, Jr. Walker, Dr. John and many others. I have worked with Hubert Sumlin and way back in the 70’s, with Honeyboy Edwards.

All of those acts were great at their peaks.


Is “blues” a way of life? What does the BLUES mean to you?

I don’t think so. It’s just music, you know. That’s all.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Anytime that the band is hotter than hot is the best moment…the worst would be a night I got drunk and made a fool of myself on stage.


Is there any similarity between the blues today and the blues of ‘70s?

Back in the 60’s, Blues still had that jazz swing. No more.  Lots of players who come from a heavy metal/rock background are filtering into the “blues” mix.

Do you think the Cuban younger generations are interested in the blues?

Some are. I went there for the first time in 40 years back in 2001 and there were a few fellows that were into it but they have never really seen it played live  so they have an idea but not quite the whole thing.


Tell me a few things about the story of A Train Blues Band. How did you choose the name?

In 1974, I got a call from a friend who had just seen an advertisement to form a blues band in Northern New Jersey. He gave me number and I called the guy  This was Ralph Bisesi, a bass player whose younger brother Brian would later play guitar with Muddy Waters for a brief period around 1977. We started auditioning for a lead guitarist, two came over and the third was Arthur Neilson from Shemekia Copeland’s band now and we knew we had found a good one. Arthur was coming from Queens, in New York City which was not that far. Only 40 minute drive. We found a drummer who was friends with Brian. That was Barry Jackson. we were a band for a couple of years. There was not much opportunity then in N.Y for blues. That didn’t come until the early 80’s when the bar Dan Lynch’s started having blues every night. We did play some interesting gigs like backing Tarheel  Slim and even though we barely made any money on the gigs we played it was a very good learning experience for all of us..the bass player came up with the name of the band. We never played “Take The A Train”.


What does Blues offered you?

An opportunity to express myself, I would think.


What do you learn about yourself from music?

I am afraid to answer. Maybe I should have a psychiatrist and a blonde next to me before I do.


How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

I usually sing with my eyes closed most of the time and the same with the harmonica. But in between songs I usually engage the audience with some irreverent subject. And they seem to like that. I am not much of a showman. Although I like to dance Cuban style on stage when the groove is right. Which it is most of the time.


"I just write the lyrics myself and then I tell the band how I want it played. I don’t know how to read music so Arthur Neilson and Jimmy Vivino have been a great help for me helping me develop my songs.."

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

There’s been many but I think right now is the most interesting one in that I am being recognized a little bit more.  By other musicians as well as new crowds that have come to see me.

Because I like the way it sounds.


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

I worked in chemical plants, machine shops, offices, cleaning buildings, selling insurance, collecting past due accounts, driven fork lifts, embroideries, supermarkets,warehouses,bank teller and a million other jobs in between musical  engagements.


What was the first gig you ever went to?

The Butterfield Blues Band at Town Hall in New York City, Nov 25, 1966. But I really saw them up close at the Café Au Go Go on Dec 6th when they started a week long engagement there. That was when I made my decision that I wanted to do something in music.


What’s you poison?

I am a herbalist. Although 13 years ago, if you had asked me the same question, I would have answered  “I’ll take a Heineken and a shot of anything, please!!!


What was the last record you bought?

It’s been a  long, long, long time since I bought records. I have bought old music but nothing new for the last 25 years or so.


If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?

An Astronaut.


How was as personalitty Honeyboy Edwards?

Quiet.


Which of your work would you consider to be the best?

The “For Green” cd.

What mistake of music you want to correct? Give one wish for the music

Many, so there is no point in even starting. My wish: For the music to perhaps lay a little bread on me after all these years.

Are there any memories from Victoria Spivey and Tarheel Slim which you’d like to share with us?

Lennie Kundstadt, who was Victoria Spivey’s right hand man, told us to come to Brooklyn to record. This was the A Train Band. We went to a 12 story building and it turned out that it was where Victoria lived. We walked in and she was laying in a bed in the middle of the living room having Taylor champagne. We set up the equipment in front of her and started playing. Lenny had put one microphone up in the ceiling. After a while, the drummer and bass player found the whole thing too weird and left.I guess they expected a regular studio. Arthur Neilson, Brian Bisesi and I stayed and talked to Victoria afterwards.


What are some of the memorable gigs you've had?

Certainly the ones with James Brown. Those were happy days, back in the mid 1980’s in NY.


What were your favorite harps back then?

Hohner Marine Bands and Marine Band Deluxe’s. and I still play them.

What turns you on?

Listening to other peoples music. Besides Blues, I always loved Jazz and I have my classical favorites (Rachmaninoff, Debussy) and I also like Country. REAL country. Not the new crap they have out. I love Motown, Stax. You know, GOOD MUSIC.


Which things do you prefer to do in your free time?

I read Sci-Fi, Military History and I like model trains and I follow International Athletics.


Media or talent plays the most important role for a artist to get discovered?

Probably 50/50. But I think it’s even getting worse these days as far as the media is concerned.


"Listening to other peoples music. Besides Blues, I always loved Jazz and I have my classical favorites (Rachmaninoff, Debussy) and I also like Country. REAL country. Not the new crap they have out. I love Motown, Stax. You know, GOOD MUSIC."

Tell me about the beginning of the band. How did you get together and where did it start?

After the A Train Blues Band broke up in 1977, I collaborated with a Violinist in a band called THE INTERNATIONALS. We played a mixture of blues/rock with classical themes built into the songs. Our Violinist (Alan Carriero) would take compositions from Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Ravel and others and make them fit into a basic blues/rock sound. If one day I get enough money, I will hire a big orchestra to do some of the tunes we used to do. This band lasted for only a couple of years. Broke up because of “business” disputes.

Do you remember your opening  gigs for James Cotton & Big Joe Turner?

I opened up for Cotton around 1981.  But I had seen James back in 1968 in N.Y with what was my favorite band of his. Luther Tucker, Alberto Gianguinto, Bob Anderson and Francis Clay were playing with him then. Billy Butler was playing guitar with Big Joe Turner. This was also in 1981/82. Billy Butler was the guitar player on “Honky Tonk


How do you like to spend the end of the days?

Preferably with a woman around my neck.

Tell me about your meetting with Jimmy Vivino.  How long have you been together?

I met Jimmy in a party in 1975 when he brought his Hammond organ to play with the A Train. After that we did some recording sessions and I would see him here and there throughout the years but it wasn’t until 1992 when I passed by a club in Manhattan and I saw that Jimmy was playing and I walked in and he asked me to play and from then on I became a member of THE BLACK ITALIANS. We played at a club called DOWNTIME for 5 years every Thursday night. The band was Jimmy on guitar and vocals,Mike Merrit on Bass, James Wormworth on drums, Fred Walcott on Timbales, Mike Jacobsen on congas and Danny Louis on keyboards. Danny is the keyboardist for GOVERNMENT MULE  Very powerful band..Wormworth and Merrit play with Jimmy on the national televised show “The Conan O’Brien Show”. They have been doing that for 18 years now.


Three words to describe Jimmy Vivino

Saved my career.


From the musical point of view is there any difference between Cuba & US?

Both musics appeal to me. But being in the U.S


Is there anything that you mist from your childhood times in Cuba?

I was too young (11) when I left to miss anything. Maybe I would like to see a couple of my friends from the neighborhood that I had but that is all.


What do you consider the world’s biggest problem of the world?

Political Correctness.

What gift would you had given to Paul Butterfield ?

I bought enough of his records. I don’t need to give him a gift…maybe If I was a woman, I would have brought him a sandwich.


What’s the best band you ever played in?

Hard to say, but the current one certainly has had its moments and, of course, Felix and the Havanas in the 80’s. The A Train had a very heavy Chicago feel and I liked that. The Black Italians were into the latin tinge with the 3 percussionists.


Where did you pick up your harmonic style?

Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, Al Wilson, Big Walter Horton. Charlie Musselwhite and Jr Wells…because these are people I saw live. But obviously Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson too…..and you got to love Stevie Wonder.

 

What are your best songs, the songs y ou’d most like to be remembered for?

“Animalism”  “Josephine” “For Green” , my arrangement of Butterfield’s “Lovin Cup” and a version of Mark Naftalin’s “Strawberry Jam” that Butterfield performed when Mark was in the band. This will appear in my next cd.


What compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?

Compliments about my vocals. And they are mostly from women. Men usually talk about the harmonica playing.


What are some of your favorite blues standards?

Killing Floor, Long Distance Call, Mojo, Roller Coaster, Early in the Morning, As the Years go passing by…there are so many..but I also do Jazz standards like “The Work Song”, “All Blues”, “Moanin’” and others.

East or West?

Definitely West, baby!!!

What experiences in your life make you a good bluesman?

That I may be a little more “out there” than others. Really, I have no idea. Like my friend said, “You didn’t pick the harmonica, the harmonica picked you”.


How was your relationship with Mark Naftalin & Billy Davenport?

Mark had Billy come to the 1994 Marin County Blues Festival in California to play with Jimmy and I went (I was not scheduled but still played) just to meet Billy. I told him that some years earlier I had written him a postcard saying that without him, The Butterfield Blues Band would have been a great blues band but having him in it just extended the musical menu because of his jazz background and made it even better. He told me that he had that postcard in a picture frame in his living room.  He thought people had forgotten about him after leaving Butterfield. He continued playing after that although his main job was being a male nurse at St Mary’s hospital in Chicago. I speak to Mark Naftalin quite often. Mark wrote what I think is the song that Butterfield played the best on. “Strawberry Jam”.


What made you want to sing like Eric Burdon?

I never worked with Eric Burdon. He was one of the first people that I would sing along to on records to.. The other was Levi Stubbs, the lead singer of THE FOUR TOPS…both very powerful voices.

Who would you consider the SOUL of the blues in NY?

The SOUL of the blues in N.Y is jazz, salsa and R and B.. I should say it was.. There is nothing original musically happening in N.Y today. Only tourism.


What do you think of NY Blues Scene?

There is no NY blues scene…there used to be one in the 80’s and 90’s but now it is defunct. In the 1980’s and 90’s we had THE LONE STAR CAFÉ, MANNY’S CAR WASH, DAN LYNCH TAVERN (the one that started it all), CHICAGO BLUES, and many other bars where you could make money playing blues.


How is a Cuban in the US to play the blues?

You can thank the communists for that.


Happiness is……

A good night’s sleep so you can start all over again.


Three words to describe your sound & your progress

Fat, swingy and Hard.


Do you believe MUSIC takes subject from LIFE?

Certainly, Mon Amis.

What’s that moment like just before you go on stage? What’s your energy like?

I am always nervous.


Describe the ideal rhythm section to you?

The one I have had for the last 15 years…Bill Schroeder on Drums and Phil Butler on bass.

How did you begin playing music and when did you know you would do this for a living

First band was in 1968. But I always had to do work a day gig or at least a few hours a day, preferably in the afternoon  so it wouldn’t interfere with the night time. A harmonica player usually forms a band around him and is not an instrument that many bands use. So there is that problem. But lately, I have been getting hired to play harmonica and sing some with a bunch of other bands . I also do light percussion (claves, tambourine, guiro, cencerro) so I add that other dimension too. Sometimes I wish I would have played bass.


How/where do you get inspiration for your songs?

Sometimes walking by myself, sometimes talking to people, sometimes on the toilet! (I don’t like to spend TOO much time on the toilet.).


Who were your mentors in songwriting?

I just write the lyrics myself and then I tell the band how I want it played. I don’t know how to read music so Arthur Neilson and Jimmy Vivino have been a great help for me helping me develop my songs..


Who are some of your favorite blues musician of today?

The ones left of the old school. BB, Buddy Guy and Cotton…Otis Rush is still alive but unfortunately, not playing. And Hubert just passed away. 


"The SOUL of the blues in N.Y is jazz, salsa and R and B.. I should say it was.. There is nothing original musically happening in N.Y today. Only tourism." (Photo: Felix and Nick Gravenites)

What would you ask of Nick Gravenites?

To please send me the lyrics for “Motorized Blues”.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

There were record companies at one time. Now I am the record company. My apartment is full of copies of my 4 cd’s.


What are your plans for the future? Do you have a message for the Greek fans?

Hopefully someone will look at my resume and say “Hey, this guy deserves a shot! Let’s get him on a tour”.

Yes. Bring me over there.


and one last question I would like to put a song next to each name.

Havana:  “Memories”

New York: Funky Broadway

Jon Paris: Rocker

Eric Burdon:  Paint it Black

Jimmy Vivino: Maggie’s Farm

Felix Cabrera:  “Rainy Day Women #’s 12 and 35.”


Felix Cabrera's official website


Photo Credits: Lisa Swarbrick, Martin Brooks, Felix Cabrera


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