INTERVIEW: Jake 'Mista' Savona (HAVANA MEETS KINGSTON)
For anyone who loves world music or just a deadly good vibe, chances are you've heard of or have stumbled upon the works of iconic Aussie producer and muso Mista Savona (aka Jake Savona) in the past. If you're unfamiliar, this internationally renowned tastemaker has been actively involved and integral to the Aussie music industry since the mid '90s, bringing his flawless knack for collaboration and musical cultures to a variety of genres including hip hop, reggae and dancehall.
But not content with just bringing Australian reggae to the world, Mista Savona has also recently helmed a revolutionary collision of musical cultures, bringing Jamaican and Cuban musicians together for a uniquely fiery and one-of-a-kind outburst otherwise know as Havana Meets Kingston.
Having recently unveiled an acclaimed album that draws together over 50 Cuban, Jamaican and international musos, Havana Meets Kingston is a celebration of culture, passion and, above all else, music. And since 2018 just seems to keep on bringing the goods, tomorrow kicks off a whirlwind tour with Mista Savona bringing a 15-piece supergroup from Cuba, Jamaica and beyond to tour this festive and seriously talented project - but before he brings this electric project home, Mista Savona took a few moments to chat beginnings, live shows and what's next for this exciting Aussie artist.
TIANA SPETER: Firstly, thank you for taking the time here – you’re such a legendary influence on the music scene, both at home and abroad, and it’s so exciting to see you weave your magic now with this incredible supergroup ‘Havana Meets Kingston’. This collaboration has seen you classed as “making history”, bringing together musicians from Jamaica and Cuba. Can you tell us a little about how this project came to be?
JAKE SAVONA: I was sitting in a cafe in Havana, a great place called Chanchurello. They were playing a CD of rumba music (tradition Cuban music), mainly percussion based. I was daydreaming and imagining how the sounds of Nyabinghi drums from Jamaica would sound mixed with the rumba. I realised it would be very special to mix the two styles, and wondered if it had ever been done before. When I returned to Australia I did some research, and realised there had never been a project bringing Jamaican musicians into Cuba (or vice versa). So I started to think how it could be done. This project is the first time a group of Jamaican musicians have flown into Cuba to record & collaborate with Cuban musicians. We had ten days at Egrem in Havana initially (the famed studio where Buena Vista Social Club was recorded), and then many more recording sessions in both Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Kingston to complete the sessions. Over two albums of material were recorded, and it's a very unique project. Why it hasn't happened before? Political, social, economic and language reasons. Yet the time is ripe for this kind of collaboration, and after numerous trips to Jamaica since 2004 I finally visited Cuba in 2014. Of course it was there that the idea for the project was born. It was so obvious to me that it needed to happen. So i began investigating...
TIANA: And March 2018 will see Havana Meets Kingston make their debut live appearance in Australia and New Zealand – but clearly this is no one’s first rodeo, both from a performance and audience perspective. The entire line-up are all established performers, and the album reached Feature Album status on Aussie airwaves and there’s been some strong critical support locally for the album as well…what’s the vibe like for everyone going into this tour? Do you feel like there’s a lot of expectation to live up to?
JAKE: It's true the album been really impressing people, it's very nice to receive these messages full of praise from all over the world. The main reason the album shines is really because of the incredible musicianship of the core band - 15 musicians on the album, a mix of Cuban and Jamaican legends which includes Sly & Robbie and members of the Buena Vista Social Club. This full group of musicians arrives in Australia in a few days, and I can't wait to have them all here. Their virtuosity, experience and musicianship on stage is what will make this show so special and unique in the world. Also it's the first time in history a group of Cuban and Jamaican musicians have travelled to share the stage together. I really believe these shows will exceed everyone's expectations!
TIANA: Australians and the Kiwis definitely seem to have an ongoing innate love of reggae, soul and roots and everything in between those lines, particularly recently with artists like Fat Freddys Drop and Nicky Bomba and the more modern reggae fusion contingency like Sticky Fingers and Dirty Heads. What are your thoughts on some of the contemporary artists around these days injecting that Caribbean tone into less than traditional genres? Can you get on-board with these hybrid bands, or are you more of a purist?
JAKE: It just depends on the quality and taste of the artists involved. Some fusions are incredible, some are tacky and tasteless. As a DJ I play many styles of music, old and new, so I am always looking for what both has high energy (regardless of tempo) and a kind of 'fire' as well as integrity and good vibes. Yes I have high expectations of music! As a pianist I play classical, jazz, blues, all these rootsy styles, but as a DJ and producer I look to the future – one of the labels I work with is a bass electronic label in San Francisco. With the live Havana Meets Kingston shows we will be showcasing a whole history of Caribbean music! So people can expect many sounds, styles, genres. I am only a purist in terms of aesthetics – I can't stand the autotune vocal effect for instance, or pop music generally. Give me something original that will wake people up.
TIANA: Late last year saw the release of the Havana Meets Kingston album which boasted a mix of original and traditional songs – how difficult (or not!) was it from a creative and recording perspective working with and facilitating so many people? How was the final decision reached regarding what traditional and original songs would be included?
JAKE: It was a lot of fun. I never knew so many great musicians would become involved – there's over 60 musicians featured on the 'Havana Meets Kingston' album. The Jamaicans loved the idea of visiting Cuba, and the Cubans were eager to experience Jamaican styles first hand. So the strength of the idea, and the opportunities it presented, was what glued everything together and made all the artists involved very enthusiastic. The Jamaican rhythm section play heavy, deep roots across the album, as well as dancehall rhythms to complement the faster Cuban styles. The Cubans bring their unique Afro-Cuban rumba and jazz influences, highly virtuosic at times, across the whole album. My role was to guide and blend these styles in a way that compliment each other - whilst still maintaining space and balance. I think the album does this beautifully, it was such a natural process in the studio. I chose and arranged all the material, and the musicians all brought very beautiful ideas to this process.
TIANA: And if it wasn’t enough that you personally kickstarted the creation of this group, you also launched an actual Kickstarter campaign and got an Australia Council grant to finance the project – was this an easy process, or did you have to jump through hoops to bring this to life?
JAKE: The Australia Council Grant is what made this whole project possible. I just couldn't have financed this myself. So I will always be grateful for this opportunity – I was lucky, I found out about the grant a week before it was due, my friend Mei Lai helped me with the budget and we were successful. They loved the idea of this project, and believed I could pull it off. Then Lauren Beck, a filmmaker friend of mine, suggested we do a Kickstarter to bring a film crew to Havana, and that was also successful in the nick of time. So again, people loved the idea, and this is what made it all possible.
TIANA: I am one of many who are so glad you did pioneer this project – and there’s been some hints and clips online that may answer this question, but I’d love to hear in your own words what can we expect from a Havana Meets Kingston live show? I foresee dancing shoes will be in order for those attending at a bare minimum….
JAKE: We're playing four shows in Australia – Brisbane, Adelaide (at Womad), Sydney and Melbourne. With a 15 piece band the show will be very dynamic – at times we focus on the Cubans, other times on the bass and drums and dub elements of the album, and then when we bring it all together in various parts of the show I know this band will lift the roof off these venues! It's a fast moving show with lots of material. Yes please bring your dancing shoes.
TIANA: You’re a Melbourne native but I believe you’re now based in Byron Bay - what do you love most about getting back home after travelling all over the globe?
JAKE: Relaxing. Drinking good coffee. Playing my piano. Lying on the beach!
TIANA: And what type of music did you actually grow up listening to? You’ve seamlessly mastered a huge array of styles from hip hop, electronic and world music…but did you grow up listening to this type of music?
JAKE: I grew up on classical and jazz, then progressed to world musics and reggae. Soon after hiphop, lots of UK electronic music and everything in between. Living in the UK in my early 20's definitely helped forge my love of bass, and soundsystem culture. As stated above, I love all styles of music as long as there is integrity and taste. And good basslines.
TIANA: And when did you realise you wanted to be a musician? Was there an “aha!” moment, or did it just happen organically?
JAKE: I started music at the age of six, and around the age of 13 I became hooked to the piano. I never looked back!
TIANA: Aside from this smooth and sultry world of Caribbean-tinged tunes, are there any bands or artists that you listen to, perhaps in your limited “downtime”, that may be a surprise to those that know you for a particular style of music?
JAKE: Jimi Hendrix. Blues. I love old school hip-hop. One of my most listened albums is a chill set by a little know Melbourne band 'Amphibian', called 'Plankton'. All kinds of electronic music. And lots of funk, soul, afrobeat.
TIANA: And finally, it may be casting a gaze too far into the future – but after you melt speakers onstage with Havana Meets Kingston in March, what’s next for Mista Savona?
JAKE: Yes I have an awesome project in mind but it's top secret for now – sorry! To be honest, much of 2018 will be focused on touring 'Havana Meets Kingston' – we have Boomtown Fair in UK, Sunska in France and other shows in Europe confirmed, as well as a world first concert at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms – apparently the first time a non-classical act has ever been booked for this. The Proms were founded in 1895, so that's not a bad achievement!
YOU CAN CHECK OUT MISTA SAVONA LIVE IN ACTION WITH THE 'HAVANA MEETS KINGSTON' SUPERGROUP STARTING TOMORROW! TICKET INFO AND MORE BELOW:
Mista Savona’s ‘Havana Meets Kingston’ 2018 Australian Tour
Thursday, 8th March The Tivoli Brisbane Tickets: Ticketmaster
Sunday, 11th March WOMADELAIDE, Adelaide Tickets: Official Website
Wednesday, 14th March Enmore Theatre, Sydney Tickets: Ticketek
Thursday, 15th March Forum Theatre, Melbourne Tickets: Ticketmaster
FOR MORE HAVANA MEETS KINGSTON INFO, HEAD TO:
BY TIANA SPETER