Plenty of Cuban women have made their marks on jazz music, from the Buena Vista Social Club’s Omara Portuondo and the salsa legend Celia Cruz to the Queen of the Bolero, Olga Guillot, who coached Nat King Cole on his Spanish. But, in past generations, Cuba’s jazzistas were predominantly singers; female instrumentalists were too often confined to all-female dance bands, like Anacaona and Canela, and squeezed into matching skintight ensembles.
Last summer, the photographer Rose Marie Cromwell and I travelled to Havana to capture a new generation of female musicians, one that has a different sort of footing in the jazz world. Many of these women have serious chops as instrumentalists. Some have shaved heads or mohawks, or play traditional drums that women were once forbidden to play. All are graduates of Havana’s hypercompetitive Amadeo Roldán Conservatory, the alma mater of the Afro-Cuban jazz legend Chucho Valdés, whose daughter, the pianist Leyanis Valdés Reyes, is pictured in the series.
In Cuba, there are no programs that offer a formal jazz education, and government-sanctioned performing opportunities are scarce. The choice to play jazz—once considered the music of the enemy—can relegate you to the margins of Cuba’s musical bureaucracy. The women in Cromwell’s photographs studied classical music at Amadeo Roldán; they learned jazz in self-formed student ensembles after school. They benefitted from having deep roots in the country’s music scene—several are the daughters of Cuban music legends—and from connections to an international jazz community. They’ve had access (albeit limited and costly) to the Internet, which has provided new avenues of opportunity. Some have taken online courses and watched YouTube tutorials to brush up on technique and theory, or crowdfunded their albums.
They’ve also had more female role models, such as the Canadian saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett. Since the early nineteen-eighties, Bunnett has made more than a hundred trips to Cuba, bringing instruments to the island and working to nurture musicians there. Daymé Arocena, a twenty-six-year-old jazz singer, is a founding member of Bunnett’s all-female Afro-Cuban sextet, Maqueque. Of the first time she met Bunnett, at Cuba’s Jazz Plaza Festival, Arocena has said, “A lady came out of nowhere with a soprano saxophone in her hand and shouted in the middle of the room, ‘Viva las Mujeres!’