Billy F. Gibbons sat down with Music Aficionado to talk about how the invitation to play the famed Havana Jazz Festival came about and how performing for Cuban audiences helped fuel his first-ever solo album, Perfectamundo. And as one might expect, the subject of cars—specifically, the classic cars found in Cuba—soon entered the conversation.
You had never been to Cuba before you were invited to play the Havana Jazz Festival. Had you wanted to go previously?
This was a first for me. Then again, more than 50 years earlier, my dad performed there in the pre-revolution days, so I always conscious of the lure and sonic subtext of Cuba. Of course, when this particular opportunity to appear presented itself to me, it was an instant “up and at ’em!” Recording an entire album of Afro-Cuban-skewed material came about following the unexpected invitation of going down and playing live at the jazz festival.
As I understand it, some of your new tracks were already leaning Afro-Cuban. Was it just kind of divine providence that you were asked to play in Cuba?
Yeah, man. Again, Havana’s jazz festival invitation to perform was the catalyst for the recording of ‘Perfectamundo’. We worked up what we envisioned Cubano style could become with the aim of an appropriate blues-rock background approach. We quickly came up with our take on Cuban-inflected beats and breaks, so it was kind of “Afro-bluesan” in a very real way.
Was playing for Cuban fans different from playing for audiences in other countries?
We got out there and gave it 100 percent. After what seemed to be an eternal waiting time, we stepped up the arrangements, and from that moment, it was full throttle for the awaiting audiences and us as a band. It bubbled up into a tremendous gratification, from both inside the geo-political experience and the power of its cultural impact.
How well did the Cuban fans know your music? How do they hear it?
The friends, fans and followers of the BFGs in Cuba really do know it. Those unstoppable radio waves, then and now, remain undaunted by the mere 90 miles between Cuba and the U.S. mainland, which are a constant inspiration. There’s a rock underground on the island that dates back to the time of the revolution. It is simply a kind of plugged-in—in a virtual and literal way—interaction with their scene. We added our best BFGs Caribbean flavor to it, because we thought, “When in Havana…”
Were there any restrictions on your show at the jazz fest? “You can’t do this, can’t say that”—that sort of thing?
Nothing of the sort with the brief exception of duration of set length, which is anticipated just about anywhere you play. We were encouraged to turn it up and let it rock.
You couldn’t bring your own gear to play the show, and you had to plug into an old mystery tweed amp. Were you able to get your classic sound out of it?
Good question. Ironically, the answer is “a more than reasonable approximation.” If you heard it, you’d probably know it was me, but you might have wondered if your eyesight might require an examination. As the saying goes, “It’s all in the hands!” Even so, the right kind of gear certainly can do wonders.