i’ve stolen the title of this chapter from a Star Trek movie as it all seems so phantasmagorical.  it was May 1977.  we had just spent a week on board the SS Daphne getting to and celebrating on an island that was, and remains, if only somewhat less so, off limits to U.S. citizens.  some on board  had performed for Cuban audiences including one at a private get-together jam session with the Cuban fusion group Irakere from which came subsequent defectors, among them Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval.  we got to meet the group’s leader, the brilliant keyboardist Chucho Valdes.  a couple of other passengers met with Cuban authorities, which in retrospect seems to be what this mission was all about (Chapter 3).

David Amram composed a piece for some local musicians dedicated to Cuban congero Chano Pozo which was performed with the legendary Los Papines and others at a formal concert featuring the groups of Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines.

David Amram: “En Memoria de Chano Pozo”

we had arrived in secret amid radio-silenced stealth and now we were being hastened away with only the stars to guide us northward.  no one on board was ready to sleep; pa-a-r-tay was the key word.


Diz took charge as host first playing with his group and whoever wanted to sit in.  Amram, always ready for some improv whether on piano, or french horn, or penny whistles, or wooden flutes took over.  he premiered a piece penned for the occasion entitled Havana/New York (for Dizzy Gillespie).

while others played Diz grabbed vocalist Marvelous Marva Josie and showed us some jitterbugging breaks the likes of which some swing dancers on board tried, but failed to emulate.  then he improvised a story filled with duble entendre as only he could.

the breakfast chimes sounded and we filed (fell?) out, exhausted.


the Daphne was not permitted by law to return to the U.S. else they would have been in violation of the embargo that was in effect at the time (1977).  so we were unceremoniously decamped in the Bahamas there to fend for ourselves.  most of the press crew opted to fly back to New Orleans our point of departure as that’s where our tickets and passports were stamped.  my vamping buddy N (ew) Y (ork) T (imes) Guy and i parted company promising to meet back in NYC for a debriefing prior to his writing the story.  i still had the photos, and the LPs (below), from which  he had expressed a desire for some boleros.

i, however, had other plans.  my first wife was filing for divorce in the Dominican Republic that very weekend so i decided not to head into that conflagration.  besides, i was going to be debriefed by that comely reporter from Chapter 1, at her place.  then we would be off to a picnic at her TV station boss’ ranch in Picayune, Mississippi across Lake Ponchatrain, which was a rare treat for this Northern boy.

Crossing Lake Ponchatrain. New Orleans TV Anchor at the wheel.

there were horses for riding, which i love to do.  having been a blue ribbon winner in sleep away camp in the 1950′s, i was pressed into service giving horseback rides to all comers, especially the kids, with me in the western saddle,


Me. Trigger. & rider.  (photo by Rebecca Buard)

Picking our rides in Picayune, MS


at one point we went out on a trail with the boss’ son as trailhead.  i was on one of his personal steeds –a spirited adolescent Arabian; the best kind– when the thing bolted to be at the head of the pack.  in between me and the lead horse was some low scrub pines toward which i was directly headed.  the key word there is “head.” as i side-saddled so as not to lose mine women cried, men screamed.  but i held on for dear life and  i made it suffering only embarrassment and some scalp abrasions.  there were applause and back-pounding.  Double-o Seven had nothing on me; i was shaken and stirred.  later it was Jack Daniels, not a martini.

Your blogster w/passenger @ TV station owner’s Ranch in Picayune, MS  (photo by Rebecca Buard)

TV anchor on the trail in Picayune, MS.

as it turned out i could not be debriefed.  i couldn’t even talk about the trip.  we were sworn to secrecy.  we were, after all, in Cuba illegally.  only Prez Jimmy Carter knew of the trip.  i didn’t know that everything had been swept under the rug until i got back to the Apple.  still, it was a pleasant respite with my friendly reporter whom i had nicknamed “Rockee” after her buff bod.  her first nickname, she told me.

…and in the silks Arnold Jay Smith. (photo Rebecca Buard)








In the winner’s Circle aboard Silver this time. (photo Rebecca Buard)




with the legally required time allotment the Greek registered Daphne returned to its Hudson River berth and we all repaired on cue there to reconnoiter.  it was then that i got my first taste of bitterness.

i was wearing a tee shirt emblazoned with a flame screaming “Cuba Si!”  the subway ride to the pier was a line of verbal and near-physical abuse i hadn’t encountered since my fraternity inauguration, in two languages.  it was anti-Castro to be sure, but i was wearing that shirt.  a subway man-in-blue had been alerted –i don’t how as there were no mobil phones at the time– and came to my rescue; i beat a hasty retreat.  i still have the shirt, which i haven’t worn since.  besides, i have added a few avoirdupois.  the rest of the reunion is a blur probably because it was a non-event.  i do remember there were protesters as in N.O.LA upon our departure.  but Amram has made sure no one has forgotten our trip.


gathering Los Papines Amram had 7th Ave., at George M. Cohan Square, @ West 44th St. –where the recently refurbished TKTS booth now stands– commandeered for a concert performance of his En Memoria de Chano Pozo (Chapter 5).  also premiered on Broadway were Para Los Papines and Broadway Reunion.  a version of Havana/New York features a large ensemble starring Thad Jones, cornet and flugelhorn, Pepper Adams, Jerry Dodgion and Billy Mitchell in the reed section, as well as ex-Cubano Candido Camero heading an all-salsa percussion section.

“Havana-New York” David Amram’s Flying Fish CD

those NYC premieres were preserved and are available on Amram’s “Havana – New York,” originally an LP, now on CD.  (above) he plays them whenever and wherever he can with large ensembles, orchestras, or solo piano, at festivals, concert halls or nightclubs.  i am proud to say that i wrote the liner notes for the original LP which were reprised on the CD.

i also wrote comprehensively of the trip for down beat, Billboard, Variety, Newsday and a glossy Spanish mag, Nuestro.


the best part remains the friendships.  Paquito D’Rivera and his wife, Brenda Feliciano, now living in New Jersey, and my wife Fran McIntyre and i remain close.  also Arturo Sandoval, currently in Florida, Chucho Valdes, i believe in So. America somewhere, Carlos Averhoff, also in Florida, all of Irakere, NYT Guy, even Ry Cooder, with whom i didn’t get better acquainted until later.

the music, more to the point, the musical education i received there and from the LPs i brought back: boleros, conjuntos, charangas, guaguanchos, descargas, played by the legends i had only heard of such as Orkesta Aragon, Augustin Lara and Grupo Los Van Van, from whence came Ray Barretto’s hit Guarare. (below)

Orkesta Aragon Cuban LP









friends at Pacifica Radio heard of the trip and broke radio silence and asked me if i would like to discuss it on a panel.  i declined their politically oriented intentions but offered to bring my LPs to WPFW in DC.  we were all on the same page and in that sweltering summer, as only Foggy Bottom can get, of ’77 i was interviewed for three hours, under non-air conditioned, typically tropical conditions.  when the hosts attempted to turn the musical conversation to Castro’s ilk i steered, more or less successfully, back to the music.

with the telephone switchboard flashing like a proverbial Christmas tree,  the opinions were mostly positive, but there were some who used the program as their personal soapbox.  i was advised to watch my back when i left the studio.  i had made the acquaintance of the ex-wife of a famous drummer who was a late night deejay so i left with her.

Los Van Van Cuban LP which contains Guarare.








































the best news?  i avoided confrontation with the ex.

text & photos © by arnold jay smith unless otherwise noted.


there are so many.  the best is to Google or Yahoo or Wikipedia David Amram, Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, and Chucho Valdes, as well as Irakere.  one might even investigate references to some of the Cuban bands and composers mentioned

also the archives of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, down beat, Billboard, Nuestro, Variety, Newsday, Latin NY and Radio Free Jazz (now JazzTimes).

i particularly recommend The New York Times Magazine of Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012 which contains a lengthy cover story of a reporter’s trip back to his wife’s Cuban roots.  he covered the living conditions, including the political atmosphere; i the music.  makes for an interesting comparison.   -ajs



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