The seeds for Blondie’s Cuban trip were planted way back in 1976 on their very first album, with the song “Man Overboard” and its endearing attempts to punk up a Fania-style groove. “Latin music has always been part of the feel of New York, so it’s a part of our roots too,” insists Debbie Harry.
It’s an influence that has surfaced periodically over the years – think of “Maria” or “Sugar On The Side”, the 2011 collaboration with Colombian group Systema Solar – so the band jumped at the chance to play two shows at Havana’s beautiful art deco Teatro Mella in March 2019, supported by local artists Alain Perez, David Blanco and long-running jazz-fusion band Sintesis.
Naturally some of the Cuban musicians ended up on stage with Blondie, and the results are being released as a six-track EP this summer, along with a short film documenting the band’s Cuban cultural exchange. “We had some percussionists come up and play with us and they just added this terrific level of excitement to the songs,” says Harry. “On ‘The Tide Is High’, some of the women sang with me and they did the original harmonies that John Holt had put on the song, and it was so beautiful. I was just moved by the whole thing. Music seems to cross boundaries, and thank God for that.”
Harry describes their visit to Havana as a “dream come true”, even if she regrets that Chris Stein – Blondie’s biggest Latin music champion – wasn’t able to make it for health reasons. “Cuban music and culture is so unique and inspiring. Chris and I always wanted to go, but for many years there was a travel ban. I’ve always felt there was a tragedy in [the USA’s] relationship with Cuba.”
Drummer Clem Burke confirms that in addition to the musical benefits, the exchange “also opened our eyes to the oppression of Cuba by the United States, which seems completely unnecessary. It’s such a friendly country, and it’s a joke to see it as any great communist threat. There’s so much appreciation for art and music and nature. The people have a joy for life, and it was great to see that first-hand.”
Sadly, soon after Blondie’s trip, Donald Trump reimposed travel restrictions, quashing Harry’s hopes of an immediate return to collaborate with the Cuban musicians in more depth: “I would really like to write music with them – you never know how far it can go. But I look forward to an ongoing musical exchange. It’s a door to the future.”
Blondie are currently working on the follow-up to 2017’s Pollinator, although that too has been put on hold owing to the pandemic. “We’re just assembling ideas at this point,” says Harry. “We have a nice list of tracks, although they’re not developed. I’m looking forward to doing what we did on the last album, which had more of a live feel to it. Once we’re cut loose from this quarantine situation, everyone’s going to be really energised.”
2021 will be a busy year for the band, who have also announced a UK tour for November off the back of a new archival boxset, Blondie 1974–1982: Against The Odds. “[The current situation] makes me want to look back a little bit and revitalise tracks that we don’t normally get to play,” says Harry. “I’d like to do a show that’s two-and-a-half, three hours long and play a lot of this music, just to celebrate it.”
Blondie: Vivir En La Habana will premiere at Sheffield Doc Fest (June 4-13) and Tribeca Festival (June 9-20). A six-track live EP of songs performed at the Havana concerts is also due for release this summer.