Alexander Abreu (Havana D'Primera)
Timba and jazz band

The first Havana D'Primera album was called Haciendo historia (`making history') and there was nothing presumptious about it. Havana D'Primera had been making history with explosive live performances since these 15 all-star Cuban musicians came together in 2007. Actually, most of them had been playing music together in concerts and in recording studios since the previous decade, and that's where their story and this story about Havana D'Primera begins.

In the 1990s, Cuban timba orchestras were spreading like wildfire: NG La Banda, Charanga Habanera, Paulito FG, Manolín "El Médico de la Salsa", to name just a few. And of course, timba pioneers Los Van Van and Irakere were helping to fan the flames. But by the end of that decade, orchestra-based Cuban dance music, a tradition that stretches back to the conjunto bands of the 1940s, had reached a turning point. Young Havana was suddenly dancing to DJs spinning reggaeton and its Cuban variant, Cubatón. Hip hop was booming from the tower blocks of Alamar, where the first Festival de Rap Cubano had taken place in 1995. Something had to be done to keep timba and salsa from being relegated to the ash heap. 

Haciendo historia was a rallying cry for the timba troops. The  album's first track, written and sung by Alexander Abreu, is called "Resumen de los 90s" (`summary of the '90s') and it served not only to defend the music that had gone before but to  announce what was yet to come. "With Havana D'Primera," Abreu sang, "I'm consolidating Cuban music / Telling the whole world where tomorrow is born – in Cuba!" 

Before he became the founder and musical director of Havana D'Primera, Alexander Abreu Manresa worked his way up through the timba ranks. He started playing trumpet when he was 10 years old and studied music at a small conservatory in his native Cienfuegos. He moved to Havana to study at the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA). After graduating in 1994, he spent the next six years playing trumpet with Paulo FG y Su Elite and recording with Klimax, Isaac Delgado, Pachito Alonso, Mayito Rivero, Manolín, Los Van Van, Irakere and and too many others to name here. In 2000 he was named Best Trumpet Player of Timba music by the influential website. The following year his participation in the compilation La rumba soy yo won him a Latin Grammy award.

For Havana D'Primera, Abreu wasn't taking any chances. He handpicked the best musicians he knew from his years of playing in the Cuban capital. The lineup today features two trumpets alongside with Abreu's, two trombones, timbales, congas, bongos, guitar, bass, piano, violin – a full-on orchestra. Most of these musicians have been with Havana D'Primera since the beginning, a fact that still seems to amaze Alexander Abreu. "When we started out five years ago, everyone told me it wouldn't work," Abreu recalls. "I always saw Havana D'Primera as 15 people on stage, and everyone said that was unfeasible, that it would be too expensive, too hard to move around, but I wanted us to be a real working band. So that's how we started: 14 or 15 of us and a lot of positive energy. Five years later we're stronger than ever. I started out by doing all the arranging but today everyone pitches in." 

As far as their style, "It's definitely timba, that's a fact," Abreu declares. "We Cubans have timba coming out of our pores, but [Havana D'Primera] mixes it up with jazz, with different Carribbean sounds, with calypso, with Puerto Rican salsa." 

This willingness to name-check musical genres that originated off the island may seem surprising coming from a great Cuban innovator like Abreu, but – like any true innovator – he refuses to close himself off to any form of inspiration. "The Puerto Ricans have taught us a lot," he explains. "A lot of Cubans think Puerto Rican salsa is a bit cold, but I don't agree with that. Puerto Rican percussionists are excellent. But, of course, in our music you'll can also hear plenty of Cuban vernacular – the heat of rumba."

Abreu composes nearly all of the band's songs, and his lyrics may be the single most important element setting Havana D'Primera's apart from any other dance band past or present. Abreu manages to make rumba co-exist with poetry. He draws from his own sensibility, his own experiences of life in Cuba. Sometimes he wakes up at 5 a.m. with an idea in his head, sometimes he writes song lyrics on his phone on the way to the airport. Or sometimes a lyric will pop into his head while he's playing something else on stage. That was the case with "Carita de Pasaporte", a song from Havana D'Primera's second album, Pasaporte, and one of the band's biggest worldwide hits. 

"People once criticised the lyrics in [timba] music," Abreu says. He's referring specifically to those people who disappoved of José Luis "El Tosco" Cortés, the founder of NG La Banda, for writing "vulgar" descriptions of life in Havana's poorest neighbourhoods. "Fortunately a guy like that wound up putting down on paper how we actually live in Cuba." For the past three years Abreu has been living in Cerro, "a place where there's love and `force' in every sense of the word. I saw myself following in the footsteps of the master, José Luis Cortés." 

Beyond his achievements as a trumpet player, singer, lyricist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, Abreu recently demonstrated his gift for acting. For the 2012 film 7 Days in Havana, Abreu received glowing reviews for his role as the Cuban minder for a very drunk international filmmaker (Emir Kusturica). While he doesn't rule out other movie work, for the near future his performances will be happening on a concert stage. In 2012, Havana D'Primera played jazz clubs in San Francisco and New York and they played a baseball stadium in Cali, Colombia. In 2013, the band's aptly named Pasaporte tour will be making stops in Peru, Paraguay, Spain, England, France, Germany, Belgium and Italy.