See Hear: How a Kansas City Guitarist Found His Groove in Cuba

Kansas City musician Michael McClintock’s love affair with Cuba includes mastering the distinctive challenges of the Cuban guitar called a tres. (photo by Steve Paul)

It’s complicated. Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit Cuba in recent years will recognize the phrase. You hear it all over the place from people you meet. Inquiring minds want to know how things work, how people get by, how progressive things can happen for artists, musicians and other creative people. Most often that’s the answer. It’s complicated.

On a recent trip to Havana, one of the more curious complications involved an apparent shortage of the two national beers — Bucanero and Cristal. Very few of the private restaurants — paladares — we visited had it in stock and most were unable to explain why not. Oh, the complications. The other day I heard from a friend in Havana, who finally explained it: There was some kind of production breakdown at the main beer plant. OK, I get it.

All of which is a long way of getting around to introducing Michael McClintock, a Kansas City musician who found his calling in Cuba. Well, he also found his wife there, and together McClintock and Dálida T. Pupo Barrios eventually launched an enterprise here in Kansas City, Cubanisms, that promotes both Cuban music and travel.

In January, McClintock and the Cubanisms band were scheduled to appear at the International Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana. It was just another stop on McClintock’s path toward mastering the intricate rhythms of Cuban music and the distinctive challenges of the Cuban guitar. Called a tres, it’s a relatively small acoustic instrument with a big sound, formed by the attack on its three pairs of strings.

McClintock, 34, a native of Neosho, Missouri, is a classical guitar graduate of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. His taste for Latin music extends to his childhood and his parents’ record collection, including world music, Santana and the popular sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club. But he began enlarging his performance range while playing flamenco music with guitarist-of-all-trades Beau Bledsoe and Brazilian music with other local jazz players.

On his first trip to Cuba, in 2013, he became entranced by the tres (and with Dálida). Back in the U.S. he bought one, found an instructional book, and as a result, began making connections with Cuban treseros. Every time he returned to the island, he spent weeks at a time studying with the likes of Efrain Amador, a classical musician, and Cesar Hechavaria, who favors popular and traditional Cuban rhythms and sounds. Studying tres with Amador, he says, is like, for a golfer, “hooking up with Tom Watson.”

People began to notice. He was featured on a popular radio program and invited to play at last year’s Jazz Plaza Festival with a top-rank jazz saxophonist, Janio Abreu, and his band Aire de Concierto. (Their recording of “Sunny Side of the Street” is findable on YouTube or via Abreu’s Facebook page.)

“Word spreads pretty quickly,” McClintock said in his south Kansas City living room, the tres perched on his lap. “This white boy played on the radio and he didn’t die. Let’s see what else we can do with him.”

At this year’s event, McClintock and Cubanisms, or seven of its eight regular members, were set to join such top featured names as pianist Chucho Valdes and saxophonist Joe Lovano as well as super guitarist (and Kansas City native) Steve Cardenas.

Cubanisms issued its first recording, the sizzling “Acento Cubano,” in 2017, and McClintock has ideas for two more this year, including a possible solo turn.

Between Dálida’s connections in Havana — she used to work for the Ministry of Culture — and her husband’s natural ability to fit in with accomplished musicians of all stripes, the trajectory for Cubanisms is ever upward.

And in Cuba’s music circles, apparently, it’s not complicated at all.

Group travel remains an efficient and legal way for many Americans with certain interests (and a lack of Spanish) to explore Cuba. The Kemper Museum, for instance, is sponsoring a trip in April to coincide with Havana’s art biennial. For details: contact Jade Powers, Kemper Museum assistant curator, at 816-269-5828 or jpowers@kemperart.org.

Cubanisms in Kansas City

March brings two opportunities to hear Michael McClintock and Cubanisms in concert — 6 p.m. March 10 at First Baptist Church, 100 W. Red Bridge Road, and 7 p.m. March 17 at the Polsky Theater at Johnson County Community College. For details: cubanismsband.com.

To watch Cubanisms in a recent concert, find this video on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJq1OZUrHGA

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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