Scranton jazz drummer travels to Cuba on cultural exchange to share in musical education

Screen shot 2016-06-08 at 7.38.55 AMMarko Marcinko traveled the world many times over during his long career as an in-demand jazz drummer.

Cuba, however, had long been out of reach for the well-known Scranton musician, just as it had been for most Americans for more than a half century.

But the United States’ recent reestablishment of formal relations with the Communist Caribbean country led to new and exciting travel opportunities for Americans, musicians among them.

Mr. Marcinko got to check off a big life goal recently when he visited music-rich Cuba for a week-long cultural music exchange in the city of Santiago de Cuba.

There, Mr. Marcinko, longtime artistic director of the Scranton Jazz Festival, spent a week sharing his talents with students and professional musicians at Santiago de Cuba’s Conservatorio Esteban Salas.

He went on the trip with fellow adjunct professors from Penn State University as part of a contingent of musicians led by Mike Davison of the University of Richmond. Mr. Marcinko’s wife, Erin Malloy-Marcinko, also accompanied him.

Going in, Mr. Marcinko knew a fair bit about Cuban music, being a passionate practitioner of Latin jazz styles like rumba, salsa, mambo and merengue.

“I learned a lot. And for me, as a drummer, Cuba was on the bucket list,” Mr. Marcinko said, referring to the Afro-Cuban rhythms that have long permeated jazz and other genres.

“It was a real validation, getting to speak with the Cuban musicians about their music,” he added.

He referred to Santiago de Cuba as the “New Orleans of Cuba,” considering its renown among the musical community there. Famed Cuban band leader and “I Love Lucy” star Desi Arnaz hailed from the city.

At the conservatory, Mr. Marcinko and other members of his group worked with students who are intensely studying music in addition to a number of other subjects.

Meanwhile, the group also came bearing gifts for the students — $15,000 worth of new instruments that an anonymous donor from the State College area paid for, Mr. Marcinko said.

“They don’t have a lot,” Mr. Marcinko said. “A lot of what they’re performing on is extremely old and in need of repair.”

But what students lacked instrument-wise, they more than made up for in passion and studiousness.

“The students were hungry,” he said. “You know, it was, ‘More.’ And, ‘Can we do this longer?’”

At the end of the week, Mr. Marcinko and the group performed in concert as part of a large Latin wind ensemble — “a huge ensemble. Larger than a big band,” Mr. Marcinko said.

Daniel Guzmán Loyzaga, a highly regarded Cuban composer, arranger and band leader, conducted the ensemble. For the concert, Mr. Guzman arranged two compositions by the legendary Cuban musician Juan Formell, known best for his work with the band Los Van Van.

“He’d be like the Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney of Cuba,” Mr. Marcinko said of Mr. Formell.

Among some of the Cuban musicians Mr. Marcinko shared the stage with at the concert were the father-and-son percussionists Wilfredo and Orlando Fuentes.

All of the professional musicians Mr. Marcinko played with there were “top-shelf — they play at a high, high, high level,” he said. Mr. Marcinko helped the Cubans with the American swing style of drumming, while they instructed him on some of the finer points of Afro-Cuban clave rhythms.

Of course, Mr. Marcinko didn’t just play music all week. He stayed at a beautiful old hotel, tried his first authentic Cuban cigar, drank some great rum, ventured into the countryside, and saw many of the classic American cars that still roam the landscape.

“Those classic cars, they were everywhere,” he said.

The food was spectacular, and cheap — about $7 for a full-course restaurant meal, Mr. Marcinko said.

Every restaurant Mr. Marcinko ate at, and just about every public place he visited, featured a live music ensemble. That’s how deeply imbedded it is in the culture, he said.

“It’s their history,” he said. “I feel proud to have gone there as an ambassador. I’ve had the chance to go all over the world, but this was a really important thing for me to be a part of.”

Contact the writer:

[email protected], @jmcauliffeTT on Twitter

Meet Marko Marcinko

Based out of: Scranton

Genre: Jazz, pop, rock

Up next: Mr. Marcinko’s jazz quartet plays Wednesday nights at Bazil in Clarks Summit. At Ruth’s Chris Steak House at Mohegan Sun Pocono in Plains Twp., he plays Thursdays with the Music for Models Trio and Fridays and Saturdays with the Ruth’s Chris Jazz Trio.


Josh McAuliffe, The Times-Tribune

June 6, 2016

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