A few years ago, Dominican Republic-raised, Brooklyn-based percussionist Charlie Garmendia struck up a conversation with a Cuban artist named Maytego, in Paris, that would eventually lead him to start his new project, La China de la Gasolina, whose self-titled debut album premieres below.
Garmendia—one of the founding members of Champagne Superchillin’—recorded La China’s eleven tracks in Havana, Cuba, last December. The album features contributions from nearly a dozen musicians he met through Maytego’s son Jorgito, including Alberto Cartaya Alonso, La China Fergata, Ricardo Moré, Irán Farías, Claudio González Hernández, Edel Saldívar Labarca, Soulius Suárez Rodriguez, Angel Manuel, Maria Poveda, Marly, and Isaac.
La China was taped in various bedrooms around Havana on a 4-track that Garmendia had brought to Cuba from the United States. The process was largely improvisational, guided by Garmendia’s curiosity and contacts. “The only idea was to take moments and then grow or build off those moments,” Garmendia tells American Songwriter. “There was no style.”
The resulting record feels both intimate and expansive, fusing several Cuban percussive traditions with jazz, funk, and ambient electronic flourishes. “What I feel is a lot of the memories of being there,” says Germendia of the album. “It’s a really sentimental project.”
We caught up with Garmendia by phone earlier this month about how La China de la Gasolina came about in the first place. Check out the full interview and stream the album below.
American Songwriter: You recorded your new album last year in Havana, Cuba. Had you ever been there before?
Charlie Garmendia: Yes, when I was younger. My family is from Cuba, a lot of them are from Havana, but they left when a lot of people left in the second wave in the ‘60s. My relationship with Cuba was always through my grandparents and my mom. I grew up in the Dominican Republic, so I was an island person then I moved to New York when I was like 19.
How did that trip to Havana come about?
Well, it goes back to a couple years ago. I was on tour and I was in Paris and I was walking around and I heard Cuban people speaking on the street and I was like, ‘I know that accent.’ So I went up to them like, ‘Yo, what’s up! My family is Cuban,” and they were like ‘Shut up, Frenchie,’ and I was like, “I’m not French!” They’re like, ‘Oh shit, this guy speaks our language.’ So I hung out with them all night and played some percussion on the streets. It was very communal. They brought sandwiches out at like 3am. We were all just having a really nice time.
Then I met this visual artist who was just showing her art in the street named Maytego. We had a really nice connection that night and she gave me her card and I was like, “I would love to learn how to play this music. My family’s from here.” So I had that in the back of my mind, I want to go to Cuba. And then I lost my father to a tragic thing, and that got me thinking. A lot of shit went down and I emailed Maytego and I was like, “Hey, can I [come to Cuba] for the month of December?” She was like, “Fine, I don’t know what you look like, but I’ll put a sign up. Just come on over.”
So I went over and stayed with her and helped her with block printing and selling her art, and through her I met a bunch of musicians and started learning more [about] Cuban percussion and made a good group of friends through her son named Jorgito, who’s a photographer. He introduced me to a big part of the record: this kid Alberto Cartaya, a really, really talented keyboardist / pianist / musician. Over there, if you play music, you play everything. It’s not like, “I’m a pianist.” You pick up anything. These guys are really good.
That was the first trip I took. I came back [to the United States] and I was like, “I gotta do this every year. I gotta be there.”
When was that first trip?
That was December, 2018. Maytego was always talking me through the hard time I had and connecting me with Cuba and being really nice—otherwise, if you’re not born there, you’re not really a Cuban person over there. It doesn’t matter if your parents are Cuban. It’s a whole other thing. Getting in there through Maytego was very easy. I got to go to her art openings, and they were very DIY and beautiful. That’s where I met all these musicians.
When I came back [to the United States] I got a 4-track and started making my own things. I talked to Alberto and Maytego and her son and I was like, “Hey, I want to go back, I want to learn more music, and I also want to bring my recorder.” So I got there with my 4-track—that was not easy to get through customs—and I got sick immediately. It was really bad, but I was trying not to fight it. Then I met up with Alberto and we just started messing around.
I was composing some things and we invited some people over and this girl, La China—this was the first night—just kind of riffed over this thing we had put together. From then on [the project] started going on its own, taking its own path. Jorgita the photographer took me to ISA, which is an arts university [in Havana]. I met a bunch of young musicians there and they came and overdubbed trumpets and horns and then [the project] just took on this whole other thing and I was just piecing it together with the help of Jorgito and Alberto. Those two guys were my primary spiritual warriors.
It’s crazy that all of this developed from a chance interaction in Paris!
Yeah, it started there, then I lost my father in a bad way. [That] made me want to find some spiritual calling to my roots, then [the project] took on its own thing. And the way everything was recorded was very improvisational. Like, I would compose a structure of something, then the whole aspect of recording it on a 4-track allowed that conceptual way of making things, of just not thinking, then going, and then not looking back.
What were the actual spaces or sites where you recorded?
Some of it was in Alberto’s bedroom, some of it was in La Habana Vieja in an apartment belonging to this folkloric musician who does more batá, which is a spiritual music like santería. It was all rooms, no studios. It was all 4-tracked, really messy. I was sick and sober the whole time, which was good. I mean, I was in bed for almost two weeks with a fever. Right when I got a little better it all started coming together really quickly. So most of it was done in bedrooms, in La Habana Vieja, and on the outskirts of Havana too.
Who are the vocalists on the album?
La China Fergata—that’s what she calls herself—she is the one on “La Gasolina” and “Demonio Bongo,” and she basically just came from a party. We were in a bedroom and I was like, “Put on these headphones and riff.” [She] had no musical experience and just was herself. It was great. Then Marly [features on] “Año Nuevo,” which was [also recorded] at a party. I put the mic in a bath and I was like, “Just listen to this track and tell me about the new year, 2020.”
“Ambrossio Blues” was Ricardo Moré. He is a percussionist and drummer, really talented. He came over late one night in the bedroom when we were just finishing up putting that track together and I was like, ‘Man, vocals would be sick on this.’ He just put on the headphones and we came up with a phrase and then in one take he ripped that whole thing. That was like the whole style. You can match some of the songs, you can tell that they’re from the same day.
Obviously you were drawing from the influences of the musicians you were working with, but going into this trip did you want to channel any particular artists, sounds, moods?
Not really, no. The only idea was to take moments and then grow or build off those moments. There was no style. For “Dominion Bongo” it was like, “Oh, let’s do an electronic track.” That would be the conceptual [starting point]. Or “I want to do some folkloric music,” then I was like, “Man, horns would be good,” so I tried to look for that and find the people to do that. But there was no conceptual thing before [I went to Havana], no direction musically.
When you listen to La China de la Gasolina, what are some of the things you feel?
It really changes. It’s kind of a heavy feeling because I can take it back to why I started going to Cuba. And then also I can listen to it and be like, “Man, these are such great musicians and I want people to listen to this just to hear these people play, these specific musicians.” They’re all great artists and they have a really cool scene over there that they’re just figuring out themselves with no outside help. I wanted to do something that people would like over there too. What I feel is a lot of the memories of being there. It’s a really sentimental project. That’s the best way I can explain it.
That comes through. I sense a lot of affection.
Yeah, everybody there was just amazing—loving and sweet and strong.
On a separate note, what have the last few months looked like for you?
I’ve been in Brooklyn. I was in my bedroom for like three months during the lockdown. That was a challenge. I went a little coocoo and worked on a lot of weird things. I had a 2am to 8pm schedule: wake up at 2am, go to bed at 8am for two months.
Are you involved with any other projects right now?
My main project is Champagne Superchillin’ which I started with Juliette [Buchs] and Ben [Trimble], but I play with a bunch of people here. Tall Juan, sometimes. Breanna Barbara, I play with her. I was actually on tour with Breanna when I met Maytego in France. I am trying to get more into Cuban music in New York, so I’m playing with some people in the park and things like that.
La China de la Gasolina is out September 25. You can pre-order it here.