The Cuba Issue: Afro-Cuban music maker Freddy Montes keeps the son alive in Tampa Bay

A vet musician from a family considered Cuban music royalty practices his craft in Tampa Bay

Tampa-based Freddy Montes has been practicing Afro-Cuban music most of his life, leading his spirited group — "su son" — on guitar and vocals since the late 1990s, though the earliest gig he can recall was in North Carolina for Y2K – “the whole band, we got stuck in the elevator in the Marriott hotel downtown. It was in the newspaper! ” he laughs.

Montes keeps mum about his age, but his background and the chain of events that brought him to the U.S. from Cuba 30 years ago puts him somewhere in his 60s, with a neatly-trimmed pencil mustache and casually debonair fashion that, on this day, includes a white summer fedora he picked up during a recent trip to Panama.
He’s made a name for himself in the community as both a respected local player and a music instructor, but he’s had to endure his fair share of struggles and heartache to get where he is today.

His parents immigrated from Cuba to New York City in August of 1958, intending to find work and fly up the rest of the family once settled. But by January of the following year, Fidel Castro had take over the island country, and the stringent travel restrictions that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis effectively separated Montes from his parents for decades, though his sister was able to slip into the U.S. in 1965.

Montes was raised by his maternal grandmother while his parents continued to work towards getting him out and essentially grew up amid Afro-Cuban music royalty. His late uncle, Latin jazz pioneer Bebo Valdés, was arranger and director at Havana’s illustrious Tropicana Club, not to mention arranging music for Nat King Cole and earning seven Grammys by the time he passed in 2013, while his son and Montes’ cousin and comrade-at-arms, Chucho Valdés, became a celebrated composer, pianist and renown member of Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna and later, Ikakere. It’s no surprise, then, that Montes picked up music himself. “It’s in my blood,” he says simply. “Playing is my life.”

And there was never a question of the direction he’d take, at least to start: “I grew up around the jazz. Everything was about the jazz.” His favorite instrument was piano, though he quickly learned it wasn’t right for him. “But the guitar was different.”

His grandmother moved them closer to Havana to open up more opportunities for Montes. At that point, the communist regime controlled everything, and Montes couldn’t just go out and play music for money. He had to get a license to work as a professional musician, which meant getting the required government-approved training at a school for professionals (Montes went to Ignacio Cervantes), then passing a test and musical evaluation. After that, he could be “contracted” to play gigs; without this license, his gigging options were so limited that he might as well not play out at all. And few bands were allowed the privilege of leaving the island, so “tours” were more like dates played around the island, if people liked you enough to book you.

He made a living this way in Cuba from the 1960s until 1982, when the wrong person found out about his applications to leave the country. He was suspended from playing music for six months, his music license taken, and he was told that if he wanted to work once the suspension was over, “I had to start all over again.” Ultimately, the U.S. Embassy re-opened, his papers were among the first to be approved, and ironically, Montes landed in Tampa Bay on the day we celebrate our country’s freedom, which also happened to be his birthday – July 4, 1985.

Once here, he put music on the back burner to focus on learning English at HCC. He got a job at the local radio station, immersed himself in the community, hooked up with local jazz greats like Fred Johnson and Gumbi Ortiz, one of the first people he met here, and played occasional gigs until he was finished,. He was admittedly “out of shape” when he re-focused his attention on music, so he didn't start writing and arranging music in earnest until 1990.

His first band was Breeza. Su Son came later, melding “son” (the pre-cursor to salsa music) with Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz, mambo, rumba, guaracha, meringue, bolero and traditional Cuban pop songs given a modern twist. “What I do is re-arrange the original tunes in the style of Freddy Montes” he explains.

The lineup usually includes trumpet and sax, sometimes a trombone or a second trumpet, keys, bass, drums and percussion, and the members have shifted over the years as keeping a band together that plays only a few times a month is hard, especially with Montes’ strict practice regimen. “As a musician, you have to rehearse, and if you don’t rehearse, you are creating nothing.” But, he is quick to point out, “I’ve had the pleasure of playing with a lot of great musicians,” and he mentions the chips of current alt sax player Bolivita Quiñones.

He supplements his own income working as a music instructor for various programs around Tampa Bay, which includes teaching people with disabilities for VSA Florida. He’s a firm advocate of formal training, a necessary element in building a strong foundation for your talents. “People who are born musicians, that’s great. But a diamond is not a diamond until you polish it. You gotta go to school and finish learning about what you were born with. You have to know your history, know your roots. You can’t just rely on pop music to get you through.” And then, he says, you have keep honing your skills every day.

He still remembers the suffering he witnessed while living in Cuba, the fear of imprisonment that everyone endured on a daily basis, the families separated from each other (his included), and though he says he’s not politically inclined, he’s not sure if he’ll ever bring his band there, lifted restrictions or not. “I would like to play Cuba, without Castros,” he says wistfully.

Freddy Montes y su son play at Ceviche in downtown St. Petersburg on Fri., July 24; set starts at 10 p.m. Admission is free.

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