It was a sunny summer afternoon, 1999…
Cruising Wilshire Blvd towards Venice Beach, top down of my ‘57 Caddy Biarritz, I compulsively rewound the cassette tape that Matt Dillon had recently sent from New York. It was something he had taped for me off an old record he’d found on his last trip to Havana, a record that had obviously been thoroughly enjoyed, judging from the ticks and pops that accompanied the music. I was completely captivated by what I heard flying out of the speakers, turning the volume up even louder for the passersby. It was this otherworldly blend of Cuban Mambo music played by a small combo, using their voices as a horn section instead of brass, singing “Chua – Chua” behind the most fiery, crazy scat singing improv in Español. Did I mention it was from another Universe?
How was it that after 20 years of collecting Latin Jazz records and Cuban music I had never heard of this? How is it that none of the Afro Cuban musicians who had mentored me over the years never hipped me to El Gran Fellové??? I became obsessed with his music and nearly wore out that cassette within the first month.
You’re probably wondering how a guy like Matt Dillon plays into all of this and what is his relationship to Cuban music. Good question. In a nutshell, we became friends through a mutual friend, actor Max Perlich who also has a love of Afro Cuban music, Jazz, eclectic record collecting, nostalgia, retro culture etc.
Matt had been a long time music head and record hunter since his days of hanging out with The Clash and their manager Kosmo Vinyl.
Through Kosmo, Matt was exposed to a huge amount of great eclectic musical genres, including early Jamaican music, Blue Note Jazz, 60’s garage psych and so much more in between. But it was Matt’s New York experiences in taxi cabs which veered him towards Salsa, Boogaloo, Latin Jazz, etc. It was an essential soundscape of the city at that time.
When we met in ’94, we instantly clicked about old Latin records and he began picking my brain about Cuban artists and records that he should keep his eye out for. I made him a short list of essentials ~ Arsenio Rodriguez, Chappottin, Chocolate Y Sus Estrellas, Cachao, etc and set off his fuse. Before I knew it, he was unearthing the most amazing records, many of which I had never heard before, and giving me the most killer mix tapes (remember mix tapes?) .
Back to ’99 and the Fellové cassette; one day I received a call from Matt in NYC, telling me he had recently heard Fellové was still alive and well, living in Mexico City.
Joey Altruda and Matt Dillon, 2019. Photo by Jacobo Braun
With great enthusiasm he said, “You should find him and make an album”.
I got off the phone and called a friend of mine who was a talent booker for one of LA’s largest Latin music clubs at the time, repeating to him what Matt had just told me. About ten minutes after the call, he hit me back with contact info for someone in New York who was currently repping Fellové. This was manifestation at it’s finest (IMHO).
In brief, what followed was several trips to Mexico City in the fall of ’99, meeting with Fellové, playing music with him and his group of young trailblazing Cuban expat musicians, and producing an album. He hadn’t recorded an album of his own since 1979 and this was a big deal for all of us. Matt followed me down to Mexico along with our friend Drew Carolan, a well noted photographer and line producer, and captured the whole recording process on film. What I had in my mind as being a really great EPK (electronic press kit), turned into a full blown documentary about a little known musical movement in Cuba called “Filin” (phonetic for Feeling).
Filin was the birth of American Jazz sensibilities as applied to traditional Cuban styles.
It began in the 1940s and reached its zenith during the 1950’s in Havana. Artists such as Bebo Valdes, Cachao, Jose Antonio Mendes, Quarteto D’Aida, Omara Portuondo, Chico O’Farrill et al were integral parts of this fringe development, and right in the center of it all was Francisco Fellové Valdes, later known as El Gran Fellové. Filin was the birth of what was later termed “Latin Jazz” here in the states.
Needless to say, the process of creating this documentary was monumental in all of the research and interviews involved, and was also put on the back burner for some time due to other prior commitments on Matt’s end. At the same time, 1999 wasn’t the greatest time to be releasing music due to so many file sharing sites pirating practically anything. I decided to wait for the film to see the light of day before releasing the album in hopes that the time would come sooner than later.
A clip from Matt Dillon’s documentary, “El Gran Fellové”
Production finally resumed about eight years ago and the film is finally set to premier at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain on September 22 of 2020. The album release is also pending at this writing.
This has been a long, arduous journey for me, one of many emotional peaks and valleys, and I am beyond pleased to finally see this release happen, for the story of Filin to be told to the world, and for the genius of El Gran Fellové to finally gain the recognition he so rightly deserves.
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