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Female Spirit in Ascendence: Jane Bunnett & Maqueque

Since the early 1990s, Jane Bunnett has been performing with a rich cross section of master musicians from Cuba. All of them men. The soprano saxophonist and flutist observed that female musicians would not bring their instruments to jam sessions. Five years ago, Bunnett met a phenomenal young singer named Daymé Arceno, and together they hatched an idea for an all-women ensemble they called Maqueque.


On Thursday, March 28, over 300 people saw the latest incarnation of the sextet at Bowker Auditorium, as the UMass Fine Arts Center’s Magic Triangle Jazz Series continued its 30th anniversary season. Their three day residency included stops at the UMass Latinx Cultural Center, Gateway City Arts, Amherst Media and a private home in Northampton.


Maqueque means “the spirit of a young girl,” in Lucumi, an Afro-Cuban dialect, and this band of twenty-somethings: Joanna Mojoko, vocals; Mary Paz, congas & vocals; Dánae Olano, piano; Tailin Marrero, acoustic and electric bass and vocals; Yissy García, drums, along with the veteran Bunnett, brought energy and polish to 80 minutes of non-stop entertainment.


With one exception, the program featured originals by Bunnett, Olano, Garcia and Marrero. Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” was set at a simmer, which gave Mojoko free rein to bend the lyrics the way she wanted. Mojoko is from Zimbabwe, speaks no Spanish and is the newest member of the band. Those were all non-factors once we heard her voice and felt her presence.


It’s easy to see how this band has captured the imagination of both promoters and audiences. After all, hard-hitting, virtuosic all-female Latin bands are not common. Along with Garcia and Marrero, pianist Olano is a product of Cuba’s vaunted conservatory system, meaning she has tremendous technique and a strong musical foundation. She told UMass students during a class visit that musicians were forbidden from playing tumbao, son or any other Cuban music in the conservatory. She learned that outside of school.


Percussionist Mary Paz, who played congas, cajón and batá with precision and soul, learned her lessons outside of school. She was mentored by Oscar Valdés, one of the founders of the influential 1970s Cuban band, Irakere, but never formally studied music. When I asked her how she learned her art, her smart phone translator told me “autodidact.” Two months ago, she spoke no English; now she is on her way.


Bunnett has supported dozens of Cuban musicians over the years, opening her home in Toronto, dealing with visas and permits, and raising the profile of deserving artists. She has provided a great opportunity to the young musicians of Maqueque, who are playing major stages throughout Europe and North America, earning good money, making contacts and expanding their skills. The band’s success has also helped young Cuban female musicians aspire to a career in music.


The concert drew from both Maqueque releases, as well as from a third recording due in June. The band was tight and the writing strong. But listening to the recent re-release of Bunnett’s important 1990s-era work, Spirits of Havana, I wished the UMass performance had more directly referenced Cuban folkloric music and classic Cuban forms. I also would have loved to have heard from the band members. Perhaps they could have introduced their own compositions in Spanish. I love being in bi-lingual spaces, and besides, many in the audience spoke Spanish.


We did, of course, get to hear the voices of Olano, Paz, Marrero and Mojoko. Their singing was a highlight of the evening. There harmonies aligned the spine, and the playful trading of eights, fours and twos (bars) between Mojoko and Marrero (vocals) and Bunnett (saxophone), perfectly captured the essence of the band’s name. Marrero, by the way, was a formidable vocalist, and a rock-solid acoustic and electric bassist.


The level of talent on the stage was evident everywhere. Yissy Garcia was a powerhouse, a joyous force. She is, along with Olano, the longest tenured member of the band. Her charisma and style drew us in, and the riser on stage gave us a good vantage point to watch a talented young drummer in full flower.

Bunnett is, of course, a major voice on soprano and flute, and her discography is beyond impressive. She has constructed a successful career as a jazz performer and band leader; in today’s world, that is no mean achievement. Here’s to the continued evolution of Maqueque and more women with instruments in their hands.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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