Take It to the Bridge 

... the people-to-people bridge between the United States and Cuba, that is.

"Growing up in Cuba seeing the Tropicana shows on television inspired me to do something like this," says percussionist and bandleader Jesus Diaz at his home in Oakland. "But my vision is different now. And while I take Afro-Cuban music seriously, I don't want to abandon the popular aspect of the music. I love seeing people have a good time."

It's that celebratory spirit Diaz hopes to impart this Friday and Saturday (8:30 p.m.) as he debuts his Afro-Cuban musical De Aquí P'Alla Con Clave (From Here to There with Clave) at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley (3105 Shattuck Ave., 510-849-2568). Thematically it honors the bridge built by musical communities between the Bay Area and Cuba -- the bond being clave, a two-bar pattern that anchors the rhythmic complex of Afro-Cuban music. "All Cuban music is based on the simplicity of two sticks and a two-bar beat that has room for everything," he explains.

Born in Havana, Diaz internalized clave as a young boy drumming in neighborhood rumbas, and as a teenager idolized Juan Formell y los Van Van ("still my favorite band"). In 1980 he left Cuba and arrived in the Bay Area, then quietly began to build a music career, performing with Conjunto Céspedes for fifteen years. He didn't step out as a leader until the 1990s, when he co-led Oaktown Irawo with pianist Omar Sosa. Diaz has toured with jazz artists Steve Coleman and Jane Bunnett, and currently works with the SF Symphony's Adventures in Music. He also leads his own band, QBA, as well as running a record label, Bombo Music, with longtime associate Manuel Velasco.

De Aquí P'Alla Con Clave will feature the 42-year-old in three separate ensembles performing traditional Afro-Cuban folklore, Latin jazz, and Timba. For these shows Diaz has recruited a world-class cast of Cubano musicians and dancers living in the East Bay and Los Angeles. Master folklorist Carlos Aldama, cofounder of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba, and Sandy Perez, formerly of Grupo Afro de Matanzas, will be part of the traditional group along with acclaimed dancer Jose Francisco Barroso, percussionist Ysidro Valor, and singer Fito Reinoso.

The evening's surprise treat is the highly anticipated debut of the Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz Project, featuring trap drummer Raul Pineda (Chucho Valdes), bassist Jorge "El Sagua" Perez (Buena Vista Social Club), and pianist Gustavo Ramirez (NG La Banda) -- all now Los Angeles residents. With these cats, the level of musicianship is high. "We've been working our stuff out behind the scenes," Diaz says. "Gustavo does the writing for the group, and we have a lot of cool material already. It's fun, and I expect great things to come out of this combination of players."

The evening climaxes with a Timba blowout featuring Diaz' dance band QBA, guaranteed to transport Cuban-music lovers de aquí p'alla con clave. At a time when travel restrictions to and from Cuba have been tightened for political reasons, this event is a credit to the powerful bonds that can be created by people-to-people cultural exchange. Philosophizes Diaz, "Right now there are limitations, but it's just a bump in the road that will work itself out."

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