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Letters to Yeyito: Lessons from a Life in Music by Paquito D'Rivera

With any luck, the current interest in Cuba will also draw more attention to Cuban music, one of that country's best and most reliable exports for several centuries now. In recent decades, another reliable Cuban export has been people, including some remarkable musicians who now call America home.

Among the best and best known of them is Paquito D'Rivera. A renaissance man of Cuban music, D'Rivera plays both saxophone and clarinet exceptionally well (a rare dual skill he discusses at some length in his new book), is equally comfortable with Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, jazz and classical music, was a founding member of the groundbreaking Cuban band Irakere, has been a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters fellow and a multiple Grammy Award nominee and winner, and to top it all off, he is a charming and talented writer to boot.

Letters to Yeyito is not his first book. He wrote a novel, Oh, La Habana, and a full length memoir, My Sax Life, a funny, multilayered autobiography that featured not only his own stories, but extended pieces from friends, photos, cartoons, poems and more. Like a good jazz player, D'Rivera has developed his own unique voice and style as a writer as well, which is part of the strength and appeal of his previous works and this new one.

Yeyito is a collection of twenty essays or ''letters" to a young music student from a small town in Cuba who wrote to D'Rivera after seeing him perform. But with no return address and a signature only of "Yeyito," there was no way to reply. This is, until now, a half century later, when D'Rivera penned this book.

Yeyito opens with the darkly comic and frightening "Sherlock Holmes in Havana," D'Rivera's saga of trying to get across Havana to home after a recording session carrying some black market meat, beans and toothpaste - a small handful of goods that could have landed him in prison or worse if discovered. Along the way, he meets a remarkable collection of local characters; and upon finally reaching home, he discovers, much to his surprise and disbelief, that the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, decked out in a plaid coat, deerslayer hat, and pipe à la Sherlock Holmes, had been to his house looking for him. And a good thing too, since the police officers who eventually did pick him up, were forced to take him to the Habana Libre (formerly Hilton) Hotel to play with the famed trumpeter, instead of to one of the back interrogation rooms they had waiting for him.

Forthright, irreverent, funny and thoughtful, D'Rivera doesn't mince words, nor he allow bitterness (particularly over events in Castro's Cuba) to overwhelm the joy he finds in life, travel, people and music. He takes on the musician's life, the books he read as a child and as an adult (not surprising that he's a great reader as well), the saxophone vs. the clarinet, great guitarists, pianists and other musicians he's known, and his love for his adoptive home of New York.

None of the other "letters" quite match the power of the opening "Sherlock" and My Sax Life is certainly a better place to get a more complete picture of D'Rivera and his music. But Letters to Yeyito is still a delightful, engrossing, and illuminating read that provides a glimpse into the life of one of the finest working Latin jazz musicians, and a chance to spend time in his captivating company.

-- Chris Heim, Host of KMUW FM 89.1's Global Village (world music), Night Train (jazz) & Crossroads (blues) shows.

Chris Heim produces and hosts Global Village, a nationally and internationally distributed world music show; the nightly jazz show Night Train, and Crossroads, KMUW’s twice-weekly blues and R&B show. Chris is also a critic and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Utne, Global Rhythm, Dirty Linen, and Option, among others.