Updated: Jun 3
Waking up in Havana on my 40th birthday is a cherished memory that still remains. The story of how i got there began 6 months earlier on a spring day in West London.
It was a time of change and i was lacking direction. I had an idea to start my own business running music groups so i went to visit a friend to ask how.
After following her advice and unconsciously sowing a seed of change, i walked to Notting Hill and went for a coffee.
At the time i had been smoking for over 15 years and after finding a shop and ordering a coffee i sat down to roll a cigarette. I had been attempting to quit on and off for over 4 years but on that day, i was as fully committed a smoker as ever.
Coming from outside the shop , I heard (what i presumed to be) a group of street musicians start playing. Taking the coffee out, i sat down, lit the cigarette and turned to where the music was coming from. There was percussion, bass and vocals but there was no group - all the sounds were being played by a solo double bass player. He was playing the percussive sounds on the fret board as he simultaneously played the strings and sung (or spoke). I'd never heard, or seen, anything like it before.
In that moment i literally changed my mind. I thought "This must be what it's like in Cuba" and a voice inside my head said "You don't need tobacco running through your veins anymore, you need music, you need to go to Cuba. You have to be in Cuba on your 40th birthday and you will be there to study music".
As if guided by an external force i stubbed out my cigarette, picked up the pouch of tobacco, walked over to a bin and threw it away. I would never smoke again.
It was as though the voice said "Now you've decided to stop killing yourself, i'll help you to really start living,".
I had no idea how it was going to happen but somehow i knew it had to happen.
6 months later on September 19th, i was picked up by a driver outside Jose Marti international airport in Havana. He asked what i was there to study and when i said music he nodded and said "This is Cuba, music is in the vens."
I didn't understand, "What are the vens?" i asked. Perhaps it was a district that i was unaware of.
"The vens, the vens" he said.
I shook my head with a blank look and he laughed and tapped his finger on his forearm, "The vens".
He was telling me "This is Cuba, music is in the veins".
Even now i get goosebumps remembering what the voice in my head had told me 6 months earlier, "You don't need tobacco running through your veins anymore, you need music, you need to go to Cuba".
The next day on my 40th birthday i woke up in Havana to study music with a man who for almost two decades had influenced and inspired me -the late great Chuck Silverman.
It was the day of the 'Paz de frontera" concert and as there were a million people expected in Independence Square, Chuck had arranged for us all to go to a friends house to watch the concert on T.V.
There were around 9 of us in the study group and as we were getting to know each other, it began to rain. None of us had ever experienced such rain, it was warm and gentle and far from going back inside, we went further out. We stood outside in what felt like a blissful natural shower.
Due to my dear brain injury much of the following 6 or 7 years are a blank. I'm aware of certain things that happened but have little reference as to when and quite often where. I don't remember writing any of the songs but there is a part of them that i do remember.
I remember the stories.
At some point after coming out of hospital, I found an old recording of a song that I imagine had been written sometime between 2010 and 2015. From listening to it and reading the words, I've put these memories together:
I had started a drumming group in a community center behind Alexander Palace in London. One evening nobody turned up so i spent the time drumming alone. After playing for some time, lost in the moment, i was surprised when a lady arrived to ask about the group.
We may have played drums for a while -I'm not sure - but i do remember that we stood outside talking as she prepared to leave.
It started to rain and I think it may have been summer time because the rain was warm.
I said to her "It reminds me of Havana" or "This is what it's like in Havana". There was no physical contact, of that I'm certain, but although I have no memory of her name or what she looked like, song was born.
One day in early 2018 we'd recorded the first version of '4000 stars' and whilst wandering and wondering, I asked which song to do next. As i walked through the village, a sign in a shop window whispered the answer.
It was advertising cigars and in large letters it read 'Havana'.