There may be no stranger concert venue than Havana’s Jardines de La Tropical, a former beer garden overhung with jungle vines on the banks of the Almendares River, a place where Tarzan the Ape Man might have thrown moonlight rave parties. The legendary status of Los Jardines began in the 1940s, when Mambo pioneer Arsenio Rodriguez played Sunday dances here because no other performance space in Havana would welcome an Afro-Cuban audience let alone hire an Afro-Cuban musician. It could be argued that fusion, both racial and musical, was born at Los Jardines de La Tropical. One recent afternoon, as the disappearing sun painted shadows on the greenery, a young crowd began filing into Los Jardines to see X Alfonso, whose music is a good barometer of what Afro-Cuban fusion has come to mean. He is also, by Havana standards, a superstar. The concert wasn’t due to start before another two hours but the dancefloor space was filling fast. Anyone inclined to look in the direction of the stage would have noticed X (pronounced “Equis”) Alfonso hauling amplifiers and other equipment into place. He might have been confused with one of his roadies if any roadies were around to help him. In any case, nobody seemed to notice. Or perhaps, this being a Havana crowd, everyone just preferred to let the man go about his business. A couple of hours later the time for averting attention is over. X takes the stage and the crowd roars its approval. Hip hop, son, reggae, jazz, rock. It’s a steamy Afro-cuban jungle mix and everyone at Los Jardines can’t get enough. Projected images showcase artwork (by X himself) and or echo the lyrics of songs everyone seems to know by heart. X is equally comfortable rapping or crooning. The musicians on stage ebb and flow around him. At one point they include his parents, Carlos Alfonso and Ele Valdes, founders of Sintesis, the band that gave X his first professional experience back in 1990.
His first album “Mundo Real” came out in 2000 and seemed to trigger metaphor fits in anyone tasked to describe X’s sound. “A little bit Babyface, a little bit Beatles, a little bit Neville Brothers,” was how one critic handled it, going on to name-check Grandmaster Flash and Massive Attack all in the same ecstatic review.