CONCERT PREVIEW: Susan Werner releases Cuba-inspired EP, returns to Philadelphia

Susan Werner is shown in Havana, Cuba.
Susan Werner is shown in Havana, Cuba. PHOTO BY AUDREY BROWN

IF YOU GO

What: Susan Werner

When: Friday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m.; doors open at 7.

Where: World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., Philadelphia.

Tickets: $25 at www.worldcafelive.com or by calling 215-222-1400

Ages: All ages

Artist’s websites: www.susanwerner.com

Susan Werner will return to the city of Philadelphia to perform at World Cafe Live on Friday, Nov. 17. The show will feature material from her latest recording, “An American in Havana,” which she released independently on Sept. 15.

Werner has established herself as a premiere singer-songwriter, known for her poignant as well as humorous lyrics. She is also known for her diversity; she has explored multiple genres including folk, pop, rock, country, chamber music, jazz and gospel. In addition she has never shied away from a subject matter that could be considered controversial, in particular with her brilliant “agnostic gospel” album “The Gospel Truth” (Sleeve Dog, 2007), which was produced locally by Glenn Barratt at MorningStar Studio.

Werner has also become known for concept albums. In addition to “The Gospel Truth,” which features her take on religion and spirituality, “I Can’t Be New” (Koch, 2004) is her collection modeled after the American Songbook a la Cole Porter. “Hayseed” (Sleeve Dog, 2013) is an ode to farming and her roots – growing up on a family farm in Iowa. And as if Werner hasn’t taken enough twists and turns in her career, she has delved into Broadway musicals; she has been writing the score to “Bull Durham, The Musical,” based on the film which starred Kevin Costner (Orion, 1988).

Werner has been associated with the city of Philadelphia since she released her debut “Live at the Tin Angel” in 1993. Although she moved from Philadelphia to Chicago 17 years ago, Werner has maintained a connection to the city. She previewed some of the material from “An American in Havana” at this year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival, and though it is unlike any of her previous 12 recordings, it is among Werner’s best work.

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“An American in Havana” is based on Werner’s experiences during 2 visits to Cuba, explained Werner in a telephone interview from her home in Chicago.

“There was talk about Cuba, this was in 2015 or so, and Obama had been talking about restoring relations, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go to Cuba, I’m going to go,’ and I went on a 10-day trip with the group called insightCuba… because I didn’t want to go by myself.

“So I went and… it’s a fascinating place, maybe because it has been so isolated. It has preserved elements of itself, as opposed to becoming the more generic rest of the Western world. It has preserved elements of culture in everyday life because it kind of had to. The embargo has isolated Cuba in a way that has preserved (it) in this unusual way.”

Werner said she did not go to Cuba with the intention of writing an album. She was inspired by the music and the culture to do so. As with all her writing, she explained that it starts with an “intense feeling. I start thinking about (something) and (question) ‘is there music here?’ If there’s not music… then I don’t think that’s a project.”

Werner discussed how music is so prevalent in Cuban culture.

“Somebody said ‘Cuban music is a love affair between the Spanish guitar and the African drum.’ And if you’re a musician or a music lover, it’s just catnip. You just can’t get enough of it. You go to Cuba and you see musicians making music they’ve learned by hand and by ear, that they play by hand and by ear, instead of by academic means. It is so… social. Music is social. Music is spontaneous and it’s just irresistible.”

Werner also discussed the harsh realities of Cuban life.

“It isn’t like going to… Cancun, it’s not Cozumel. You don’t get all the comforts of being in the United States. It’s not the easiest place to go as a tourist, and the poverty is unique, because while everyone has adequate medical care, nobody has hardly anything.

“There’s no Walgreens. A Cuban would kill to go into a Walgreens and buy Q-tips, you know?... just all the stuff we take for granted, all that stuff. So there’s a unique and cruel kind of poverty in Cuba.”

That being said, Werner said she valued the experience and she recommends taking the trip.

“Instead of it being kind of this fantastic getaway, I think you have to go with an open mind and open heart and allow Cuba to be Cuba. The island is a fascinating place and it rewards your curiosity. (It’s) one of the world’s great music capitols. It’s a magical place, the music is magical. If you speak any Spanish at all, which I do, it’s really rewarding to have conversations with people who haven’t had a conversation with an American their entire life. And our curiosity about them is returned by their curiosity about us. The people are not their government.”

“An American in Havana” was coproduced by Werner and Venezuelan drummer Pablo Bencid. He helped Werner to assimilate the sounds of Cuban music into her songs. And Werner doesn’t sound out of place.

Werner will be accompanied at World Cafe Live by percussionist Mayra Casales (Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente), a Cuba native who lives in New York and who Werner calls “the realest of the real deal,” and Nashville bassist Adam Chassins. The trio will recreate the songs from “An American in Havana” as well as other selections from Werner’s extensive repertoire.