Blondie Drummer Clem Burke Talks Band's Havana Trip & His Early Interest in Cuban Music

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Danielle St. Laurent
Blondie

"Afro-Cuban percussion is something I've always been interested in," Burke tells Billboard ahead of March concerts on the island.

Buena Vista Social Club would not be something most people would relate to Blondie, but the members of the iconic new wave band are fans of the album that took traditional Cuban music to the world in the late 1990s.

“We all love the Ry Cooder stuff with Buena Vista Social Club,” says Blondie drummer Clem Burke, adding that ever since they heard the album, the idea of going to Cuba has been in their heads. Burke explains that the band thought of going in the euphoric period after President Obama and Raul Castro restored diplomatic relations when Cuba received an onslaught of curious artists ranging from Rihanna to The Rolling Stones, who played a much-publicized outdoor concert. “The time wasn’t right for us.”

Now, when Cuba has faded from the deadly headlines and American visitors have decreased after the Trump administration replaced restrictions on individuals traveling to the island, Blondie has announced two concerts in Havana in March.

The band has picked pioneering Cuban Afro-fusion band Synthesis, pop trovador David Torrens and Cuban dance music renovator Alain Perez to open their shows at the Mella Theater on March 15 and 16.

Rather than merely presenting two shows, Blondie’s management has partnered with a company called Dreamcatcher Events, that has put together a tourism experience including daily sightseeing, “wonderful meals at the best restaurants in Havana,” “arts and crafts shopping,” and lodging at the five-star Melía Hotel.

Prices for the package range from $2,699 for one person for three nights in a room “with two twin beds and a roommate” to $5,600 for a “couples room” for four nights. Airfare, visas and alcohol are not included.

It's no CBGB, and Burke admits that the price could be a deterrent. “It is kind of ambitious,” he says, adding that the initiative is “an experiment.” He says that so far, they have seen enthusiastic interest from their U.K. fans, who are not bound by laws restricting Cuba travel and can go Airbnb (where apartments can be found for less than $30 a night) or find a cheaper hotel in Havana and skip the typical tourist attractions.

Burke looks at the immersive “Blondie in Havana” experience as an opportunity for the band’s fans from around the world to convene.

For his part, Burke is hoping to meet some Cuban musicians and perhaps play together. “I grew up in the New York City area -- in New Jersey, which has a large Cuban population -- and I was exposed to a lot of Cuban music back then in New York in general,” he says. “Afro-Cuban percussion is something I've always been interested in.” He recalls playing congas along with friends in a band (“your hands swell up; it’s an arduous job”).

Burke adds that Blondie’s Latin tinge can be heard on early hit “The Tide Is High,” which features Peruvian percussionist Alex Acuña. He also points to the bilingual “Wipe Off My Sweat” from 2011’s Panic of Girls as being among other Blondie songs that are “very influenced by Latin music.”

Although it's their first trip to Cuba, the members of Blondie are no neophytes in Latin America: The visit to Havana will come just after their latest American tour, with dates in Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

“We’ve been together for a very long time,” says Burke of the band, which formed in the 1970s and later broke up and got back together. “There are certain things we are able to do now that maybe we couldn’t do back then. It’s great at this point of our career to do something like this.”