Jimmy Cuba, music dealer
For months I had been hoping for a conversation with Jimmy Cuba, the renowned music dealer in the Spitalfields Market but the snow and ice had driven him away. There is no doubt that sunshine and Latin music go together, so yesterday when I heard a Cuban melody drifting on the Spring breeze, as I was coming through Puma Court on my way to buy a loaf of bread, I knew he was back.
Jimmy Cuba has been selling music in the Spitalfields Market since 1992, but he first came here many years before, “I always worked in markets since I was eleven.” he explained, cocking his porkpie hat and assuming the squinty grin that is indicative of his good-humoured perspective on life, “We used to drive up to the Spitalfields Market in the early morning and I would guard the van while the governor bought his stock. We sold fruit, vegetables and flowers in Romford, and although I hated it I was good – by the age of fifteen, I was running three or four stalls. But the people I grew up with were pretty wild. Everybody was on the fiddle. Everybody had a sideline. It was an hypocrisy of many layers between how you should be and how you were. That was just the way it was.”
Seeking wider horizons, Jimmy left to become a roadie and worked with bands for nearly ten years, developing his taste for music along the way. “Latin tunes were the tunes I liked and the first record I bought was Carlos Santana. I was living in the Latin quarter of San Francisco at the time and getting into the music and the musicians. Anyone I liked, I did research and I listened to what they liked. When I came back to London, I had to sell my record collection in Leather Lane Market to pay the rent and it was all Latin music, but I found I was pretty good at selling it. So I went out and bought a load of Latin music and people started calling me “Cuban Jim” – I said you’re going to have to make it “Jimmy Cuba” and it stuck.”
As Jimmy speaks, he is always bopping and rocking, gyrating and grooving to the Latin rhythms that comprise the soundtrack to his life, “On Sunday I used to go to sell in Cheshire St but I got sick of working in the rain, so when the Spitalfields Market reopened in 1992 I took a stall. It was still derelict then, there were just a few craft stalls and an organic vegetable stand. I had a little diary and on my first day’s trading I wrote ‘takings £30, rent £5, lunch £4.’”
It was a small beginning, but Jimmy had a stroke of luck when a rare melody by Perez Prado was used in a commercial and he was the only dealer with copies of the tune, selling thousands and putting him on the map. Before long, Jimmy had the good fortune to meet the Fania All Stars (who are as big as The Beatles in the world of Latin music), interviewing them when they played at the Barbican. One day, Hose Alberto, the Dominican singer and Celia Cruz’ producer, honoured Jimmy saying, “You know more about my music than my people.” Over the years Jimmy has met many of the stars of Latin music who are his heroes, when they have come through our capital and now they make a point of taking a trip to his stall in the Spitalfields Market in turn. Larry Harlow, the celebrated jazz piano player from New York dropped by recently, “He started talking to me but I didn’t recognise him until he took his hat off!” admitted Jimmy sheepishly, adding fondly, “He sent me a lovely letter when he got back to New York.”
Today, Jimmy sells Latin, African, Arabic and Reggae in the Spitalfields Market on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays. He has travelled all over to visit the origins of the music, especially Cuba and New York, source of the Latin Jazz of the nineteen fifties that his personal favourite. Although Jimmy likes to play the market clown, making comic signs and enjoying boisterous horseplay with Matthew from Dino’s Cafe when he comes to deliver the bacon sandwich each day, a very different personality emerges once Jimmy begins to talk about music. A lyrical intensity overcomes him and his eyes light up in response to the soulful quality of the music he loves. Jimmy manages to give the benefit of his expertise without ever making you feel the weight of his experience. “It’s the knowledge I have got in here,” Jimmy confided quietly, pointing to his hat in self-satire,“I view myself as an educator in world music. It’s a passion for me. More than a business, even though it pays the rent, to me it is the whole world.”
The crowning glory of Jimmy Cuba’s achievement is that Soul Jazz Records, who release many of the world music recordings that he sells, now credit him on every CD. Jimmy opened a case and carefully took out the booklet to show me, “You don’t have to prove it to me,” I said, relenting when he opened the booklet up and showed me his name at the end of the list of thankyous.“It’s something I’m very proud of, it’s an achievement for me, coming from a rough background – where I grew up and how I grew up, on an estate. I never went to school really, my teachers said I would come to no good. All my education has been through music and this is an acknowledgement of the respect I have won.” he said, folding the booklet and returning it modestly, as if he was folding up all his care and affection into that humble CD case. It was a reminder of how culture can bring significance and value to life, because Jimmy’s existence has truly been elevated by music, it his given him his livelihood, his passion and his self-respect.
We shook hands in celebration of a cultural journey that no-one could have been predicted, taking Jimmy Cuba from the Spitalfields Market off around the world, through San Francisco, and delivering him back to the Spitalfields Market under the auspicious circumstances that he enjoys today.