Ángel “Pututi” Arce, percussive account of a Cuban musician in Miami
On any given afternoon, my aunt Mirtha and I were walking through Vidal Park in Santa Clara, my homeland. There, in the historic center of the city, the group from the House of Culture was playing, made up of very talented children a little older than me. At that moment I said: "Yeah, this is what I want!" That scene was the first spear towards music. Then I started studying. My father, who was a percussionist in the Aliamen orchestra —the most famous group in the city at that time— began to teach me his instrument and, shortly after, I joined the ranks of that group that had completely struck me. In just a few months I became its director. I don't know why, but I always end up conducting the orchestras in which I have played.
In the town, meanwhile, I was known as a "child prodigy"; However, drums were so natural to me that I never understood that epithet. On one occasion, NG La Banda appeared at the Camilo Cienfuegos cinema theater, which is right next to the Hotel Santa Clara Libre. I remember that in the morning I saw how the props arrived with the instruments, the sound engineers with the equipment; I looked at all the machinery of the orchestra. That was the first big show I was going to witness, and it was about to change my life forever. Halfway through the concert, El Tosco stopped the music and said: “They told me that there is a very young boy here who plays percussion. If that's true, get on stage ”.
Imagine, I shit my pants! Instantly people pointed at me and helped me up. El Tosco was amazed at my young age, but he automatically asked me if I played the bongo; When I replied that he preferred drums, he turned and asked Calixto [Oviedo] to give me his place. A walking began to sound — a lucky intro in jazz where each musician, little by little, makes his entrance — and I joined in with what was happening there musically. When I felt more comfortable, they switched to a tumba’o that always made people dance. What followed was timba from top to bottom. At some point I was emboldened with the support of the public and did a solo. The theater got to its feet and couldn't stop clapping; while El Tosco, amazed, told me: "I want to take you to Havana to study." I was only 11 or 12 years old, which is why I had to ask my parents for legal permission to take me to live in their house. Then we made the transfer from the Santa Clara Vocational School of Art to the National School of Art. In the end, I entered the capital on the NG La Banda bus.
After months of being in Havana, Chucho Valdés is told about my progress and he invites me to play at the Jazz Plaza Festival. That, with only 14 years. I remember that they placed two batteries — one for Maestro Enrique Plá and one for me — but I was so small that I couldn't reach the dishes with my arms; the props accommodated me in the best possible way and so I was able to share the stage with the great Chucho. Coming down from the stage, there was the imposing Changuito - my idol! - who said to me: “Where did you come from, brother? How nice that you did up there. Listen to me, tomorrow at nine in the morning I'm going to school and I'll bring you a kettledrum ”. I knew that the teacher had good intentions, but there was a good stretch from there until that happened. The next day he appeared with a kettledrum, but not just any one, but the one he played with at Los Van Van. Later I began to detail the instrument and I realized that, on the patches, it had the names of the best known songs from El Tren de la Música Cubana.
Well, I tell you that that kettledrum, instead of taking it home, I left it at school. Everybody who was studying percussion beat him up. It was an important source of inspiration for us that gesture from Changuito with whom —over time—, I established a very beautiful friendship.
Getting to the Doctor
Pure salsa was never made in Cuba like it was made in New York, Puerto Rico and Colombia; our audience was more rigorous and demanded something beyond. So in the '80s the salsa began to ring — it got dirty, so we said — and that was the salsa that I knew. Then came the Manolín phenomenon, which incorporated the drums and electric guitar, as well as new elements of pop and funk, consolidating or defining what we now call fierce timba. As a complement, he had a very peculiar register, he was not a super singer but it worked for the genre; he had a lot of angel and charisma. He made an upgrade to timba, also incorporating the spoken chorus And with the swing with which he wrote them! The street was the reflection of his choirs. At that time Los Van Van were successful for embodying popular stories in their songs, but the Doctor used short and catchy chronicles, very refreshing and innovative. In what others made a song based on everyday experiences, Manolín included in a single song four or five choirs with different popular stories. Even today there is much of his in current Cuban music.
I knew all his repertoire. My brother Alexis did the percussion in his orchestra and I was always in rehearsals. One day, Paulito FG and Issac Delgado, in unison, suggested that I play with them; but Manolín, when he found out, offered me the job. At that time, this group was the musical phenomenon in Cuba, so I accepted his proposal, before that of the other two exceptional artists.
The first touch was at the Palacio de la Salsa. That morning, I say: "Manolín, I don't have cymbals or anything, just the timpani." And that same afternoon, before starting the show, we went to Havana in search of the rest of the percussion elements.
The first stop was at the home of Samuelito Formell, who lent us a counter bell; after two or three more places, unsuccessful in our search, we arrived at Yoel Driggs' house, and he lent us a dish with a stand. So we resolved, although that day there was no sound check and when the musicians arrived and saw a different set up in the orchestra, they thought that another group was going to open the concert. They never thought that I was the new member of the band. That was my first night as a professional musician, the Palace was sold out and I was a child among so many adults.
A year after playing with Manolín, I was called to join Team Cuba, made up of the most prominent musicians from the most important groups in the country at that time. That was the greatest thing that I could experience in Cuba as a musician: sharing the stage with Issac, Paulito FG, the Charanga Habanera, Los Van Van, Adalberto Álvarez y la Son de él, Alain Pérez, etc. We did two very nice concerts on the island and then we went on a tour of Europe. And there I played alongside a great percussionist: my brother Samuel Formell.
At age 18, on a tour of the United States with Manolín, my brother and I decided to stay in New York: new life, another language and the cold that hit hard. I will never forget the generosity of Xiomara Laugart and Cucú Diamantes, who hosted us in their homes; But it was so difficult that we decided to go down to Miami, where I formed my own musical group ―The Ten of Miami― and, later, I began to play with almost all the Cuban artists who live here: Amaury Gutiérrez, Willy Chirino, Albita, Aymée Nuviola , Luis Bofill, among others.
Termino este recuento percutivo afirmando que todavía sigo en contacto con la percusión, muy cerca del timbal y la batería. Hasta el año pasado toqué y dirigí la banda de Gente de Zona; e incluyo percusiones en la mayoría de los temas que produzco ―sobre todo en los de Beangel, dúo que comparto con mi esposa, Beatriz César.
The composer and producer, on top of the ball
Later came other surprises: the soundtracks of soap operas like Acorralada ―which went around the world in 2007―, Sacrificio de mujer and Cosita linda; Aymée's album Como ring al finger - of which I was a music producer and composer of some songs with her, Bea, Alexis Valdés and Tirso - and which won the Latin Grammy in 2018; as well as the most recent nomination for Girl (Becky G feat. Gente de Zona). Now, in the meantime, I keep writing for Enrique Iglesias and Descemer Bueno. Nice things are coming very soon.
Later came other surprises: the soundtracks of telenovelas such as Acorralada - which went around the world in 2007 -, Sacrificio de mujer and Cosita linda; the album Como ring al finger, by Aymée ―of which I was a music producer and composer of some songs with her, Bea, Alexis Valdés and Tirso―, which won the Latin Grammy in 2018; as well as the most recent nomination for Girl (Becky G feat. Gente de Zona). Now, in the meantime, I keep writing for Enrique Iglesias and Descemer Bueno. Nice things are coming very soon.
I always compose based on how I think each note and instrument should sound like. I not only write the lyrics, but also the music, I think it's a plus. For this reason, when I meet good composers, but with empirical training, I talk to them about the importance of studying music, even at an elementary level. Knowing well the musical cells enriches your soul and gives you a lot of security.
Also signing with a company like Magnus has taken my career and my catalog as a songwriter to unimaginable levels. After many years without any kind of support, alone, battling with the world, an effective and powerful company like this arrived, and I felt very warm. It is very comforting.
But if we are going to talk about my work as a producer, there is a song that gave me the confidence to discover my potential in that area: Arriba de la bola, by Manolín, from which I produced the mambos and which is today one of the most popular songs. emblematic of Cuban timba. Although the profession of full-time production was really born in the United States, due to the opportunities that many artists gave me (and give) to whom I write. I think that, being a musician, they feel that I can enrich the songs more for them.
Que le pongan salsa
The timba, like the cast, was born from musicians who grew up in difficult neighborhoods, but with the peculiarity that most of them had studied music at very high levels. Unlike the distribution or urban music, the timba cell has a lot of jazz, rock, funk and, of course, Cuban son with the key well set. In this genre that is the fundamental thing to obtain a coherent and elevated musical result. In Manolín's time we invented the Cuban percussion set with the timpani and drums; while that pattern of harpsichord with bass drum, with tumbaʼos, with mazacotes, which the timba brought, could only be achieved with study, a lot of study. To be clearer, all that music was in the key, I point out that the key was never crossed, and that is the success of dance music as a couple.
Now the new generation of producers is not informed or does not include musicians to realize when the key is wrong or right. To this, add that this urban music is made in a very digital way, copying and pasting bars, and they never realize when the harpsichord is set. Result: young people with a less demanding ear when consuming music. Despite all this, you can tell the difference in success between an urban producer who has studied music and one who has not; the former will always have the advantage, by understanding the rule, he knows where to break it without jeopardizing the result. But, I repeat, I believe a lot in keeping the key as it goes.
On the other hand, the big companies no longer bet on salsa, although there are musicians who defend it tooth and nail: Marc, Gilberto, Víctor, Tito. But they have it very difficult, because nobody was prepared for the urban phenomenon. The public, the radio, the companies are completely flawed by that genre and unfortunately the numbers speak for themselves. When a product works, of course the industry goes for the easiest to make money, rather than good music; therefore, salseros are incorporating urban elements into their productions.
For me there are some fundamental factors that helped the urban movement to overcome salsa: it is very difficult for salseros to collaborate with each other, to make space for the youngest exponents - especially if they are women - as well as they open up to new sounds. For example, timba was, by nature, the next step in salsa and, nevertheless, salseros outside of Cuba and internationally consecrated never clothed it or gave it input. As a consequence, they left a void that was covered by the urban. On the other hand, in what you produce a salsa song, you record various instruments, you tune them and mix them, the urban people digitally produce three or four songs and upload them to the networks.
But not all is lost. Salsa is still appetizing and finds space in parties, clubs, popular dances, which we know it does not have on the radio. I can assure you that a salsa group generates more work than many of the reggaeton artists who are not stuck, because in the end it is more show and heart on stage. There are more than eleven musicians up, playing for real and that is spectacular. The body of a very active generation that consumes such spectacles is still awakening.
Beangel, the duo and other future projects
In this project we mix the urban with elements of pop and vice versa. We do it in an elegant way, with meaning and coherence, we think about the lyrics. Beangel, even being urban, in a genuine way thinks like “popero” and this, I repeat, helps a lot to make a difference. It is also very important when you can produce yourself, because you get exactly to the point. There is nothing more rewarding than knowing how to capture, from beginning to end in a song, everything that one feels as an artist. In our duo we have another plus: Bea, my partner, is not only a great singer, but she composes and produces very well. We have a lot to share from our lives in each song.
I am currently producing a self-titled album for the duo. But, in addition, next year we will be enjoying a worldwide launch, a song entitled The world is in your hands that was born as a gift for my niece Luna. I have been in this project for more than 12 years, and it has taught me to be patient because it has been very difficult to unite more than 50 Cuban artists that I admire, with different ways of thinking and ideologies. I feel blessed to have musicians such as Pancho Céspedes, Jon Secada, Arturo Sandoval, Issac Delgado, Aymée Nuviola, Descemer, Lena and Malena Burke, among so many others who represent Cuban music around the world. I have already recorded them all, now I am in the final stretch compiling videos of each one singing the song; But it has been a very difficult and painful process at the same time, especially when you already have an artist recorded and he finds out that there is someone who is participating with whom he does not identify politically and asks me to remove him from the project. It is very hard for me because it is a song of breath of life, but hey, this is the saddest part of our story.
Thank God I already have everyone's permission. The positive side of this long process was being able to incorporate, at the last minute, the maestro Gonzalo Rubalcaba. This will be a beautiful gift, not only for Luna, but for all the artists who stood firm in participating in a song of love and hope so necessary in these difficult times.