Carlos Alfonso: a free neutron of Cuban music
Carlos is a man with an easy word. Sitting on the porch of his house in Playa, he converses with simplicity and humor. He confesses that he has a bad memory, but talks about his life loquaciously, as if he were performing a song. Carlos almost always expresses himself in the plural, he perceives that everything he has achieved in his life is thanks to the support of his friends and his creative family.
Even if he stays seated, Carlos always has something to do: a new musical project, the Cuban Art Factory musical billboard, the Síntesis rehearsals. Even the coffee he offers me, he does so with the satisfaction of feeling useful. Meanwhile, the constant calls to his phone are testimony that his responsibilities, far from being a burden, are passions to which he gives himself completely, as in the songs to the deities that populate his albums.
During the first few bars of the conversation, I notice her indelible silver earring in her left ear. It is one of the details that I remember most from when, as a child, I saw him on television, singing in an incomprehensible language. Those Yoruba verses had a mysterious appeal, like the musical style of Synthesis.
Carlos, like Celia Cruz, was born in the Havana neighborhood of Santo Suárez. As a child, in a garage next to his house, he sang Mexican rancheras: …“and everything that appeared. In my house we listened to classical music, opera. It was a strange mix of poor people with culture.”
But his obsession with music was beyond the rancheras and what he heard in his home. Carlos fell in love with the violin at the age of 10.
In his school notebooks he drew violins and was determined to lean his face into the small instrument and draw bars with the incessant movement of the bow on the strings. However, reality was against his dreams. “It cost me a lot of work because I had to pay for violin classes. At that time I started working as a bricklayer's assistant. They paid one peso a day and I was saving it.”
Time passed and money was not enough to buy the instrument. “When after two weeks of classes I saw that I didn't have a violin, I gave up. Then scholarships of all kinds began to arrive.
With the artistic scholarship programs established in Cuba during the 1960s, he was able to get closer to music and learn basic notions about it. But that did not guarantee him any continuity to dedicate himself fully to what he aspired to. Although then listening to music was also a persistent vice.
While passing a short course, he approached choral music and realized that Euterpe had other melodic faces. “In the Manuel Ascunce high school theater, a choir was rehearsing and I went because I loved hearing the second voices.”
Carlos finished the scholarship and felt that he was at a crossroads of sorts. Despite his resolve to become a musician, he did not see any clear opportunities for himself. His parents, although never opposed, did not give him hope in the face of what seemed to be a momentary whim.
“Then I decided to go myself to take the aptitude test at the National School of Music. I wanted to study an instrument. They looked at my hands and determined that I had no aptitude for the violin. Then they showed me a table with other instruments that seemed horrible to me, like the trombone. Now I like the trombone”, he admits smiling.
Although everything indicated that he would not be a musician —he was not admitted to the National School of Music (ENA); and to alleviate the household economy he had to get a scholarship and study an intermediate technician in Electricity—, he did not move away from the scales and compasses.
“I met many friends who liked music and we created the group Los Neutrones, with guitar and drums. We even got to sing in the school theater.”
After graduation, Carlos began working in the fishing port of Havana, with 12-hour workdays. However, far from getting fed up with his responsibilities as an electrician, he used the little time available to rehearse with the group he had formed when he finished school and whose payroll included José María Vitier and Pedro Luis Ferrer. In that group they rode covers rockers of the time, being good vibes, by the mythical The Beach Boys, one of the main pieces of the endless rehearsals. The vocal instrumental style of the Californian band was his preferred way of making music.
But daily life immediately hit that initial project: José María Vitier had to complete his class shifts at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory; while other conflicts led to the disintegration of the group, "we thought we were the Beatles," he says.
Carlos left his job at the port. Again the friends convinced him to undertake another journey towards music. “The definitive moment had arrived for us. I decided to lose my job and return to the crazy people who accompanied me”.
This time, in a new call, he was able to enter the National School of Art (ENA) together with Pedro Luis Ferrer, in Choral Direction. His aspirations seemed to be on the right track, when the talent of others would be responsible for another fork:
“Pedro Luis had claustrophobia problems and spent a lot of time in the school hospital. However, in three months he managed to complete the three-year program and finished. So he went to convince me to leave school to continue with the group's project, which was practically a religion for us”, says Carlos, who at this moment in his history had to, once again, choose: either stay in school and study music or reintegrate into a group where when they played, everything else was unimportant.
In the end he decided on Los Nova. The road to establish themselves in a scene where no one seemed to take a serious interest in them, just like the Beatles' song, was also long and winding. “We kept rehearsals and they promised us auditions that never came. To professionalize ourselves we had a lot of work, because there were no opportunities for us in Havana despite presenting ourselves informally in many places”.
Giving up was not an option, and the young men looked to the east for the denied space. “In the year 70 we made a visit to Matanzas and we found a very good orchestra of modern music. Timor, his director, and the members of the orchestra auditioned us. We were a group with good potential. Besides, we already had our own songs”.
The Novas returned to Havana with the promise of beginning to play in Matanzas and renewed hopes to do so with the same impetus of their endless rehearsals. However, upon returning to the city of bridges, in front of the Culture headquarters, a policeman with a rifle on his shoulder was the welcome. The young people explained to the officer the reason for their arrival and the soldier's response was sparse: "Here everyone is for the cane."
The entire country was mobilized to reach the desired 10 million tons of sugar that, in the end, would not be completed.
“We feel lost. But we still asked where the Timor orchestra was chopping cane and we went there. At that time, those responsible for Culture who were in front of the court did not want to admit us to the macheteros brigade.”
What they did not expect is that there was a requirement to join the culture group that entered a cane field: to be music professionals. However, the insistence on staying as part of the brigade was so vehement that those young people —determined to be musicians— they were admitted.
“Then the director of the orchestra promised us that he would give us work at the end of the harvest. We were very happy. We had a lot of time. We finished the cut at five or six in the afternoon and we started rehearsing”.
The harvest ended and what was promised became reality. Destination: Varadero.
In the hotels of the well-known tourist pole they began a life they never imagined, not only because of the luxury or comfort of the places where they appeared, but because of the wonder of the gastronomic abundance that amazed them. "We saw it as a great achievement to have a wheat shake with a snack," Carlos recalls humorously.
“We were very well, sometimes we slept in the same hotel rooms where we had presentations. Until, unexpectedly, Pedro Luis arrived with a guitar”.
In the voice of Pedro Luis they heard bad girl romance and oh love. The response was astonishment: “What Pedro Luis sang to us was the greatest thing in the world. We realized that we had to achieve something more and then we began to fail in our work in Matanzas and Varadero to be more in Havana.”
Back in the capital, Carlos formed another group: Tema 4, this time together with Ele Valdés, Silvia Acea and Eliseo Pino. They gave several concerts, without defined schedules —they acted when they were called—, and finally they were hired in the Music Development Center in El Vedado, where they worked almost daily.
“I don't know to what extent that would be good or bad. The truth is that we were totally on the move. I don't think something like that will ever happen again, doing 20 shows a month. A car would come, pick us up to sing and we would go wherever it was,” he says.
Later, the Tema 4 undertook a trip to Trinidad, commissioned by the "Marta Abreu" University of Santa Clara, together with the renowned writer and ethnologist Samuel Feijóo, to collect Trinitarian songs and arrange them for other formats. They remained there for a month and, although they thought that the investigation would be a kind of safe conduct for the prolonged absence from activities in Matanzas, the reality was different.
Upon returning to the Athens of Cuba, the reception was far from being an artistic presentation. “In the Sauto Theater, hammer and chisel in hand, they put us as penance to knock down a piece of the wall and open a door”. The blows were almost ineffective against the hardness of that stone wall built in the nineteenth century. A month later, the opening was finally opened and the door installed. But the sanction did not end there: “They sent us to a carpentry shop. Ele was already pregnant and I took advantage of that time to make X's crib and the hangers for her clothes”.
Carlos felt that his time in Matanzas was fulfilled. The panorama in Havana was different for those who embarked on musical paths. Spaces for new projects began to open up thanks to the Nueva Trova Movement.
"It was several years of work, until one day we decided to make another type of music."
With the help of Eduardo Ramos and Jorge Reyes, in a small recording studio at the Music Development Center and in musical experimentation sessions, Síntesis outlined its beginnings.
“The sound engineer was fundamental in those recordings”, adds Carlos about those times when they recorded music on tapes with extreme care to obtain a clean sound, a process that depended on the acuity of the engineer in charge of the harmonic functioning of the old recording equipment in the studio.
“At a Nueva Trova Festival in Varadero we unanimously decided to create a group where we would all lose our names: Amaury Pérez, José María Vitier, Mike Porcel and the members of Tema 4 agreed on that decision”.
Síntesis was born with an idea of personal anonymity: only the music would have a name. The group experimented with new ways of creating. In the first instance, they united music with theater. Leading actors such as José Antonio Rodríguez and Carlos Ruiz de la Tejera were his advisers on the stage.
“We stood with a different attitude on stage. We wanted to express ourselves in another way and used symphonic rock combined with poetry”.
To the contest for the 1978 World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana, Carlos sent two songs, composed by Mike Porcel and José María Vitier, who were part of the track list of what would be the first Síntesis album: looking for a new flower. The surprise was great when the compositions obtained the first and second place. "We didn't make them for the festival, but we sent them out and they seemed to be close to the spirit of the event."
With the album finished, the only thing missing was the inaugural concert where they would finally debut as Síntesis. The Plaza de la Catedral was that stage, on December 14, 1978. And, although the sound was not the best —as Carlos recalls—, the experience was unparalleled. Playing in a space full of public marked a before and after in the biography of the band, and of Carlos himself. From then on, every year, Síntesis would repeat a concert in that place to celebrate their anniversaries.
However, the human is not alien to anything, much more so in a collective. After the first album the problems and the separations surfaced: Vitier had his solo plans, Mike Porcel left the musical direction of the group and Carlos had to assume that responsibility.
At this point in the conversation, the singer and bassist of Síntesis pauses. His voice assumes a reflective tone in the face of what disagreements mean to him: "Many people have entered and left this group, and we have always ended up as friends for the rest of our lives." His personal conception of music is similar to love: an unconditional relationship above any disagreement. “When they left, we had to look for substitutes. Then a tour of the socialist countries came to us: Russia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland. I could write a book about that first outing”, he jokes about the group's first experience outside of Cuba between January and February 1979.
"It went very well. Especially in Hungary, with a spectacular sound arrangement. We had a background of bands like Scorpions and Black Sabbath”. However, in Poland, the reception was lukewarm. They were preceded by a famous jazz player of the time and the public thought that those Cubans taken to Europe in the colder months also made up a jazz group. "We were anti-jazz at that time," he says, recalling the performance in Warsaw.
Once again Carlos pauses to remember those years and the musical path they traveled. What began in his life as an apparent whim, had become a group that would mark the Cuban art scene with one of the most authentic styles, ways of conceiving music and highlighting the origins from the rhythmic essences of those that have been in Cuba.
“The group has had several formations and luxury instrumentalists such as drummer Raúl Pineda, who currently works in Los Angeles, José María Vitier, Mike Porcel, Esteban Puebla, William Martínez. Lucía Huergo gets a very important percentage in Síntesis, for her musical contributions”.
But the year 1987 arrived and Carlos decided to take a definitive course with Síntesis: he began to compose the songs for the album Ancestros.
“I took the guitar and suddenly it came out Asoyin, but it was very difficult for me to sing it. I could not find a way to do it correctly and more knowledgeable people told me that I did not do it well.
Rock and African music fought within Carlos to be present in his compositions. So he insisted and recorded the song, although he thought that, by that time, those who supported Afro-Cuban traditions from the artistic and academic aspects would launch the harshest criticism against him. However, that innovative rhythm would quickly win admirers. Not only among the public of Síntesis, but also in the religious community where Carlos found support. Even in ritual ceremonies, Síntesis has replaced the usual drumbeats and chants to honor the gods of the Yoruba pantheon.
“Now there is an announcement about the 60th anniversary of the National Folkloric Ballet with our music. In addition to the fact that other companies use it to stage their choreographies”. Carlos considers the use of Síntesis music in commemorations of this type to be more than just a compliment, especially when it is used by a professional company. That is, for him, the confirmation that he was not mistaken when —without having any knowledge of the Yoruba language— he began a rigorous learning of the peculiarities of a language with a strong oral tradition, which identifies cultures and nations such as Nigeria, Benin or Togo. .
Classes with the renowned Matanzas musician and folklorist Lázaro Ros would be essential to discover the ins and outs of the ritual language. The main thing was to learn the intonation to put in the songs and the emphasis on certain words.
"Then we would do studies on folklore, we would take dance classes, to put rigor in the work we did."
Carlos admits that the particular stamp that distinguishes Síntesis, with its mix of Afro-Cuban music with rock and roll, came from various sources. He remembers the years he lived in Mantilla and witnessed the drumbeats, without this having any relation to the hostile behavior of its inhabitants, who here also personified the denied face of the big cities.
"I realized how divorced I was from that culture, which was also mine."
His original perception of Afro-Cuban music had been rather disinterested in perceiving it as an expression of poor, marginal neighborhoods. It took several years for Carlos to finally understand the intrinsic richness of the sounds that crossed the sea under black skins wrapped in shackles and whips of the most terrible and ignominious of institutions: slavery.
Thus, from a creative point of view, the music of Síntesis has accompanied Afro-Cuban rhythms in parallel: “Both come together like a river”. But there is a curious fact: contrary to what might be expected, Carlos is not a practicing religious person. This has also caused situations full of humor: "Some people who visit us have come to ask us where we keep the saints."
That's why when Carlos wants to compose a song about a specific deity, he always turns to the best sources for advice. That seriousness with which he undertakes his work is what has allowed the success of his work. From the sonority, he fervently believes in the connections between rock and roll and its characteristic riffs with the African music that he has listened to frequently for two years, allowing himself to compare the cultural syncretism that occurs in Cuba with the religious one.
"You can easily define that African music is sweeter, while Afro-Cuban music is more aggressive in terms of rhythm," he says about the components that define and outline Síntesis.
Another challenge taken on by Carlos is the use of harmony in his choirs. The rhythmic tradition of the slaves brought to Cuba was based on percussion, while those who arrived in the United States expressed their sensitivity through song. Thus, he considered a conjunction between the two.
"Not doing blues itself, but using the harmony of North American blacks, not only because I like it, but I also feel that it enriches what we do."
Since its foundation, Síntesis has been a school not only for Carlos, who created an unusual type of music —at the time— by incorporating and mixing instruments and rhythmic laments of African origin with rock and roll. It has also been so for those who have integrated the line up from the band; The experience has been defining in many ways, thanks, among other things, to Carlos's knowledge and pedagogy.
The guitarist and composer Ernesto Blanco was one of the young musicians who played in the group. From that place, he perceives in a different way the essence of the electric guitar to compose.
“My favorite Cuban rock bands are Síntesis and Zeus. Carlos Alfonso, for his part, is one of the living legends of Cuban music. I have known him for many years. In one way or another, my brother David and I were close to the Alfonso family because of our friendship with X, and our relationship was consolidated over time. I entered Síntesis as a guest musician during a tour of several months in Asia and Europe. Initially, he would only be part of the group for the duration of the tour, but later we continued working for two more years and I participated in the concert that was filmed in the Plaza de la Catedral in Havana, to celebrate the group's 41 years. It was a privilege to be on that stage together with founding members and other guests. I remember being in the rehearsal room with Pablo Menéndez, José María Vitier, Silvio Rodríguez, Amaury Pérez. For a musician of my generation that is something very important.
“With Carlos I have really enjoyed the workshops he has done. I don't like to call them rehearsals because I saw them as that: workshops. Playing with him was for me a master class where I learned many things. In musical terms, most of the guitar figurados in Síntesis songs are not exactly figurados, but rather rhythmic patterns of the batá drums and rhythmic cells that come from Africa. Thanks to Carlos, who is a living encyclopedia, I consolidated my knowledge of rock rhythms. He has always been organizing events like tributes to Michael Jackson and John Lennon. He has been a pioneer in that. It comforts a lot to be close to him, you feel like a father. On the tour I really enjoyed those mornings where we had coffee together and talked about many things. He is very kind, but also very demanding with his work, it is a pleasure to play with him. Those qualities are vital when it comes to getting on stage. After working with Síntesis under the guidance of Carlos, I feel like a better guitarist and musician. It's like graduating from a university."
But before founding Síntesis, another challenge would present itself to Carlos along the way. Those were the years of Toma 4 and the demand for work was increasing, when becoming a father resonated as the biggest challenge.
"The important tours began and I remember that we had to leave X at his grandparents' house."
When X Alfonso, their son, was barely three months old, they had to travel to the Sierra Maestra, sent by the Nueva Trova movement. They climbed mountains, marched about 62 kilometers… “Things that I could not do now”, confesses about an experience that he classifies as incredible due to the attention received and the nobility of those people who almost put food in his mouth. Attentive to any need of the musicians who visited them.
However, despite the success that was emerging, the need for a home became imperative for Carlos and Ele. “The three of us lived in a two-by-two room that Pablo Menéndez had given us, in a neighborhood that they now call vulnerable.”
Despite the limited space, the family was happy. Music filled his surroundings and the little boy showed an innate talent: “With less than three years old X, on my chest, he sang The most rocky mills of your mindby Michel Legrand. Musicians know that this song has harmonic changes that are very difficult to appreciate and he sang it with incredible ease”.
In a unfortunately lost cassette, Carlos recorded those moments in which, guitar in hand and together with X, he would improvise blues on any everyday theme: the hardcold, school... The father observed the budding virtuosity of the little boy, until he decided to take him to study piano. Then a relationship beyond the family would begin, because X's talent would save Carlos more than once.
“While the boy was in the ENA, I had to call him for an emergency. X was always at our rehearsals, but he had never played with the band. Before a presentation, Lucía Huergo fell ill. We already had an engagement, so I called him. He asked me what I was going to play and I replied: ʽI don't know, but you are going to play!' And he did the concert.”
After that hasty presentation where X had his "musical baptism" with Síntesis, father and son would begin to work together not only in the group's presentations, but also in the composition of film soundtracks.
“Sergio Giral called me to do the music for his film Maria Antonia and together with X I began to compose in the studio. I remember that one of the scenes was a fire and I didn't know what nuance to give to that moment. So X composed a piece that was the complete opposite of the chaos of the fire: total calm, very much in contrast”.
That collaboration earned the first Choral Prize for Original Music awarded by the Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana in 1989. Since then, Carlos began a relationship with the seventh art that allowed him to broaden the meaning of creation and enrich the images in screen with the music of Synthesis. Thus, the friendship with the filmmaker Humberto Solás flourished, especially after the inclusion of the theme Opatereo in a documentary about Havana from the Special Period. Since then, the director of Lucy he would frequently choose the sound mysticism composed by the Alfonso family for his films.
Also from that relationship with the cinema, X Alfonso drank from his father, who —he confesses— sometimes feels a tender confusion towards his son: “I hug him and I don't know if I do it because he is my son or because of the admiration I have for him as a musician".
But not only in X would Carlos's musicality and desire to create be impregnated. Eme Alfonso would be the "surprise girl"; A composer and singer herself, she has followed in the footsteps of her parents and brother, amplifying them through cultural management with projects such as the Havana World Music festival.
“Our family was always about building things. There are people who understand us and others who don't; They even question us why we do what we do. It is simply a personal satisfaction, such as having managed to get the statue of Lennon built and placed in the park at 17 and 6 that now bears his name, or the creation of the Yellow Submarine, for example”.
In the musical adventure that is his life, Carlos cannot avoid mentioning his wife Ele Valdés: “We met at Beatriz Márquez's house. At that time I lived in Mantilla. I don't remember exactly if I went to bring Beatriz something about music or to greet her; Yes, Ele was there, rehearsing Bach's music with voices, and I loved it. It was a light”, he says and remains silent for a few seconds, as if imagining the baroque melody that prompted him to fall in love with that girl who had dazzled him. Since then, he began to frequent the same sites as Ele, showing an obvious interest and only receiving, at first, a certain indifference.
“Until one day I asked her to help me look for two girls to make a quartet, because I had known that she and Silvia Acea with a Mexican and a French woman, were part of a group that appeared at the Molino Red," he confesses.
Carlos's real intention was for Ele to join the group so that he would have some justification to talk to her. “She told me: I'm going to help you, but without talking about including herself. Another day I went to Luis Carbonell's house and they were singing a Bach fugue. Eliseo Pino and I looked at each other and decided that if we wanted to have them as members, we should study music theory. In Matanzas we got a book on solfeggio theory and we got hooked. But, at the same time, we made a calculation: two foreigners in Cuba at any moment will decide to leave and those two girls, where will they go?: to my group. So it was. We started rehearsing at Jesús del Valle's house (tatica) and showed them two arrangements I was making of the bald rooster. The Tema 4 quartet arose right there. However, there were times when Ele would say to me, annoyed: `Why are you looking at me?'”.
Carlos smiles as he remembers those times when his love for Ele was unrequited. Then he says that it was in Trinidad where the greatest musical composition orchestrated by both began, 50 years ago, and that it has not stopped "sounding" through his children and grandchildren.
“He has meant everything to me. I consider myself a thief of merit, because she is the one who makes things come true”, she says while admitting that her idealism and her fantasies have in her the realization of the dream. Carlos imagines himself as a Tom Hanks in an air terminal, trapped and with no country to return to, if it weren't for the fact that he has a homeland called Ele Valdés, who always calls for him to save him. “That's my El. We have had very good times together, and the bad... it has not been so much”.
X Alfonso, the result of that relationship, considers that his work is a continuation of what his parents started. Being part of a family where the musical and the affective are born from the same place, has allowed him to support different endeavors in his career. the creator of Inside He talks about the privilege of growing up with a father like Carlos:
“While I was studying classical piano, he would sit next to me and open a box of matches. For each time a piece passed, he placed a match on the other side of the piano. In other words, when the box was finished, I could play the work with my eyes closed. My father also played with me a lot. It was just another kid playing with carts. Then, when the Ataris came out, we played ping pong, ball, soccer. Then the Sega came out and we had car competitions, wrestling, among others. Finally, one more guy. I really don't complain about anything. It was a happy childhood and adolescence.”
Then, he refers to the professional:
“My dad did not act like a director, he taught me to be one more. To be part of something, of a creative process, of a musical family such as Síntesis; not only to me, but to all those who have passed through the group. Although he is very strict at work, he never used the term director for us, the musicians in the band. That has been a lesson in my life. Today I implement it in the Factory, I feel part of a team or, rather, of a family, that puts all its effort and love into the same project.
“The image of my father comes to mind with a folder under his arm trying to program groups and projects of high musical quality at FAC. It is a machine of ideas and dreams. He is always creating or inventing events to bring in young talent and bring them to the stage."
Carlos, for his part, feels that he has a vocation as a manager. La Fábrica is, for him, one of the best works they have done together. He maintains his creativity fresh and the search for new proposals to nurture the billboard of the largest cultural lung of the city, without his 72 years being an impediment. One of his main responsibilities is music programming, and from that function, he feels that obtaining the respect of the musicians is a duty as hosts. Hence, the decisions in relation to the proposals are collegial with his family. As in Síntesis, he enjoys teamwork.
From that space, thinking about equity and inclusion, he dreams: “I want to make a rock musical base of four musicians, to put on 12 songs and invite women to participate as electric guitarists. To do another event for junior drummers, under 18 years old…”, he says while assuming himself as a “very happy” person. Then he adds that his transit through life is like that of a free neutron, where music has always been energy, willpower, medicine and salvation.