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The Download Illustration: Eric Silva. Illustration: Eric Silva.

Dagobert Pedraja

I'm basically a band musician. I have always embraced rock in many of its variants and, unlike others, I have drunk and participated in other music of the Cuban culture. As a child I listened to the radio and the jukebox in the warehouse that was next to my house, where rancheras, mambos, boleros, chachachás, romantic songs and traditional sones played every day; then when I saw the American cartoons on TV I got into everything about swing, blues, big bands, the classics' in addition to the good children's songs that were in vogue. In Los Sitios, a Havana neighborhood that I used to visit every weekend to be with my grandparents, I discovered the bembé, the ancestral cajon rumba, and I saw the dancers in wooden flip flops. It was the 1960s. The cinema also broadcast various types of music that had strong roots in Cuba: the tangos of Gardel and Hugo del Carril, the Mexican rancheras thanks to the performances of Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, Spanish cinema full of paso dobles, flamenco and cuples. In short, a whole sound and visual universe in the head and ears of a child who was a sponge. A universe that has served me both for my work with bands and for playing “behind someone”.

Being a musician in a band implies group work, where the ideas of other members flow based on a song, an album or a concert; and if you are an instrumentalist who stands out for solo passages, you must have your personal stamp, the one by which you will be known wherever you stop to play. 

But being called to play behind someone is different. When you are part of the backing band of a recognized figure, or you are going to record on an album, you must give up many things and incorporate others. The first thing is the image that you must carry without ceasing to be you, what style you are going to play, what sound you are going to use, what type of harmonic resources you are going to use and —it will seem nonsense— “against whom and what are you going against to touch".

My first experience was in the largest theater in Cuba: the Karl Marx. One day the outstanding musician and friend Raúl Gómez called me; there was a musical contest and his work was one of the finalists. He wanted a guitar solo at the end of an epic ballad and asked me to collaborate. He gave me a cassette with the song sung by him and his wife Leonor Zamora, accompanied only by acoustic guitar. 

He told me: “This is in a week, live and with the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music, conducted by maestro Tony Taño”…and nothing more. Intuitively I imagined that music playing with an orchestra, I avoided all the common chords of the recording and I paid a lot of attention to the melody of the final chorus. I structured a very melodic guitar solo playing with the different parts of the song and with some —very short— moments of speed. Not knowing how it ended, I made variations of 4, 8, 16, 24, and 32 bars, lest I fall short or go too far. 

The day of the presentation arrived. There were many renowned artists, great musicians and I, who was a complete stranger, was going to play in front of an orchestra conducted by one of the "greats" and behind two very popular artists. During the rehearsal I witnessed an argument between Raúl Gómez and the conductor of the orchestra; that got on my nerves a thousand times because the thing was for me. The director said that how was it possible that a "pelu", a street musician with no academic training, was going to play in front of his orchestra, when he had a graduated guitarist with vast experience. Raúl did not compromise and told him that he was also a musician, director, composer and author of the song in the contest and that he had chosen me because he really wanted to. That started to get ugly. I was very nervous and upset about the situation and went out to smoke a cigarette. After a while Ramón Veloz, another great musician, came up to me and said:

—Boy, don't get nervous, these things happen… Do you know the song well?

"Yes," I replied. 

—Do you have the “correct” wardrobe for the night?

—Yes, of course —I was at that moment in a T-shirt, a “ripped” jean and boots. He put his hand on my shoulder and told me: "Well, stick your guitar in that guy's face so he'll respect you." The night came, the song came and when everyone was waiting for a “rock cane” solo, I got off with a very sweet and sticky sound, with many sustained notes and a melodic design that was “chewing gum”. While Raúl and Leonor put the theater on its feet clapping to the beat of the theme, they went to look for me back there and brought me out to the front with them while I played and counted bars in my mind: “22…23…24…”. The sound was powerful. Raúl told me softly “De pinga, asereeee”; and I “When is this over, Raúl, damn? And he: "In the 32. You are missing 6. Put it in and go closing." 

Well, the song took first place. The “director” with a very serious face shook my hand and Ramón Veloz hugged me in the dressing room; then we went to celebrate. That day I realized that, thanks to everything I had heard, without realizing it I had used the melodic and tasty style of Richard Egües, flutist of the Orquesta Aragón; I had dressed in a suit and tied my hair in a ponytail; I had changed the super rock distortion of my guitar for a very sweet but energetic sound, and my image was not mine, but it was aligned with that of Raúl and Leonor, the Orchestra and the other artists on the set. 

Later, over the years, I have played and produced bands of all kinds (Garage H, Rice and Beans, Cossa Nostra, Extraño Corazón, Coral). I have played behind (or recorded with) Carlos Varela, Paulo FG, Coco Freeman, Maria Antonieta, Arnaldo y La Aventura, Orlando Sánchez, Ángel Bonne, Carlos Manuel y su Clan, Orquesta Sublime, Mayté Chile, Bela Mavrak, Joaquín Sabina, Anabell López and many more. All different from each other; with little or nothing to do with rock. I have composed and played music for film, theater, television and radio, in addition to composing rock, boleros, tangos, ballads, funk, blues, Christmas carols and other genres. I have been "me" and I have stopped being "me" depending on others, and I assure you that it is very funny.

Dagobert Pedraja More posts

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  1. Vicente Feliú says:

    Only someone with a true interest and musical talent and with humanistic training is capable of assuming the profession in this way, with the humility of the greats.
    Thank you, Dago, and hugs

  2. Y. I.La O says:

    Bravo! Very good. Excellent writing. I'm a musician too… Huummm… This article got me thinking.

  3. Lazaro Llorca says:

    I know your avatar with all musical genres and you are always on the rope and particularly when you are in a rock production, I personally instantly recognize your stamp because you have inscribed it on your instrument, arrangements, etc. Congratulations friend, you are a teacher.

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