Eric Duffau: “The Tempo Latino festival is a great music laboratory”
Eric Duffau passionately talks about Cuban music but his pride doesn't go to his head. He is a kind visionary who is not afraid to bet or wait for an artist if his talent, originality and aesthetic commitment seduce him. Treasure the moments of calm to listen to dozens of albums, check offers, explore trends. He rejects fundamentalisms of all kinds, aware that the Latin American sound universe is multiple and multiform. Almost three decades have passed since he founded, in the French city of Vic-Fezensac, Tempo Latino, the first European festival of Latin and Afro-Cuban music. We talk about the twenty-seventh edition of this event of indisputable reference in the European sphere, in which he intervenes as vice president.
For two consecutive years, 2020 and 2021, the festival was interrupted by the pandemic lockdown. How many energies and illusions were accumulated?
I prefer not to think that we have stopped, I try to focus on the fact that we have had time to study things more. We had time to think better about our work, the programming of the festival and, of course, the desire returned! Although in truth it was always dormant.
In this sense, two key elements have been the need to take risks and, on the other, to wait for the right moment. Did this hiatus provide new opportunities for the 2022 show? I am thinking, for example, of Issac Delgado's Con Tumbao All Stars project, which was not originally part of the program.
Every year we take big risks. Since the beginning of the festival in 1994 we have defended the idea of promoting new musical experiences for the public and that means taking risks in terms of production, management, insurance. The most difficult thing is to achieve a relevant scope with the program that we prepare each year. It is true that the pandemic made us move everything that we had managed in 2019 but we believe that the influx of this edition was very positive.
This time allowed us to review the programming more closely, we discussed the artists we invited. We thought about how to improve, above all, the proposal for Saturday night and this new project Con Tumbao changed our formula. It was amazing to see so many popular music stars together in one band.
This is one of the biggest summer Latin, Afro-Cuban and Caribbean music festivals in Europe. Almost 600 volunteers for four days of intense activities with an audience of around 60,000 people. Although the competitive and differentiated program has been key, we cannot ignore the exchanges that take place in the city...
Unfortunately and, in my opinion, what has prevailed in recent times in Vic-Fezensac has not always been live music, but above all dance. There is a music-loving public that comes to listen to the concerts, that public may or may not dance, but it focuses on that, on the music. We have not created a dance festival. We created a festival for artists to do their concerts.
When we managed to bring Israel López Cachao, to Compay Segundo, a lot of people came to see those artists. Of course we have developed dance associations, we know its importance and it is nice to see people enjoying themselves in the street, I also like to dance. But the dances in the bars of the city are not our reason for being. Before dancing you need music. Musicians live from their art, from their work and we have to reward them. To pay them, and us, people have to come to concerts and buy tickets. It is very simple. But many people visit the clubs and dance halls and don't even buy the records. I buy the record first and then pay when I go to the club. That's how it is. I participate.
Our team's work is focused on music, otherwise if we focused on putting DJs and loudspeakers everywhere, on street corners and bars, with people dancing all over the city we wouldn't talk about this festival anymore.
The way in which they have used the spaces around the Les Arėnes bullring, the main stage, to defend that spirit of the festival is very interesting, although the La Conga stage, the small square populated with recreational options, the Church of Saint-Pierre are also special.
Yes, they really are. We always thought of developing a concert festival inside the square and, in parallel, a set of free activities in the outdoor areas for all those who would like to discover music in the afternoon and at night. Starting with the second edition and for the last 26 years, we have incorporated music and percussion courses for children. Then some people became interested in dance and we set up spaces for dance that, as I was saying, is strongly transmitted in the city. Our festival has presented artists from Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Colombia, New York, Miami, Panama, Brazil, California, even from Japan, as was the case this year. Our team works to build and advocate for people to come to concerts. We deeply respect the figures that accompany us in each edition.
Celia Cruz, Adalberto Álvarez, Eddie Palmieri, Oscar D' León, Johnny Pacheco, the Great Combo of Puerto Rico, Rubén Blades, Totó la Momposina, Kassav‘… are some of the greatest exponents that have passed through the festival, thus consolidating its prestige and convening power. It has also been a pioneering event that functions as a bridge for expansion between cultures, a stage for emerging projects of undeniable value.
When we created the festival our goal was always to bring the biggest artists, but we didn't know we could achieve it. We have worked very hard during all these years. We have had the privilege of hiring the greatest masters and their presence has also allowed us to creatively combine the novelties of the programming. We focus a lot on making visible artists, projects that come from Cuba, Colombia or from places that are not as well known in Europe, based on the originality and quality of their content.
In 2016, the public that packed the bullring to see Alexander Abreu and Havana D' Primera was pleasantly surprised by PALO!, a Miami salsa group that opened the night. At the end the members of both orchestras shared the scene and it was very moving, people did not stop talking about it.
We open those doors because we are interested in making the new trends in Afro-Cuban and Latin music known in France, we know that there is an expectant public. For us, the Tempo Latino festival is a great music laboratory.
In the case of artists residing in Cuba, what is the mechanism they follow to facilitate their presence at the festival? It's hard?
Sometimes it can be complicated because many factors intervene: coordinating the trip, the agents, the production, which does not coincide with other commitments of the artists. For example, we tried to get Issac Delgado for almost 15 years and now we finally got it. Los Van Van returned in this edition. It is the third time that they visit us, but we dream of them from the first moment; since 1994, even before seeing them in Cuba, at the Palacio de la Salsa in Havana, which was fabulous. However, 10 days before the first edition that year, we had to cancel them because the intermediary we had at the time was not serious. And that's an example.
I'll give you another one: this year it was Alexander Abreu who offered to come because he had no commitments at the end of July. The negotiations with Los Van Van had been extended by the pandemic and, meanwhile, Abreu offered us to participate for free, a great gesture. We told him that we would be happy to receive him again and that we would readjust the budget for it. Because we are like that, right? The festival generates a desire, a longing in the artists to participate and play. Although our prestige does not come from nowhere, we work tirelessly, we have done it and we will continue to do it. Our programming has a will, an aesthetic, an artistic requirement that we defend to the fullest.
Great figures of Cuban music have been invited to Tempo Latino, could you share some anecdotes with us?
My best memories were with Israel López Cachao. He was like a grandfather. The first time he came was with his wife, he wanted to know where the concert was and we prepared a small table with flowers for him in the backstage so that she could see him directly less than five meters away. Your concert was extraordinary!
We received the great Celia Cruz with the stage full of children, each one carrying a different flower to give her. I was holding her hand and she said, “Eric, are the children and the flowers for me? It is the first time in my life that I am received at an event with so many children on stage.” I replied: "Well yes, I've seen that before you started your career as a singer you were a teacher in a boys' school", and he asked me: "How do you know?". She cried emotionally in front of the public.
We introduced Compay Segundo in 1996, it was the first time he toured Europe. He was a magnificent man, we shared for several days and we presented him on the program off on Sunday, without announcing it on the poster because at that time it was not so well known, and it was a total success.
What Cuban projects or artists are interesting on the contemporary scene? How do you assess the health of Cuban music today?
I have to admit that I am not very satisfied with the musical level of timba. Despite the energy it has on the scene, I don't think it has evolved greatly in recent years. I feel closer to Afro-Cuban music, traditional music and trova with its variants. We are happy to present Los Van Van who celebrate their 50 years of career, it is a very relevant fact. But we also wanted to give visibility to the Interactive show with Roberto Carcassés. You see, there has to be some modernity, some renewal. We are always in search of that raw material. There are artists who mix Afro-Cuban elements in a very interesting way, I think that one artist in particular, Cimafunk, because he's great, he's a monster, we presented him in 2019. A young Cuban who does funk, who generates entertainment because he has great talent and that's why we want to try to reschedule it into a special project next year. Although my great satisfaction is to present Issac Delgado in this edition, after all these years that have passed, he is an exceptional salsero.
On the circuit of the big festivals, the way of thinking about and representing music is in a phase of renewal, especially after two years of transition, of opening, of changes in the protocols of cultural actions. Towards what horizons does Tempo Latino aim? What are the challenges that culture faces in France, especially with an event like this, of Latin music?
The problem for Latin music has been precisely its capacity for renewal. Artists need to renew themselves, because the context is increasingly complicated by strong competition. I recognize that there are now many Latin American music festivals but their focus is sometimes narrower around tropical music, with a slightly exotic perspective on Latin culture. 28 years have passed and for us it has been key to preserve our line. We started to include Afrobeat trends and other references to the culture of the African continent because everything comes from Africa. We have invited London Afrobeat Collective this 2022, because that miscegenation is key. Those connections between the Caribbean and Africa are important. But hey, the problem is the renewal. Alain Pérez has a very interesting modern approach combined with bolero, salsa…, but I think that the Cuban scene lacks a bit of questioning as a factor of musical renewal. I think there are Cuban bands like Roberto Fonseca's that are stimulating. We invited him many years ago, when he was starting to stand out, even at that time he was still playing with Omara Portuondo. Fonseca has had a great career, although now it is very difficult to achieve it because he tours in the circuits of the great jazz festivals.
Our challenge is to have an audience for the concerts, to expand it more and more so that later they can refer to us for what we represent for the culture. I always say to all the artists we invite, Cubans, Colombians, New Yorkers, Puerto Ricans: we made this festival for you! We did it because it didn't exist before! When we launched the idea in 1993 there were no Latin music festivals in Europe. We had festivals of jazz, rock, classical music, but not their culture. And we love your culture. So I said to myself: I'll make one and I'm going to call it Tempo Latino. Tempo is the rhythm, Latino is its style.