Héctor Téllez Jr.: songs with a life of their own
Being Cuban and not knowing how to dance is almost a sacrilege before some paradigms that define us. Our most popular music tells us how to mark with our feet with syncopation, key, and bass. But for a long time, these ways of moving have been joined in Cuba other rhythms such as rock, rap, and electronic music, coming from dissimilar coordinates and that also vibrate in the national body.
One of the youngest figures that defines this diversity of musical identities is the guitarist and singer Héctor Téllez Jr., intrepid on stage, virtuoso performer and creator of harmonies that move between the filin of his father's boleros and all the blues and rock that has surrounded him.
We find in Hector a work full of stories and dreams, as well as hope in music as the main oxygen of life. He does not know how to dance, but to connect with our feelings are his guitar and his rhythm.
Héctor, your musical training is empirical and thus you have achieved a great mastery of all the technical and expressive universe of the guitar, of its resources as a melodic-harmonic instrument. How was your approach to the guitar to be the interpreter that you are today?
I was 14 when I took it seriously; As a child, I used to fool around with a toy guitar that had been given to me. I started studying with two or three chords that my dad taught me. I started receiving new information, music that my friends copied and I realized that with only those chords I could not do much.
My dad is empirical just like me; He learned by asking and experiencing how things are accomplished on the guitar. Then I started like him, as we all do when we want to talk or walk: imitating. It was the only thing he could do because he did not have school. I also met my friend Junior who told me "I'm going to teach you", and in the end he really showed me how to instruct myself and I thank him very much for that. Junior told me to go with the guitar and some virgin CDs -when that the memories were something very new-, then he copied me music, methods, books, videos and concerts. He gave me tools and basic things like scales and fingering exercises so that I could start from there and start. I learned that way, it is a technique that I have continued to use to this day, I continue to study the guitar in the same way: by imitation.
Every person I know and every experience makes new sounds to be heard in my head; they force me to go to the guitar to find the way they sound and play. I have accommodated many exercises and techniques to my way of interpreting in order to reproduce and express these sounds that come constantly to me.
And how about your approach to other percussion instruments or bass?
Those are the things my dad has done all my life and I have dared because it comes from the closest school I have. I came to the bass thinking it would be like the guitar, but it is another instrument. Yes, I studied its sound a bit, and I did it because I wanted to experiment, to express myself through new things. At the end the bass I play quite guitar, also by imitation of some of my idols, such as Sting, who is not a guitarist, but is better known as a bassist.
I do not feel bad for imitating, everyone inevitably does it with someone and the most important thing is to express themselves. We all speak Spanish and we do not copy the language, but it is the language we use to say and communicate.
Your dad always excels when you talk about your music. In this learning by imitation how much have you taken from him?
My dad is a musician and he is an artist, this is something that not everyone can achieve. In my house there was always a lot of music and parties with instruments of all kinds. Sometimes I saw my dad playing the tumbadoras and then he went to a drums, he started to beat and it sounds well. I realized that he was not a percussionist, but he did it and it sounded [good] because he understands music. And this is why I also dare to move to other instruments.
I realized from this especially when I started singing, which was one of the things that cost me more. First of all I did not want to do it, I wanted to be a guitarist and that's it. But there came a time when it was not enough; I needed to express more things and the guitar did not reach me, I realized that I had to use my voice. I started imitating Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Freddie Mercury, Chris Cornell and the only one I did not notice was my dad. One day we were at another party when I was 21 years old, my dad picked up the guitar, started singing and all I had to do was watch his body language. The way he put his mouth, the movements of his face, how he breathed, just looking at him told me what I had to do.
Before that moment I was playing around, I did not use my own voice and it was difficult for me to tune. After imitating so many people, I think that the key to know where to enter to sing was to have seen my dad that day. Once again it was by imitation, without teachers or training.
Two great strengths stand out in your creation: an energetic, free music of intense expression based on performance and genres such as rock & roll, and another one where blues, jazz, tonality experimentation, the absence of texts or lyrics that recreate more introverted and intimate meditations. Tell me how these styles are conceived, for example, from your songs: I don't know how to dance and Spiny days.
I have recently realized that I have always been the same; sometimes I'm someone on stage and another in person. We are not only one, but the coexistence in a same body of a multiplicity of I's that react according to the moment. Then that scandalous Hector who grimaces, plays the guitar and runs the whole stage is the same one who speaks with you today.
Emotions can be reflected in different ways. Spiny days it is a song of spite like all of love: you do not love me anymore, you have another person and I am very sad, but I still love you. Y I don't know how to dance talks about the same feelings, but expresses it differently because of the state of mind he had when I sat down to write.
All this comes from the balance that there is in nature, I am the same person experiencing different things in life. That balance is uncontrollable, they are forces like yin and yang where there is no one thing without the other. When the music comes to my head and I start looking for what I want to say, with what sounds is better, it is like a spiral, and the texts come alone.
I wrote Spiny days and I don't know how to dance in ten minutes. The songs are there, you just have to take them out at the moment you play, in a state of acceptance, to let yourself go and not fight with them. The music tells you that C major is coming, so do not contradict it and put the chord, it is presenting itself in that way.
There are times when you are not in the mood of the song that is coming to you. Music, like a picture or a book, comes to you as subtle information from other parts. We do not always know how to use it or how to create it, it comes from superior forces that use us as a channel to be born and everyone can see them. We do not create from scratch, we do not conceive a language, therefore, it is information reinvented and expressed from how you see life and how your feelings are. With this, people identify themselves, because in their own way they also need to express what your song says. Everyone shows it differently, some with salsa, and others with reggaeton, rock & roll or classical music.
For example, I don't know how to dance It is something that everyone on the planet has faced. There always comes a time when you say I do not know how to do this, and that's the creative process. I listen to that information that comes, the signals, the dreams; music is everywhere and in everything we do, even in silence.
In your performances, the same song constantly changes gender, tones, and character. How do you achieve this and why?
The song after being written also has several personalities and suffers the emotional changes that the interpreter has. They mix the state of the original when it was created and the one you have at the moment of playing. Sometimes this is defined by stages of your life. For example, when the sessions were done in BandEra everything for me was smooth and I don't know how to dance It was that way because everything came in slow motion.
In the end the songs are for me as living beings and they are sleeping until you pick up the guitar and wake up with the possibility of coexisting in different moods.
And what happens when you work with other musicians and the song wakes up in another state?
Emotions in the process of convincing are contagious. The songs are achieved by themselves. When you see someone in tears in front of you or on television, it makes you want to cry, even if you feel perfectly well. Something in you jumps to see the other people and in the same way it happens with the songs and their emotions. So if in the rehearsal you take the guitar and start playing slowly, and you remove some distortion, you create an environment that places the other musicians in a similar state. You do not have to convince them, they follow you.
Héctor, your work is mostly in English. What does this language provide you creatively?
I do not try to explain that much, it's simply because I like it. I am attracted to how the music sounds in English. As I explained earlier, almost everything I have learned has been imitation and I could assure you that eighty percent of everything I have heard in my life has been music in this language. The rock & roll of the English bands, the American rock, the blues and in general much of the culture that I have received for the films they put on television and the series, are all in English.
This has partly added to that acceptance about being happy with imitating the things I've seen and heard, without caring what people can say about it; the elemental thing is to arrive at a moment where the only truly valuable thing is to enjoy the music you are doing. When I'm on stage playing and singing, I'm just happy.
I do not know English well-I do not even know Spanish-but I manage to communicate through both of them and the knowledge I have is enough to express what I need. I have written songs in Spanish and I really like music in my language: Benny Moré, Héctor Téllez, Carlos Varela; At one point in my life I liked Silvio Rodríguez, the composers of the filin like César Portillo de la Luz and José Antonio Méndez, the traditional trova; in general, Cuban music, which is almost no longer played on the radio, has incredible value. But it is not the one I have heard the most or has influenced me.
The song does not know in what language it comes, that's why there are some that do not even have lyrics, they are only instrumental. I like more the sound of music in English, without meaning that I value one language over the other. It is a question of preferences because it is what I have to live.
And what about the public, the consumer? They can love your music, but never get to understand what you are saying. The song is a message that came to you with its sounds, but also with a text. Do not you want everyone to understand you?
That I thought at some point, I do not do it anymore. I realized that in Cuba all my life songs have been heard in English. I am sure that a large percentage of the people who hear The Beatles in our country do not understand their lyrics, they just like what is playing. Music speaks for itself and you may not understand the text, but you can understand what happens. For example, Silvio Rodríguez in the beginning received a lot of criticism because his songs written in Spanish were not understood. But there were many who did.
The songs are like a symbol from which you will deduce what your own knowledge allows you. Even if they were in Spanish, those who will understand them will do so regardless of language or complexity. This is why there are people who listen to "cultured" music, what is cultured music? Creations that the whole world does not understand and still there are those who consume it.
I respect the public a lot, what I am telling you is a line of thought that I assume when I am part of the audience, when I have gone to see people who do not understand what they are singing. Another example, in the concert of the Rolling Stones in the Sports City I knew what was said, because I know the songs and I understand English quite a lot. But the stadium was full that night of Cubans who did not fully grasp what Mick Jagger was chanting and yet they danced, shouted, cried with emotion and had a good time. The need for people to deduce the message behind the lyrics for me has never been so important, because music alone is a language that comes to you regardless of the language.
You are part of BandEra Studio, the first collective rock management label to emerge in Cuba. We know that it is a project founded in 2016 that is committed to the creation and musical and audiovisual production, the realization of concerts, events, supports and spreads the rock scene in our country and its protagonists. What are the next achievements you would like BandEra to achieve?
Artists must pass many filters: create, record, broadcast, interpret and others. I would like that in the credits of these filters, in the work of many musicians, BandEra Studio will be shown. That would be a goal achieved. I would like news to happen like Lady Gaga came to Cuba and recorded her latest single in BandEra Studio, why not? That could happen.
The fact that we are legally or institutionally recognized is not so important at the end of the day. The most significant is to continue creating and doing because that is what defines who we are in BandEra. I would love to make an album in Abdala because it is a studio that is a dream, but it is in BandEra where we achieve, musically speaking, the results closest to what we want.
In my trips to other countries, the radio always strikes me because it has one station for each genre. In our country, the media has focused mainly on tropical, Latin or dance music. That's not bad because it integrates our idiosyncrasies, but there are other things that go hand in hand, which are also part of Cuban culture and that's what we support from BandEra: blues, rock, funk.
The public vibrates in different frequencies, although they come from common places. What I want from BandEra is to know about the existence of another line of thought of Cubans that is not just reggaeton, salsa, cha cha cha and guaguancó, mulatas and rum. There are other ways and our people have many different stories and ways of being in their heads, it's not just what the media sell you. And that is the way of BandEra.
We know how working mechanisms work for musicians in Cuba with their successes and failures. For you, at this moment, what would be an ideal work scenario? Would you have a fixed place, would you do a tour, new concerts?
That ideal scenario for me I do not know, I've never seen it. But I'll tell you something I told my mom when I was going to start in music. When I announced that I would leave university and everything else, my mother asked me: "What if you do not succeed?" My response was: "I already succeeded because I made the decision to do only what I like".
Then I will not tell you what it is, but what it is not. What does not turn out to be my ideal scenario is not having the possibility of doing what I do. The perfect space is to be a musician in the portal of a house, in a stadium with 100 thousand people or on the Malecón.
If I mention Cuban rock, what is the first word that comes to your head?
Abundance. In Cuban television there are programs where you play rock, but only foreign. Do not put the music of almost any of our bands, or at least not so much. There is a lot of Cuban rock and talent around the country. It is true that the vast majority of the public is not a big consumer of this genre, however, I also believe that you understand what you know.
It happens to me constantly when they ask me what kind of music I sing and I answer rock, immediately they ask me if I am one of the hairy ones that scream. With the word rock they are transported to the archetype dressed in black with long hair and spiked boots that make songs about the devil. That's a part of rock, but it's not everything. Yesterday by Paul McCartney is a rock song and it's very cute, Hotel California as well. The Cuban must first know to be able to understand, as he does with the differences between salsa and timba, reggaeton and reparterismo. We understand these diversities because we see them, we live them every day. That's why it's a bit difficult to reach more audiences.
I think that good Cuban rock abounds in all the manifestations. There are those who write Yesterday and there are those who write about the devil. And when I refer to abundance I am speaking not only of creators but also of the public, because many are not musicians, but they understand the culture of rock & roll. I think that, especially in recent times, new minds have opened up and joined that abundance.
Musicologist and for more. Shy but with character. Music, smile, art, dance, family and friends. I don't lose faith in being a better cook.