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Interviews Juan de Marcos González at the Rio Loco Festival, Toulouse. Photo: Gabrielle Saplana. Juan de Marcos González at the Rio Loco Festival, Toulouse. Photo: Gabrielle Saplana.

Juan de Marcos González: "We have always been screwed but we are privileged".

"The most important thing in my career has not been the Buena Vista Social Club but Sierra Maestra." I was not surprised by his statement, nor was his vehemence. Actually, it was something I was hoping to hear at some point. But the fact that he confessed it a few minutes into the first contact for a possible interview paved the way for me. Juan de Marcos González sometimes seems to feel saturated with the subject in question. Both the BVSC and Sierra Maestra are his most transcendental creations, but we all know that one has shone more than the other, undeservedly, due to extra-musical factors.

No one like him has explained the key to the success of that boom turn of the century As a good engineer, he always insists on reminding us of the combined and multifactorial nature of this internationalization of Cuban music: the fall of the socialist camp and the expected collapse of the Cuban socioeconomic system, the growing demand for traditional Cuban music in Europe since the beginning of the 90s, the morbo-taboo of an American Ry Cooder playing with musicians from the Island, and the mythical character of these extraordinary musicians in their third age. Juan de Marcos, even being its protagonist and architect par excellence, perceives it as an alignment of the stars, a kind of historical chance that catapulted our music, but not because of the music itself.

“Really the success of the BVSC is not given by the music; Of course that shape of the sound influences roomy, but it is the same thing that we have played for 100 years, it is the same Cuban music since the time of the Cuarteto de Oriente, of Ñico Saquito, of Miguel Matamoros, of Ignacio Piñeiro, it is that of Compay Segundo himself before, with the duo Los compadres. There is no difference between the music that was performed during those recording sessions and the music that we have played for many years." So he says, like someone who has seen the need to repeat the same arguments every time the subject inevitably comes up.

Throughout the world, perhaps there are millions of those who discovered and rediscovered Cuban music through the BVSC. The ancient, nostalgic, ghostly Havana that Win Wenders recreated in that parallel reality that is his documentary (Buena Vista Social Club, Road Movies Filmproduktion, 1999) seemed to erase with a stroke of the pen all the musical life that existed in Cuba between the 50s and 90s of the last century, a period of time in which the most stubborn preservation of tradition coexisted with a musical revolution without precedents.

But that was a non-functional truth for the "discoverers". Time is what has been placing each stone in its place. Today we already know that if the "discoverers" found something, it was the key to open a door that in reality was always ajar. And on that door there is a name written: Juan de Marcos González.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Photo: Sarkis Bodoyan.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Photo: Sarkis Bodoyan.

For all these reasons, let's try an interview with some biographical details, less about the BVSC and much more about the thought and work philosophy of this guru. For this time, let's talk a little more about music.

How it all started? Did you have a musical family, support to become an artist?

My old man never wanted me to dedicate myself to music. I dedicated myself to music because it is what I had inside.

So the best thing that could happen is that the old man was wrong...

Well, no, he wasn't wrong, not at all. I think that a good part of the success that I have had in my work I owe to having gone to university, as he wanted. I can speak several languages, study contracts, sign them, negotiate, etc.

But you studied guitar at a conservatory and then became an engineer...

I started studying guitar as a child. I left the conservatory because my old man didn't want me to continue. I was also a bit undisciplined. That's why instead of scolding me when I left, what he did was be happy. Even so, later I convinced him and he paid me for private lessons; I studied with Guyún and with Leopoldina Núñez. Then I went to study three at Cervantes. That is my basic musical training. Later I went to Goldsmiths College in London to study orchestration and harmony. I did not have continuous training, but I was very studious.

Music is art, but it also has a structure, rules; besides being a business. Regarding your different roles, orchestrator, producer, promoter in some way, to what extent does the structured thinking of an engineer remain when carrying out all these tasks?

I think that the academic knowledge that I obtained through my studies and work at the university has determined that I have a certain facility for dealing with problems that are related to music. Problems that I have had to face, as a producer or as an arranger in structuring a critical path, trying to preserve my fundamental interest. There is one thing that is very important when one is a musician, and that is that there is a certain ego that surrounds all artists; I think I am privileged not to have that ego. The most important thing, in the end, is that I know what I want and I can structure a line of work that allows me to get exactly where I want.

The university gave me that: a method to be able to achieve my goals and that is very important, both when directing an orchestra and when you have to face different personalities and try that those personalities do not affect or destroy the work, nor the interests fundamental that the group has. Musicians are difficult to deal with, and I have managed to deal with them very effectively.

When you're an engineer you have to plan things, and then execute the projection that was made. I did it for many years, projecting in companies, in academic work and in scientific research. That has helped me a lot. I can correctly interpret a contract, and I know how to try to achieve the best benefits, I know when I have to insist on one of the aspects of the contract, on some of the clauses that do not suit me.

In addition, I have been lucky enough to understand each other very well with my wife on these issues. She is also an engineer, we met when we were in college. Women are generally stronger and have sharper intelligence than men. And Gliceria Abreu, with whom I have been married for 40 years, has helped me a lot to find solutions.

Juan de Marcos González with his wife, Gliceria Abreu. Photo: Gabrielle Saplana.

Juan de Marcos González with his wife, Gliceria Abreu. Photo: Gabrielle Saplana.

By the way, I was the first black in my family to set foot in college, we come from a very poor family and no one before had the privilege of studying.

How much of the father figure, popular wisdom and the neighborhood in the decisions you have had to make throughout your career?

My father has influenced me a lot. Although he had not studied, he was very intelligent and had a popular philosophy that he expressed with his language from the neighborhood, from the street, with his old-school Abakuá language. I came to write 10 commandments that I always keep in mind in my life and that have helped me to have the modest results that I have achieved. They are his legacy, the things he always told me.

The way I conduct myself is greatly influenced by the neighborhood; I grew up in a marginal neighborhood called Pueblo Nuevo, in the center of Havana, and that popular warmth of the people had a positive influence on my personality. Many of my friends failed to study, some became criminals, many emigrated to the United States in the 1980s, like Marielitos, and others are dead. That is why it is a privilege for me to have had the parents that I had. They pushed me to study and they were very proud when I entered the university because they never had the opportunity to do so before.

I grew up listening to Cuban music. Of course I wanted to play rock'n'roll and I played it for a time in my life, because it was the music in fashion, just as the music in fashion today is called urban music. But I grew up surrounded by Cuban popular music.

Of course, I didn't know its intricacies very well, but I liked it a lot. In fact, I used to go a lot to the cajon rumba that was held in the Solar del Africa, a historic place that was in Zanja and Oquendo —which doesn't exist today, but should be a museum right now—. So, I had the help of great musician friends of my father when we decided to form Sierra Maestra, which was one of the first groups of traditional Cuban music that really transcended on the Island.

Since we weren't completely prepared, we had to resort to popular wisdom, to that spirit of the neighborhood and to my dad's friends, to the people of the National Septet, especially Rafael Ortiz. manungoLazaro Herrera the freckled… (may they rest in peace), we went to them for instruction, for them to teach us how to correctly play the Cuban son of the septets, which seems easy, but is quite difficult. You don't have a conga and with the arrangement you must make the sound of the group bigger and stronger, dispensing with various instruments that do have, for example, popular orchestras; we did it, and I think that the influence of my father, the influence of the neighborhood, where I grew up, where I grew up, has been decisive when it comes to working, and achieving the relative successes that I have achieved musically.

I would like to contextualize the emergence of Sierra Maestra in those years of the university groups. That decade of the 70s is one of musical revolution: Irakere, Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, Reyes 73, etc. To what extent was it considered a chimera to form a septet in those years? Did you feel like you were going against the trend or did you think there was a potential audience that would support you?

We based ourselves on the idea of the university groups of that time, such as Moncada, Mayohuacán, and Manguaré. The first thing we thought of was playing Brazilian music because there was all that Pan-Americanism, the new trova, that “Latin America is one”, etc. But one day at home, my dad listened to us talk about our plans (what if samba, what if the north of Brazil) and he, who did not have that Latin American concept and was a black sonero, questioned us if we wanted to make foreign music and He suggested that instead of making traditional music from another country, we make a septet to interpret our own.

It lit the spark for us and we took it well but the problem is that we didn't know anything about it, none of us had played traditional Cuban music before. I had participated in the rumbas that were held at my house every day on September 7 for the Virgen de Regla, with Papín, Arcaño and many other great musicians, but that was it. We started to work and look for records; I went to see Ariza, who was the tres player of the National Septet, a very good person —although strong in character— who in the end didn't teach me anything because, he told me, he didn't have time, just like Issac Oviedo. But he recommended me to a luthier from Old Havana, whose name I don't remember now. I took a guitar to that luthier and he cut off his arm and modified it, turning it into a tres. I strung it as Ariza had told me to play in the style of the National Septet, which was the pattern we had.

Little by little we learned, until we began to rehearse and put together two songs: Where is Miguel, of the Septeto Habanero and Where were you last night, of the National Septet. With those two themes we began to present ourselves at university festivals. Suddenly we began to win those festivals, first in Cujae, until we reached the FEU nationals.

We saw that people liked it. So we decided to give a contemporary touch to that way of playing the son, doing movements of rockers, jumping as if we were Vangelis…. We never felt intimidated by the fact of dealing with a genre that was not common to people of our generation. On the contrary, people supported us a lot and the group became very popular in the university environment.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Photo: Sarkis Bodoyan.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Photo: Sarkis Bodoyan.

In other words, they did not feel that there was that bias in tastes that would put them at odds with other foreign trends.

Not at all. Initially we played at festivals at different levels in the university environment, but we worked our way up little by little until we got to the program  everybody sings and that was what really hit us all over the country. TV was a must. And so we were until Formell took out El buey cansao. That was a stick for us. Although we were still popular afterwards, it was no longer the same. The problem is that we played with an accelerated tempo, because that was the tempo of that traditional timba that was very “up front”. Of course, when we played the habanero son that goes in the down beat we did it back, but when we did rumbas and guarachas we did play fast. Formell changed all that and delayed the tempo of all the songs that were being done, which was the same thing that Arsenio did in the 40's! If you listen to Arsenio's music from the end of that decade you can realize that. In the more traditional son of the septets, normally when the montuno comes out, the tempo speeds up. However, he delayed the tempo when the montuno entered, which is the most danceable moment. As Cuba is a hot country and during the summer the temperatures are very high, this was more comfortable for the dancer. The tempo change is not abrupt, but it is noticeable. Well, Formell did the same thing in 1983, possibly knowingly because he was a profound student of traditional music.

Do you think that is difficult? Slowing down the theme requires knowing well how to reinforce certain beats and, in some cases, you have to play hard, otherwise the theme may fall off or be left without flavor.

Of course, that is a risk. The theme can be dropped, but it's all a matter of rehearsals. Of course, some quality musicians always affect the final product, but the essence of everything is in the rehearsals. I remember in my youth, in the years of that first timba, that the Ritmo Oriental had a tempo and suddenly they made a break with ritardando to rejoin with the same tempo they brought. That was based on a lot of rehearsal. I had the privilege of attending many because I am a friend of Lazaga and I was also a close friend of Danielito. I also attended those in Irakere which, if I remember correctly, were in a technology company in El Vedado called José Ramón Rodríguez. Eight hours of rehearsal! That's why when they arrived in New York no one could play like that. Perhaps with a small format the musicians there could do similar things, but with that number of musicians it was impossible. All thanks to rehearsals.

I think that Cuban bands – timba, traditional or whatever genre – are still very good because we still have the chance to rehearse a lot. Cuban band that comes from Cuba you can be sure that what is coming is a train. That is not what normally happens. Here you can call the best and send the scores. They come and play, they do it well because they can be the best, but in the end there is something in the result that loses flavor.

That leads me to another question: are there many details in Cuban music that are impossible to bring to the staff?

Of course, that's where the value of the essay comes in again. I have the habit of writing everything I can, but there are always things that cannot be written and they have to be said live and with a demonstration. There are also things in the original arrangement that are changed in the same rehearsal. The batá drums or the tumbadoras, for example, are very difficult to write. There are people who have done it and that has helped a lot, but in the end imagine how to schedule an open or covered, how many variants and ways of doing it there are. That can only be shown live. There are things that can be programmed, of course. One can tell the sonero to rhyme everything with the end of the chorus, which is the way I like it, or to make a bridge from the chorus to the improvisation. But that in the end are general guidelines, that where it fits is in the essay. From the singer moving the melody to the brass section making a passage sweeter, even though one writes a pp.[1] Because there you have something else, a pp It doesn't mean the same thing everywhere. That is why my opinion is that the great advantage that Cuban music still has is that we can still rehearse a lot.

Since you have dealt with the subject of the singers, you have commented on other occasions how the change of style had to work in the case of José Antonio Maceo Rodríguez, from a way of making the son in the oriental style to the son from Havana. The question of the repertorization of singers leads me to think about how much of the success of many soneros is due to orchestra directors, repertorists and people who sometimes get lost in oblivion. How do you work with singers? How do you identify them? How do you list them? How can you make them change the style? What difficulties have you had with the consecrated? I have always done the exercise of imagining the amount of advice that Benny Moré could have received, regardless of how intelligent he was...

Lots of tips he got for sure! Well, I've always worked a lot with singers. You can have a very good orchestra but the global attention of the public always goes to the singer, who is the main figure, the pitcher, the link between the audience and the orchestra. I remember that when Maceo arrived he did not have that experience of singing the Havanan son, he sang it as they did in his region. He was from Cacocum, in Holguín, and he sang it with pilot whales[2] very long and a vibrato[3] very fast, like the one at La Lupe. I also worked on the improvisations, their meaning and context depending on what we were working on, how to highlight some aspect of the musicians at a certain point in the presentation, etc. We tried to vary the melodic lines of the improvisations to avoid repetition. In fact, there are great soneros who improvise very well, but they repeat themselves in the melody and that gets boring. Maceo was without a doubt one of the greatest soneros of the 20th century, with extraordinary talent. He was also very sharp, disciplined and responsible; even at a time when he suffered from illnesses he did not lose that discipline. His death was a very hard blow for me, although at that time I was not in Sierra Maestra.

That formula is the same that I have applied with all the soneros. Now I work with a sonero called Emilio Suárez, with an excellent voice and intonation, and we are seeing the way he distributes the improvisations. These, in addition to rhyming with the end of the choruses of the montuno, whether assonant or consonant, must have a relationship between their content and the context that the chorus is leaving.

And you also have to improvise in key. It is somewhat complex because it is not only text and melody…

Of course, singing the son is very difficult. There are even instruments that people think are not complicated. For example, playing the guiro well is very difficult; in fact, I don't know many people who do it well. They play it, but not like Lazaga, go. Maracas are also difficult to play.

I remember that when we put together the first band to promote the Buena Vista Social Club, which was the Afrocuban All Stars ―there was only one orchestra to present the three albums [Buena Vista Social Club, All Cuba likes, Introducing…Rubén González], due to a budget issue, there was no money for more― and I did the same work with the older singers (Pío Leiva, Puntillita, Félix Baloy). With Baloy he understood me a little better because he was from the same generation as me. Another who was very intelligent and who was like a kind of bridge between traditional music and his way of improvising in the style of the 50s and the most current, was Ibrahim Ferrer. Ibrahim had a great mastery of harmony without ever having studied. He listened to a chord and knew instantly the notes he could hit. It was something natural.

Ibrahim Ferrer and Juan de Marcos González. Photo: Courtesy of Juan de Marcos González

Ibrahim Ferrer and Juan de Marcos González. Photo: Courtesy of Juan de Marcos González.

The most important thing is that one can count on a singer to trust, who is in tune, disciplined and has punch, because it is the one that first reaches the audience in this music.

Returning to Sierra Maestra, the filling and timbre of the choirs always caught my attention. How did they do it? The Sierra Maestra choirs always remind me of ritual songs of African origin.

We always had good singers. In addition to José Antonio, we had Virgilio Valdés and Luis Bárzaga. And we did the choirs with three voices. There is a secret in this. In choirs you always have to religiously follow the harmony behind you. You can not simplify the thing and stay with first, second and third voice. You have to follow the chord. The gist is that one must follow the harmonic sequence to make the chorus sound bigger. In addition, we always put the burden of the neighborhoods where we were born. Virgilio was from the El Vapor neighborhood, I'm from Pueblo Nuevo and I've heard the rumba since I was little. I had the privilege of listening to great soneros who lived in my neighborhood. Half a block from my house lived Joaquín the flutist, who was called the goldfinch. When turning, on Jesús Peregrino street, lived Antonio Arcaño. All those people were friends of my dad. Next to my house (Oquendo #471 between Salud and Zanja), at #469, lived Domingo Corbacho, who was a great trumpeter with Benny Moré, Arsenio and Chappottín. All the rumberos were also present: Uncle Tom, Olivares, Panchito the nata. I saw them all when I was little. Due to the fact that we were born in those neighborhoods, we had that burden of Africanness and that is why our choirs sounded very black.

I think that what has made Cuba great is precisely our Afro-descendants. Perhaps the fact that we have been one of the last countries to eliminate slavery has determined the explosive and competitive nature of Cuban music. Slavery was very negative, but it left that legacy.

It may sound somewhat chauvinistic, but the most revolutionary country in musical terms in all of the Americas is Cuba. We have been able, on a very small island and with a small population, to create a number of musical genres that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. And many of those genres have been very influential on a universal level. You can hear the reminiscences of Cuban music in symphonic music, for example, in Aaron Copland, Gershwin, Bernstein or even Debussy. You can also hear it in the rock'n roll of the 60s, which is the one from my time. If you hear the way bands like Led Zeppelin do the breaks, or the Grateful Dead, even Yes, or even Ian Anderson with Jethro Tull playing Irish music, you can hear endings that are totally related to Cuban music. Cuban music dominated the market before 1959 and was naturally listened to by many people around the world.

When Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco decided to create a label having as target to the Latin community, they had no other option but to take Cuban music, which in the end they ended up understanding as their own. The 95% was Cuban music. You could find a 12-bar section where a plena, a bomba or a cumbia was played, but the rest was son.

We are a privileged country. We've always been screwed but we're privileged.

I would like to know your opinion about the current state of traditional Cuban music. How do you think that know-how, passed from generation to generation, can evolve, with what risks and challenges?

We have gone through very difficult stages throughout our history. Our country has suffered a lot, but we have always known how to preserve our culture, even in times when drumming was frowned upon by the governing elites. Perhaps I am too optimistic. There are many people in the world who play traditional Cuban music, especially after the success of groups such as the Jovenes Clásicos del Son (JCS), El Cuarteto Patria, Sierra Maestra, BVSC, Compay Segundo's group. There are many people who have turned their eyes towards our music. I know tres players who are not Cuban, bongos players, drummers, who are not Cuban and they play it very well.

You have to be objective, there is a fashionable music, to which the youth pay more attention. Traditional forms of music have to deal with that. However, Cuban music has so much flavor and magnitude that it is an essential part of our nationality, and I think it will be preserved. Eliades Ochoa continues to play, Barbarito Torres too, the Santiago trova continues. There are a lot of young people too, incredible tres players. I told you that when I started playing the tres, Isaac Oviedo told me how he strung it: “Look, I tune it in la-re-fa#”; Hilario Ariza tuned as in the western part, in sol-do-mi. They told me, put on some music and listen; nothing more. Since I played the lead guitar in rock'n roll bands and knew it, I was able to learn to play the tres. But today's treseros like Yuniel Jiménez, Cesar the slow, Renecito, they are an airplane. They keep preserving traditional Cuban music, despite the fact that the fashionable one is different.

There are also many jazz players in Cuba. And here I want to tell you something: there are many people who overestimate the importance of jazz. Jazz is a great genre. But, my opinion is that improvising on tonic, subdominant and dominant: 1-4-5, 1-2-5 or 1-5 without repeating is more difficult than improvising on a long chord sequence, because you start from the knowledge you have of the scales over that long chord sequence and you create a melody, but in the end you have a long chord sequence. Now, for me, playing only about 1-2-5, for example, like they play Cesar the slow or Pancho Amat, it is more difficult.

I believe that Cuban music is going to be preserved because we have done it on other occasions, we have had other difficult moments. At the time when the tumbadora could not be played publicly in shows, we kept the rumba and the tumbadora until it became a fundamental instrument through ensembles and today it is international.

About four years ago, a Cuban friend, who is a luthier and a musician, told me that he was losing the yuka drum, because the young people wanted to play timba. I told him that was logical. If now you go to a fundamental drum beat you feel the spirit of timba in the drummers, and they continue to play the fundamental drum, they are giving you a dry Oru but you feel the timba behind you because that is something that comes with the times .

In the rumba it is also happening...

Well, guarapachangueo is more or less that, a bit of timba in the rumba. It is logical that music evolves. But as long as one is able to stand on the root, things always evolve in a positive way. We can't ask young people to play a danzón in the style played by Rubén González, Antonio María Romeu or Cheo Belén Puig, it's not their time. Now, if they do it with the basic structure of a danzón, even if they don't have to respect the number of bars of each section, nor is there a part for the clarinet and the violin, and what improvises is a rapper, that's fine , because they are preserving the genre, they are respecting it and giving it a language that corresponds to its time.

There is a musician who has worked with me for many years who is told The boy lies. (He demonstrates with his hands and voice the sequence of the tumbadoras in the son montuno). He has released a series of videos showing all those ins and outs that people are already getting to know little by little in various genres: simalé, papa cun cun, etc. Those are things that, of course, can be lost. We have had a very bad time, especially since the 1960s when relations between Cuba and the United States broke down. This determined that many of these rhythms are not known in the world. With all due respect, because I respect those musicians a lot, but what Santana or Palmieri recorded, that's not Mozambique. They tried to adapt it for a different audience, as far as they could. The public in the United States is pan-American, as a territory of immigrants that it is, and that is the success of salsa, a sociological movement that was based on Cuban genres to find a target in that mixed population, Pan-American, heterogeneous although with a common root. We were out of the market for many years, but we came back very much from the 90's and, to a certain extent, we still hold on. So I think we will be able to maintain Cuban music, and of course it will evolve.

The best thing that could happen is that those secrets, of Cuban music, are not kept, but that they spread everywhere...

Now with social media and the internet, all of that can be distributed everywhere and preserved, through videos and books. There are many things written and filmed and there are more and more people interested in preserving Cuban music. There are logical evolutions, for example, the septets now use tumbadoras, which is not the original format, and they do something else, they use optionals. This is another point. The son of that format does not have optional or mambo. The son is pure improvisation, both the habanero and the oriental. Maybe I'm confused, I'm an old man or a traditionalist, but the son, as played by El Nacional, El Habanero, El Boston, El Boloña, El Bellamar, is delicious; you don't need the tumbadora because the bass does it. I think he doesn't have it. It is true that it began to be used a while ago, I think the JCS were the first to use it or it was the Jelengue group.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Photo: Sarkis Bodoyan.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Photo: Sarkis Bodoyan.

That would be like taking the way of arranging ensembles back to the septet format that is earlier, and that, to a certain extent, seems like a logical step in evolution…

What I think is that they did it to fight against timba. In short, timba is the contemporary form of Cuban son, and it has a broader sound, with greater orchestration. In the end, to enter the dance music market at that time, the conga player had to be introduced. That's how I see it. It is possible that they wanted to make a different kind of music.

There is also a danceable criterion in all this. It is impossible to ask the dancer of the 90s to dance the son like in the 20s. Of course that must also be preserved and Sierra Maestra did a lot for it, even going against the current. But in the end the dance also evolves.

The son is eminently danceable and was always made to dance. Of course you can look for interesting texts with a message to incorporate them into that dance music, as was done in Cuba from the 1980s. But you have to compete in the end against groups that have a larger format and much more punch and strength.

Sierra Maestra remained faithful to the format, although they incorporated other instruments, as an occasional thing. How did you plan to face Arsenio Rodríguez's repertoire, which is an ensemble, remaining as a septet?

The essence is in the way the rhythmic cell of the bass is structured when the orchestration is being done, because as I said, the bass in the septet replaces the tumbadora. When we did Arsenio songs, for example, Tintorera has arrived or Little piece for smell, what we were trying to do was distribute the different layers of rhythm and sound in a way that reflected the style of their music. But the essence is in the bass. In fact, if you listen to Arsenio's first recordings, the tumbadora was not there because it was still prohibited. The son doesn't necessarily need it, in fact, we made all of Cuba dance with the traditional septet style.

In other interviews of his, he has referred to the loss of dynamics that Cuban music has been manifesting, especially in timba. Alfonso Peña, one of the great Cuban sound engineers, who has worked a lot with you, has said that in the 1950s the arranger was already responsible for mixing the sound from his job and took into account the technical limitations for recording. Today those limitations do not exist and, nevertheless, there is a loss of dynamics. How have you approached this problem with the Afrocuban All Stars, bearing in mind that it is music from another era and that at the same time it must compete in sonority with the current one?

I think that the dynamics are not being respected properly. The problem is that we had a romantic period in symphonic music that brought us those great contrasts in the sound planes of the works. That is something that must be exploited because it is one of the elements of language that allows the artist to connect with the public. At my concerts, for example, when I do a piano Suddenly people applaud. You come to an intensity, let's say strong or medium strong (mf), and suddenly you start playing piano (p) either pianissimo (pp) and people start clapping because they feel connected to that difference in sound planes.

I think that all this revolution of the loudness, as the gringos call it, began with hip-hop, but one thing must be taken into account. Rap is poetry about a groove, What they do is read or say a poem to communicate with the audience, but with a rhythmic pattern behind it. But that cannot be extrapolated to a music where there is a whole orchestration with many musicians playing. It is necessary to preserve the dynamics. I have worked on that; I always try to write everything, and I always put those sound planes throughout the entire orchestration. That is also written to the metal section. Now, you have to take into account that in the brass section there are very high notes on the trumpets that are difficult to make them piano, that is, with low intensity. That requires a technique that is easier to find in classical trumpeters than in jazz or popular trumpeters.

It is also a dramatic issue. It is impossible to stay that high all the time. It is the same as in cinema, literature, theater...

Exact. That is the way music should be worked. And that doesn't take away punch to the orchestra, not at all. What really gives you punch to the orchestra is teamwork, how much the orchestra has rehearsed and how much it has prepared to achieve aspects such as that difference between the sound planes in the performance.

If you listen to Billy Holliday and his band of seven or eight, you're going to hear everything from double bass to Lester Young solos. This is possible because, as Peña said, both the arranger and the orchestra considered the dynamics in such a way that they were able to record the distinction of these different sound levels without having to apply any type of technology. I try to respect that, I think you can hear it on my recordings. Now, I also rehearse a lot. In fact, many times I lose money because I get to rehearse eight or nine days, and I have to pay accommodation, food and other expenses to the musicians. I'm not talking about Cuba; when I was there I rehearsed 19 or 20 days. You can't do that in Mexico or the United States. However, we prefer to pay more than we should to guarantee quality and respect the music we make.

Many orchestras in Cuba sound unnecessarily very loud. Sometimes they believe that the best band is the one that sounds the loudest. Peña, living two or three kilometers from the Ciudad Deportiva, told me that the Rolling Stones were heard much quieter than Cuban music concerts that were held around the same time. On the other hand, there is the misconception that you have to play hard, which is also wrong. That doesn't necessarily give the orchestra more strength. All these problems can be solved, because in Cuba the musicians are excellent.

The strength of music is in the orchestration. For example, if you write a lot of unisons in brass, it sounds smaller to you than if you harmonize. Sure, unisons are necessary many times. But no one can stand up in a classical theater in this world and play at such high levels, because people simply get up and leave. You can't play at the Victoria Hall Theater or at the Kennedy Center if it's not at the right level.

In general, in all rooms, and even in open spaces, there is a limit to the intensity of the sound that can be generated at the height of where the sound engineer is with the mixer, usually between 90 and 110 dB. If you go over that limit, they come and take it down, because there are rules and you can't. Therefore, the problem is not uploading the music or compressing it. In fact, when you compress it too much you destroy the dynamics, and if you turn it up too much you also exhaust the listener's ear.

Perhaps it is a lack of international travel on the part of Cubans…

There are many excellent sound engineers in Cuba who handle these matters well. But sometimes it is the conductors of orchestras who ask to press down, to sound loud at all costs. And the goal is not in that; it is in sound according to the place where one is playing. Imagine what it would take to raise the bar without limits at Stratford Performing Arts or the Royal Festival Hall in London, which are rooms that have a reverberation of two seconds or more. If you press there, the sound ends up hitting the walls and in the end what the public hears is bad. We must try to maintain a level such that people can enjoy the music and can identify instrument by instrument. If I'm mixing the music and I'm in a mambo, that leading role of the brass section has to be heard all over, but not to the detriment of the piano, the bass, the percussion, the rest of the instruments.

The music has to respect the levels even in the recording. If you want it louder, by raising the volume on your computer you have the solution.

Original line up of Afro-Cuban All Stars at the Casa de la Música in Havana. Photo: Courtesy of Juan de Marcos González.

line-up original Afrocuban All Stars at the House of Music in Havana. Photo: Courtesy of Juan de Marcos González.

In relation to the discography of the Afrocuban All Star, why have you decided to take such long breaks?

I didn't record for a while when the digital world started because I don't like it, I have to be honest. After I made the record dance my sound for Félix Baloy, I stopped until in 2005 I made one called Absolutely Live containing concerts in Japan and The Hague, and another called Step Forward. I made a long pause again until I made a Absolutely Live 2 And that's as far as I've come for now.

Now I want to make a studio album, but it's not the same. I prefer to make the albums live. As it is so complicated to record the albums live, what I have done is record live. Studio recording is complicated. I like to record with all the musicians at the same time to capture the spirit of the studio, of the musicians, the buzz, the vibes, the vibe, but that's very hard to do now. If not, in my opinion it looks like something plastic.

And why is it difficult to record now all together?

Because it is very expensive. Although in Cuba it can still be done. I recorded with all the musicians at the same time, sometimes I put the singers later, depending on the theme, but I remember that when I recorded All Cuba likes (World Circuit, 1997), we did it with the whole orchestra at the same time, just as we recorded the Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit, 1997) and the album by Rubén González, Introducing…Rubén González (WorldCircuit, 1997). Of course it's not perfect, but even mistakes are part of the flavor. That's why I prefer to record live. Right now I have a concert that we did at the Stratford Center for the Arts that is a timba.

For a long time I didn't understand timba well. At least, after the second generation came out after that initial traditional timba, which we can call something like orthodox timba, the first part of the songs was very similar to the most “monga” salsa, what was called erotic salsa. . But in the end, timba has become traditional music.

After so much time it is not easy to oxygenate that music with something new.

Well, I really like what Alexander Abreu and Alain Pérez do. They play timba but not so fiercely, they try to carry a message in their texts and they have moments of aggressiveness from the musical point of view because in reality it carries it, but it is balanced. I had never written a timba and now I have just put one together. Yes, I had played it doing songs by Tirso Duarte and other friends who worked with me in the orchestra. Timba has magic. Now, what you cannot do with an audience that is not directly related to Cuban music, is to give it timba from the beginning to the end. In my case, I always try to structure my concerts by taking a tour of Cuban music, and I play from danzón to timba, trying to do as many genres as possible, so that the public can evaluate the quality of the musicians and dance.

I have been very lucky in life. I have been filling top-level concert halls for more than 30 years. I have tried to move more in the world of concert halls on all continents than in dance venues. I don't really like open spaces because normally there are a lot of people in those spaces, who, naturally, go for guarachar and drink. Except for very few people, people do not stop to appreciate the performance.

But timba has many options when it comes to arranging and possibly that is what allows it to continue reinventing itself.

Cuban music orchestras are characterized by pursuing a stamp that identifies them. I recently commented on this to Roger Brand, an American musician friend, and I explained to him what the bomba is, that specific section that each well-known orchestra does in a very peculiar way and they do not resemble each other. That is something very positive that timba has. If we were able to insert ourselves into the international market, timba would conquer a considerable space, although, obviously, that will already be somewhat difficult. But timba shows that Cuba is the most creative country, musically speaking, in the Americas. If you listen to the different bands that today are playing son, they call it salsa, you will find the same sound. It's like a mix of Roberto Faz's Conjunto with the elements that Mario Bauzá introduced in the 40s when he made Machito y sus Afrocubans, which included an optional section, something that did not exist in the traditional son.

We are the most creative country. During all those years that we were isolated because of politics, how many rhythms did we create? Pilón, simalé, mozambique, papa cun cun, etc. Timba could not arise anywhere else in the world, because what salsa does is continue playing the traditional, perhaps a little more jazzed up and giving it the touch of the city where they do it, but deep down it is nothing new.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Photo: Nemanja Djordjevic.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Photo: Nemanja Djordjevic.

You have referred on other occasions to the fact that the influence of Cuban music in the United States has been greater than is usually said, where would be the strong points of that influence?

If you go back to the 19th century and listen to Jelly Roll Morton or Gottschalk you can realize that what they are playing is contradanza. And that to what the Americans say latin tinge, which is actually afro-cuban tinge, is closely related to the connection between New Orleans and Havana. Ferries traveled frequently between the two cities, and Cuban music heavily influenced proto-jazz, in the elementary forms before jazz developed into the great leap of bebop. That influence can be heard on the recordings. There's even Jack Constanzo, an Italian-American bongos player, who rose to prominence, played in Frank Sinatra's orchestra, and you can hear those distinct Afro-Cuban-flavored taps on the recordings. Between the two cities there is a marriage, a closeness, common roots that are in Africa, even though the slaves come from different strips of the African coast. Many Congos came to New Orleans, and perhaps therein lies one of the causes of those ties. They have a different key, their key is called big fort. They preserved more the 12/8 spirit of African music. We play it on 8/12 when we do the ritual songs. But during a period of our history we converted everything to binary, 6/8 to 2/4 and so on. They did not, they preserved more the ternary. In fact, when you write to big band, if you don't put the eighth notes straight above, they play it to you as if they were triplets, not at their true value. On the other hand, in Cuban music, we shorten the sound of the figures. An eighth note that you write for a metal, "tomorrow" is going to touch you staccato.[4]

A foreign musician should be given the conventional notation...

Yes, to a foreign musician you have to put the point so that he recognizes the staccato because otherwise you will get the full value of the eighth note. Unless it is a foreign musician who is linked to Cuban music. There are many who play it very well. I lived in London for a while and directed bands where the drummer was a Yugoslav, on trumpets I had a Russian, a German and an American.

There are also many who have come to study here and have absorbed Cuban music very well.

Look, at first everyone went to New York, because there was a lot of drive and the quality of the marketing that the Fania people were doing. But later in that same city they learned that the secret was in Cuba and they began to go. There are even many intellectuals and musicians, I know some North Americans, who have written books on Cuban music with great rigor. Even without speaking Spanish. And that is very important. Because, even though we are a small country and have been eating rope for so many years, Cuba is an important country in a cultural sense.

With respect to the rumba, do you think that it continues to be a heritage of Cubans and that it is difficult for it to filter into other cultures?

The rumba is still clearly Cuban despite the fact that it has become internationalized and is played in many parts of the world. I know foreigners who since the beginning of the 90s went to Cuba to study with Los Chinitos de La Corea. Los Chinitos are not well known from the media point of view, but they are a whole school, they are the kings of guarapachangueo. The rumba is international, there are many places in the world where rumba is done on weekends, here in the United States it is done in many places. Pedrito Martínez is the best known and most international, but he is not the only one; Also living in New York are Román Díaz, Miguelito Valdés and David Oquendo, who had a rumba club for many years in New Jersey. In London, there is a park where rumba is also frequently held.

And it is a thing of Cubans and foreigners. You can find a Slav playing the fifth. It's always a Cuban who sings, but sometimes the choir is foreigners and it's easy to tell because you feel weird because of the accent. There are also many Cuban folk music choir groups in various countries. Cuban music is everywhere, and that is a blessing.


[1] Pianissimo: Term used in musical notation to indicate a very low degree of sound intensity. It is located below piano (p).

[2] A calderón is a prolongation in the duration of a note above its value at the discretion of the interpreter.

[3] Vibrato is an effect used to add expressiveness through periodically varying the pitch or frequency of a sound.

[4] In musical notation, staccato is a sign indicating that the note is shortened relative to its original value and is separated from the following note by a rest.

Avatar photo Rafael Valdivia Wandering vinyl collector in the skein of Cuban discography. Engineer ever. The great soneros of yesteryear are never missing from his playlist. More posts

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