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Interviews Nathaniel Mergui Nathaniel Mergui

The phases of (Rolando) Luna

Rolando Luna doesn't need much introduction for the followers of Cuban music. Restless by nature, he graduated from the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory of Music, and at the age of 17 he was part of Omara Portuondo's group, the Diva of the Buenavista Social Club. A session pianist on important Cuban music recordings, Luna is currently working in parallel with his solo career on the collective project El Comité and other interesting artistic collaborations. This dialogue about her most recent album (double), Rolando's FacesThe wine was made before the pandemic confinement, so it has the added bonus of good crianza wines: the rest has improved it. At least that was the impression it gave me, now that I am transcribing it for you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Rolando, welcome to my house, which is yours. Let's talk about you, how you came to music, how music comes into your life. 

That was my dad's dream. He didn't study music. My parents were paleontological engineers, they met in Romania. Since I was a child, I heard my dad's friends tell me that they called him Luna, the musician. And the musicians on the street knew him as The Engineer. My dad is from Santiago de Cuba, a very musical land. I was born in Centro Habana, behind [the store] Ultra, in the neighborhood of Los Sitios. I no longer have the joy of having him with me, but he has been a great inspiration for me, he was the one who entertained all the parties in my house, always full of people who spoke a lot of different languages. He sang, played the piano, the guitar. He had a group called Luna y Su Combo. He was very fond of filin. I remember when I started playing with Omara Portuondo, when I was 15 or 16 years old, he took me and made me meet the great Joseito Gonzalez, who was Omara's musical director.

At what age did you start studying music, why and where were those first studies?

I started studying guitar when I was 12 years old. At 15 I didn't know what I was going to do with my life, I didn't have the passion I have now for music and I thought about studying other things; I applied to La Lenin -I had very good grades-, they had even advanced me a year in school.

I had studied guitar at Paulita Concepción, where I began with choral singing, and after a year, I switched to the only instrument that was available. I had entered out of date, but they told me: you are learning what this world is all about, music theory, music appreciation and after a year we will change you to guitar. And that's how it happened, they were pacts they made with my parents, without me being very clear about what I wanted.

So... I was about to enter La Lenin, I didn't really know what I wanted. The pressure of music school, of studying, was strong, and I was lazy to study... well, I still am. Now that I feel so fulfilled, I think it would have been a mistake not to have continued studying music.

I have to thank a lot the teachers I have had and the opportunities they had to study in Russian schools and conservatories; I owe them everything I am. But one of the problems I had then was that there was no space for popular music in schools; it is something that must be reinforced and rescued; young people must be encouraged to study and understand the popular music of their country. Before it was difficult, you could be caught playing that kind of music and you could be sanctioned, it was frowned upon.

Then, a friend of my father's came home, with whom he had not seen for a long time, and he was accompanied by another friend who was a musician and played in the orchestras of the Triton and Neptune hotels. This gentleman taught me things about popular music, a contradanza by Saumell, starting with the cipher, and I said to myself: this is another worldbecause in school they didn't teach you a popular music cipher. He taught me major and minor chords, how they are written in popular music, and that opened the doors to another dimension. At the same time, he would play me a sonatina, the next day he would come and teach me a bolero, he would teach me again a chord, a tumba'o, and suddenly he would say to me: "I'm going to play a sonatina: learn this dance.

When I had already prepared three piano pieces, he took me to his former piano teacher in Guanabacoa, and that's why I ended up studying there, because I live far away, nothing to do with it... And everything to do with it: great musicians come from there: [Ernesto] Lecuona, Bola de Nieve, Rita [Montaner]. I play the program to the teacher and she (Gloria Suárez, an excellent teacher who taught complementary piano at Amadeo and basic piano there in Guanabacoa) sees my conditions and decides to take me as a student.

I started studying piano at the age of 15 at the Gerardo Guanche school in Guanabacoa. The piano attracted me, it taught me other ways, since it has a richer harmony than the one I knew in the guitar, and that was where I made the click. I began to study there, but at night, because there was no way to enter regular courses with the gap I had. After two years of studying with her, they approved a circular C, which opened the possibility that those of us boys who had not studied since we were little could go through a jury to join the schools in regular courses, as long as they verified that we had an even level with those who had been studying since we were seven years old. So I took the test at Amadeo and at the ENA. A very funny thing happened to me, I had to take the exams in both, just in case; I took the first test in Amadeo and left a good impression on the jury, my teacher was very happy, but there was another round to go. Amadeo was very close to my house at the time. When I go to the test at the ENA and I see how far I have to walk to get there, very far, at the age of 16, I thought: this is my thing, getting lost, flying, the farther away from home the better.. One of the things I liked about studying in Guanabacoa was that I had to take I don't know how many buses, I was justified in arriving home at any time... 12 o'clock at night? Transportation is bad... (laughs).

And when I see the ENA, the environment, the musical world in general... there was much more freedom there, so I fall in love with that school... I take the exam, but of course, my parents tell me that the ENA is in case I don't pass at Amadeo; if I pass at Amadeo I stay there, because they had much more control over me. Then, in my second exam at Amadeo, the definitive one, I played worse than anyone else... I played very badly, I made mistakes, I did barbarities. All the professors were astonished, the head teacher who had seen me play before and wanted me to be her student could not believe it. How can it be that in one month it goes backwards instead of forwards? It was all for getting into the ENA. In spite of that, I was approved at Amadeo and I started with Teresita Ilanyeta, the head teacher whom everybody was terrified of because of her strong character, but she was an excellent teacher. I started with her, then she had to fulfill missions, she retired, and I continued with Rosa María Tolón, an excellent teacher who had studied at Tchaikovsky and who was the one who graduated me and is still one of my guides. Now she lives in Brazil and we continue to communicate; last year I was there playing with a Symphony Orchestra thanks to her.

In other words, in the end I studied at Amadeo, although many people who studied at the ENA believe that I studied there because I escaped from Amadeo and went to the ENA. There I met Loly Estévez and Andrés Alén, professors I admired very much and with whom I kept in touch after graduating. They have helped me a lot in my career. I owe 90% of the Montreaux prize to Andrés Alén.

You say you don't study many hours, but whoever follows you can be quite impressed with the amount of music you can have in your repertoire at the same time. Right now you have this double album that has just come out, plus the one called My soul in song published by Egrem; in addition to all the repertoire you do with the boys of El Comité, and what you do accompanying other performers... How is your process to learn a piece? Tell me a little bit about that without modesty. Because musicians are different, and although there are those who say that if you don't study eight hours a day you're no good, I think there are those who have a facility to apprehend music, to incorporate it, which requires less hours of work. How does that process work for you? How do you select what you want to play?

Well, I have to want to say something, even if the music is not mine; maybe I look for music that inspires me, that has transmitted something to me. Because whenever I'm going to interpret something I have to transmit an idea, I have to tell a story in my own way. So the music has to tell me something and then I have to tell people something with it.

For example, on this disc there are versions of a work by the chanson françaisethere is a version of a song by punk English, there's Debussy, there's Russian composers... How does all that end up in your repertoire?

In this album I tried to tell what I have been in the course of my life, a little of what I have done as a recording session musician, or as an admirer of singer-songwriters like Pablo Milanés, or of great pianists like Chucho Valdés, or of French classical music or Brazilian popular music, the rock of the 80s, the American song, these beautiful standards, musical theater... For me all music has the same value if it is well done. I am an admirer of Debussy, who incorporated other colors to music, from whom almost all the jazzmen of the last century drank. That is to say, there are no frontiers between classical and popular music. There are very interesting rock groups and I think it is worth defending their music also from the piano; why not the songwriter's own song? And I include my own compositions that already have my particular way of seeing music. Which does not mean that I stop admiring those other styles and trying to approach them and give my proposal; trying to understand them first and then try to contribute with my arrangement, my interpretation, with a different style?

Sometimes I'm already listening to my version while I'm listening to the original, sometimes it takes more work or I'm changing it until I get the one that satisfies me; until I reach that point I don't stop working. Sometimes another work is the one that gives me the light to take somewhere a work that I am covering and they don't seem to have anything to do with each other. Arranging, reharmonizing is that: taking something out of context. Maybe people who don't listen to the MoonlightIf you have never liked classical music, listen to it played in this way with improvisations and then approach Debussy, maybe that's what it's for. A jazz or rock song, that maybe the listener has not played it in its original version and I take it to a ballad or somewhere else, or a strong sound that I have taken to solo piano and that is where they discover it.

When did you start composing?

Very young; of course, I did very elementary things. I started with Latin jazz themes, with a lot of influence from Irakere, from Gonzalo Rubalcaba with the group Proyecto. My first compositions were along those lines, trying to imitate them. I participated with my works in a couple of contests that took place between night schools (Cervantes del Vedado, Guanabacoa), I even won 2 or 3 composition awards...

Did you always compose from the piano? Have you never picked up the guitar again? 

No, it is an instrument that I respect a lot and I like it, although there was a time when I rejected it a lot. Or rather, I got too much love for the piano.

Were you always restless? Since you were a child?

Well, a little bit..., the sport helped me to calm down.

Tell me about two women you have worked with a lot, how they came into your life, and your interaction with Omara Portuondo and Miriam Ramos. 

I owe a lot to these two great artists, they are on my piano every time I play a note. They are not only performers and singers; they are incomparable artists. I met Omara first, when I was 16 or 17 years old. To be given the opportunity, so young, to play in her group is courageous on her part... Joseito González, who was her pianist and arranger and director of Rumbavana, wanted to retire. This is before the recording of Buenavista Social Club. I know this is so because three or four years later I was lucky enough to participate in this project, to meet Omara again. At the same time that I was studying at Amadeo, I played every Friday as a professional musician with her, I was one of the most popular guys at Amadeo because of that and because I was the one who could take my friends to those places at night where minors were not allowed to enter. That makes you feel important and very happy. Omara had some peñas at the Café Cantante. The most brilliant of Cuban culture paraded there. I had the opportunity to accompany Pablo Milanés, to see the Aragón Orchestra, the Sublime Orchestra, Rubén González, Elena Burke. All the famous filin singers. Every day a different artist would come and sing with Omara's group. She always had a filin guitarist, thank God, and we in the group had to follow whoever she wanted, singing whatever she wanted. We would ask her what she was going to sing, the guitarist would start and we would fall in behind him. Imagine the experiences, every week you lived a shock like that, you had to be attentive. Omara would let us arrange, I would do things for her as if they were for a timba group: what is this? (laughs). Well, also boleros and other things. That gesture of Omara's, that courage to have several young guys playing with her, has marked me for the rest of my life. Later I emigrated, I spent a year living in Canada and I went to see her when she was there with Buenavista Social Club.

Then I came back and started working in several popular music orchestras: with Paulo FG, Issac Delgado, and I continued working as a session pianist in the recording world, which is something I have done a lot, and that I have to thank the producers, who usually make their equipment for recordings. Sometimes friends, or colleagues would get upset: you are always the same people who record. But that is true everywhere in the world.

And about Miriam, she was the first person I ever recorded with in my life, in a professional studio. Joaquín Betancourt took me to record a song.

I remember when Miriam "discovered" you. Because the problem is that in Cuba the generations of pianists come one after another, there are very good pianists and there is no end to that flow. But I remember Miriam saying: "I have found this little boy Luna and I want to do many things with him". Then they recorded a lot together...

Several albums, some of them even nominated for a Grammy. I am very grateful to her; she is an intellectual, she has a way of thinking about music, she is a very interesting composer, a very complete musician who knows about harmonies. For me she was a school. With Miriam you have to work, the same for a rehearsal as for a concert. We also had an almost family relationship, we were neighbors, we had get-togethers at my house with my family; on tour we had a lot of fun. She is very demanding musically, and being so young, her rigor was another step in my growth. She has a very particular taste for complex works in harmonies, of a finesse... And at the same time that she sings, you have to work on it behind. I miss working with her; I would always like to do it.

Tell us a little more about your Slavic connection. It strikes me that your parents studied and met in Romania and that you were surrounded in your childhood by their Czech and Romanian friends, that you trained with teachers who had studied in conservatories in the Soviet Union... And that now you are returning to study the Slavic soul of some of the music... 

It is music with character. Russian composers have left a mark in musical history. I admire many of them, but I am not working now with the best known ones, I have tried to choose some less famous ones that have not been played or arranged except in very classical circuits: Liodov, Skriabin, Prokofiev, who are the ones I have worked on this album, under the influence of my teachers who studied there in Russia. I have been lucky enough to go and play; I have been doing a series of concerts there. Cuban music is very much loved all over the world and that is a country that has a musical relationship with Cuba, they go to see us, and I work with musicians from there. Now I found an Armenian singer and composer, thanks to Omara we linked up and we have made a nice mix. We are going to tour together, with Omara and the two of us alone as well, with Russian, Armenian, French, Cuban songs and jazz standards. I hope to bring her to Cuba soon. I'm learning a lot from her too, she's teaching me some amazing composers and pianists from Armenia.

Rolando's Faces album cover.

Your new album is called Rolando's Faces. Do you, as a person, have different phases, like the moon? 

Yes, yes... Music has taught me to be more extroverted, more approachable, but I really enjoy solitude and introspection, many times I prefer to be alone... I've had to force myself to be more communicative; it's not that I'm not affectionate, but I've gotten used to being alone on tours and trips and I enjoy it a lot. And for composing and studying, I need to be isolated, that's how things work best for me. I also really enjoy being with my friends, hanging out, laughing... so those are like my two extreme phases.

This is a double disc, but each of the two CDs is recorded in a different way, isn't it?

Yes, one is live, with an audience in the studio; unique shots. And it was wonderful. Actually, I never thought that this would become an album and even less a double album, it was a surprise that Philippe prepared for me. We were touring some of the most important festivals and venues in the south of France. And he came up with the idea in the middle of the tour. He says to me: why don't we organize to play in the studio where we recorded the album? The committee and invite some friends over and play for them? WellI tell him, and then... And why don't we record it and film it and then when we review it, you decide if it's of any use? Well, we did it, we played about seven or eight songs and it wasn't too stressful and I think we kept the bug inside... We went out that night to celebrate and the next day we went back to the studio to listen to the concert that we had recorded from top to bottom and we kind of felt like we were in the mood. We hooked everything up and recorded what is now the second CD. So both albums are recorded in the same studio, with the same piano; the difference is that in one there is an audience and in the other there is not. So they sound different. It was daring, I played what I wanted, without thinking too much about the repertoire. It reflects what I am being at this moment, the music that I listen to, that inspires me, that I am playing. Chucho [Valdés]... [John] Coltrane, who are references for me, are there, with everything else we've talked about: works of mine composed a few years ago and works I had just composed in those days. Just that.

And this Rolando, who gives the impression of always being in a good mood, what could bother him or make him sad?

Injustice. I am hard on myself, I criticize myself for not having more rigor, more consistency for the study, but what gets me completely out of step is the injustice, the lack of sincerity. To admire my colleagues when they deserve it is something completely natural in me, it makes me be better, it makes me grow. I don't like that there are those who can't enjoy that, I believe that we should all learn from each other, that there is room for everyone, that life doesn't have to be a constant competition. I also don't like it when I listen to people who are closed-minded; we need all kinds of music. I am very open to everybody's musical tastes, everybody's beliefs. I don't like fanaticism. Everything in life can't be done well, but you can get to the highest level possible if you are open and always willing to learn.

Avatar photo Darsi Fernández Hyperlink with human figure. He has a bad memory only for what suits him. He dreams of retiring to read. More posts

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  1. Rodrigo García Ameneiro says:

    Very nice interview to an immense musicazo and a spectacular person! 🥰💜

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