Polski dźwiękowiec na Kubie. Interview with Jerzy Belc
I am Jerzy Belc, but they have always called me Jurek and in Cuba many know me as The Polish. I was born in the Polish region of Lublin, in the countryside, in 1943, at the end of the Second World War. My father was a professional from a family in the capital, who had participated in the area of military communications in the defense of Warsaw and had to flee when the city was occupied by the Germans in 1939; after sinking all the equipment to make it disappear so the Nazis wouldn't find it. One of his youthful friends was the son of an industrialist and landowner near Lublin, a cultured man who at that time was busy, like so many others, producing parts for weapons. This family hid my father for several months in the woods and then made him the manager of one of their sawmills.
There he met my mother, who was the daughter of a humble peasant from the area. He found out where she lived and showed up at the dacha to meet her. Apparently, with his elegant manners as a man from the capital, he convinced both my mother and her family and they married in 1942, with the war raging. So I was born.
The war ended and the Russian armies that were to reach Berlin passed through. And the history of independent Poland began. There was the Polish government that had been in exile during the occupation, demanding the enlistment of former Polish soldiers from the reserve, now to fight the Russians. And there were the pro-Soviet who had won the war and who were the winning side of this internal conflict that lasted a little over five years, until finally, with the Warsaw Pact, the Polish socialist state was formed under the ideological mantle of the Union Soviet.
My father, who had lost all contact with his family in Warsaw, continued to work in the local logging industry, which was in great demand in a country undergoing reconstruction. So I spent my childhood in the village of Opole Lubelskie, near my maternal grandparents. Of my father's brothers, one had died in the war and another, who had also fled as a soldier during the occupation, had gone to England. The families were divided, not only because of everything that the conflict had brought, but because of the ironclad ideological norms that considered everything that came from capitalism a danger. It was the time of the so-called iron curtain.
The story of my encounter with music seems like a fairy tale thing. My father liked music and both my mother and grandmother sang country songs while doing housework. Until he realized that I was listening carefully and, without knowing anything about music, he repaired a piano that had been given to him completely disassembled. He rebuilt the mechanical part, made a pedal for it, and as he tried out the keys, I noticed that my interest was growing. Until I began to accompany my mother, searching the piano —by ear— for the melodies she played. I don't remember the details, or if he used the pedal or how he did the basses, but the time came when it was said at home that I played the piano.
My father felt that my interest and so-called talent deserved attention, so we went to Lublin, which was a city of about 250,000 people. I was six or seven years old and I remember that near where we lived there was a concert hall where a philharmonic orchestra performed. A school that taught music was based there, along with the general program of primary education. My father showed up at school and took me to some kind of audition with a piano teacher he found in the hall and told him that his son "played". The man listened to me play the traditional songs that he had learned in the maternal home and asked how I had learned them. Knowing that he had picked them up by ear and that he did not even know the name of a note, he became interested and suggested that he take a course to learn basic matters of rhythm, musical notation, principles of solfeggio and some elementary aspects of interpretation. The nine-year-old boy, who began to attend a kind of interest circle to learn music, was delighted. It was like a game.
Then, in what would be my third grade of schooling, I formally entered school, full of curiosity. I studied there for seven years. My father, proud, immediately bought me a Calisia upright piano, at an industrial fair where they exhibited all kinds of products, taking advantage of the fact that the merchant, who knew that he had no real chance of selling pianos in that environment after the war when everyone had other priorities and also preferred not to have to pay the return freight, he made a very affordable price. So one fine day, without warning, a real piano was landed in the third-floor apartment where we lived in Lublin. This instrument accompanied me until my higher studies in Warsaw and, honestly, it sounded very good.
After four years in the elementary school, the owner of this school proposed to my family that they enroll me in the middle level, which was already what was called a Superior School of Music. I passed the exam and was accepted as a student by a professor named Davidovich, who then told me that we had to start from scratch, in order to establish the technique of the instrument. Here I did have to study Harmony and all the important subjects of a serious school of music. I remember that I was the only male student studying piano at the school at that time.
Right away I was part of a little jazz group at school to try to earn some money. I was about 14 years old when I entered and left at 18, a music graduate and a general intermediate level. So we listened to a lot of American-influenced music, a lot of jazz. I graduated with a recital for which I had to study four or five hours a day and with which I won full marks. I ended up exhausted. So, my own piano teacher recommended me to a teacher at the higher conservatory in Warsaw, who was his friend. But I didn't see myself as a concert pianist; I realized, already being in the musical environment, frequently attending concerts, that I had other interests, somehow incompatible with the rigor that the work of the concertante requires.
And there I noticed that I was very interested in the technical part, which would probably come from my father's character, who was someone who built incredible things with his hands. I spent my time copying music from one place to another, recording and trying to improve the recordings, the microphones, with the little group... Then I found out that there was a new career at the Superior School of Music called Musical Sound Direction and I decided aspire, but it was said that to enter you had to take extremely complex exams, not only in music, but also in hearing, Mathematics, Physics, and many other things.
And so it was: they gave us extremely complex dictations for the Solfeggio exam; we had to harmonize four voices; then they played us a recording at any time and we had to quickly find where in a score the fragment was; They gave us very strict audiometric tests to define the sensitivity of our hearing aids, in both ears, for about half an hour. We were 35 candidates who had already graduated from high school in music and there were only five places. We passed nine, but I was left out and although I had the option of studying at the Polytechnic University, I had already fallen in love with the recording studio where we had been examined. I applied the following year and there I did get one of the places. Then began my studies at a higher level, already in the specialty of Sound Direction.
According to many colleagues with whom I have spoken since then, this was the stage where this career was studied more completely, because as all the software and hardware that we have today did not yet exist, absolutely everything about the specialty had to be learned from below, even at that time he studied people who have made enormous contributions to what the sound is today.
The facilities of this Superior Conservatory were monumental and included three underground studios, with first class equipment for the time. We got to know the consoles along with the engineers who installed them. The school still exists and is in good condition. It had two floors with twenty or so cubicles where the instrumentalists practiced, soundproofed so that ambient noise did not enter, provided with top quality instruments; even in two of them there was an organ. And there was a lot of experience. For example, my graduation exercise consisted of recording a string quartet in the school gymnasium, whose acoustic conditions were absolutely inconvenient for this format.
The first year I did it mainly focused on knowledge of sound equipment, which came to have no mysteries for me. From the second year we began to record everything: rehearsals, graduations, miking. And in the third they already made us do complex things and field recordings. I remember that we had a general culture teacher who worked on Polish radio and television. I was looking for people to work on the radio and the dean of my faculty—who was a very cultured man, a personality who spoke several languages and liked me very much—recommended him to try me out, but I did not have a residence in Warsaw but as a student And that, although it gave me many advantages such as stipends, studies, free accommodation and food, legally prevented me from working in the capital.
Then this dean began to think of solutions for me to stay working close to him, because he noticed that I was very restless and that my interests transcended both the technical and the musical aspects. I was especially interested in the option of working as an intern at the radio station because all kinds of music were recorded there and not just academic music, which was what I had been doing and recording all this time before, and which had me up to my neck ( laughs). Through these radio and TV studios in Warsaw, all music and all formats passed, including big bands, and a lot was recorded to archive the material. I recorded the best Polish pianists and had all kinds of experiences, some painful and some very pleasant. I was already in the fourth year of higher education, it was 1966-1967. I was hired at the lowest salary but I worked a maximum of six hours because it was considered a job with a health hazard. But the salary formula included a 40% incentive or reward, if my work was considered satisfactory. I earned between 2400-2600 slotys clean. And as soon as I graduated, my category would go up and my salary would improve.
At that Superior School, when I was in the second year of Sound Direction, the Cuban Nancy Casanova had come to study piano. I was interested in Brazilian music, to which we had access through the cultural adviser of the Brazilian embassy in Warsaw, who was a music lover and had very good listening equipment. A group of students used to go quite often to the diplomat's house to listen to his excellent record collection. In that group were also this Cuban girl and a Brazilian girl friend of hers, who was also studying piano. There I began to try to speak Spanish and Portuguese, to communicate better, because they barely spoke Polish. In that period several Cuban musicians passed through the conservatory: Roberto Valera, José Loyola... But at that age, honestly, men didn't interest me much (laughs).
The holidays arrived and I decided to start studying Spanish during those two months. In the end, Nancy Casanova and I got married in 1967 and she finished her studies in 1968. In that year I came to Cuba for the first time, already with my wife, on a ship full of Cuban graduates from different specialties, who had come to Odesa from all points of Europe to move to Havana. There were more than 500 students, the trip lasted 21 days. Somehow I was stuck there, because I had asked the Cuban embassy in Poland to allow me to pay the ticket to go meet my partner's family.
During my courtship with Nancy I had already started listening to Cuban music; in fact, while I was waiting to be able to work in the Polish radio studio, I worked in the restaurant of what is now the Grand Hotel in Warsaw, where an orchestra of eight players played. In that place you came to play the sheet music that was on the stand, and you could find Western music and standards from anywhere, including Cuban music that in the 40s and 50s had triumphed in Europe and the United States. I remember having played Lecuona a lot, also rumbas and mambos edited for this type of orchestra.
I spent two months on vacation in Cuba and from there we returned to Warsaw, she to present her diploma recital and I returned to my work. Already graduated, working on the radio, the technician who recorded the radio and TV orchestra, which was an excellent Mantovani-style light music orchestra, got sick and I had to replace him. At first, the director and the musicians didn't even want to talk to me, they wanted me to be there at their disposal but not to touch any of the settings they had been working with for many years. On the second day I began to try relocations and try things, and at first they were scared and asked me not to change anything at all, but I promised them that I would return everything to its place. On the third day, by my own inspiration, I recorded the rehearsals and one of the musicians who was always snooping around in the booth came and asked me to listen to what I had recorded. He went out and asked other musicians to come in and listen. They didn't recognize each other...
—But… this is not our orchestra!
The director was called to come and listen. The man begins to listen, until a flute solo arrives, he hears it completely and rebukes me:
"Did you record it?" And who authorized him to do it?
"Well, you told me I could try...
"Put it back on...
They began to whisper in the corridor, the director and the concertmaster with another, until they entered again and confessed to me that they were impressed by the sonority that I had managed to capture. And they asked me to continue recording their rehearsals. Then they asked me to make a formal recording with them. But of course, word spread, because in the orchestra there were several who worked as jazz instrumentalists in other studios. And they started asking me from various studios and for different projects. Then they also called me for festivals as a sound engineer and I began to make live recordings, including early music, which has special requirements.
At that time we didn't have multitracks in the studios, it was recorded on ¼ tape, but we had learned —in a course that lasted two years— editing by cuts, the old-fashioned way, with copper scissors, blades that were not magnetized... But in the radio did have a four-track, half-inch Studer, and I took the opportunity to use those four tracks in the recordings of other types of music. That's because in the afternoons, after recording the things that the radio was interested in saving, the studio was rented out to fashionable groups and singers. And there I also recorded vocal groups and soloists who paid me directly, some of whom later came to Cuba. I remember recording the Skaldowie group, which was a famous Polish band, in the style of the American ones at the time, with excellent musicians who mixed rock, folk, jazz and classical music.
In 1969, Nancy had already graduated and they began to pressure her to return to Cuba, despite the fact that I was then very well placed professionally. She had to return and while she was trying in Havana, I made arrangements there with the people I knew at the Cuban embassy and on the Polish radio so that they would release her and allow her to return there with me. At one point, we decided to fight together and that's how I arrived in Cuba again in 1970. Here I began to interact with the artists, with Medardo Montero and people from the world of music and recording, and I ended up as an advisor to Medardo and Pepe. Gutiérrrez, who was the one who was making the audio at the Varadero Festival, with the equipment that Egrem had at the time, which had been dismantled from the studio and transferred to the amphitheater, a phenomenon… A Polish singer came to that festival, then a blonde stunning, whose name was Maryla Rodowicz and I had to serve her and serve as a translator as well. Then I recorded one of his hits, in Spanish.
That year I also made the first live recordings of the Symphony Orchestra, in the auditorium of the old Amadeo Roldán Theater, with González Mantici and Duchesne Cuzán. I did not get anything from the management that had brought me to Cuba, despite the fact that I wrote everywhere, to Immigration, to the Minister of Culture…. They didn't even want to listen to me, they didn't even answer me. A Cuban who had studied in Poland could not stay there. I felt disgusted, but at the same time I began to be quite interested in the work here, which did not stop...
I worked at the Egrem, I made recordings at the Synagogue on 17th and E, the first recordings of contemporary and electroacoustic music... those were times of a lot of experimentation and I was delighted with that, working with Juan Blanco, Harold Gramatges, Nilo Rodríguez... Then they called me at the National Council of Culture (I remember Somavilla and Toni Taño among others) and they offered me, while I was making my efforts to return to Poland with my wife, a contract. But they said it couldn't be like a full Foreign Technician, but something they called an internal Foreign Technician. They offered me 500 pesos a month, a supply book and access to the services that foreign technicians had, but the money could neither be sent to my country nor used as currency. Imagine, we were living here in a room that Nancy's mother had given us, and that suited us very well.
Then I began to work formally at Egrem and Medardo asked me to give classes to the technicians they had, since they found all the knowledge, information and experience that I brought very useful, but of course, they still did not have the equipment to learn the techniques. new techniques and concepts. Everyone enjoyed my Spanish. I have later listened to the recordings of my talks to those engineers and between my bad pronunciation and how abstract it was to teach them about equipment that didn't exist here, I don't even understand what I was talking about. They are for laughs, really.
You can't imagine whose first album I recorded in Cuba was… Los Papines! I asked who they were and they told me that they were like a symphony orchestra of drummers, so that I wouldn't refuse. The day we started, they arrived with a truck full of drums and other percussion elements... I couldn't believe it. We talked for a while, we came to the conclusion that we were residents of the same neighborhood in Centro Habana and they asked me how I was going to record them. So I confessed to them that I had no idea what they sounded like and suggested that I first see them play for a while. I asked them to sit as they would sit to act and I sat in front of them to listen to them to see first what music they made.
Cone…! When they began to play and sing, it was violent, with interjections, performance, nothing to do with anything I had seen or heard before. And what is this? I loved it, but I didn't understand anything at all. I asked them to explain to me the function of each instrument and accessory, with what the rhythm was kept, with what the breaks, what was the role of each one of them, if there was an order, a logic or a hierarchy in the interventions. And so I spent a good while listening to them sing and talking with them to begin to get an idea of where to place the microphones, which one for each one and for each function. I think I set up six mics first, but that's when I realized that the one doing the bass would pick up the tumbadora, which would kind of cause a dull echo, and sometimes kick in time. And I decided to place another microphone in that area below, to also capture what was undoubtedly part of the sound and to which —according to them— no one had ever given importance. They also helped me, of course, by giving their opinion, after we heard the first fixings, explaining to me that such a thing should be less shiny, or proposing placement adjustments. So we recorded four numbers… and we became friends.
Sound technicians have great challenges during our professional lives. I didn't decide who I recorded with; From the beginning they had told me that I was going to record everything that was cultured music (orchestras, soloists, choirs, opera singers) with whom nobody here wanted to work because they did not feel prepared to record them. Meanwhile, and since that music was not recorded every day, Silvio, Pablo, Noel, Sara González, Pablo Menéndez were mentioned to me for the first time… because Egrem was interested in recording an album of Nueva Trova songs. They told me that they were protected and sponsored by the Icaic and that they recorded in the Prado studio. I went there to see that studio and that music. When I started listening I remember thinking... well, there is good faith and good wishes... There was interesting music there, yes, but I didn't understand the lyrics and everything sounded out of tune, on fire... Then I recorded them all, I watched them grow as artists and I made friends with several of them.
Medardo Montero was the soul of the Egrem at that time and his team were former Radio Rebelde workers, among whom I remember one who was called El Chivo. Later, in the second part of the 1970s, dark forces arrived that were the ones that ultimately remained in charge of the Egrem for a while and did a lot of damage, including Medardo, who was the only one who understood that the recording was not just a technique but an art. He wasn't very erudite, but he had a tremendous nose because he came from below, in CMQ. All of this had consequences...
I must have made, only in the Egrem, about 500 albums. That, before working on Ojalá and Abdala, where I also recorded a few. When I arrived in Cuba, the equipment of the Egrem was very old and became very obsolete; although I always greatly admired the Ampex recorder that was there, from before 1959. I arrived in 1970 talking about multitracks, modern consoles… Then later they brought Hungarian equipment —which was a disaster— but the wiring that the Cuban technicians did was tremendous, to the point that when the Japanese came later to analyze the investment that had to be made there, they asked to meet the people who had done that work with such complicated equipment.
Every job I've done in terms of sound, without distinguishing the genre, the artist, the format, has interested me and I've put everything into it. I have recorded from a philharmonic orchestra in a great theater to a French tomb show, in its natural environment… Impressive. I toured Cuba with María Teresa Linares, capturing an incredible amount of endemic musical expressions, folklore, everything.
The sound, in my work, is what one wants to hear. Noise, on the other hand, is a sick, undesirable sound. But it is also sound; like white noise, with which equipment is adjusted. In my career I have done with pleasure all possible sound jobs: room, monitors, studio recording, live. Each genre, each type of space, each artist, I would tell you, has a specific sound treatment, that is the beauty of this work. Except in the cosmos, I have worked in all environments (laughs).
When I arrived here there were only two or three recording engineers: Tony López —very talented and a celebrity; we became good friends—, Eusebio…, Padrón, who got sick and died soon, poor thing. Then there was Ramón Alom, who was a copyist at the beginning, but he gradually surpassed himself until he became an engraver. At that time when I started, my salary was a good salary, until the currency came into our lives and everything was screwed up. Imagine that I, with 3,000 pesos, was able to buy a car in the 1970s —which was sold to me by the Romanian embassy because they were only authorized to sell those used cars to foreigners— and then, with three salaries of mine, I made a trip to Poland , round trip.
I could not choose any album or recording that I have made and prefer over the others. It's like someone who likes reading, who finds it hard to choose one or two favorite books. And as for concerts… look, one of the moments of my professional life that I never forget happened in 1985, when we went with Silvio Rodríguez and Afrocuba to Spain. We began to tour the north, through the Basque Country and things were very hot with ETA. Our concert —I'm not sure if it was in Getxo— was in a small room, the audience was very young and the place was surrounded by the army, on horses, with long weapons, machine guns, very impressive. They had warned us that at the exit we should go where they told us and that we should be attentive because the guards were prepared to intervene at the first demonstration. I remember that Silvio sang far in front of the proscenium, almost on the edge. The place was completely packed and many were drinking and smoking marijuana, and we were all breathing in that stale air together. I messed up. I had to tell one who was next to me: look, this is the master, if necessary, raise it or lower it, I'm very bad. In that, flags of Euskal Herria begin to appear little by little, from one side a line of people with flags enters the stage... Silvio's microphone was open... They got to where Silvio was, they took the microphone away from him and they began to give their speech… Silvio was looking at them, I was looking at Silvio… He makes no sign to me and I leave the amplification… But I look around and I start to think… Where do I go out that I am in the middle of the whole world, I don't have a corridor not even close... I had a bad time… because of the atmosphere, because of the circumstances, because of everything… They finished, they picked up the flags and left… The concert continued, but for me it was a completely extraordinary, unforgettable situation. In another sense, I remember the beautiful impression that the tribute concert to Leo Brouwer made on me in the Plaza de la Revolución, where I did live sound. I have never seen such an audience. Another tremendous event was the anniversary of the Popular Unity Party at the National Stadium of Chile, it was very emotional, for many reasons. It is that sometimes the public is nothing, but sometimes it is a relevant part of the show.
To young people I would not only advise patience, culture, etc., but also to respect music and not be prejudiced against any genre. You can have your preferences and even work with artists who are established and guarantee you a standard of living, that's valid; but it does not mean that you limit yourself in listening to other music. If an artist you work with wants you to only listen to his music, doubt him. So I recommend young people to listen to a lot of music, to be open… And I would like to pass on a piece of advice that my teacher gave me and I never forgot: “Do not treat your hearing as if it were eternal or invariable. The ear is a living and intelligent apparatus; when attacked with an exaggerated sound, he defends himself.” I advise not to listen to an instrument above the volume at which it sounds naturally in the studio, live, because if you start to amplify it, the limitations and internal mechanisms that the instrument, if it is well done, do not want to show will come out. Take for example a harpsichord, a very versatile instrument. There are musicians who ask you to do this or that with the key, "because it doesn't sound familiar to them". What does that mean? The key sounds like it wants to sound, it makes the sound for which it is built and prepared. If you intend to do something else with it, it is because you are not sure that it is a key that carries that recording.
I have tried to be neutral and practice good treatment and patience with all the artists. It is part of what I learned in the profession. To behave like a priest who listens to the confession, regardless of the barbarities that may be said to him, who is not here to judge, but to help, to improve, to bring out the best in every human being. Every artist deserves respect and the sound engineer should not judge or take a personal or affective side. Some need darkness, others prefer to sing sitting down, there are those who make faces or shout. Some are truly unbearable. But we are there to do our work calmly, parsimoniously and seriously, as far as possible, as long as we are not disrespected, deceived or mistreated.