Roldan: "Honestly, I don't want to be someone else".
As a musician and music lover, it is impossible not to know the work of the gigantic artist that is Roldán González Rivero.
After countless attempts and connection failures, I managed to communicate via telephone with the former member and one of the most unmistakable voices of the group Orishas, one of the most versatile singers born in Cuba.
It is 6:00 p.m. in Paris, and noon in Havana. After almost an hour and a half of conversation, this warm interview was born, full of laughter, songs, anecdotes, and passion for life and music.
Roldan, how do you feel?
Just finished... born (laughs)laughs).
What was the first song you learned?
In my life? Well, as far as I can remember Una tarde fresquita de mayo. I used to sing it in the morning class of the elementary school in my town, San Felipe, in Quivicán. There was a subject called Musical Education, and they taught those songs ("One cool afternoon in May / I mounted my horse and went for a walk along the path where my mom...").
Do you remember the author?
I don't know! I was very young, I was in 3rd or 4th grade.
Tell me a little about your family and how they influenced your music. Any happy anecdotes you'd like to share?
I remember when we were little boys. My father, Roberto González, (they call him in the neighborhood "El colega") is still alive back in Cuba, and he had a voice... I don't think I'll ever get over it; we always had parties at the house, his friends would come, and he would bring out his guitar. Then everybody would go to sleep at a certain time, and I would stay there looking at the guitar, where he would put his little fingers. I always wanted to be like him, he is my idol, and I used to ask him to teach me how to play, but he didn't pay much attention to me. As he was going on with his crazy things, he never cared. He would go to work -he was a small farmer- and I would take the guitar to practice secretly all night long, trying to reproduce by heart what he was doing, and to learn the lyrics. I did that for many weeks; he didn't know.
One famous day, he came home from work and I picked up the guitar, and I told him "I'm going to sing you a song" (laughs); he said to me "What are you going to sing", and I said "Yes, Dad, I'm going to sing", and he said "Well, let's see, sing", and I sang a Mexican song for him called Bandera ("Flag, how much joy I feel in my soul when I see you floating / Flag of my homeland..."). It was very moving because he began to laugh, and he started to cry from laughter. At that moment I realized that my voice was already on fire, I knew I could sing. He didn't let me verify it until that day, of course, he was in his own things and I was a child, how could I know? But, deep down inside I knew, and I had never sung before. Well, in the morning of elementary school, as I told you, I never realized I could do it that well. That day he asked me "Who taught you that?", and I answered, "You yourself, but without wanting to". That's when he started to follow my musical development more closely and to teach me songs. The second one I learned was Between glassesand I'm still there, in between drinks (Laughs).
Besides you and your father, does anyone else in the family sing?
Yes, of course. After the first rancheras my younger brother Nelson was inspired, I taught him guitar, and to this day we sing together. He has a beautiful voice, but he never wanted to become a professional, maybe he felt overshadowed, or in my shadow, I don't know. It's a shame because he could have gone far. Many people who listen to him even confuse him with me, we sing similarly.
Any sad event that has marked you?
We were four brothers. I say we were, because unfortunately one of us, Roberto, the oldest, died of leukemia at the age of 43. Just two years earlier my mother had passed away. She was 66 years old and it was a very strange and somber period of my life. I was sad and desperate, I did not know what to do, how to repair the irreparable. But, without forgetting, one always finds the strength to go on.
Tell me which artists or groups you admire, three Cuban and three international.
It is very difficult to choose with the gigantic musical treasure we have and so many good orchestras -in Cuba everybody "plays"-. But well, Van Van, I sang a lot of Silvio Rodríguez, who I still like very much, and Pablo Milanés, obviously. There are many others out there, Carlos Varela... etc., but I would have to mention half of all Cuban trova. As for international artists, it is also difficult to choose. I love Oscar de León, Rubén Blades... On the more Anglo side, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson... there are so many of them.
Do you have a favorite song, one of those that you sing even in the shower?
Uh, yes, I think so. I really like to sing Amnesia.
Whose is it?
I can't remember now (laughs). It is by José José. The one that says "You tell me that we two were lovers..." ("You tell me that the two of us/ were lovers/ and that we came together to live/ something important./ I'm afraid that yours is a mistake/ I've been without love for a long time..."). I also like very much Cartas Amarillas, by Nino Bravo ("And I searched among your yellow letters..."), I sing it with guitar and voice sometimes, and it's difficult because that guy had such a great voice that wow!
I understand that you have an academy musical education, do you consume classical music?
Yes, I love Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach. In the music school where I graduated in classical guitar, they studied those composers, and I still enjoy them, they always have something to teach you.
Have you been living in France since '96? French chanson has influenced the way you make music?
That's inevitable, you know? I can't say it 100%, but I must have some French musical granite for the years I've been here. That sticks like a flea to a dog. Influences fall from the sky. It's my personal opinion, but when you listen to a song, you don't realize it, but it's influencing you. And the next day, you pick up the guitar and, without wanting to, some melody that you liked is played, unconsciously.
As a solo artist, you have collaborated with some of the most important French rap artists. Can you mention them?
Phew, that's quite a few. There's Kool Shen, Salif, Rohff, Carlos Jean, Akro, Big Red... I have a few left.
In Cuba many of these artists are unknown.
Yes, in Cuba I think only the classics are known: Jacques Brel, Édith Piaf, Charles Aznavour -from the prodigious decade-. The great masters of the French chanson. They had melodious music. However, urban music in France is a bit different in terms of subject matter. While the French chanson had a romantic style, urban music is very social, sometimes very raw: police violence, racism, politics. The hard rap here is critical, then you also have the lighter ones, and finally the purely commercial ones. The purist rappers sometimes call a singer, for example, they call me, and I do the melodic line of the song in the chorus, and the rest is pure rap.
There is a Cuban-French duo called Ibeyi...
(Interrupt) The twins? Of course! The daughters of the late Angá Díaz, one of the greatest percussionists who ever lived. Those girls are walking far, they are walking, with professionalism, with seriousness. They are on a very good path, I have heard several things about them and it is very interesting what they do.
The group Orishas was a pioneer of hip hop and had the privilege of bringing urban music in Spanish to the international spotlight. In the magazine Billboard ranked number five of the 50 most influential artists in urban music, in 2023. Two Grammy Awards, for the album Emigranteand another one with Calle 13, tours in more than 80 countries, movie soundtracks... They managed to find a formula for success, and to be a reference of Cuban music, without a doubt. In short, it is impossible not to talk about this project. How did the idea of fusing a North American genre, such as rap, with a Cuban one, such as son, come about?
The idea came from Liván Núñez, El Flaco Proone of the former members of Orishas, who was only on the first album, Cuban-styletogether with Niko Noki, a great French producer we worked with. We were at the beginning five members, Joel Pando The PioneerFlaco Pro, Yotuel, El Ruzzo and myself. Along the way, some of us fell off the boat, and three of us remained: El Ruzzo, Yotuel, and myself. Curiously at the beginning, we didn't call ourselves Orishas, we had a longer name Afrocuban Orishas Underground de La Habana. But that name didn't fit on the album cover, so we started removing words and it stayed Orishas. The rest is history. Pando never toured, and Flaco Pro split after six months and nothing, we were the three of us for 25 years, together, with a few stops.
What do you think about the announcement that is circulating about a new Orishas project without El Ruzzo and without you?
There is no Orishas without Ruzzo, without Yotuel and without Roldán. I mention the three because it is necessary to be frank and recognize the weight of each one. I could be arrogant and say: "so-and-so is not necessary", but no, brother, I am fair and categorical: it is the three of us or none of us. The Beatles cannot announce a comeback with just McCartney and Ringo, even if Lennon and George Harrison are dead. In our case it is worse, because we are alive. For me it's a big mistake. It's as simple as that.
Tell me about your new projects.
I have a solo album coming out soon, I'm putting the finishing touches on it. It moves within pop, and is more mature, perhaps not for all kinds of audiences, it is quite personal. It will talk about my past in Cuba, my experiences, my memories of school, that's why I say it's personal, with nostalgia. It will be in Spanish, but I have the idea of releasing some singles in French. It has a more melodic style than urban, without underestimating rap, because I come from there. It will have elements of Cuban music as well, but in the right measure, paying tribute to the song, having a clear concept.
Are the songs composed by you?
Yes, all of them.
How is your process when composing? Do you believe in inspiration, or do you think it is a craft?
I don't have a precise formula, fortunately. I'm not one of those who think that you can create mechanically, not even in painting. I don't think painters say "I'm going to paint", without desire, nor do I see the guitar and say "I'm going to make a song". I like to write, for example, when it rains. I don't know, the rain, the wind, they put me in an environment, in a channel that I like. I don't like to write when it's hot, I don't get my muse down, I'm more of a cold person. If I do get the muse early in the morning, with some melody, I record it, and the next day I pick up the guitar and form the backbone, which can be the chorus or the verse. What is indispensable is that the weather be broken, and that it be at night. I am like the werewolf, I am of the night.
Do you also have any projects with former colleagues?
With El Ruzzo [Hiram Riverí Medina] I have recorded some things, and others are being finalized, we are testing and putting the thermometer to see where things are going. The first song is already out, it's called Caribbean that has been going on. We often collaborate, we always have things to say together.
When listening to you singing together with El Ruzzo, does the audience still feel Orishas?
It is inevitable to let go, it has been 25 years, and we are practically the 70% of the group. Despite our individual projects, there is a history behind that to deny it is to lie to oneself.
Remembering one of your solo works here in Cuba, bachata comes to mind. Tell me what else you want from me, with Baby Lores.
Nice song, and it really caught on. I like bachata and I have thought many times about doing another one, I have even recorded some tracks. But I don't like to leave things half done, I'm a perfectionist and I get tense because the bar is very high. There is a very high bar in terms of bachata quality with Juan Luis Guerra, who is a genius to jump over... he is a genius. I shared the stage with him a couple of times. And what strikes me the most is that he has had the same band for years, a tremendous commitment..
Some time ago I saw a video on YouTube where you were singing the song on guitar. FriendsWhat are friends to Roldán?
The friends... well, to begin with, as time goes by I have realized that there are very few of them. The only one who has a million friends is Roberto Carlos. It's not pessimism, in my personal experience, the one who is there in good times and bad, the one who forgives you a mistake, the one who listens to you, the one with whom you can cry on his shoulder and laugh with him, that's a friend. It is not only the one who is there when you are succeeding. Friends are like couples, and couples take care of each other, do not betray each other, and are unconditional, if the relationship does not end, the same happens with friends ...
Which has been the concert you remember most fondly, and which has been the most chaotic?
Fuc... (laughs). I'm going to start with the most chaotic. The most chaotic..., but chaotic, chaotic, chaotic! One of the first concerts Orishas gave, was in the Plaza de Menocal, a town in Mayabeque, I don't know where. We had problems with the audio, horrible, and what to tell you, I do not want to give many details, but it was terrible. And on the other hand, there have been many nice concerts, brother. Look, this was not one of our concerts, but we participated and it was an unforgettable experience: the Concert for Peace in 2009 in Havana, organized by Juanes.
I remember it well, I was very young but I was there, the amount of people was overwhelming.
That was tremendous! I think it's the first time that my legs were shaking on stage, it was a sea of people... I couldn't believe it. There were people even behind the stage with screens, probably more than a million, very exciting. And after that many nice concerts, in Color Café, in Belgium, the Gurtenfestival in Switzerland, and many other concerts, here in Paris, which were very touching.
What do you think of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon?
That's what it was, you put the word: "a phenomenon". Let me tell you something, succeeding internationally at that age doesn't happen every day. If miracles exist, that is what you could call a miracle, without precedent and without continuity, because that is not going to happen again. It is interesting, because precisely the two elite groups of Cuban music of that time, ending up in the middle of the planet, were Buena Vista Social Club and Orishas. We were in the same period, when Buena Vista started to hit hard in the world, those were our beginnings. There were the oldies, and the youngsters. I used to joke that they were the grandparents and we were the grandchildren. We owe a lot to him, in fact, the song 537 Cuba is a tribute to Chan Chan, by Compay Segundo, with different lyrics, but the same harmonic base. Buena Vista Social Club remains for the annals of history, like indelible ink.
What advice would you give to young Cubans who are starting out in the world of music?
Originality, that they have an innovative project. Which I know is difficult, in music creating something new out of nothing is complicated, almost everything has been invented, so to speak. It doesn't mean that it doesn't resemble anything that already exists; just because it doesn't resemble anything doesn't mean that it has quality. It has to have innovation and quality, with a serious touch, and it also has to have a commercial touch, because there is an audience that has to consume your product.
If the Roland of today could say something to the Roland of 25 years ago, what would he say?
I would tell him to go back to France, and to avoid certain mistakes and certain excesses. Can I ask you a question?
Yes, of course, that's all there is to it.
If you were born again, what would you change in your life?
What would you change?
It is quite philosophical, and I don't dare to answer it myself, that's why I asked you first. In my case I could change any detail, except not being born Cuban. It would be denying my identity and my roots. I am proud to be Cuban, brother. If that were to change, I would be someone else, and honestly I don't want to be someone else.