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Interviews Rhythm union. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewees. Rhythm union. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewees.

Sindicato del ritmo and the ethics of the song

As if Chris Martin had gotten off a cruise ship in the port of Havana and, after walking down Obispo Street, ended up drinking mojitos in a bar. As if the alcohol had made him giggly, and between one drink and the next the warmth of the tropics and its people emboldened him and he decided to accompany the group that was making soup at the bar. So impossible sounded those songs that in the middle of the two thousand years ended up being part of Rhythms of the worlda compilation that was part charitable cause, part commercial expertise and part musical production genius. 

Mix the hits of Anglo-Saxon pop with Cuban music sounds like a million-dollar idea, doesn't it? Maybe someone tried it before, but nobody did it as well as the Berman brothers, a duo of Germans who have been coming to Havana from time to time since the early 1990s. Riding the wave of popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC), Frank and Christian Berman (Berman Brothers) teamed up with Demetrio Muñiz -trombonist, arranger, part of the sound for which half the world knows BVSC-, put together a band made up of several of the most experienced session musicians on the island's music scene, and set themselves the task of tucking into Cuban music arrangements for the voices of the original versions of recent classics like One Step Too Far, High and Dry and She Will Be Loved.

Several million records sold and seventeen years later, after dabbling in various projects, the Bermans are back on the road again. Sindicato del Ritmo, their new venture, is probably their most ambitious bet to date. "We were looking for new challenges," says Frank Berman during a conversation via Google Meet that connects Berlin, Madrid, Mexico City and Havana, and includes his brother Christian and two other key figures in this new project: Demetrio Muñiz and audiovisual promoter and filmmaker Fabien Pisani. "We were attracted by the idea of merging these two worlds," he continues, "that of Cuban popular music with that of Latin American music."

Rhythm union. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewees.

Still from the music video for Eres, by Sindicato del ritmo. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewees.

"Rhythms of the world was a huge success, an iconic album that people still listen to today, but we didn't want to repeat the formula, to stay stagnant, so we asked ourselves what was the next step," says Frank. "We came up with the idea of approaching Latin music, with so many different worlds and styles - the traditional Cuban, the indieWe wanted to create a new platform and focus on its diversities. On the one hand we have Demetrio, who does those tremendous arrangements of Cuban music in such a beautiful way, and then we add rock artists like Café Tacvba, or pop like Lasso, or singer-songwriters like Caloncho, or even a classic Mexican band like La Adictiva. We have all those different flavors united through the language that is music".

For Fabien Pisani it's not such a far-fetched idea after all. "The Havana-New Orleans-Veracruz connection is there from the beginning, it was key to the birth of the matrix of popular music in the 20th century, so it's very natural connections in the music of the region. The other interesting thing is Cuba's relationship with Mexico, which is cultural, in the broad sense of the word. Mexico has always been a bridge for Cuban talent, in cinema, plastic arts and especially in music: Rita Montaner, Pérez Prado, Bola [de Nieve], and many others.]The Nueva Trova, without counting all the musicians who have left to make a living via Mexico. Mexico and New York were the great destinations for Cuban musicians in the 30s and 40s". 

From there began a process of research, of trial and error, until they found the songs that, in their opinion, worked best for this project. "For us it was very important that it was something authentic", explains Christian Berman, "we didn't want to try to force a Cuban song, it had to be something organically Cuban".

With this in mind, they came to PM Records, where they began recording in the first months of 2022. During this process, the concept of the album mutated. It was originally planned as a compilation, as well as a compilation album. Rhythms of the worldwith work around the existing vocals. "But once we sent the songs to the artists," Frank explains, "some of them said 'oh, I love it. I want to sing it again.' This time we've got them really involved in the songs; several of them will be in the videos we'll be releasing and they'll be participating in the album release concert in February, which is quite a statement of principle."

During the recording process of Sindicato del ritmo's album. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewees.

During the recording process of Sindicato del ritmo's album. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewees.

This fact completely transformed the dynamics of Sindicato del Ritmo, which went from being a compilation of Cuban-style cover versions to a band of Cuban musicians covering the music of Cuba. hits Mexican songbook with the original singers as guest artists. "The focus is on the arrangements and the Cuban musicians. That is the core of the project. It's a pleasure to hear Lasso or Caloncho doing new vocals, giving a little twist to make a different voice; you can hear that it's a new version, especially made for that arrangement," says Frank Berman.

For Demetrio Muñiz, responsible for giving a new breath to the songs through the arrangements, what in principle would seem to be an advantage - the cultural and rhythmic proximities - is one of the main challenges: "The problem is that Latin American pop rock is very close to Cuban music, although it is not noticeable," he says, "and when it comes to taking it to the studio, when it comes to making the arrangement, is when you say 'and what do I change to this'. It's the same language and there are common instruments - for example, congas are even in heavy rock bands, everything is very intertwined". For him, the key is in the approach: "I believe that the issue is in the respect you show to the sense of the song, to the melody, and in not trying to alter the meaning of the song". in a beastly fashion what that song rhythmically meant".

It seems easier to announce it than to do it. The fine line between novel sound and empty gimmickry is a minefield that the Bermans and Demetrio have been treading since the beginning, even if they don't always reach a safe harbor.

"It's a problem, and you have to rack your brains until you get it right," Demetrio continues. "Sometimes you make a mistake, and you get to the studio and say 'I made a mistake, it's better to change and put this rhythm, because this one doesn't work'; it's a difficult and risky creative process, even if it doesn't seem like it.

"For example, you can take out the voice of La Adictiva.

and put it to the Cuban version which works the same way. That's where the work of imagination really shows, because they are two totally different rhythms, and two totally different approaches to the same song. For me that's the most acrobatic leap, you'll hear it."

Demetrio Muñiz. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewees.

Demetrio Muñiz. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewees.

For Demetrio, the typical production process for a Sindicato del Ritmo song is as follows: you take the original version, which has its own rhythm, its own ethic, as he says, and from there you transcribe the melodic line, as faithfully as possible. To that you add the lyrics, and then comes a part that he calls "getting into the author's character". You stay there, for a few days, in that environment, and you analyze the conflicts that this fusion could generate: conflicts of style, of points of view, of approach, of instrument sonority. "Sometimes there are too many lyrics and you almost don't have time to put in some brass, because it's as if the brass had the hiccups," he explains, "music is a conversation, and people don't talk over each other." In short, it is a great exercise of imagination in which the arranger reinvents a world from the pre-existing melody and lyrics.

"Of course, it's not just what I've already written from home, but everything that Christian and Frank, as well as the musicians in the studio, contribute" - which includes, among others, names like Alfred Thompson, Alexander Abreu, Alejandro Falcón, Tomás the Pangasius Sometimes you bring an idea and say 'I'm not satisfied, do any of you have a solution for this piece', and someone always comes up with a good idea. I think that, as Frank rightly says, there is great teamwork and we have fostered an environment that gives us these results; it is very important to work happily."

Demetrio's craft and the Bermans' meticulousness found the perfect complement in Jerry Boys, the legendary English producer and sound engineer, one of the legends of the recording booths, with decades of experience working at Abbey Road and a track record that includes The Beatles, The Kronos Quartet, Orchestra Baobab, John Lee Hooker and Buena Vista Social Club. "He brought all his equipment to Cuba and was the one who really brought the sound to the project," says Frank.

"One of the most profound and beautiful studio experiences of my life has been with Mr. Boys in the booth," comments Demetrio. "I think very few people can imagine the exacting ear, the tremendous precision he has on the intensity of the sounds and the tuning. He is a great professional and a great person, and very very very very English," he jokes.

Sindicato del Ritmo's first single was discreetly released on the platforms last August 11th. It is AreThe album, the anthem by Latin rock legends Café Tacvba, now in bolero son time, has a video clip. The cover - by the hand of Eric Silva, an experienced Cuban designer - has saturated tones that in some synesthetic way manage to place us in that rare crossroads that the project proposes. In its first days it seems to be working well, it has been included in several of the most important playlists and Apple Music, and appears in the iTunes charts of several Latin American countries.

"The artists are very excited and have been very supportive," Frank reiterates, "they will use their social networks to promote the songs and will appear on the streaming platforms as guest artists, which of course is an incredible multiplier, because we have a new band, and they all have tremendous numbers of monthly listeners. At first it's mostly networking, but then the concerts follow as well, to show that this is also a real, in-person project."

This long journey will include successive launches of singles until the official release of the album, in February of next year, when a presentation concert will be held in Mexico City in which the Mexican stars are expected to participate. They say that there are several surprises among the songs that will not be released as singles, in addition to a playlist The program will include some classics of the Latin American song sung by young Cuban artists, who will also be the ones to defend the project live.

"We wanted to find the right artists and the right songs, write the right arrangements, so we had the luxury of letting time pass without rushing," says Christian Berman. "It took time to get the artists involved and confirmed; they are international superstars and to get all those rights you have to talk to the labels and managers, it's a task of convincing. But as soon as they heard the music everything was very easy, because in the end music is what unites us," he concludes. 

Throughout the conversation, these four men, from such distant generations and backgrounds, exchange tokens of affection. The common language of music has brought them together over the last few years, and next February they will be able to meet again at the album's launch concert. I am very curious to see how the public will react to these songs. I was tempted to ask them on which tracks the vocals were re-recorded, but I'd rather play the guessing game. In a time when Artificial Intelligences seem to take over everything, these men bet on a work that, seen from the algorithm's perspective, seems handcrafted. But then I remember what Demetrio says, about respecting the ethics of the song. I wonder how the binary systems will do it.

Avatar photo Rafa G. Escalona Father of a music magazine. Professional procrastinator. His goal is to be a DJ for a station at dawn. Prince of random. More posts

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