by Susan Kepecs
September, 1997, was a month of momentous events. The world wept, watching Princess Di’s funeral at Westminster Abbey; NASA landed a global surveyor on Mars, the first mission to the red planet in 18 years; Steve Jobs, who left Apple in 1985, returned to the company he co-founded 1976; a violent earthquake shook Umbria, Italy, crumbling the vaulted ceiling of Assisi's Basilica of San Francisco, and with it Giotto’s ethereal frescoes. And son cubano – the musical heart and soul of the big island from the 1920s to the ‘50s – busted out from behind the blockade and took the U.S. by storm. The album Buena Vista Social Club, recorded in Havana by Ry Cooder and World Circuit Records producer Steve Gold, was released to rave reviews. And another Cuban son outfit, Sierra Maestra, played the Club Tavern in Middleton, Wisconsin. I wasn’t there. Just back from a frivolous trip to Umbria I was doing penance, locked away in the stacks at Memorial Library to appease my dissertation deities. Cardinal Bar owner Ricardo Gonzalez, who introduced Cuban music to Madison in the 1970s and with whom I had a Cuban salsa band in the early ‘80s, wasn’t there either – he was in Texas, attending to family matters. So for González, and for me, and for all you other son (or salsa) smitten souls out there, this Friday night, March 23, is a momentous occasion. After the long hiatus imposed by W. Bush’s post-9/11 visa blockade on Cuban artists, Sierra Maestra finally returns to Madison for a bodacious baile at UW Memorial Union’s Great Hall.
Yes, you can salsa dance to it, but son is not salsa. Salsa is a U.S. invention that put Latin rhythms on the disco floors of New York at the end of the 1960s and is still super caliente. In fact, son montuno, a jazzed-up, urban form of Cuban son originated in ‘40s Havana by the great Arsenio Rodríguez, is the strongest and deepest of salsa’s roots.
But son – even son montuno – is old-school. While the Buena Vista phenomenon, augmented with Wim Wenders’ (1999) dreamy documentary about Cuba’s great old soneros – the ones on the Buena Vista albums, including Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González and Compay Segundo – went international, Cuba’s youth culture was going wild for a new sound – fast, rhythmically unpredictable, rap-influenced timba.
Today the Buena Vista boom is over. Almost all of the old soneros are dead. And the musicians of Sierra Maestra, who come from a younger generation, are heroes. There would be no more son if they hadn’t rescued the genre from the dustbins of pre-revolutionary history. The 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution wreaked havoc on the music industry. Many musicians fled to the U.S.; the old-time soneros left on the island faded into obscurity. By the late 1960s a new, politically-themed, government-approved singer-songwriter style of music, la nueva trova, emerged.
At the same time, rebellious Cuban youth took gigantic risks, listening to American rock and jazz fusion, officially prohibited – Castro called it the enemy’s music – but accessible on the radio via Miami. The band Irakere, begun in ’73 by Chucho Valdés, today one of the world’s greatest Afro-Cuban jazz pianists, created a groundbreaking mix of dance-worthy jazz fusion that coexisted with la nueva trova because, as Paquito D’Rivera once told me, “Fidel knows nothing about music. He prefers sports.”
And then, in 1976, a group of students at the University of Havana decided to play son. They called their band Sierra Maestra, after the mountain range in eastern Cuba where both son and the Revolution were born. Juan de Marcos González, who grew up next door to Compay Segundo (and who sought out the old-time soneros, introducing them to Cooder for the Buena Vista project), was a founding member. “People thought son was old folks’ music,” Marcos told me some years back when I interviewed him in Havana, “but because we were at the university we were able to influence our generation. They got to like son.”
Marcos, who plays the trés, a double-strung Cuban rhythm guitar, went on to lead the Afro-Cuban All Stars, whose first album was part of the Buena Vista series. That always-evolving big band last played Madison (Overture Hall) in March, 2009. Meanwhile Sierra Maestra keeps on keepin’ on, playing traditional son in its many-splendored varieties. Today, five members of the original nine are still with the outfit.
How has the group changed over the years? Eduardo Himely (bass) and Alejandro Suárez (percussion), both with Sierra Maestra since the beginning, fielded that question and a few more, from Havana via email:
CulturalOyster: How has the group evolved?
Himely: Besides Alejandro and me, the original members who are still with us are Carlos Puisseax (güiro), Virgilio Valdés (vocals, maracas) and Luis Barzaga (vocals, clave). Our newer members are Emilio Ramos (trés), Eduardo Rico (congas, bongos, cowbell), Jesus Bello (vocals) and Yelfris Valdés (trumpet). I think the personnel can change, but not the project’s central objective. On that we’ve been firm – we play son. Of course there are modern influences in our sound – despite trying to faithfully reproduce themes from the 1920s and ‘30s in the 1970s, the result is a bit distinct from what you would have heard earlier in the century. Sierra Maestra’s never been afraid to use genres or instruimental formats that aren’t exactly classical. On some of our songs we use electric instruments; we’ve been known to do jazz fusions and Afro-Cuban descargas that aren’t strictly son.
CulturalOyster: Like the descarga “Anabacoa,” on Tibiri Tabara (World Circuit, 1997) or “Sangre Negra,” on your 2010 (SASA Music) album Sonando Ya, which was nominated for Best Traditional Tropical Album at the Latin Grammies that year.
Himely: Yes. Our willingness to play outside the box has helped us achieve our own sound, which can be very difficult when you’re dedicated to playing a certain type of music.
CulturalOyster: Son cubano has a lot of variation, and a long history. Tell me about that.
Suárez: It’s very difficult to synthesize the evolution of son, the most popular and important genre of Cuban music. Son was born in Oriente – the eastern part of the island – and according to most musicologists its closest relative is the changüi, a rhythm native to Guantánamo, on Cuba’s eastern edge. By the end of the nineteenth century changüi had spread across the island, carried by the mambises [guerilla fighters] during the War of Independence. As changüi, or early son, evolved, it adapted to the regional music played in different parts of Cuba. By the early twentieth century son appeared in the cities, in new formats – trios, quartets, septets. In the 1920s, with the advent of the phonograph, son started to be recorded, and it became popular in urban dance halls along with new foreign dance music like the Charleston.
The early small-format son bands usually were composed of the trés, six-string guitar, various percussion instruments and marimbula [a hollow wood box with metal tongues that sort of sounds like a string bass]. By the late 1930s musicians started experimenting, replacing the marimula with standup bass and introducing trumpet and piano. In the 1940s son bands reached their maximum expression – the most famous was Arsenio Rodríguez’ band. The bands of that decade added a second or even a third trumpet, tumbadoras [congas], and montunos [looping, syncopated piano vamps], to the delight of the dancers. This format, the son montuno, remained popular against the new dances of the 1950s – the cha-cha-cha, the mambo, etc.
Today the son montuno [mostly in the hands of Sierra Maestra] persists, with new shadings like the occasional addition of trombones and saxes. And much to our satisfaction, you can still hear the original sound behind it, played on the trés, guitar, and bongó.
CulturalOyster: Since the 1990s, everything in Cuba is timba, timba, timba. If you want to go dancing in Havana, that’s what you get. Here in the U.S., too, Latin youth flock to clubs to dance to timba. In Cuba you only find son in the streets of Santiago, or by the Cathedral in la Habana Vieja, where the tourists go. So I want to know – how is Sierra Maestra doing in Cuba? Have you managed to inspire a new generation of soneros on the island?
Suárez: Like you say, almost everything on radio or TV in Cuba is timba. In the ‘80s, when our band took off, a number of son groups came along, some more popular than others. I can say that Sierra Maestra influenced the generation that followed us, keeping the word for the next generation. I can mention names – Jóvenes Clásicos del Son, Septeto Turquino, el Son del Nené – though they’re not big-name groups. Sierra Maestra hasn’t escaped relative obscurity, either, though we did a national tour last year to commemorate our thirty-fifth anniversary and were thrilled to discover that Sierra Maestra is very much loved and respected. We weren’t able to do a mass event, say, playing in a public plaza, since we lack an adequate sound system, but the people still love our music.
So there you have it. As my friend Victoria Gutiérrez said to me one night a couple of months ago, sitting at the Cardinal’s bar talking about what’s happening in Cuban music in general and the upcoming Great Hall baile in particular, “Sierra Maestra – son el son.”