Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Toda Madison le Gusta ... the Afro-Cuban All Stars!

by Susan Kepecs
Dr. Juan de Marcos González wears a string of green and yellow beads on his wrist.  This bicolored bracelet is the iddé of Orula, orisha mayor, oracle, brother of Changó, personification of knowledge, keeper of all secrets of life and nature.  Juan de Marcos isn’t particularly religious, but the iddé is apt – the man personifies knowledge of Cuban music.  He’s the keeper of its flame; he knows, better than anyone else, its secrets, and the many facets of its brilliant nature.  He sees its future.  For these reasons, Marcos is the UW-Madison Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence this fall – and the purveyor of the Cuban music experience not just on campus, but beyond the ivory tower.  He heads a series of performances and lecture-demomstrations that are open to the public. This week he offers us two events with his own master project, the Afro-Cuban All Stars.  On Tuesday, Sept. 29, there’s a lec/dem at Music Hall (7:30 PM) – and on Friday, Oct. 2, the ACAS play a gala performance at Overture Hall at 8.
Juan de Marcos is a world class, multilingual intellectual with advanced degrees in hydraulic engineering and agronomy, musical training at Havana’s premier conservatories, and a deep, wide knowledge of son y rumba rooted in his personal family experience.  Family looms large for Marcos, and the iddé is part and parcel of his heritage.  “It’s something I’ve had since I was little,” he says, “though not this particular one.  My mother gave it to me when I was only seven.  I didn’t like it; I frequently threw it away, and then she’d give me another one.  About four years ago I made this one – not as a religious object, but as a tribute to my family and my culture. 
The Afro-Cuban All Stars, which has been around much longer than that particular wrist band, is also a tribute to his family and culture.  The idea for the project was sparked by the success of Marcos’ first band, Sierra Maestra, which he put together while he was a graduate student at the Universidad de la Habana.  “A bunch of students got together to play music in '76,” he told me some years ago when I interviewed him for another upcoming ACAS concert.  “Most of our peers were drawn to British and US bands that had the allure of forbidden fruit.”
Not that there was any authorized rock n’ roll from “la yuma” on the big socialist island.  But in Havana there were clandestine late-night rooftop listening sessions revolving around radio pirated from Miami, and in 1973 the groundbreaking Cuban jazz/rock fusion band Irakere, fronted by Chucho Valdés, started enlisting traditional Cuban rhythms in the service of new, US-influenced forms.  Sierra Maestra took a different direction.  “We were smitten with the old-timers' music,” Marcos told me.  “We were after a punk look and we played traditional Cuban son.  We were notorious, and very popular.”
From the dustbins of prerevolutionary history, Sierra Maestra rescued the sounds Marcos grew up with in Pueblo Nuevo, which, along with its neighboring Centro Habana barrio, Cayo Hueso, was the Cuban capital’s twentieth century hotbed of rumba and urban son.  Marcos’ own father – his puro, as Cubans say – sang with some of Havana’s greatest dance bands, including the great Arsenio Rodríguez’ Septeto Boston, in the 1930s.

After his puro passed away, Marcos, looking to take the Sierra Maestra concept one step further, found a deeper way to celebrate traditional Cuban music.  And that’s how the Afro-Cuban All Stars came about.  The ACAS’ first album, A Toda Cuba le Gusta, was recorded in 1996 at Havana’s EGREM studios, produced by World Circuit’s Nick Gold, and distributed in the States through Nonesuch.  For A Toda Cuba, a big band affair, and its sister CD, Buena Vista Social Club, dedicated to the son septet style, Marcos and his wife Gliceria Abreu rounded up as many of the old-timers as they could find who were still able to play.  Most of them had abandoned music, or rather, the Cuban revolution had abandoned them.
A Toda Cuba le Gusta was a very traditional big band album of urban, '40s and '50s-style son, guaracha and guaguancó, starring a remarkable slate of musicians whose names evoke reverence if you’re a fan of the Buena Vista albums: soneros Ibrahim Ferrer, Pio Leyva, Raul Planas, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea; the great pianist Rubén Gonzalez, bassist Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez (Cachao’s nephew), trumpeters "Guajiro" Mirabal and Luis Alemañy. 
Almost all of the grand old soneros featured on those two albums and the handful of followup solo recordings from that series are gone now.  But musicians Marcos' age and younger were in the mix, including, on A Toda Cuba, sonero Félix Valoy, Marcos himself on trés and his now-deceased brother Carlos González on bongos.  All were integral to Marcos’ plan. “I was always aware that the old ones have to die, so even in the beginning I was adding younger musicians to the lineup,” he says.
The ACAS is a hands-on, real-life study in the sustainable evolution of tradition, and we’ve watched it happen here in Madison.  Some of the original artists were in the lineup that played at the old Civic Center’s Oscar Mayer Theater, in April, 2000 – Puntillita Licea (who died later that year), Alemañy, Marcos, his wife and ACAS manager Gliceria Abreu, his brother Carlos, and Valoy – plus Teresita Garcia Caturla, who wasn’t on A Toda Cuba, but whose career in Cuban song is legendary.  A few smokin’ young players whose styles were edged with jazz and timba shared that stage.   Among them were pianist David Alfaro and trumpeter Yauré Muñiz.  Garcia wore white; the men wore zoot suits in Changó's colors, red and white.  They cooked, they danced, they played a mix of tunes from A Toda Cuba and the just-released second ACAS disc, Distinto, Diferente (Nonesuch, 1999).
There’s son on that album, and a traditional canto Abakuá, but also a timba-son penned by Marcos, who called the package a modern interpretation of traditional Cuban music.  “The only way to preserve the traditional roots is to let in contemporary elements,” he says. 
The Afro-Cuban All Stars were slated to return in November, 2002.  But early that fall, in his post-Sept. 11 delirium, Bush 43 (Fidel, in his interminable speeches to Cuba’s version of Congress, the Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, used to call him “¡Boochún!”) beefed up his already hardline stance against the island, declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism. As part of this offensive the US started denying visa applications from recording artists, essentially on the grounds that Cuban music was harmful to US interests.  Fidel countered with an addition to the Cuban constitution instituting socialism as an “incontrovertible” Cuban principle.  As a result, squelched demand for economic reform on the island drove a strapping diaspora of Cuban artists to spots around the globe.
By the time the ACAS finally returned to Mad City – to play at Overture Hall – it was March, 2009.  The band had three new albums out, including Step Forward: The Next Generation (yes, the album title’s in English) on Marcos’ own Havana-based record label, DM Ahora! (2005).  “It’s classic Cuban, mixed with elements of contemporary music and a lot of improvisation,” Marcos told me when it was released.  It paid homage to the elders while showcasing the next generation’s superstars, and mixed son y rumba with multicultural, hip-hop-tinged beats – guaguancó-timba (or guarapachangueo), ballad-timba – and older fusions like Irakere’s funkified batumbatá.
On the 2009 tour all of the players, including Marcos himself, who had moved his family to Mexico City, were expats, which insured that the show would go on.  The golden age threads were gone, replaced by sharp dark suits.  The repertory was part traditional, part Step Forward, and the lineup – as always an all-star affair – was packed with ACAS, Buena Vista, and Sierra Maestra alums of assorted ages, plus (among others) Calixto Oviedo, who played drums and timbales with the original timba outfit, NG La Banda, in its best days, and the brilliant pianist Nachito Herrera, who studied with Rubén González as a child and who’s now a leading Latin jazz figure based in Minneapolis.

For this week’s concert the All Stars are all expats, too – a good thing, since even now, with the door cracked open a few inches, it’s hard to get musicians out of Cuba.  As in 2009, there’ll be some traditional tunes and some of Marcos’ contemporary compositions.  Since I'm an old-timer myself, I mention, during my most recent interview with him, that I’m not, in general, a fan of today’s youth music. 
 “It’s important to have continuity, but Cuban music is not static,” Marcos responds.  “Cuba is revolutionary and competitive in music, and if you want to play all of its genres and review its history you have to include the new styles.  When I compose, I often mix contemporary and traditional elements in the same song.”
“I don’t do reggaeton or hip-hop,” he adds.  “But, you know, I do use timba.  Of course, timba was very contemporary in the ‘90s, when it was new, but now it’s pretty traditional.  I do it for that reason, not because I want to influence the market.  I’m lucky, I don’t have to make concessions to have an intellectual and cultural effect on Cuban music.  Inside Cuba, though, young groups are being heavily influenced by commercial sounds like Puerto Rican reggaetón, and they're mixing it into what they do.” [Note: there's a whole youth genre called "Cubatón" these days.]
"Music inside Cuba is getting more commercial in another way, too," Marcos adds.  “There’s a singular new phenomenon going on.  Cuba has no commercial system – there’s no official market.  But today’s youth have created an internal market for pirate CDs and music videos by influencing the public.  They make commercial videos like capitalist pop stars to get the word out about their concerts and their bands.”
Things have changed since the days of Boochún.  The seeds of this quasi-miracle were planted in 2008 -- six years before the move toward normalization that began late last year -- when Raul Castro succeeded his brother as president and initiated a series of minor economic reforms; among them was permitting the sale of electronic devices, including computers and cell phones (with service), to ordinary Cubans.  It took a few years for this technology to become widespread.  “But young musicians are now using flash drives, text messages, and Twitter to advertise,” Marcos says.  “Everyone in Cuba texts and tweets – it’s not controlled by the government, like Internet access is.  There's a whole subcommerce that exists within a socialist system where the possibilities for individual promotion are very limited.”

Cubans are notoriously inventive, and Cuban musicians in expatlandia, like their island counterparts, are constantly reinventing the way they approach their work.  So it's no surprise that the Afro-Cuban All Stars have a new sound.  For about four years, Marcos has been using the sonora (or conjunto) format first made famous by Arsenio Rodríguez. 
On the heels of the Septeto Boston, in which Marcos’ puro sang in the '30s, Rodríguez, a king among trés players, urbanized the son sound, creating a new, larger format – the conjunto – by adding piano, a second (and sometimes third) trumpet, and tumbadoras – congas – officially prohibited by the island’s white regime for being “too black” until the ragingly louche nights of Batista’s corrupt, Mafia-allied reign overtook Havana in the '40s and '50s.  In his rhythms and lyrics, too, Rodriguez brought a blazing sense of black pride to a style of Cuban music (son) that’s African side was tempered with the sabor of Spain.
The only wind instruments in the classic sonora sound are trumpets, and the rhythm section has no timbales, but there are no hard and fast rules in this game.  Marcos uses timbales in this incarnation of the ACAS, but also three trumpets, no trombones, no sax. “I wanted more frequency,” Marcos explains.  "The trombones and barritone sax can be a little aggressive.  I chose to use clarinets instead.  I’ve also added an instrument that hasn’t been used in Cuba since the ’60s – the vibraphone.” 

        Vibes are far from a traditional Cuban instrument, but in that decade a few Cuban jazz combos, whose players would have noticed how the instrument was being used in US jazz, picked it up.  Nuyorican salsa players in that decade were using vibes, too.  Most famously Joe Cuba, “el padre del boogaloo,” often used them instead of horns to fill out the sound of his sextet.
       “I really like the vibraphone for its sweet sound,” Marcos says.  “It's sophisticated, and it’s an excellent counterpoint to the horn section. I think I'm the first Cuban orchestrator to use it in a son format.  But no matter what instrumentation I use, I respect the genres of Cuban music.  I try to play all of them, bolero, cha-cha-cha, guapachá, son – with this sonora sound.  I’m working on a new album in this format.  It’s called ‘Step Backward.’  It’s only half finished, but it’s more traditional than anything I’ve done for a while.”
Friday night’s concert, with this orchestration (the full lineup is below), will be, at least in part, a taste of “Step Backward.”  And, like Orula’s iddé, it’s a family affair.  Gliceria Abreu, as always, will be onstage playing hand percussion, singing chorus, and dancing with her husband.  Their two intensely talented, conservatory trained daughters, Gliceria and Laura González, will be there, too. 
“My daughters have always worked with me on recordings,” Marcos says, “but I didn’t want to incorporate them into the stage shows until they finished their university studies.”
  The year they started appearing live with the band was 2010.  The younger Gliceria, 30, is an orchestral conductor (and a lyric soprano); she’s teaching a Cuban string ensemble workshop in conjunction with Marcos’ UW residency this fall.  But Cuban classical music is just part of her art.  Onstage with the ACAS, she plays keyboards and vibes.  Laura’s the clarinetist. 
“Of course, they’re not just great musicians, they’re Afro-Cubans,” Marcos says, with tremendous pride.  “They play percussion, they sing and dance.”
His puro, and Orula, must be thrilled. 

Laura (L) and Gliceria González with ACAS at Yerbabuena Gardens, San Francisco  ©Tom Erlich 
The Afro Cuban All Stars for this concert are:
Gliceria Gonzalez -Ibrahim Ferrer, Amadito Valdes, etc- (Keyboards & Vibes)
Jose Marcos Crego -Klimax, Cano Estremera, etc- (Piano)
Jiovanni Cofiño -Orquesta Reve, Medico de la Salsa, etc- (Bass)
Tany Allende -Yaguarimu, Cafe Quijano, etc- (Congas)
Asley Rosell -Pacho Alonso, etc- (Bongos)
Caleb Michell -Gran Combo, etc- (Timbale Set)
Yaure Muñiz -Buenavista Social Club, Klimax, etc- (Trumpet & Flugel)
Yoanny Pino -Joan Sebastian, Azucar Negra, etc- (Trumpet & Flugel)
Julio Diaz -Salsa Giants, Luis Enrique, etc- (Trumpet & Flugel)
Laura Lydia Gonzalez -Ibrahim Ferrer, Amadito Valdes, etc- (Clarinets)
Emilio Suarez - Cachao, Willie Colon, etc- (Lead Singer)
Gliceria Abreu - Buenavista Social Club, Sierra Maestra, etc- (Afro-Cuban Percussion & Management)
Alfonso Peña -Marcos Valle, Ernan Lopez-Nussa, etc- (FOH Engineer)
Juan de Marcos (Tres & Bandleader)

Friday, September 11, 2015

El Son Cubano is Alive and Kicking, and Pellejo Seco Comes to Town to Prove It

by Susan Kepecs
Changó, Orisha of lightening and storms, dance and music, is in the house. His colors are red and white.  Offer him red apples, red bananas, a red rooster.  He loves to sing; his dances are wild.  You will sense his presence all over town for the next two months, starting with the appearance of San Francisco-based Cuban son septet Pellejo Seco at the 12th annual Madison World Music Festival (Willy St. stage, Saturday, Sept. 19, 5:15 PM) – and again at Music Hall on campus (Tuesday, Sept. 22, 7:30 PM), when UW-Madison Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Fall Artist in Residence Dr. Juan de Marcos González gives us all a superlative lesson on the long evolution of Cuban son, with Pellejo Seco illustrating the music’s many forms.  The open-to-the-public son class is the first in Dr. Marcos’ series of public presentations on Afro-Cuban music. FYI – and you will want to know – here’s the complete list of events:
Marcos is the founder of the traditional, still-in-Havana son outfit Sierra Maestra; the force behind the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon of the late 1990s; and the leader of the legendary Afro-Cuban All Stars (who appear at Overture Hall on Oct. 2).  And Cuban son, to be clear, is today the descendant of the muy Africano Changó and the madre patria – Spain – in the late nineteenth century.  Juan de Marcos and Cuban son don’t need much of an introduction to my regular readers, but if you want more, try these:;
That said, Pellejo Seco is making its very first Mad City appearances next week, so here’s the scoop.  Marcos had planned to bring back our beloved Sierra Maestra, which hasn’t played here since 2012.  Unfortunately, the band’s visas got caught in the shark’s jaws.  “When Sierra Maestra couldn’t come I thought of Pellejo Seco right away,” Marcos says.  “They’ll be perfect to fill the big hole in the schedule left by the absence of Sierra Maestra.  They’re excellent musicians, and the band is perfectly representative of the traditional son septet.” 
Marcos met the leader of Pellejo Seco, composer and tresero Ivan Camblor, in Havana, back in the early 2000s.  The latter was working on a recording with Marcos’ good friend, Cuban composer / filmmaker Edesio Alejandro – I think this was during the production of the outrageously funny Cuban film Hacerse el Sueco, for which Alejandro composed music with Camblor’s collaboration. A few years later Camblor married a Californian and moved to the Bay Area, and ever since, he and Marcos have gone to (and sometimes sat in on) each others’ gigs there.
Camblor, born and raised in Havana, considers himself a composer first and foremost, but he’s also a helluva tresero.  The Cuban tres – slightly smaller than a modern guitar, with three sets of two strings – provides the looping, rhythmic melodies quintessential to the son sound.
But son is old-school music, and almost all of the great old soneros, including Buena Vista stars Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Pío Leyva and Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, are gone now.  And despite Sierra Maestra’s continuing presence, along with a handful of younger Cuban players who, like Camblor, love son, popular music on the big island today leans heavily toward hip-hop influenced genres like timba and guarapachangueo.
“At first I wanted to play rock n’ roll,” says Camblor, 44.  “That’s what my generation listened to – North American rock.  But when I was very young I heard son, in concerts and on the street.  I loved it, I thought ‘why don’t people still write these songs?’  So I started studying it with some of the old-timers, and I had to leave rock behind. 
“I’m not an academic, I’m a street musician,” he adds.  He started learning to play with the late Octavio “Cotán” Sánchez, a guitarist and tresero from the golden generation of soneros.  Sánchez was born in Oriente – the east end of the island, and the cradle of son – though he migrated to Havana and became part of the urban son movement in the 1940s. 
“It was Sánchez who first had me play the tres,” Camblor says.  “He had me play it in a trio and I figured out that I had opportunities as a tresero.  I’d wanted to be a guitar player, but I decided to learn the instrument Sánchez put in my hands.  He told me ‘you’ll never lack money if you learn the tres.’”
Camblor started following the sound.  “Wherever I heard son I’d enter and ask to play with the old timers.  When they weren’t playing they were sitting around telling stories.  It was a great education.”
After Cotán, Camblor continued his formal studies with el Niño Rivera, definitively one of Cuba’s greatest tres virtuosos.  “I was with Rivera till he died.  I was going to his house, playing for classes.  When he died I dedicated myself to following his work.”
Camblor says he’s always studying the great son composers from Oriente and Havana.  “I wanted to develop my own sones.  So that’s what I’ve been doing, ever since I was 17.”
Being a young tresero in Havana was a double-edged sword.  “It was an offense for a while [among his timba-loving generation],” he says.  But in some places son was still in demand.  “My life was chaos. Every time I’d go by a place where some old-timers were playing, people would say ‘there’s a tresero.’  There aren’t many any more.  So I played everywhere.  I played some clubs with other soneros of my generation – there are some, but it’s hard to make a name in music now in Cuba, so you don’t hear about them. And I played with famous old soneros.  I played at the Tropicana – I was 16, 17 years old – with [Buena Vista Social Club trumpet player] Guajiro Mirabal and the Tropicana Orchestra.  People loved it.” 

California was a huge change. Camblor arrived there planning to play, but he needed money.  “It’s hard to get work if you’re not American,” he says.  He began by picking vegetables in Ventura County with migrant farmworkers. The name Pellejo Seco is partly a tribute to their hard lives and sun-scorched skin, though it’s also Havana street slang with multiple sexual allusions.  “I wanted to leave behind traditional Cuban band names and have something happier – I don’t want everything to be serious, I want people to laugh,” he says.
Money issues notwithstanding, within a year and a half Camblor had put together a septet of Bay Area Cuban expats and recorded his first album, Enganchate (an independent production distributed by CD Baby, 2006).  “We’re the only Cuban septet in California that maintains the tradition of writing new music in the son style,” he says.  “The scene is much more fragmented here than in Cuba, but I’ve had luck maintaining the septet.  We’re always playing – we play a lot of big festivals – and we have two albums out [the second is Despierta, with Chuchito Valdés on piano, CD Baby 2008], with a third on the way. 
“But,” he continues, “we haven’t made much money.  We haven’t traveled much.  We’re marginalized a little.”
Pellejo Seco is sometimes described as a world fusion band, because you can hear a hint of flamenco there, a smidge of hip-hop there.  But it’s just the evolution of Cuban son, says Juan de Marcos.  “A lot of contemporary son has the essence of traditional groups from the golden age like Septeto Habanero or Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñiero.” (I’m not going to upload a lot of ad-laden YouTube videos, but here’s a gem I pirated from the Internet.  For more, Google these bands yourself!)

But,” Marcos continues, “in contemporary son the lyrics are distinct.  The musical themes are similar to traditional son, too, but many contemporary Cuban composers add breaks or blocks that aren’t characteristic of the original sound.  Cuba was isolated for so many years – even back in the ‘80s, musicians on the island listening to radio pirated from Florida tried to use foreign sounds to add an air of cosmopolitanism.  Ivan does that, he mixes global elements into a base of son in his own music, but he knows very well how to play very traditional son.”
There certainly are some world sounds in the tunes on Pellejo Seco’s CDs, but after watching a bunch of videos I gotta say that in live performance this band sounds absolutely, definitively Cuban.  Camblor agrees.  “I’ve tried to stay outside of jazz,” he says, “to conserve the son tradition.  As a composer I want to concentrate on that.  I do use some jazz and some other elements, but I use them in the service of traditional cuban son.  We’re really a traditional son septet.  I play mostly my own compositions, I don’t have to play standards.  When people hear my songs they recognize the sound, they feel the accent of the son septet.  On Facebook they say things like “Cuidado, ¡esa gente tiene un gran sonido cubano!”
And like many Cuban composers before him, Camblor likes to use humor in his lyrics – guaracha, an uptempo son style, is full of jokes and double entendres.  “I wrote a tune called Sushi Cha Cha,” he tells me,  “because everyone in California eats sushi.  You’ll like the song.  It’s spicy, ‘pa gozar.” 
The great Orquesta Aragon – Cuba’s most famous, most recorded charanga, the long-lived king of cha cha cha bands – was visiting San Francisco for the Jazz Festival a couple of years back.  “They didn’t know what sushi is,” Camblor says, “so I said it’s like guanajo relleno.”  That’s stuffed turkey – both a dish and a famous son by the Septeto Nacional.  Aragon liked “Sushi Cha Cha” so much they played it during their show.
Pellejo Seco plays Camblor’s compositions almost exclusively onstage, but it’s impossible, he says, not to play a Buena Vista standard or two.  He mentions a few favorites, including the guajira-son “El Guateque Campesino” and the bolero “Dos Gardenias,” both Buena Vista classics delivered to the world via the silken voice of Ibrahim Ferrer.
At the Madison World Music Fest, Pellejo Seco surely will focus on Camblor’s compositions. The Music Hall lec/dem offers a chance to hear another facet of this band.  They’ll play a couple of their own tunes, Marcos says, but also a number of traditional sones that illustrate the evolution and styles of the form.
“It’s an honor to work with Juan de Marcos,” Camblor says.  “We’re very excited to come to Madison.”