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)