by Susan Kepecs
Afrocuban jazz flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle, a Madison favorite, returns to the city after a five-year absence to play Overture’s Capitol Theater on Friday, Oct. 7. Maraca is best known here as the leader of the eclectic timba / jazz outfit Otra Vision, but this time he brings his international superband, Maraca and his Latin Jazz All Stars. It’s bound to be one of the heaviest hitting Latin jazz shows to ever come through town.
Dr. Juan de Marcos González, world-renowned expert on Cuban music, organizer of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, leader of the Afro-Cuban All Stars (who played Overture Hall exactly one year ago), and last fall’s UW-Madison Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence, calls Maraca “a monster on the flute – a virtuoso, and one of the most important musicians of his generation in the world today.”
The flute, in a way, was an accident of fate. “I didn’t choose it,” Maraca tells me via email from Havana. “They proposed it to me because two of my brothers played saxophone and clarinet, and the flute would be a good option for me to get work playing and to enter the conservatory. One of my brothers, Osvaldo, also wanted to play flute and we started studying it at the same time.”
As a Cuban flute player Maraca could have gone the classic charanga route, joining an ensemble with the flute, violin, piano, bass and percussion format that emerged from the Afro-French culture entering Cuba from New Orleans and Haiti in the nineteenth century; charangas are the hallmark of the danzón era of the early twentieth century and the 1940s – ‘50s heyday of mambo and cha cha cha. After the Revolution, charanga became a state-sanctioned sound (musicologist Ned Sublette, author of Cuban Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo [Chicago Review Press 2007] calls charanga “the sonic seal of Cuban nationalism”). Orquesta Aragon, the apotheosis of Cuban cha, rode the radio waves into Cuban homes all over the island in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and younger players still keep Aragon alive.
But Maraca was born in ’66, on the cusp of a Cuban musical revolution that defied the cultural criteria of Fidel’s fledgling regime. The sounds of Yankee imperialism were prohibited, but young conservatory players who are legendary today – like Chucho Valdés, Paquito D’Rivera, and Arturo Sandoval – held clandestine radio parties on late-night rooftops, absorbing jazz-rock fusion and other styles coming out of the States. From this illigitimate crack in the iron curtain sprang new, experimental Cuban bands – most prominently Irakere, which Valdés founded in ’73 and which included, at the time, D’Rivera, and Sandoval. Irakere mostly played highly bailable Afro-Cuban jazz / funk fusions. But even before Irakere, other Cuban musicians were picking up Big Apple bop where Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo’s Cubop left off.
“I’ve been influenced by a torrent of musicians of all styles and tendencies,” Maraca says. Early in his professional career (the mid ‘80s) he was snapped up by some of the great creators of new Cuban music. Among them were New York influenced Afro-Cuban jazz vocalist / trumpeter / pianist Bobby Carcasses, and the similarly innovative, deeply Cuban jazz pianist Emiliano Salvador, who put out some of the tastiest fusions this side of the sky and died too young.
On the heels of those experiences, Maraca joined Irakere in 1988. By then, though Valdés still led the band, most of its first generation had moved on. But having worked with Valdés, Carcasses and Salvador was the greatest school, Maraca says.
That education led Maraca to found Otra Vision, in 1994. This band’s eclectic approach applied the innovations of the ‘70s and ‘80s to traditional danzón and guaguancó, plus timba – itself an uptempo Afro-Cuban style developed by a new generation of rebellious youth. Timba flowered during the island’s post-Soviet crisis in the 1990s, which opened the island to tourism and all the outside influences that brought, including hip-hop and the multiethnic, multicultural cross-currents of New York.
Madison became well acquainted with Otra Vision. Maraca brought his band here in 2000, to play Fiesta Hispana and the Union Terrace. He came again in April, 2001, to the Orpheum. The start of the new millenium was a good time for Cuban music in Mad City, but soon the door slammed shut. After 9/11 the State Department made it nearly impossible for Cuban musicians to get into the US – though Maraca, thanks to the persistence of his French-born wife / manager / producer / tour coordinator and fellow flutist Celine Chauveau, played the 2002 Marquette Waterfront Festival, and, in 2003, a dynamite show at the Barrymore, where, despite the old theater’s funky, bohemian ambience, I almost got bounced by the dance police.
Maraca was here again to headline the 2008 Madison World Music Festival, which occurred smack dab at the kickoff to the Great Recession. To make it happen, Cardinal Bar owner Ricardo González drove a yellow schoolbus to O’Hare to pick up the band. In 2011, Maraca and Otra Vision returned to play the fête de Marquette.
Otra Vision no longer exists, Maraca says. He’s still plying his dance chops – “this year I put together a band called ‘Maraca and Guests,’ and we played salsa and traditional Cuban dance music in Venezuela in April. And I earned the Cubadisco Grand Prize as a guest of [legendary dance band] Elito Revé and his Charangón. It was for a tune on which Isaac Delgado [“El Chévere de la Salsa” and lead singer for the original timba outfit NG la Banda, in its early days] sang, too.”
Nevertheless, today at 50, Maraca’s devoting most of his touring time to the Latin Jazz All Stars project. It’s a great, sophisticated vehicle that lets him display the agility and edge he’s developed over the years without the glam distractions of Otra Vision’s salsa-style shows.
The Latin Jazz All Stars originated in 2008, when Maraca put together in international lineup for the Monterey Jazz Festival. The players change, of course, but here, courtesy of Chauveau, is an absolutely swingin’ arrangement of Miles Davis’ iconic “All Blues” in in Marciac, France, in 2014, with a Cuba / US lineup featuring Harold López Nussa on piano, Rafael Pasiero on bass, Irvin Acao on sax, Horacio Hernández on drums, and, of course Maraca on flute, plus Milwaukee’s own Brian Lynch on trumpet, SNL trombonist Steve Turre on conch shell, and Nuyorican conga honcho Giovanni Hidalgo.
On Maraca’s current All Stars tour are Lynch and Turre; New Yorker Robby Ameen, whose drums you hear on those Ruben Blades Seis del Solar albums from the ‘90s – he also plays, along with Lynch, on one of my favorite Palmieri recordings, Palmas (Nonesuch 1994); pianist Mario Canonge, from Martinique, French West Indies; Venezuelan congero Orlando Poleo, who’s been working with Maraca for years; and, from Havana, longtime Gonzalo Rubalcaba bassman Felipe Cabrera.
“I just played concerts in Europe (Vilnius and Paris) and in Aspen and Vail, Colorado, with this particular configuration,” Maraca says. “These musicians work really well together and the mix of cultures is very interesting.”
Does the Cuban-ness – the tumbao of the orishas – get lost in the globalization process? “No,” Maraca insists. “What’s Cuban isn’t lost – it’s universalized. We play tradional music like danzones, or we play charanga style, and we do some of my own compositions in these formats, plus some versions of jazz standards.
“I invite everyone to come,” he adds. “This concert is going to be unique, it’ll never be repeated. We always change things up, and at every concert the ambience is very different. We’re happy to be coming back to play for our Madison audience.”