by Susan Kepecs
If you need a reason to rejoice (and who doesn't, these days?), here it is: Juan de Marcos and his Afro-Cuban All Stars return to Overture Hall on March 3 at 7:30 PM. Marcos has deep Madison connections, but in case you don't know him, he's the man who brought Cuba's old-time musicians to the attention of Ry Cooder in the late '90s. Cooder recorded the ACAS's first album, A toda Cuba le gusta, along with the original Buena Vista Social Club and a number of subsequent disks by individual artists from that group. These records put traditional Cuban son y rumba on the world map. Almost all of the oldsters are gone now, but the Afro-Cuban All Stars keep fanning the flame.
Traditional Cuban music, Marcos will tell you, is a living, evolving phenomenon. The ACAS repertory is mostly based on the sounds of Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Arsenio Rodríguez (with whom Marcos's father sang for a time)—you know, Havana, 1940s. Son montuno. Guaguancó. Marcos's arrangements usually stick pretty close to the old songs, but his own compositions—and sometimes his concert sets, when he has younger players in the band—gild this timelessness with the rhythmic innovations of the twenty-first century.
The ACAS—a full 15-piece Cuban orquesta—first played its joyful music to a sellout crowd at the Oscar Mayer Theater in the old Civic Center in March of 1999. Due to popular demand the band was invited back in 2002, but in the aftermath of 9/11, George W. "Boochún" (as they used to call him in Cuba) Bush denied their visas. The ACAS finally returned in 2009, selling out Overture Hall. By then Marcos had left the island, first for Mexico and then for the States; his orquesta that year was a mix of expats and die-hard islanders who managed to get visas thanks to Obama's early efforts to ease restrictions.
|Marcos and his wife Gliceria Abreu|
demonstrating danzón during a lec-dem
at the Memorial Union Play Circle,
The upcoming ACAS show was originally billed as the Afro-Cuban All Stars with Buena Vista laud laureate Barbarito Torres. Torres—one of a handful of younger soneros who played on the Buena Vista albums—still lives in Cuba. He's been to the states many times; he played the Barrymore in June, 2001. But if you've checked Overture's website lately, you'll notice that Torres's name is gone. What happened is no mystery. The issues plaguing the visa process are sporadically insurmountable. I talked to Marcos on the phone earlier this month, before he got caught up in the realities of tour prep. At the time, he was still trying to get Torres's visa in order. Now, barring some last-minute milagro, Torres isn't coming. But nothing in this world can stop the ACAS from bringing aché—blessings, grace, virtue, truth—back to town this March.
Here's what Marcos had to say, about Torres and everything else:
CulturalOyster: What's the story on Barbarito?
Marcos: For this tour I wanted to bring three musicians from my generation who're still in Cuba, including Ibrahim Ferrer Jr. [the youngest son of the late Buena Vista star] and Barbarito. I applied for their visas and paid an enormous sum for them. But they only granted visas that were good for three months. That would leave us hanging since those visas would run out before the tour ends. I can't play Afro-Cuban All Stars music without the full big band, and I can't switch players in the middle of the run. I'm trying to get an extension for Barbarito, but it doesn't look good. It's ridiculous that there are hundreds of thousands of Cubans trying to get into the States at the Mexican border right now and a lot of them get in and are allowed to stay. But a musician who's well-known to US authorities, who's been here many times and never overstayed his visa, can't get the right papers.
CulturalOyster: It's not the first time the ACAS has had visa problems. But let's catch up on you. What do you have going on these days?
Marcos: I just finished mixing my latest live album. This year I also want to do a studio record, with very different kinds of music, just to shake things up. Among the themes I'm working with are three that were composed by students I worked with in Madison in 2015. We picked the songs together and I arranged and mixed them. One is hip hop and another is more or less Latin pop. I really like these tunes a lot.
Besides that, a group of Broadway producers is working on a musical about the Buena Vista Social Club. They contracted me as a musical consultant. It's got a ways to go, but it might be done by the end of this year.
CulturalOyster: So, besides just this upcoming tour, you've got a lot on your plate. You stopped touring during the worst of covid. How do you feel about getting back on the road now that the pandemic is more under control?
Marcos: The pandemic hasn't ended, and since I'm not young any more I'm extremely careful. We haven't toured much since covid started, though we did play four days in San Francisco last spring. I had a strict policy—I didn't let anyone backstage, everyone wore a mask all the time—masks off only for the show—and everyone tested every day. It worked. In San Francisco, nobody got sick. This upcoming tour is much longer, but even though the pandemic may be winding down we'll keep those policies in place. It's the best way to keep going without anybody getting sick. People had to figure out how to work during the black plague. You have to work. If you don't, you lose the spirit.
CulturalOyster: You were last here for one day in May, 2017, to do a lecture-dem for the UW-Madison Office of Multicultural Arts. But you haven’t played a big concert in this town since that Oct. 2, 2015 show at Overture Hall. So it’s been almost eight years. You were working on an album at that time called "Step Backward"—a followup to the record you put out in 2008, Step Forward: Next Generation, which featured young players and then-new Cuban fusion genres like guarapachangueo. Some of that was in your 2015 show. "Step Backward" was going to be a return to more traditional sounds. Did that album get finished?
Marcos: Never. The problem was, it was supposed to be a studio album, but the way the world has changed, with everything available online, the expense of renting a studio to record an album isn't always wise. Anyway, I love the sound of live music. I've been recording direct for a long time, in multitrack audio and video. I mix the tracks and what you get preserves the energy of live music but also has the quality of a studio mix. The first ACAS Absolutely Live CD/DVD came out in 2008. I just finished the mixing for "Live 2." It's music from the San Francisco show, and the video, which I'm preparing now, is on Blu-ray. The album has a lot of traditional son from the Buena Vista old-timers. I stay close to their sound, but with a contemporary edge. But it also has a timba that I wrote, and some other surprises. The San Francisco show was a little jazzy. One thing I did, which I'm keeping in the repertory, is a collage of three boleros. One is mine, another is "Deja que siga solo" by the great Cuban composer and singer Marta Valdés, and the third is "Dos gardenias" [which Ibrahim Ferrer sings on the original Buena Vista Social Club album.] We'll play some of the music from the San Francisco show in Madison, but this band has different players and some changes in instrumentation.
CulturalOyster: Last time you had mostly younger players in the band. Three trumpets, no sax. Your daughters, Gliceria and Laura, played vibraphone and clarinet, respectively, and sang backup.
Marcos: In this band there's a range. Most of the players are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. But I'm going to be 69. I'm one of the old ones now! There were three saxes in San Francisco, but for this tour there's just one; I have a baritone sax player who also plays flute. I was the voice of the old sonero in Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2021 animated film Vivo, and I sang the theme "Mambo Cabana" in that movie with Gloria Estefan. That'll probably be in the repertory, and it has to have flute. I've also got three trumpets, and the Cuban base—bass, piano, timbales, congas, bongo, hand percussion.
CulturalOyster: And your tres, right? It wouldn't be Cuban music without that! I expect to see Gliceria [Marcos's wife, who also manages the band] playing hand percussion. Are your daughters on this tour, too?
Marcos: Yes, of course, Gliceria will be there, and I'll play my tres. My daughters aren't coming, though. They're playing a lot of music on their own now, they have their own professional obligations. But I have a new lead singer, his name is Alberto Alberto. He's excellent—a great sonero and bolerista. This band is smokin'!
Here's the full lineup, because in the heat of the show you're not going to want to check your program to see who's who onstage:
Emilio Suarez (Lead Singer)
Alberto Alberto (Lead Singer)
Barbaro Perez (Bass)
Orlando Cardoso (Piano)
Antonio “Tony” Garcia (Baritone Sax & Flute)
Orlando Fraga (Trumpet & Flugelhorn)
Carlos Alberto Iraola (Trumpet & Flugelhorn)
Antonio “Tony” Perigo (Trumpet & Flugelhorn)
Asley Rossel (Bongo)
Tany Allende (Congas)
Caleb Michel (Timbale Set)
Rolando Garcia (Sound Engineer)
Gliceria Abreu (Management & Afro-Cuban Percussion)
Juan de Marcos (Bandleader, tres)
Interview with Juan de Marcos, translation from Spanish, editing for brevity and clarity, and bracketed additions in interview text by SK