Afro-Cuban All Stars - Land of the rising son
In his book In The Country Of Country, Nicholas Dawidoff maps out a cross-section of Tennessee and Kentucky, including snatches of bordering states, as country music's most fertile ground, its deep zone of talent and tradition. The island of Cuba, over 700 miles from east to west, shares much with this musical zone. In important ways, Cuba has remained isolated from outside influences -- be they political, economic or cultural -- and in equally important ways, Cuba has remained open to experimentation and selective adaptation to the forces of modernity. No island, in the end, is an island. Cuba has its country music: son, the guitar-based dance music that emerged at the turn of the century in the fields, mountains, and small campesino towns of Eastern Cuba. Like traditional North American country music, son is a synthesis of white and black, European and African elements. It is a music of simple but vigorous instrumentation and language, an intensely sincere and sharp mirror of the lives of those who sing and play it, whether professionally or casually, around fireplaces or at picnics and family reunions. All son requires is a six-string guitar and a set of bongos, although the most traditional son ensemble also consists of the botija (an earthenware, whistled-over jug), a marimbula (a bass instrument), the maracas or clave (snare-like percussion instruments), the tres (a guitar strung with three sets of double strings), sometimes a harmonica -- and, of course, the song itself. The last of these is one of the keys to Cuban son and its newfound favor behind the Buena Vista flood. To be sure, a smart marketing campaign, a touching story, a beautiful film, and the participation of Ry Cooder played no small part in the current Cuban craze. Still it's hard to imagine the music sinking in were it not for the refreshing brilliance of the songs themselves. Even if you don't understand a word of Spanish, the story behind Compay Segundo's "Chan Chan", the lead track on Buena Vista Social Club and the movement's theme song, is crystalline. It's the story of a man traveling to find his beloved. The mood is both bawdy and sentimental, and the simple, repeated melody and dancing rhythms soothe the singer on his journey. In musical terms, no one would mistake Cuban son for a country shuffle, and certainly no one should be persuaded that son and North American country are identical. But the cross-pollination between the whole range of Latin and American roots musics should not be underestimated. Country and western music, specifically the careers of Marty Robbins, Johnny Rodriguez and Freddy Fender, would not be possible without Mexican music. Ditto for many great country recordings: "Ring of Fire", "Amigo's Guitar" and "Easy Come Easy Go", just for starters, are all indebted to Latin music. The very name of the Buckaroos derives from the Spanish word for cowboy, vaquero, and the storied, spangled Nudie suit is surely modeled on mariachi getup. Just as the horn blasts, gourd scrapes and guitar sounds of Calexico draw on Afro-Caribbean percussion, so too did the Sir Douglas Quintet frequently reach beyond just American roots music; sometimes they exploded into a whole cosmos of Latin sounds. Cuban son may now be synonymous with the names Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, and Barbarito Torres, but "Los super-abuelos," as they are called in Cuba, were not the first of the new Cuban wave. The Afro-Cuban All Stars, led by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez (who also appeared on Buena Vista), made their first album in March 1996, at the famed EGREM studios in Havana. The record, A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, was released on the World Circuit label prior to the Cooder-produced Buena Vista Social Club. For many, A Todo Cuba Le Gusta remains the high point of the '90s Cuban tide. If nothing else, it best captures the island's musical idioms, traversing primal son montuno, danzon, mambo, mozambique, and cha-cha-cha. Its energy is devastating, and its songs are instantly memorable. This is dance music, to be sure, but the songs tell stories: at times comic, at times sexy and playful, at times as intense as nightmares, and always brimming with real people and real, lived-in, worked-on places. Those stories seep into the fabric of the music and the private histories of the musicians, old and young, flooding every guitar lick, every horn riff, every bongo slap. They provide an alternative to the shiny, watered-down sound of mainstream Latin music. The Afro-Cuban All Stars sound so refreshing because they recall a fading period of classic Cuban music and also have an undeniable mastery of the son idiom, a mastery that rings with the force of truth. Juan de Marcos is standing outside Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis, Missouri, where his fifteen-piece band, the touring version of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, has just done what no orchestra has done before: They made a thousand tuxedoed and evening-gowned Missourians rumba. "This is the freest country in the world," Juan de Marcos says in Spanish, "but don't try to smoke a cigarette." He gets a light in the open air outside the backstage door, smokes and signs autographs, and then invites the 40 or so onlookers inside to the reception. It's a subdued party, full of snazzily dressed Cubans looking confused as their North American fans practice an incomprehensible Spanish. As Mike Seeger was for old-time music, and Alan Lomax for the blues, Juan de Marcos has been a one-man renaissance for traditional Cuban music. Born in 1954 in a musically obsessed barrio of Havana, Gonzalez, like all the Afro-Cuban All Stars, had traditional music in his blood. His father played with the legendary Arsenio Rodriguez, and as a boy, Juan would spend time at the nearby solar, a meeting place for some of Havana's most significant musicians. While being schooled in engineering, he also studied classical guitar and formed the seminal Sierra Maestra, a traditional septeto group that revived the classic son sound in the '70s and '80s -- but with, in his words, a "punk style." Sierra Maestra prefigured a generation of such Cuban greats as Ruben Gonzalez, Pio Leyva, Manuel "Puntillita" Licea and Amado Valdes with younger musicians such as David Alfaro, Ricardo Munoz and Miguel Anga Diaz. For Juan de Marcos, overcoming that generational divide -- not only reviving the careers of older musicians such as Ibrahim Ferrer and Orlando Lopez, but integrating them with young players -- is the most urgent concern for Cuban music. This blending of generations, feeding off the sparks that fly from the confrontation of styles, is at the heart of the All Stars' vision. "The problem is that everyone is so focused on their own generation," he explains. "Sometimes the younger musicians think they have some absolute advantage over the older musicians. And in historical and political terms, Cuba has been very isolated. A country that is so isolated can begin to believe that things outside of the country are better than what is within the country. "For example, jazz has became very popular with the younger generation, but I think it's much more difficult to combine North American influences with a Cuban base. At the same time, the younger generation wants to forget the past, especially if the past has been difficult." The Afro-Cuban All Stars' most recent recording, Distinto, Diferente (also on World Circuit), further combines the young and old, paradigmatic son with more contemporary jazz, lushly orchestrated super-charangas, its lyrics reflecting contemporary Cuban life. Thirty-two-year-old David Alfaro, who has worked with Pablo Milanes and NG La Banda, plays piano beside septuagenarian Ruben Gonzalez; their styles contrast so dramatically that a whole new music takes shape. "I feel great admiration for Ruben Gonzalez and Frank Emilio," Alfaro says. "I'm their student; they are the masters. And a student must take advantage of what they offer. Ruben has his own absolutely distinct style. He is full of ideas and spontaneity, and, at the same time, his playing is so clear and precise. But in the end you must develop your own style; that's the most important thing." Whether it is just serendipity or a result of Juan de Marcos Gonzalez' leadership, the Afro-Cuban All Stars have both reasserted the value of the most traditional Cuban music and changed the rules completely. "Juan de Marcos is very intelligent," Alfaro says, "but he never restricts my own expression. Cuban son music has its parameters, but my style draws from many sources, and Juan has never tried to limit my playing." One of the greatest rediscoveries of the Afro-Cuban All Stars has been the legendary sonero Manuel "Puntillita" Licea. That's his voice, burnished but full of life, closing the Buena Vista Social Club disc, singing of the Bayamo woman who "can hear her homeland crying out." Licea, 73, started out as a drummer but quickly became the lead singer for Havana's best bands of the '40s and '50s. "My father didn't approve of my traveling with these groups," Licea says. "Finally we convinced him that I should become a musician and tour with my uncle's band. And at this time there was a great flu epidemic and the lead singer couldn't sing on a radio program. I explained that I could do it, and my uncle agreed, but the rest of the band thought I was crazy. I was just a boy. But I learned the songs and sang them, and everyone noticed and commented on my singing. And that's how I began my career as a singer. "For awhile I was nearly forgotten," Licea continues. "You know what they say: Sometimes a pretty face is worth more than the quality of an artist. But I've always loved baseball, and in an orchestra, the singer is the pitcher. The pitcher is the one who must have good control and strength, and to always give his best, the singer has to take care of himself. That's even more important than study and practice. I've always tried to take care of myself so that I can continue to perform well, until I can't perform anymore." For six decades Puntillita has continued to sing; it's all he's ever done. Onstage in St. Louis, he becomes a godless cantor, his zoot suit glowing, his voice a powerful blend of male and female tones, urged out across the years and, as they say in Spanish, oblivion. We don't associate that kind of existential sound with dance music, but there he is onstage, in a country that represents all the freedom in the world -- yet forbids the direct import of his music -- singing a song about the girl who broke his heart: Country girl, son calls you To dance, to joy The first song on The Afro-Cuban All Stars' first recording, "Amor Verdadero", is a tune made popular in Puntillita's heyday, but it had not been recorded in Cuba for 40 years. It's the story of a man who falls in love, loses, and winds up drunk, doped up and in jail: My friends abandoned me Only my mother wept She prayed to God She begged him to save her only son By the end of the song, the singer has been stripped of everything, and has only one recourse from the "darkness of evil": his mother. Only in bluegrass music are mothers -- their healing, security, and unconditional love -- so deeply celebrated as they are in son. Of all the emotional moments during the Afro-Cuban All Stars spring U.S. tour, the nightly duets between Puntillita and Teresa Garcia Caturla held the most sweetness. Teresita, as she is known, has long been the director of the female a cappella group Cuarteto de'Aida, and her career is distinguished by her having been the only female member of the definitive '70s son group Estrellas de Arieto. "I come from a family of musicians in Villa Clara province of Cuba," Teresita says. "My father was a well-known musician in Cuba, and he came from an aristocratic family in a town called Remedios. He married my mother, a black woman, and so my lineage is a mixture of Spanish and African, the white and the mulatto." On the phone from Havana, she speaks of astrology, her neighborhood in El Vedado zone of Havana, and the "music which is the same as life" in Cuba. "What's most important is that our music has penetrated the younger generation," she says. "We may be a bunch of older musicians, but the kids dance to us too! And this is important because the younger generation, born after the Revolution, has created their own music, but our music still speaks to them. I don't understand politics, I'm not a political person, but the music that was lost to the younger generation after the Revolution, well, we've helped recover that music and return it to Cuba. It's our culture, our music, after all." With the advent of recording and radio in the 1920 and '30s, son moved from the countryside to the city: Havana. The capital of Cuba became one of the most important musical cities in the world, and it remained that way until the Revolution of 1959. It's not that the music stopped in Havana. Not hardly. But the nation's ability to market, develop and finance son was curtailed. Concerts, clubs, and especially music schools flourished after the Revolution. Exports did not. Amadito Valdes, percussionist extraordinaire and chief timbalero for the Afro-Cuban All Stars, remembers those days. "We had no promotion and we lost a market," he says. "In fact, this was the cause for the creation of the salsa movement, which initially was really Cuban music with a different name. But all the while in Cuba the music grew, music schools developed, and talents of all kinds developed. But fewer and fewer people knew." In Wim Wenders' film documentary of the Buena Vista Social Club, Valdes describes his music: "In the field of percussion, the timbale is a very limited instrument. So the person who plays it must have a sense of how to make the imagination dance." In the '60s and '70s, Valdes recorded with Paquito d'Rivera, the Bene More Orchestra, and Cuarteto D'Aida. More recently he has appeared on albums by Irish ensemble the Chieftains and Mexican rap group Control Machete. "I come from a musical family," Valdes begins, just as every Cuban musician begins. "My father, with whom I share my name, was a well-known saxophonist and clarinetist in the '30s until the '80s. He was one of the pioneers in jazz orchestras in Cuba. I began to pursue percussion after studying with a great musician, Alfredo de los Reyes, who now lives in California. This happened in the '60s. After he left for the United States, I studied in the conservatory with Fausto Garcia and Domingo Aragu. I was finally reunited with Alfredo de los Reyes during the Cuba-United States Bridge activities, a meeting of U.S. and Cuban musicians, and we worked together on a recording with Lisa Loeb and a Cuban singer, Kiki Corona." By linking traditional and contemporary Cuban dance music, the Afro-Cuban All Stars have forged nothing like a single identifiable sound. Rather, from song to song they sound like different bands altogether, although Valdes's rhythmic drive is a constant, as are the voices of Licea and Caturla. "For me a record is like a novel," Juan de Marcos says. "It has chapters, and each chapter has to be distinct, but there also has to be an overall unity." Although recordings by the All Stars and the rest of the Buena Vista cadre are yet not available for sale in Cuba, Gonzalez believes they have influenced Cuban culture. "The records are played on the radio, and so everyone knows them," he says. "There's been a change in the language of the young music. Too much American influence in Cuban music is not a good thing, just as it would be a bad thing if Cuban music overly influenced American music." The success of the All Stars albums has allowed Gonzalez to found his own record label and production company, Ahora, which will be releasing solo projects from Licea and a younger sonero, Felix Valoy. Midway through the All Stars' most recent recording, Gonzalez makes the band's only direct political gesture. The song "Reconciliation" includes an opening verse that will ring true for any Cuban, or for anyone who has tasted exile and separation: You went to find another life Dreaming of a triumphant return But incomprehension threw down her veil And we couldn't understand "This song has no specific political objective," Gonzalez emphasizes. "Politics don't interest me. But in the case of Elian Gonzalez, for instance, I think like any intelligent person: If the mother has died, the father then must have the rights to the child. It's all become a political game, and the child has suffered for it. This song 'Reconciliation' is really just a call to conscience for the Cubans in Havana and in Miami. We've passed through more than 40 years of political problems, and what good has it done any of us?" Politics will pass, and reconciliation is, despite the relentless efforts of politicians, inevitable. Cuba -- musically, economically, and spiritually -- shares too much with the land just 90 miles to the north. Havana, city of columns, stained glass, baroque spirals, ornate iron, and narrow, cobbled streets winding down to the ocean; city of flower vendors on bicycles, generals carrying loaves of bread, cabbies hustling, college teachers turning tricks in parks to survive, and musicians gathering to play in bars, along the sea wall, and in the plazas...It will remain, and its music will always reach, soak, and change other shores. "No one could have imagined what we've accomplished," Amadito Valdes says. "What we've done has been for Cuban music itself, not just for the people involved. We broke the wall that has been between the United States and Cuba, and between Cuba and the world." Roy Kasten is a writer and teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. He thanks Alejo Carpentier, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and the members of Postcard2 for their contributions to this essay. As far as the Department of Treasury is concerned, he never set foot in Cuba.