Interview: Afro-Cuban All Star Juan de Marcos Gonzalez [Part 1]

by Brian Howe on March 12, 2013

Afro Cuban All Stars 3

Afro-Cuban All Stars (Juan de Marcos, L)

If you have even a passing fondness for the traditional music of the Caribbean, then Havana legend Juan de Marcos González needs no introduction. First, back in the 1970’s, he formed the influential band Sierra Maestra, which introduced the music of Cuba to a new generation. Then he spearheaded the Buena Vista Social Club recording sessions that, in the 1990’s, made this music a worldwide sensation. Now de Marcos carries on the work of preserving and promoting Cuba’s native styles with the Afro-Cuban All Stars, which brings its brilliantly arranged dance tunes to Page Auditorium on March 23. In this first part of our phone interview, de Marcos discusses his early days as a rock musician and the vibrant history of Cuban music.

The Thread:  I’ve read you grew up liking international pop music on the radio, as many young people do. What turned your attention back to the traditional music of Cuba?

JUAN DE MARCOS GONZÁLEZ: Well, I grew up with the traditional Cuban music because my father used to be a singer for some of the greatest Cuban bands of the 30’s and 40’s. Every seventh of September at my house, a party took place where I knew many of the greatest Cuban musicians of my neighborhood [in Havana]. They were friends with my father. So I grew up with these kinds of music, but you know, when you are young you try to be different. There were a couple of radio stations coming from the South in America, one from Key West, Florida—WQAM—and the other from Little Rock, Arkansas, KAAY.

At that time, they used to play a lot of the fashionable American music—rock ‘n’ roll and underground music as well. In the first part of my career, I used to be a rock ‘n’ roll player. Normally we used to copy the arrangements of the Grateful Dead, King Crimson, the Rolling Stones, even the last period of the Beatles. We would make new arrangements to perform at parties in Havana. But in 1975, I was at the university and we decided to create a band that, instead of performing foreign music, would perform traditional Cuban music. The name of the band was Sierra Maestra, and it was the first band of young guys performing this kind of music. I turned my eyes to the real thing and since that time, I’ve been performing it.

What made the 1950’s such a vibrant and special time in Cuban music?

Juan de Marcos

Juan de Marcos

Cuba is like America; we’re a young country. We don’t have a long history such as France or England, and I think that the 50’s was the period of the explosion of the Cuban identity. Of course, the identity was created and developed in the years since the early 19th century, but the explosion of the Cuban culture and nationality wasn’t there. In the 50’s, this was the golden period of music in terms of the quality and the amount of different styles we had at the time. That’s why, when I had the chance, I wanted to make a tribute to my father and his friends by bringing them to the studio.

My father passed away in 1990, but some of his friends were still alive with the possibility to go to the studio. After a successful recording in London with Sierra Maestra, we sold about 250,000 copies of an album called Dundunbanza!, which was a tribute to Arsenio Rodriguez. My father used to be the singer for Arsenio Rodriguez from 1941 to 1979. That album was really successful and I wanted to make a tribute to my father using his friends, old guys in their seventies and eighties. In a conversation with the head of a small label in London, World Circuit—the same label that released Dundunbanza!—I talked with Nick Gold, the head of the label, about my idea.

He agreed, and in March of 1996, we went to the studio to record a tribute to the 50’s with an album called A Toda Cuba Le Gusta by the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Then the second album we did, with more acoustic music from the eastern part of the island— we called these sessions the Buena Vista Social Club. So we did one album with these musicians as Afro-Cuban All Stars, then one as Buena Vista Social club, then a third—the first solo album of Rubén González, who was the pianist of Arsenio Rodriguez’s band during the time when my father was the lead singer. The name Afro-Cuban All Stars came later; at the time we just called it the big band.

You mentioned all these different styles of Cuban music—what kinds of things do they have in common?

Afro Cuban All Stars 4

Afro-Cuban All Stars

There are a lot of things in common. Right now, for example, my band is 100% Cuban; we don’t play foreign music at all. Of course we use some elements of international contemporary music, for example elements of hip-hop or jazz. But jazz is not American music anymore; it’s commercial music, and there was a marriage of Cuban and American music in the 30’s, when jazz musicians started coming to Havana.

So there’s an important link between the American and Cuban music. We are a traditionally Cuban band, the real thing. But in Cuba, there are a lot of things happening with the young guys using more and more elements of  contemporary American music, such as hip-hop, and elements of symphonic music as well. We do have several different styles, from the danceable styles you call salsa, which is more of commercial term to describe the Cuban music. And we develop different styles such as mambo and son, cha cha and guaracha and guajira. They are all different from the structural point of view. In 1959 we used to have more than 75 different styles, all different but with the same flavor and the same placement of accents.


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