By Irina Pacheco Valera
Cuban popular music has had, by tradition, a wide repertoire of duets, trios, vocal quartets, son ensembles, charangas, jazz bands, etc, which have been paradigms of the dancing audience. With the cultural keys of the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties of the 20th Century, the traditional musical genres revitalized from 1959 on, due to a new resizing space of the popular and black roots as the true keys of our music.
The son, as researcher Adriana Orejuela Martinez coined in her book, did not leave Cuba, since either this, as well as its oldest variants such as: the son montuno, the kiribi, the nengun or the changuí were added to it in a creative way.
Taking into account that musical itinerary, we can say that the splendid nineteen-seventies’ decade of the 20th Century resemantized that memory by the interaction with the daily life of an audience which, at the same time that delighted itself with the creation and re-creation of its origins, enriched them.
The Sierra Maestra musical group has been considered one of the most outstanding Cuban music acts since the very first moment they appeared on the stage with a respect to a tradition that reminded and, at the same time, paid tribute to the son ensembles from the twenties and the thirties.
Integrated by a guitarist, a tres player, a trumpet player, a bongo, a guiro, claves, maracas, a drummer and a singer, they have been the forerunners in the recovery of the sonera inheritance for the enjoyment of the new generations. So, we cannot study the history of the son without this musical ensemble.
Sierra Maestra has played an important role in the last years of Cuban music worldwide. Since its creation, on October 20, 1976, this group (called at that time Grupo de Sones de la Facultad de Ingenieria Electrica, in Spanish) it devoted itself to listen, first, and to know about the traditional music not so popular by then, considered old by many at that time, above all, by the younger generation. This way two themes by the Ignacio Piñeiro National Septet took their original form, these were: Donde estabas anoche -a rumba- and the son Como está Miguel; popularly known as Bururu Barara, and started the arduous task of assembling them.
Many of the members are still part of the group. That is the case of its director, Eduardo Himely, as well as Alberto Valdes, Carlos Puisseax, Luis Barzaga and Alejandro Suarez. It is worthy to remark that since its very beginning, it has succeeded in all its performances and it has been very loved and respected by the audience. The themes interpreted by this group competed at the Super Top National Hit, and they have participated in different professional festivals, being recognized by prestigious authors who approached them with their works.
But, above all, during this time, one of the most important proposals was the invitation to record their first long play [LP], which they did in 1980 and whose title was Sierra Maestra llego con el Guanajo Relleno. This LP was awarded with the Disco de Plata (Silver Disk of the Year), granted by EGREM (Cuban Recording Company). Thus began the diffusion of the music made by this group around the world, being one of the first digitalized LP of Cuban music.
Henceforth, their performances turned more and more important and required more professional demand, something for which the group obtained numerous national awards during the nineteen-eighties’ decade. Among the most relevant were: the Girasol award granted by Opina magazine to the most popular Cuban musical groups; the Benny More award, granted to those groups that make an important contribution to the development of Cuban music; EGREM’s Grand Prix, in 1981; other EGREM’s awards to all the albums of Cuban traditional music recorded by the group during the nineteen-eighties; several awards and mentions for having participated in the main Contests of Cuban Popular Music (Adolfo Guzman, Benny More, etc.); the award granted by the Cuban Journalists’ Association to those musical groups that make important contributions to the rescue of the country’s cultural traditions. In 2002, the Sierra Maestra group received the Nicolas Guillen Diploma for their contributions to the Cuban Music and their artistic work.
During the eighties decade they also began to reach a good prestige all-round-the-world. They made different performances in Angola, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Burundi, Curacao, Congo-Brazzaville and Zaire (now D.R. of the Congo), Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Japan, Luxembourg. Madagascar, The Netherlands, Nicaragua, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Seychelles, Tanzania and Zambia. Besides, Sierra Maestra, Xiomara Laugart, and the Santos Brothers’ dance couple took part of a show performed in forty cities of Japan, and participated in different Radio and Television programs of the countries they visited.
In the nineties, besides having returned almost each year to more than the 80% of the nations they had already visited in the previous decade, new countries and festivals of great importance worldwide such as that of Australia, Bosnia, Canada, Italy, Macedonia, Croatia, Cyprus, United Kingdom, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Slovenia, Turkey, Yugoslavia and the United States, added to their curriculum. Of all these countries, there were two that traced new horizons in the history of the group. I’m talking about Mexico and the United Kingdom.
To Mexico, they were invited, in 1990, to the Festival of Salsa Music that took place in Cancun where they shared with first-line figures of the Latin Music in the world, like Willie Colon, Celia Cruz, Sonora Ponceña, Johnny Ventura, among others. Due to their big success, they received an invitation to perform in the United Kingdom, where they started to work with the Salsa Music recording company, with which they work nowadays. Henceforth, the group’s work took on new dimensions, since it increased the professional standards of their members, and they focused themselves on new recording experiences.
The nighties’ decade and the years that followed, up to the end of the 21st Century, they participated in different festivals, like the Womad Festivals (one of the most important Festivals of World Music in the world); the Jazz Festival of Glastonbury Park UK; the North Sea Festival, in Holland; and performed in important stages of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, L.A., and other US cities. They made a concert in the Music Hall of Toronto; a big concert in Kongresova Hall, in Warsaw (2004); another one in the Vilnius Hall (Lithuania, 2004), and in many other prestigious halls.
In 2005 they performed in first-class festivals, such as: The Latin American, in Milan; the Escena Ella Fitgerald, in Switzerland; the Escena Frederic Pillier (La Billette), in Paris; the Festival of Sao Vicente, in Cape Verde and, in 2006, in: the Jazz East Atlantic Festival, in Halifax; Nuits D’ Afrique Festival, in Montreal; the Festival International d’ este, in Qu’bec; at the Harbourfront Centre Festival of Toronto, and the Mission Folk Festival of Vancouver.
Also, in 2005, the veteran Cuban ensemble, probably the most and best which has kept the influences and the old flavor of the country music, recorded under the British label World Music Network, the disc of son music ‘Soul of a Nation’, with which it vindicates Cuban musical heritage. This album is paradigmatic, since it was based on the group’s repertoire, with a new theme, a guaracha, where different stars in the history of Cuban music intertwined, among whom were: Miguel Matamoros, Sindo Garay, Maria Teresa Vera, Luis Martinez, Arsenio Rodriguez, Miguelito Cuna, Felix Chapottin and the great Benny More.
ñico Saquito, with his old guajira Al Vaiven de mi Carreta, was the first composer that was rescued in an album which also included old traditional songs, inside and outside Cuba, like: Santa Isabel de las Lajas, the montuno he dedicated to his hometown in Cienfuegos province; the afro-son Bruca Manigui, by Arsenio Rodriguez; or the traditional tune A la loma de Belin. It is also worth to be mentioned the rescuing that the nine members of the Sierra Maestra group made out of Ignacio Piñeiro’s guaguanco: El paso franco-bardo and, with a contagious wind instrument section of the popular son No hay como mi son, by pianist and composer Luis Martinez, one of the greatest Cuban authors.
There’s another thing we should highlight in this CD and it is that the potpourri that the Sierra Maestra made out of anthological themes by Eliseo Grenet (La mora), Ernesto Lecuona (Se fue), Manuel Corona ( Aurora) and Prats (Ausencia). This CD is the latest tangible performance that its singer-founder did, the big sonero, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, whom, one more time, provided this group quality and freshness in his interpretations.
Perhaps, the critics would think that after Jose Antonio Rodriguez’s death (on November 6, 2005), Sierra Maestra would also died, which was, without a doubt, a significant loss for the staff, either from the vocal point of view, as from the humane side, because Jose Antonio Rodriguez, due to his vocal timbre, was Sierra Maestra’s hallmark since its very beginning, being a big challenge to look for someone who was able to continue the group’s work.
But, in spite of the nostalgia that caused the loss of Jose Antonio, the group’s decline is very far from reality because, as the Sierra Maestra mountain complex has been a melting pot in the formation of the Cuban identity, this musical group remains present in the hearts of all Cubans. And, fortunately, the great sonero, Jesus Bello, joined this group, becoming its singer who, with his sonero voice, gives the group an elegance that keeps the tradition of its founders alive. Furthermore, Jesus Bello is a true connoisseur of Cuban traditional music, besides being an excellent musician of humble social background, known in Cuba by a contest named Buscando al Sonero, of a very popular TV program called Mi Salsa.
In 2006, Canada and Venezuela were two important places were the Sierra Maestra performed. The former one, during the Summer Festivals that take place in that nation, among which are the Festival Nuit Afrique Montreal and the Jazz Festival of Quebec; besides doing a national tour through several cities of Cuba, on occasion of the 30th anniversary of the creation of the group.
In 2007, Sierra Maestra participated in the recording of the disc ‘Cuba canta a Serrat’ and made an international tour by Holland, Norway, Denmark, Lithuania, Latvia, Greece and Great Britain, with relevant concerts in the Congress Hall of Latvia and in Lithuania, as well as a performance at Tecnopolis, in Athens arena.
In 2008, they made a tour, performing in the Festival of Glastonbury (UK) and in the Jazz Festival (in Malta); as well as in other festivals held in Holland and Belgium, standing out in two very special concerts: one that took place in Binhuis, Amsterdam, and the other held in Moscow, during the Festival ‘Viva Cuba’, where they shared the stage with outstanding groups and personalities of Cuban music, like the Buena Vista Social Club musical group, Omara Portuondo and Roberto Fonseca. The written press stated the success of these performances.
In early 2009, Sierra Maestra performed, for the first time, in Colombia, with a concert at the Teatro Libre, in Bogota and before an audience of 1 400 persons; as well as at the Currambero Ranch, a Cultural Institution in Barranquilla. They were very welcomed in both places, either by the audience as by the press. In the summer of 2009, they participated in different events like: the Jazz Festival, in Helsinki; the Festival of Stockholm, in Sweden; the Latin Lovers Festival of Vienna, in Austria, and performed once again at the Cosmopolitan Congress Hall, in Oslo, Norway, besides the important concert they made in Dome Hall, in London, whose performance was very praised by the press.
Among some of the members who played in Sierra Maestra musical group at different moments were: Alemañy (trumpeter), today director of Cubanismo, with twelve years of working with the group; Daniel Ramos (trumpet); Reynaldo Echevarria (percussionist); Oslen Ceballo (trumpeter) and Barbaro Teutor (trumpet). Today, Sierra Maestra is integrated by: Alejandro Suarez. (minor percussion), Eduardo ”iquito’ Rico (percussionist), Carlos Puisseaux. (at the guiro), Luis M. Barzaga (singer), Alberto V. Valdes (singer and maracas), Jesus Bello (singer and guitar player), Yelfris C. Valdes (trumpeter), Emilio Ramos (tres player), Boris (sound) y Eduardo Himely (bass player and director).
At present, what projects does this legendary group have in mind to keep alive Cuban traditional music in the archipelago and in the world?
The question has a very gratifying answer, since Sierra Maestra has incorporated to the group young composers who revitalize the tradition and respond with their work to disturbing questions that exist about the continuity of the musical legacy. Because, as the director of the group, Eduardo Himely, has stated ‘the foreign press, is mainly concerned about what it will happen with the traditional music when the old generation does not exist anymore (notice they always make reference to the Buena Vista Social Club)’.
For this year, Sierra Maestra has increased the implementation of its projects. An example of this is that its members participated in the version that offered the North Sea Festival of Curacao, and exchanged with a first-class staff, which included outstanding figures at the level of Lionel Richie, George Benson, Luis Enrique, La India, among others. Sierra Maestra carried out a tour in March this year by eleven cities of the United Kingdom and, some time later, they performed in the version of the very important WOMAD Festival that took place in Abu Dhabi, (UAE) and, more recently, they returned from a tour by Germany, Womad UK, Portugal and France.
In September, 2010, the Sierra Maestra group will be performing in Colombia, on occasion of the Barranquijazz Festival. It is worthy to note that the above mentioned festival is the most important one in Colombia and The Caribbean, and that it has been celebrated for over 13 years inviting to it very prestigious musicians from the jazz and the Latin jazz music widely known in the world, as well as local artists.
Among the most outstanding musicians who have participated in the Barranquijazz Festival are: Michel Camilo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Many Oquendo, Justo Almario, Arturo Sandoval, Ruben Gonzalez & Buena Vista Social Club, Rosa Passos, Eddie Palmieri, Cachao, Diego -alias, El Cigala-, Ahmad Jamad, Poncho Sanchez, Dave Valentin, Horacio -alias, El Negro- Hernandez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Richard Bona, Omara Portuondo, Isaac Delgado, Tata Guines, Bobby Carcass’s, Paco Vasquez, Humberto Ram’rez, Jose Luis Quintana ‘Changuito’, Gal Costa, Ron Carter, Bob Berg, Maria Rivas, Janne Bunnett, Harold Lopez-Nussa, Ernan Lopez-Nussa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Samuel del Real, Edward Simon, Osmany Paredes, Paquito D Rivera, Randal Corsen, Roberto Fonseca, Andy Narell, Cedar Walton, etc.
The Barranquijazz Festival took place, for the first time, in 1997, by initiative of a group of music fans whose objective was to promote love for the jazz and the Caribbean music. The concerts last five days. Among them are the festival main concerts, the Barranquijazz in the street -which is totally free of charges-, held in different outdoor stages during the day attended by near 2000 people of which 70% are children and young students, and several workshops and talks taught by prestigious international musicians who participate in the festival.
The Barranquijazz Festival is organized by the New Music Cultural Foundation and it mainly takes place at the Amira de la Rosa Theater, that seats for 900. The Amira de la Rosa Small Square Theater is the venue of Barranquijazz a la Calle, a free event where the audience has the opportunity of enjoying the artists that participate in the festival. The place seats some 2 000 people. The Plaza de la Paz, is an outdoor stage that seats 6 000 people. It is there where the Barranquijazz Festival ends. Besides, there’re other stages like the Universidad del Norte, the Buena Vista Shopping Center, the Romelio Mart’nez stadium, the Jumbo del Country Club Salon and, some times, other municipalities of the Atlantic District.
In addition to the aforementioned special performance of Sierra Maestra in the Barranquijazz Festival, the group has been promoting this year its disc ‘Sonando Ya‘ in different countries, which is also the first LP after the death of its singer, Jose Antonio Rodriguez. This disc is funded by the French Recording Company Harmonia Mundi, in collaboration with the Salsa Music Ltd (United Kingdom). Among the composers of the group’s repertoire are: Erden Hernandez, Angelito Bonne, Omar Boza, Lionel Viera, Rafael Fernandez, Eduardo Himely, Lu’s Barzaga and Jesus Bello.
The members of the group think this album has been the result of a very hard work Sierra Maestra has done in its thirty-five years, since it includes new musical themes in the repertoire, and the main purpose consists in continuing playing the classics of Cuban music (son) keeping the group’s sound. In this case, the 90% of the themes are unknown and written by contemporary composers, always trying to maintain the sound of the group and the son’s styles they’ve always worked.
Notwithstanding, due to their many performances in Jazz festivals or night clubs like the Ronnie Scott, the group has included in the disc one Latin jazz theme arranged to the group’s style and played with the traditional instruments. Sierra Maestra considers this element is ‘without any doubt something new which, at least, we had not heard before.’
Among the new aims this group has on Cuban stage is their performance at the National Museum of Fine Arts, scheduled for October 16, 2010, as part of the activities this cultural institution organizes on occasion of the anniversary of the National Culture Day. Furthermore, Sierra Maestra is involved in the preparations on occasion of the 35th anniversary of its foundation, for which they’re preparing a very long National Tour to give joy to its beloved people.
And, to keep on with the good news, Sierra Maestra’s new disc ‘Sonando Ya‘ is among the nominees for the Latin Grammy 2011 Award, under the category of Best Traditional Tropical Album.
This cultural summary of the state of the traditional musical group Sierra Maestro, not only allows to properly recognize it, but also to have glimpse at its permanent contributions to keep the Cuban content in the music. Their way of doing things, their productions, have crystallized and continue to crystallize in the most genuine popular spirit of our nation, and that is why they stay active for the enjoyment of our people, because they have earned that place, because they are one of the Cuban musical groups that are more significant and adaptable to the Cuban feelings.
Their repertoire is both accepted and applauded by the public, and counts with a great support both in and outside of the Cuban archipelago. That is why the name of this group and its musicians form part of the Cuban national musical heritage. Thirty five years after it was founded, the Sierra Maestra group continues to sound high.
Source: Cubarte. Translation: Roxana Márquez Herrera (Cubarte). Edited by Angel Romero