Rum and Rumba: Interview with Juan de Marcos González

Juan de Marcos bla bla
Juan de Marcos González – Photo by Sarkis Boyadjian
The man who put together the Buena Vista Social Club talks to Seth Jordan about
“the old guys”, his current Afro-Cuban All Stars, and saving the Cuban economy with music.

Juan de Marcos González is a quiet achiever. The man who actually went out and found the veteran Cuban musicians, many of whom were already in retirement, and assembled them into the now-famous
Buena Vista Social Club, is justifiably proud of his achievement, but more than willing to fully acknowledge the massive talents of the players involved. Even before the Buena Vista success story unfolded though, González had already become one of the most important figures in Cuban music today. Born in Havana in 1954, González grew up surrounded by music, as his father was a singer who performed in Arsenio Rodriguez’s famed band. Studying hydraulic
engineering and Russian at university, González co-founded the traditional septeto group Sierra Maestra in ’78 while still at school. Already an accomplished tres player (the small Cuban guitar with three sets of double strings), González’s aim for the young group was to encourage an appreciation for the rural son style amongst Cuban youth. Sierra Maestra went on to record fourteen albums in Cuba, and their best-selling international releases (‘94’s “Dundunbanza” and ‘97’s “Tibiri Tabara”) brought them to the world’s attention. Those albums, both on the UK-based World Circuit label, also firmly established González’s friendship with English producer Nick Gold, who was to become another crucial figure in the Buena Vista project.

With Gold’s urging, and having long harboured a desire to put together a band that combined the younger generation of Cuban players alongside some of the old veterans of the genre, González set out to locate some of the forgotten “old masters” and assemble them all into one working band. The resulting and now
legendary ’97 sessions at Havana’s famous Egrem studios were originally set up to produce two albums, the first Afro-Cuban All Stars release, “A Toda Cuba le Gusto” and the original “Buena Vista Social Club”. Everyone at the sessions was so impressed with the playing of pianist Ruben González (no relation) during the recordings that a third album featuring the 78 year old, (who Ry Cooder called “a cross between Thelonius Monk and Felix the Cat”), was also released. All
three albums sold exceptionally well all around the world and received huge critical acclaim.

González then led the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Ruben González on their debut U.S. and European tours and directed the Buena Vista Social Club concerts in Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Hall. The shows were filmed as part of Wim Wender’s award-winning documentary on the band and the rest, as they say, is
Buena Vista history.

With the release late in ’99 of the second Afro-Cuban All Stars album “Distinto, Diferente” and on the eve of their first Australian tour, Juan de Marcos González spoke with Seth Jordan for “Rhythms”.

Marcos, did you have any idea, say five years ago, that Cuban music would today be having such an enormous impact on the international music scene?

Well I had the idea, and in fact I always believed in the music of my country, but I never imagined this sort of success. What’s happening is something well beyond my expectations and we’ve started to reclaim the place Cuban music had before, during the first half of the 20th century, when our music was a best-seller in the tropical dance market. I’m particularly proud because my original idea to try and recreate the spirit of that golden period of Cuban culture has been a success. All these old guys who I went to look for a few
years ago, right now they’re really on the top. It’s something special for me and something special for my country and my culture.

Back in ’96 when World Circuit producer Nick Gold approached you to seek out some of these older players and singers, I believe the original idea was to bring over some African musicians to play alongside the Cubans. Is that right?

Yeah, but the original idea was actually mine. I wanted to make an album that featured some of the most important Cuban musicians, most of them already retired, and to recreate that sound from the ‘50s. At the same time Nick wanted to record an album mixing the eastern Cuban son, a simple music with acoustic
guitar and tres, this special string sound, and bring in a guitar player and a kora player from West Africa, as well as Ry Cooder, to make a sort of fusion album. Unfortunately the African musicians never came to Havana because of visa problems. In the end I put together a team, my Afro-Cuban All Stars, and we also
specifically went looking for Compay Segundo who’s a specialist of eastern Cuban music, along with Eliades Ochoa, Barbarito Torres and all the others. The first album we made was the first All Stars album, “A Toda Cuba le Gusto” and the second one was the one that has gotten most of the publicity all around the
world, “The Buena Vista Social Club”. The film gave it an even bigger push.

When Nick brought Ry into the project, that brought a certain credibility to it as a commercial venture, but do you feel his involvement was necessary from a purely musical standpoint? Could it have been successful without him?

God knows! I think it was a good idea to bring Ry in. I mean he’s not really a top star in Western music, but he’s an important musician and very intelligent and he’s done fusion music before. His album with Ali Farka Toure (“Talking Timbuktu”) that he had already done with Nick Gold had been a big success.
That’s why Nick called Ry. I think it was an excellent idea because as a producer I would never have tried to create the sound going all the way back to the ‘40s. That was a Ry idea. It was something really special for the audiences in the Western world to hear. So would it have been successful without him? I don’t know, but at the moment I think the old guys have become bigger stars than Ry! Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben González are certainly both bigger right now.

When you originally went looking for the older players and singers did you already have an inkling that some of these fellows wouldn’t actually mind being coaxed out of retirement?

I knew that some of them would enjoy joining the band and to start working again. A few of them were quite disappointed with what had happened to their music environment. They felt that they had been completely forgotten. Ibrahim for example was just doing things at home and shining shoes on the street. He never thought about coming back to the music because he was completely disappointed. He had never had the success that he deserved. He was an excellent singer, but he had never really been lucky, he was always in the background of the top stars. He sang in Beny More’s band and Beny was the most important Cuban
singer of the ‘50s. He wanted to sing boleros but he had never had the opportunity to with those bands because he wasn’t the star. I can tell you though that’s what’s happening with Ibrahim today is completely incredible. Right now I think he’s more famous than Ricky Martin! He has a wider audience, not just teenagers, but old people and middle-aged people. It’s incredible and he’s on the top.

Maybe Ibrahim and Ricky should do a duet together? That would have to be a hit!

Yeah of course! Why not? It would be a good idea, lots of action, but I don’t think Ricky knows how to sing real Cuban music though. He’s from Puerto Rico and he only does the pop songs

And what about Rubén González? He’s such a master on the piano, but he claimed that before Buena Vista he hadn’t touched a piano in years.

No, it’s a lie. He didn’t have a piano, but he used to go to the houses of other old musicians like him and play a bit. He just pretended he hadn’t been playing at all. But he was pretty old and nobody was taking care of him when I went looking for him. The piano he has now at home is one that I bought him in ’98.

Marcos you’ve uncovered so many of the great old players, but lately in the wake of Buena Vista we keep having new “old” players being rediscovered. Surely there isn’t a never-ending supply of them?

Well I’m using a lot more of the younger players now from the third generation, but there are still lots of the older performers out there too. For example on that first group of albums we didn’t have the voice of Celina González. She was working somewhere in Europe and it was impossible to find her then. There are so
many important musicians of that generation. Right now we have Ibrahim and Omara (Portuondo) and there are maybe 20 or 25 important older guys still in Cuba who deserve to be heard. I’ll try and give them all the space they deserve.

As the project leader of all this activity Marcos you must be a busy man these days. Before all this started you were leading Sierra Maestra around the world. Are they continuing to tour?

Oh yes. They made a film a couple of months ago called “La Salsa”, so they’re actors now too. I’m not working with them now because it was impossible to do everything at once. I was leading the All Stars and the Buena Vista tours, as well as Sierra Maestra up until the beginning of ’98, but then we split. Sierra
Maestra are still very successful in Europe. Their last album is the soundtrack of the film, but their film isn’t like the Buena Vista documentary though, it’s more commercial and it’s fiction. It was directed by the grand-daughter of Luis Bunuel.

With the All Stars you’re starting to change around a number of players. Ruben, Barbarito, bassist Cachaito Lopez and others have moved on and you’re replacing them with generally younger players. What’s the current mix?

Yes that’s the plan. The Afro-Cuban All Stars isn’t a band, it’s a project. I try to bring in the most important players who are interested in developing the roots of Cuban music along with the more contemporary side. At the moment the group is getting younger. I still have Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, one of the singers from the Buena Vista Social Club, he’s an old guy, and I have Teresita Garcia Caturia and Felix Valoy who started the project with me. But the lead
trumpet player now is only 24 years old. I want to show the world the diversity available and that it’s possible to have a multi-generational band.

I assume that some of the older players might not really want to endlessly continue the sometimes gruelling pace of international touring and might prefer a quieter time at home these days?

Yeah sure, although some of them are still going strong. Ibrahim and Ruben aren’t tired yet and Compay is still doing it at 92, really strong! But some of them do get tired. In the beginning I was using Raul Planas who’s one of the classic singers from the ‘50s, but he’s too old now for touring now and he has health problems. And Celina (González) is very ill now too. But with Ibrahim’s band at the moment you can see a lot of old guys with terrific spirit, and with my All Stars there are about three or four really strong old guys.

What were you trying to do on the latest All Stars album “Distinto, Diferente” which was distinct and different from the first album?

After the success of the first group of albums, some people started thinking that the only music we have in our country is the old music with old musicians. So with this one I wanted to show that we have contemporary music, still mixing the spirit of the old times, but with a more contemporary sound. I wanted to
show that over the past 40 or 45 years Cuban music has continued to develop, with lots of styles and a modern language for the regional music.

In the liner notes you wrote about the possibilities of this being considered a controversial album because it isn’t purist. Has that proved to be true? Has there been criticism?

Yes, from some people. You know when you have a success with a certain style of music, people expect you to repeat the same thing again and again. But I wanted to break the rules. For some people the album is too contemporary, too strong, not as pure as before. For me though it’s okay since I intended for it to sound

The All Stars were scheduled to play here in Australia a couple of years ago, but I believe there was a dispute between the sponsor, Bacardi Rum, and your president, Mr. Castro, which stopped you from being able to come?

Yeah, they had a problem, there was a trial because Bacardi started in Cuba, but moved away, and unfortunately sometimes in Cuba everything is inside of politics, so it was impossible for us to play in Australia for that event, but now we’re happy that we’re able to come and work.

Cuba’s had a rough go financially since the Soviet Union stop subsidising it a while back, and some people have suggested that the current popularity in the country’s music could actually save the economy. Do you feel a personal responsibility on that level and has Fidel sent you a good box of cigars yet in thanks?

It’s true that Cuban music is a very important wing of the Cuban economy right now and it can in fact really help to solve some of our economic problems. Maybe he will send some cigars if it keeps happening.

Are you concerned at all that the current popularity of Cuban music internationally might fade once it stops getting a big commercial push?

Because we’re re-establishing ourselves internationally we have to push it a bit right now. It’ll probably still be in fashion for another couple of years. At the end the boom is going to finish, but the music will remain as an option for people who want to follow tropical dance music. So it’s important for us all to work really hard right now, because we are in our own time. I know the boom will finish but after being isolated for so long it’s our big chance to work seriously.

Can you explain how the American boycott of all things Cuban, that’s been in place since the ‘60s, affected the opportunities for Cuban musicians to tour and be heard?

There were no real possibilities to develop a career. It’s very easy to study in Cuba because we have a very good educational system, but it was hard to develop a career just in Cuba because there’s no market. People don’t have money to buy CD’s and touring is very limited. So for many of the musicians, especially the
jazz musicians they wanted to go to New York and Europe. But with the American boycott of Cuba and without an income it was impossible to travel or to get good contracts with an important label that could distribute your music worldwide. But in a certain sense it was positive in that we kept alive our roots. Without the boycott Cuban music could have become just an artificial pop sound.

Does it ever surprise you that Cuban music translates so well to audiences as diverse as Japan, Scandinavia, and even down here in Australia?

It has a very special strength. I think it’s a strength that comes from the mix of different cultures that make up Cuba. It’s got that special hook. Even if an unknown Cuban band plays somewhere, it will get to the people because it’s not the people playing it, it’s the music itself. It’s like honey. Everybody enjoys

Author: Seth Jordan