Artist Profiles: Sierra Maestra

Sierra Maestra

Sierra Maestra is a seminal son cubano (Cuban son) band from Havana, Cuba. Currently, it’s one of the finest and most popular musical ensembles performing in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

Placing themselves apart from other Cuban acts, Sierra Maestra reawakened the traditional style son line-up: tres, guitar, trumpet, bongo, güiro and vocals, emulating the golden days of the 1920s and 30s. Sierra Maestra’s members are pioneers in revitalizing this genre for new generations and its re-introduction into the Cuban mainstream. Sierra Maestra named themselves after the mountain range in the eastern part of Cuba as a tribute to the birth place of son.

Sierra Maestra first performed in 1976 at the University of Havana, where all the group members studied. Their goal, then as now, was to recover this popular Cuban music style of the 1920 that had been all but forgotten.

The group slightly increased the original instrument line-up with extra percussion (congas and maracas) and replaced the tradiitonal marímbula with electric bass. Some of the guaracha rhythms were sped up in a move away from the slow, close pair dancing of the 1920s.

This revitalization of son with a modern attitude was a sensation for the new generation of Cubans, and Sierra Maestra quickly became popular, playing the annual festivals at the universities around the island of Cuba, capturing first place prizes in their first three years. They were also appearing regularly on national TV.

In 1978, Sierra Maestra was asked to represent Cuba a the “Festival Mundial de la Juventud y los Estudiantes” in Havana. Their first album, “Sierra Maestra llegó con el guanajo relleno” recorded in 1981, received a silver disc award for outstanding sales, spectacular popularity and critical reception. They also won individual prizes for best recording, most popular song and highest record sales. Also in 1981, they launched their first foreign tour to Nicaragua.

Sierra Maestra recorded their second LP, “Y Son Así” in 1982 and was awarded the Girasol prize for the year’s most popular group and finished the year with tours to Angola and Nicaragua.

In 1983, Sierra Maestra won the “Benny Moré” dance music prize at the Benny Moré festival and took part in the IV Song Festival held in Helsinki, Finland. They then traveled to Sweden and France and to the International Film Festival in Spain (where they’ve enjoyed playing over the years).

Also in 1983, Sierra Maestra recorded the soundtrack to the Cuban TV series “Las Impuras” and their song “A los rumberos de Belén” was used in Robert Redford’s film, “The Milagro Beanfield War”. Since then, Sierra Maestra has attracted international audiences in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States. They have recorded numerous albums, singles and appeared on over seven compilations.

Sierra Maestra also have a French feature film called “Salsa” that was released in February of 2000 in France. It’s a feature film, written by Jean-Claude Carriére and directed by Joyce Buñuel, released by Universal Studios.

The ensemble’s arrangements generally use the classic formula: introduction of trumpet phrases over the basic melody of the song (this usually following A-B or A-B-C-A scheme) and then the montuno, based on vocal or trumpet solo improvisations with chorus work. Sierra Maestra also play Cuban rumba, a different clave -2/3- that accompanies a totally different dance to that of son.

Sierra Maestra’s leader for many years, Juan De Marcos González Cárdenas (vocals, tres, musical director) left the group to create the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Buena Vista Social Club. And Jesús Alemany, the band’s charismatic trumpet player for many years, left to form his group Cubanismo.

Discography

* Sierra Maestra llegó con el guanajo relleno (1981)
* Y Son Así (1982)
* ¡Dundunbanza! (World Circuit Records, 1994)
* Criolla Garabali (Iris Music, 1996)
* Tibiri Tabara (World Circuit Records, Nonesuch WCD051, 1998)
* Rumberos de la Havana (Iris Music, 1999)
* Rumbero Soy (Riverboat Records TUGCD1027, 2002)
* Son: Soul of a Nation (Riverboat Records, 2005)
* Sonando Ya (World village, 2010)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.

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