Havana-based folklore group Vocal Baobab, taking their name from the Baobab, sacred tree of Africa, are known for their own highly individual take on Afro-Cuban chants and rumba.
Specializing in choral style arrangements, spiced up with the odd dash of more contemporary flavors such as reggae, their high energy performances are characterized by explosions of virtuoso dance, drumming and vocal improvisation.
Singing in Spanish and Yoruban, the seven performers of Vocal Baobab present a varied repertoire that connects their African roots with contemporary arrangements and rhythms, bringing out the afro in Afro-Cuban. Their work aims to preserve the spirit of the Yoruba and Afro-Cuban oral traditions.
With regular appearances at some of Havana’s most prestigious venues and at festivals all over the island, they were featured on Cuban television as one of the top folklore acts.
As well as attracting the commendation of esteemed authorities on Cuban culture throughout their career (Ros, Natalia Bolivar, Zenaida Armenteros, Corina Campos and Miguel Barnet) they have received accolades and played alongside luminaries in Cuban music such as Changuito, Compay Segundo and Mario Rivera (Mayito) of Los Van Van.
The original Vieja Trova Santiaguera quintet was the living embodiment of a musical tradition with roots in the nineteenth century. The five members of this group had been playing together as Vieja Trova Santiaguera only since 1994, but individually, they were an important part of the history of the bolero and son throughout the twenties, thirties, and forties.
Reinaldo Creagh, on lead vocals and claves, was a member of La Estudiantina Invasora, originally founded in 1927.
Pancho Cobas, guitar, vocals, and chorus, played virtually all his life and was a founding member of, among other groups, the Cuarteto Patria.
Aristóteles Limonta, the bassist, worked with La Orquesta de Chepín, with La Moderna Orchestra, with La Estudiantina Invasora, and the Cuarteto Patria, among others.
Amado Machado, vocals, maracas, and vocal improvisations, was also a member of both La Estudiantina Invasora and the Cuarteto Patria.
Reinaldo Hierrezuelo, tres, flute, vocals, and chorus, comes from a musical family, was one of the founders of the Cuarteto Patria, and played with Los Compadres – and virtually every other great musician in Cuba.
Vieja Trova Santiaguera was formed as a result of jam sessions at the Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba, attended by an ever-changing and always exciting relay of musicians. They were first recorded as a group for a film documentary about Caribbean music, and shortly thereafter were invited to tour Spain, which resulted in this recording for Manuel Domínguez’s acclaimed Nubenegra label. All five had been retired from both regular musical performance and from their ‘day jobs’ (only Hierrezuelo was able to make a living playing music full time), and were living on their pensions. But the inspiration of playing together, of introducing whole new audiences to boleros, sones, guarachas, and cha cha chas as traditionally performed, undiluted by American influence, was enough to convince all five that retirement was boring. It’s clear that all of them were having the time of their lives, as one reporter wrote, “like five little boys with brand new shoes.”
While young musicians, both in Cuba and elsewhere, are again making music from the trova tradition a part of their repertoire, Pancho Cobas noted in an interview with El Diario in Spain that the “traditional trova is totally different from contemporary trova. To play traditional music, you have to be born to it, to have the right flavor; not everyone can play traditional music, because it’s not something that can be learned. There are young trovadores who have studied the music, but they haven’t reached into the essence of vieja trova. You have to be born, like the son montuno, in the country. The best musicians come, like the trova itself, from Santiago de Cuba.”
“Even though the songs we sing were created fifty years ago,” said Hierrezuelo in an interview in Spain, “they are certainly not old songs; good music never gets old, it’s those who sing it who grow older.” They approached the rhythms of their native Cuba “simply, feeling it with our hearts,” and believed that traditional music is still alive and well in Cuba, despite having heard otherwise. They themselves rejected what Hierrezuelo referred to as “electronic abuse and the excessive innovations by young musicians.” Hierrezuelo was very clear on what makes great music. “Music is still the art of perfectly combining melody and rhythm. Being good or bad has nothing to do with the color of the crystal you’re using to look at it, but rather with the color of the crystal with which it is made.”
In an interview in Madrid’s El Pais, Hierrezuelo explained that the music selected for their recordings came very much from their roots. The songs are those all had performed at one time or another, and most of them knew many of the composers, such greats as Miguel Matamoros, Sindo Garay, Pepe Sánchez, among others. He responded to a question about the mixture of cultures and races in Cuba by saying, “Nature gave us the opportunity to be a hybrid which turned out to be better than the original. We are the product of both Africa and Spain, and Cuban music is born from this blend, and from the rhythms of both cultures. Nature made us your children (and I say this without vanity) made us prodigies; we’re delighted that we were good students and surpassed our teachers. The son is more than the essence of Cuban music, it is the music’s mother and father. The son was born in Santiago de Cuba’s rural surroundings, because it is a rural music, like montuno, which is from the mountains. The other genres arose from this, the bolero, the guaracha. To me the son is a wild, original musicthat’s why I love it so.”
Amado Machado, the oldest member of the group, died in October of 1998. He was the maracas player and the main singer of the group’s montunos.
The group retired in 2002, after an acclaimed tour of Spain. Its last concert took place in Madrid at La Riviera. Virgin Records Spain released a DVD in 2002 featuring music, discography, music videos and a documentary of the legendary band.
Valle Son is a 7 piece group from the rural village of Viñales in the lush tobacco-growing highlands of Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province of Cuba, where most of them have been playing together for more than a decade.
In July 2000, Valle Son traveled to the Yukon (Canada) for a month-long tour. There they recorded their CD Son de Cuba at Old Crow Studio in Whitehorse, released on their imprint, Caribou Records- home to the Undertakin’ Daddies, Kim Barlow, and Anne Louise Genest.
Son de Cuba is rooted in the traditional son style, yet embodies a contemporary, hybrid sound. Driven by the clave rhythm, the music integrates elements of jazz and mambo to create a propulsive, vibrant groove.
Valle Son would have returned to Canada sooner, but a 2002 North American tour crumbled, with visa delays in the wake of 9/11.
In 2003, Valle Son returned to Canada for an extensive summer tour.
Tony Martínez is a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, composer and arranger with an intimate knowledge of even the most obscure Afro-Cuban rhythmic traditions.
The broad view of Martínez’ s musical vision and his uncanny ability to tap the perfect Cuban rhythmic spirit to complement his adventurous arrangements and soloing may be the result of his early exposure to his country’s folkloric traditions and the focus of his music education. Born and raised in the provincial Cuban city of Camagüey, far removed from the grandeur of Havana, Martínez began his formal study of classical music at the age of nine at a Camagüey conservatory, emphasizing saxophone, piano and voice.
Throughout his student years, the young musician participated in several local professional groups, specializing in traditional Cuban folk music. After receiving his music teacher’s diploma in 1987, he taught at the conservatory level and directed three ensembles that combined music and dance and concentrated on such time honored styles as rumba and son. Being thoroughly grounded in such elemental Cuban styles insured that when Martínez moved to Havana in 1990 to explore more contemporary styles, the soul of his ancestors’ music would remain central to his maturing personal style.
In Havana, he quickly made his presence felt, joining the progressive, jazz-influenced group Mezcla. His time in the Cuban capital was shortduring three tours with Mezcla to Europe for festival performances in Austria, Germany, Denmark and Holland, he became attracted to the continent’s cultural scene and recognized the presence of professional opportunities that would allow his artistic development to continue unrestricted.
Settling in Bern, Switzerland in 1993, Martínez quickly established himself as one of Europe’s most resourceful resident masters of Cuban music idioms, while his extraordinary talents as a saxophonist, flutist, keyboardist and band leader have attracted the attention of both jazz and Latin music lovers.
Ramón Valle (born 1964) was only seven years old when he began studying the piano at the Escuela Provincial de Arte in his home town of Holguin, Cuba. He graduated from Havana’s Escuela Nacional de Arte in 1984. His exceptional talent was discovered in 1985 when he performed in a double concert with fellow Cuban pianist, Emiliano Salvador, who died prematurely seven years later. As a solo artist and as leader of the jazz quartet Brujula, Valle appeared at numerous festivals (Mexico DF, Bogota, Havana Jazz Festival) and was soon an established name in the Cuban and Latin American jazz scene. In 1991 Silvio Rodriguez, founder of the Nueva Trova, asked him to join his band Di kara, which he stayed with until 1993.
“The greatest talent among our young pianists.” Chucho Valdés, prominent musician and founder of Irakere, used these words to introduce Ramón Valle on his debut album Levitando (1993). On this first CD, Valle revealed himself as a pianist with a sound of his own. Although the influence of classical music and jazz, especially of the triumvirate Jarrett-Corea-Hancock can be heard, the remarkable thing about Valle’s music is his ability to weld these diverse influences to create a unique style that eludes traditional categories. Rather than being a pianist who plays Latin Jazz or Cuban Jazz, Valle is a Cuban jazz pianist. He produces pure, contemporary jazz. Although clearly present, his Cuban roots never form the basis of his pieces. In his own words, “I am a Cuban musician who falls within the category called ‘jazz’, but my music borders on many other musical forms. Sometimes I feel like a troubadour, because I tell stories, stories without words.”
When he first performed in Europe – invited by Barcelona’s Jamboree Jazz Club – critics were surprised by Valle’s virtuosity and technical perfection. After this European debut, Ramón Valle went on to great success at other European and Latin American venues. That same year saw the release of Piano Solo, his second CD. Comprised once again of his own compositions, it was characterized by great originality and powerful lyricism, but especially by Valle’s ability to evoke diverse atmospheres within a single composition. In 1998 Ramón Valle settled in Europe.
In 2002 Ramón Valle started to record for the German label ACT. That year saw the release of Danza Negra (ACT 9404-2) dedicated to the compositions of his famous fellow Cuban Ernesto Lecuona.
On his second CD with ACT, No Escape (2003), Ramón Valle not only made a name for himself as a composer of brilliantly unique music, but once again excelled as a Jazz musician beyond categorization. His own approach is, “not one hundred percent Cuban, but one hundred percent me, my trio.” As he himself likes to put it: “No Escape is the result of a conversation with my musicians. Music is talking, raising your voice, voicing your opinion. Every day when I sit down at the piano is another quest for new words, for my own voice.”
Danza Negra (ACT, 2001) No Escape (ACT, 2004)
Piano Works IV: Memorias (ACT, 2005)
Fabulas (Budapest Music Center, 2008)
Playground (RVS, 2009)
Flashes from Holland (RVS, 2011) Take Off (In + Out, 2015)
Founded in 1978 by Tiburon (The Shark), one of Cuba’s leading soneros, Adalberto Alvarez and Lázaro Rosabal, Son 14 was one of the most important acts in Latin America for cultivating son. Son 14 means there are 14 in the band and this is a pun on the genre known as ‘son’. The band recorded over 12 albums and have toured France, Great Britain, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Monte Carlo and the USA. They headlined with Oscar_D’León, Grupo Niche, Fania All Stars and have reached number one in the charts in 11 Latin American countries (Colombia: 26 weeks at number 1). They have also won several music awards in their 21 years of existence.
Cubanía, Son 14’s second album for Tumi Music was a well timed album. When the appetite for Cuban music was just beginning, Cubanía delivered the perfect combination of uptempo big band son mixed with salsa elements, a strong horn section and some of Cuba’s best vocalists including Tiburon, whose distinctive hoarse voice, ingenious grace and clever improvisations all distil the true essence of son. Tiburon’s credentials can be obtained by the likes of Félix Valera Miranda who mentions Tiburon every time he talks about son and also Juan de Marcos as he is forever asking him to join his band!
La Máquina Musical, Son 14’s third album for Tumi was received to great acclaim during 1999 and the release was followed by a highly successful and well publicized British tour of 28 dates. Son 14 was a stunning big band with charisma and power.
Sindo Garay was born April 12 of 1867 in Santiago of Cuba. He was the main figure in traditional Cuban trova. Garay was an extraordinary artist because he did not study music, but he managed to compose pieces of unquestionable formal perfection, and contributed new sounds to the trova style of his time.
Self taught, Garay learned how to read and write by copying posters from commercial establishments. He composed his first song at 10 years of age. It served as a connection to patriotic the Cubans in the last war against Spanish colonialism (1895-1898). He traveled to several nations in the Caribbean and South America. He also spent three months in Paris, in 1928, performing Cuban songs.
After the triumph of the popular revolution in his country (1959), he received numerous tributes. Sindo Garay passed away in Havana the 17 of July of 1968, and by personal request he was buried in Bayamo, a city towards which Sindo Garay always showed a special affection. Some of his most famous compositions are La tarde, Perla marina, Rendido, Retorna, Labios de grana, Clave a Maceo, El huracan y la palma, Tardes grises and Mujer bayamesa.
Septeto Santiaguero was founded in 1995, by members of Melodías de Ayer, a group formed in the early 1960s, together with the Estudiantina Invasora and the Cuarteto Patria, had for over three decades animated many a day and night at the Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba.
In 1993 and 1994 a number of young musicians from other septets, such as Sones de Oriente and Septeto Luz, joined Melodías de Ayer and Fernando Dewar, a tres player, took over the leadership of the group. Seeking to return to their roots, they decided to give up the mambos and stick to the discipline of the traditional septet: guitar, tres, bongo, clave, maracas, acoustic bass and trumpet, with the addition of the drum, which they retained in honor of Arsenio Rodríguez. In the Santiago de Cuba style, the two singers maintain the first and second harmony with equal emphasis.
Despite the fact that the group was eight in number, they retained the name Septeto Santiaguero because of the way they perform the son, the bolero, the guaracha, the guajira, and the guaguancó, which are completely rooted in the septeto sound. Together they created a group that preserves and pays homage to one of Cuba’s most important musical forms, with a vitality demonstrating that the septeto tradition is still fresh and alive in Santiago de Cuba today.
Fernando Dewar, musical direction, tres and backing vocals
Rudens Matos, guitar, backing vocals, occasional solo vocals and choreography
Pedro Antonio Rodón (Tony), solo vocals and claves
Inocencio Heredia (Chencho), solo vocals and maracas
José Delgado (El Pepe), bongos, tumbadora and cowbells
Adolfo Aguilera, bass
José Alberto Rodríguez, trumpet
Cuban son was definitely forged in 1927 when Ignacio Piñeiro founded the renovating Septeto Nacional. Piñeiro lived in Havana from 1888 to 1969, earning his living with odd jobs, as a stevedore, a cigar roller, a carpenter, the kind of work you do if you grow up in Pueblo Nuevo, the black quarter of the city. Even as a child, Ignacio Piñeiro sang in choirs and played drums with the Afro-Cuban cabildos. Then he formed his own first line-up, Los Roncos, the Hoarse Ones, for which he composed choir music.
In 1926 he played bass with the Sexteto Occidente, whose leader was María Teresa Vera. Piñeiro traveled to New York with this sextet and on his return to Havana he immediately set about making history with son: in 1927, together with the trovadores Juan Ignacio de la Cruz Hermida, Bienvenido León Chacón and Alberto Villalón, who until then had performed as a trio, plus the tres player Francisco González and José Manuel Incharta on bongos, he founded the Sexteto Nacional – under contract to Columbia Records in Havana, who had been eagerly searching for a band capable of competing with the Sexteto Habanero, who were under contract to RCA Victor. Not only did Piñeiro write countless sones for his sextet, which became a septet only a few months later with the cornet player Lázaro Herrera, he also played bass in the new line-up. Piñeiro took the traditional sound of son, based on vocals percussion and strings and modified it by adding a trumpet for the first time as a lead instrument.
The Septeto National played around the clock on all Havana’s radio stations and gave concerts on public squares and in theaters. The capital city was raving about the new sound – a son cubano, certainly, but not the simple form brought from Santiago to Havana by the trovadores, but more refined, with a cornet and artistically arranged harmonious parts, strongly syncopated and eminently danceable, like Piñeiro’s greatest hit “Échale salsita”- this son is regarded as the original form of salsa. In 1932 George Gershwin traveled to Cuba and happened to turn on the CMCJ radio station when the Septeto Nacional were playing Piñeiro’s sones. Gershwin visited Piñeiro and the two men became friends. Gershwin studied Piñeiro’s sones and even cited “Échale salsita” in his own “Cuban Overture.” But other Septeto Nacional hits had also become part of the classic repertoire of nostalgic son line-ups and modern salsa bands: for example “No jueges con los Santos” (“There’s no playing with the Gods”), a half-joking, half-earnest warning about respecting the Afro-Cuban gods, an early musical demonstration of black consciousness.
In the late 1920s, Havana’s dance enthusiasts witnessed a musical sparring match for which there is no comparison in the history of Cuban music. For two whole years, the Sexteto Habanero and Piñeiro’s Sexteto Nacional (when Piñeiro enlarged his sextet into a septet, the Sexteto Habanero did likewise) confronted one another in the form of three simultaneous recording sessions – a master performance in terms of strategy and psychological warfare, especially as the two sextets, or septets, worked with one and the same lead singer: Abelardo Barroso, also called “the great Caruso”. Even their repertoires were identical in parts. The mulatto Abelardo Barroso had been singing with the Sexteto Habanero since 1925, that is to say, with Ignacio Piñeiro’s competitors. For Barroso, this had been his fourth attempt to make something of his life; he had tried his hand as a chauffeur, a boxer and a pelota player, and had failed each time. But there was still music, and it was as a singer that Abelardo Barroso finally got lucky. In the end, Barroso became an idol as the acclaimed lead singer in the two most renowned son line-ups.
In spring 1929, the Septeto Nacional had a brief moment of victory over their competitors, when they were selected to travel to the Ibero-American Fair in Seville and perform son at the Cuban pavilion. Spanish audiences fell in love with Cuban son and Septeto Nacional became a celebrity
In 1933, the Septeto Nacional was invited to the “Century of Progress” World Exposition in Chicago, where they not only gave concerts but also made records and were awarded a gold medal. The group had a new new singer, Marcelino “Rapindey” Guerra. At that time, Piñeiro recorded the hit song “Echale salsita”.
The Septeto Nacional’s turn-over in musicians was so fast that one scarcely knew who to expect on stage when the Septeto Nacional was finally announced.
Founder Ignacio Piñeiro left the group in 1935. The septet had to assert itself against the competition of innumerable son ensembles. Despite all the concerts and radio broadcasts, the musicians earned very little, and Piñeiro gave up for financial reasons.
Lázaro Herrera took Piñeiro’s place, but the Septeto Nacional could only keep its head above water for another two years; the famous septet was disbanded in 1937.
In 1940, the singer and sonero Miguelito Valdés brought the septet together once again for a recording session.
Septeto Nacional resurfaced again in 1954, when radio producer and musicologist Odilio Urfé encouraged a reunion. Septeto Nacional came back, led once more, by its founder, Ignacio Piñeiro and it included many of its original musicians and singers. The group performed for television that year. At that time, the cha cha chá held sway over the dance halls, and the existing son orchestras had long since expanded into conjuntos, with a strong wind sectio. The “home-made” sound of the old son septets, with only one cornet, sounded outmoded, out of fashion.
It was some years before audiences rediscovered the nostalgic sound of the 1920s. After the Revolution of 1959, the Septeto Nacional was upgraded and the musicians from the original line-up (Lázaro Herrera and Bienvenido León) invited for interviews. The Septeto was able to record several LPs and performed, above all, in the traditional Casas de la Trova. In the course of time, the Septeto Nacional line-up became younger. The new musicians, however, had no difficulty in imbuing the unbeatable charm of the old sones with new spirit.
The third generation of the Septeto National can certainly stand up to comparison with the legendary band’s original line-up. All the musicians are excellent instrumentalists and inspired soneros, who play the fresh-sounding arrangements by band leader Ignacio Esteban Aymé Castro, otherwise known as “Richard”, as if a time machine had catapulted the original Septeto from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century.
Septeto Nacional De Ignacio Piñeiro (Areito, 1965)
Sones Cubanos (Areito, 1969)
Mas Cuba Libres (Network Medien, 1999)
El Sabor De La Tradicion (Ferment, 2005)
Glorias De Cuba (West Side Latino Records, 1976)
Soneros Mayores (Areito, 1979)
Clasicos Del Son (1987)
Soneros De Cuba (Real Rhythm, 1999) ¡Sin Rumba no hay Son! (World village, 2010)
A maestro musician whose piano playing in the 1940’s helped invent the pre-Castro Cuban sound as we know it today, Rubén González had in recent years virtually stopped making music. He suffers from arthritis, and no longer owns a piano.
Born in Santa Clara in 1919, González was one of a trio of pianists who developed the mambo and embraced modern jazz harmonies in the 1940s in his native Cuba. González also developed his own very distinctive style during this fruitful period of music in Cuba. In 1996 González was invited to come out of retirement to play first with the Afro Cuban All Stars, and then with Ry Cooder on the Buena Vista Social Club album. The very next year, González released his first solo album at the ripe age of 77, after more than half a century in music.
Introducing Rubén González was released in September 1997 to widespread critical acclaim, and González has since been pictured in both TIME Magazine and The New York Times.
After working with González on the Buena Vista Social Club project, Ry Cooder proclaimed González as “the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard in my life. He’s like a Cuban cross between Thelonius Monk and Felix the Cat.”