Canada-based Cuban singer-songwriter is known for his pop-leaning style, including catchy hooks commonly used in Spanish-language commercial productions. There are undeniable Cuban elements as well, such as Afro-Cuban percussion, Spanish-influenced guitars, intimate nueva trova poetic lyrics and song delivery. Additionally, Alex uses rich jazz harmonies.
Sublime is an acoustic effort. “Acoustic music just goes with my soul,” explains Alex. “I’m not against synths and electronics, but I’m not interested in just making a big noise and getting people to dance. I wanted the songs on this album to have some breathing space. I suggest things, leave things at a subliminal level. Every listen will tell you something else.”
One of the early legends of Cuban music, Antonio Machín led his own acoustic band in the 1920s, and eventually emigrated from the island, first to the United States, and finally to Madrid (Spain), just before World War II. Machín lived and recorded in the Spanish capital for several decades until his death in 1977.
Antonio Lugo Machín was born in 1900 in Sagua La Grande, in the province of Santa Clara, on the northern part of the island nation of Cuba. His mother was a colored Cuban and his father was European, a Spaniard from Galicia.
Machín’s early years were very difficult and he was forced to work at the age of eight to help pay some of his father’s numerous debts. One day, he was in the street by his house singing quietly. A priest that walked by heard him and immediately encouraged him to sing at a party. He sang Ave María by Schubert. From that day on Machín was determined to become a singer.
Machín’s ambition was to sing opera, but this was very difficult for a poor colored Cuban at the beginning of the 20th century. Thus, he focused on singing popular music.
At the age of twenty he had become the idol of the young women in his neighborhood. Machín would sing them serenades under the moonlight. He worked as a mason. Machín also traveled across Cuba as a singer. In 1926 he moved to Havana were he met a Spaniard named señor José, who helped him get a contract to sing at a small cafe in Havana.
Living in Havana, Machín was exposed to many kinds of music. He joined several quartets and sextets. One of the most important ones was Trío Luna, which he formed together with Enrique Peláez and Manuel Luna. In 1926 Machín formed a duo with the famous guitar player and singer Miguel Zaballa. They performed at various night clubs and live radio shows. Their fame was such that in 1927 Don Azpiazu, leader of Orquesta Habana, added the duo to the performances held at the Casino Nacional de La Habana.
At the age of 27 Machín became a vocalist at the Casino Nacional of Havana, the first singer of color ever to do so. The Casino Nacional was the place where you could find upper class Cuban and American land owners, movie stars, millionaires and diplomats, who danced and sought romance.
In 1929 Machín and his friend Daniel Sánchez founded a sextet that also included Alejandro “Mulatón” Rodríguez. They made several recordings. A year later, Machín toured the United States with the Casino Nacional orchestra. On April 26 the band played at the Palace Theater in New York. Machín sang El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor), the first Cuban song to become a national hit in the United States.
In New York, Machín proved to be a prolific artist, recording over 400 songs with the legendary Cuarteto Machín, comprised of claves, tres, guitar, and trumpet. Although the members of the band varied, Machín was frequently accompanied by his old friend, guitarist Daniel Sánchez, who sang duets with him on the majority of the recordings.
Machín is one of the finest Cuban bolero singers that ever lived. Several compilations of his work, covering various phases of Machín’s career are available from various Spanish and American labels.
Bassist and composer Israel López Valdés, better known as Cachao, was born on September 14, 1918. At the age of 12, Cachao had made his debut with the Havana Philharmonic, standing on a wooden box playing the contrabass alongside his brother Orestes, a founding member of the orchestra. By the age of 19, he had joined Arcano y Sus Maravillas, one of the most popular danzon orchestras in Cuba. Little did Cachao and his brother know that they would change Latin music and create a rhythm called mambo.
Cachao and his brother, experimenting with this type of music, added a nuevo ritmo part and called the result “mambo.” This took place in the late 1930s, and it revolutionized Latin music.
By the 1950s, Cachao had formed his own group and continued playing with other bands in Cuba, lending his composing skills to other orchestras. It is said that between his brother and him, a staggering 3,000 danzons were written. Cachao also composed “El Danzon de Buena Vista,” the title track for Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club album.
In 1957, Cachao again blew everybody’s mind by creating the descargas, or jam sessions, that had the top musicians in Cuba performing together. These recordings were so popular that in the 1960s, Al Santiago created the Alegre All-Stars, and in the 1970s the Fania All Stars were born.
After Castro took over Cuba, Cachao left the country for good. When he arrived to New York, he started playing with such artists as Charlie Palmieri, Tito Rodriguez and the Alegre All-Stars with Tito Puente. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, he was all over New York City. In the late 1970s, Cachao moved to Miami, where he virtually went into obscurity, relegated to playing small clubs and weddings.
It wasn’t until 1989, when a young and talented Cuban actor named Andy Garcia came into López’s life, that the world would know who this great master musician was. Garcia wanted a taste of his beloved Cuba and its music for “The Lost City,” a movie he wanted to produce. The two artists collaborated and the end result was the highly acclaimed documentary, Cachao. Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos in 1993. The film caused such a stir that Cachao was asked to perform at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
In 2003, Cachao won a Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album together with Bebo Valdés and Patato Valdés for El Arte del Sabor. Cachao won a further Grammy in 2005 for his own work, Ahora Si!.
Israel López Valdés died on March 22, 2008.
Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature “Descargas” (Panart, 1957) Con el ritmo de Cachao (Duarte/Kubaney, 1958), reissued as Camina Juan Pescao (Duher, 1974) El gran Cachao (Duarte/Kubaney, 1959), reissued as Cachao y su Típica Vol. 2 (Duher, 1974) Jam Session with Feeling (Maype, 1962) Descarga (Maype, 1963) Cuban Music in Jam Session (Bonita, 1966) Descargas con el ritmo de Cachao (Modiner, 1974) Cachao y su Descarga ’77’ (Salsoul, 1977) Dos (Salsoul, 1977) Maestro de Maestros Cachao y su Descarga ’86 (Tania, 1986) Master Sessions, Volume 1 (Crescent Moon, 1994) Master Sessions, Volume 2 (Crescent Moon, 1995) Cuba linda (EMI, 2000) Ahora sí (Univisión, 2004) The Last Mambo (Sony, 2011)
Xiomara Laugart was born in Guantanamo province of Cuba in 1960. She began her career at the age of 15, performing several different expressions of traditional and contemporary Cuban music. In the 1980s, she entered the Adolfo Guzmán Contest for Cuban Music where she was granted the highest award. She went on to win other international awards at Poland’s Sopot Festival in 1985, and at Germany’s Dresden Festival in 1986.
After recording self-titled albums in Cuba, she moved to Rome and later to New York. Soon after, Laugart was invited to be the guest singer on Deep Rumba by Kip Hanrahan, Latin Lullaby by Ellipsis Art, and on Jacky Terrason’s album What It Is.
Laugart is known for her work with the group Yerba Buena, whose first album President Alien was nominated for a Grammy Award. Yerba Buena’s second album Island Life, a brilliant mix of rhythms to which Laugart added her African and Caribbean legacy, was released in 2005.
Laugart was cast in 2007 as Celia Cruz in the Off-Broadway musical, Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz, a tribute to the life of the late Cuban-American singer, which ran at New World Stages until May 2008.
On Tears and Rumba, her third album on Chesky Records, Xiomara Laugart performed some Cuban classics from the golden era of the 1920s. Tears and Rumba is an introduction to the singer-songwriter’s driven trova style from the city of Santiago and features works by two extremely influential composers of that era, María Teresa Vera and Miguel Matamoros. Axel Tosca Laugart, the singer’s son, was responsible for the new arrangements.
Guitarist and producer Dayron Ortega Guzmán invited his Cuban colleagues Maykel Elizarde Ruano (tres guitar) and Eduardo Silveira (percussion) to a jam session at Abdala Studios in Havana. As the title indicates, the music recorded in Espontáneo: The Abdala Sessions is a set of spontaneous jam sessions captured in the studio
Dayron started by playing melodies. Maykel and Eduardo listened and responded with embellishments. The music is a sampling of the best of Cuban music, bringing together Afro-Cuban rhythms, rural traditions and Spanish influenced guitars.
Batá drumming is getting more and more popular these days. With a lot of the masters who transmitted the tradition of batá drumming having passed away, the one living master today is Román Diaz, born in Cuba, now residing in New York City.
In Cuba, Román performed professionally with the Cuban legend of Afro Cuban folklore, female vocalist Mercerditas Valdés. She was known for her grand knowledge and recordings of Afro-Cuban folklore and Orisha songs. She recorded with the late master batalero Jesús Pérez. (batá master Francisco Aguabella’s dear friends from Cuba.)
Merceditas Valdés is also renowned for having been a part of Pablo “Okilakpa” Roches Batá Ensemble in Havana, Cuba that included masters of masters, Pablo Roche, Trinidad Terregoza, Raúl Diaz and a young okónkolo player Francisco Aguabella. This ensemble was unsurpassable and not many bataleros or musicians can say that they performed with them.
To perform with one of their members, as in Merceditas Valdés is in itself “without words.” Merceditas Valdés spread Afro-Cuban Folkloric history and knowledge, along with her vocals, lyrics, dance steps and drummers that performed and recorded with her.
Román Diaz was one of those drummers, relocating from Cuba to New York, to furthermore blossom his career and to spread the word, music, history and Afro-Cuban folklore to New York City and the world in its entirety.
Román has performed and directed many ensembles, too many to mention in this interview and has continued to perform and direct ensembles here in the United States, previously in Europe and now in New York City.
Let’s see what Román Diaz has to say about his life and times in Cuba,
and times with Merceditas Valdés and his present movement in New York
Román, can you tell me a little about your past, where you were born.
I was born in the City of Havana, Municipality of Central Havana in the Barrio “La Victoria”.
Can you tell me if any of your family members had a musical history or were musicians?
I had an uncle that was a percussionist/drummer and my grandfather a trovador (troubadour).
Román, can you tell me how you started to drum or become a drummer in Cuba?
I used to go to the comparsas (groups of musicians and costumed dancers that participate in parades and celebrations) and play bell. It was a friend from school, that motivated me to play in the comparsas. He lived in Solar de Africa, his name was Conrado Lam.
I would like to ask you about the vocalist whom you used to perform with in Cuba, legendary female Afro-Cuban Folkloric Vocalist, Merceditas Valdés.
Well, it was always a dream for me to play with Merceditas. As a young kid I would dream, just to play with her (Merceditas).
Yoruba Andabo (an Afro-Cuban Folkloric Group) that I was performing with, she came to our group to sing. Yoruba Andabo was already formed, it was formed in the 1960’s. I was given this opportunity to perform with her. (since she was in our group).
Who first started you on batá?
I learned with Humberto La Pelicula. He lives in Italy. When we lived in Cuba I used to go to Mariano #110, 10 de Octubre (October), that is where I learned.
What does the future bring for Román Diaz?
At the moment, I try to play in the best position that I can perform in, to keep studying music (drumming), because there may be something that I could learn.
The above video is Juan De Dios, filmed by the late Jerry Shiligi, courtesy of Michael Pluznick who also went to Cuba. This was from the year 1985. I, Les Moncada, along with other San Francisco Bay Area musicians sponsored the Cuba trip. This was at the cabaret inside Hotel Cabri, Salon Rojo (in the Red Salon). Román Diaz is playing tumbadora (conga) , he is the drummer in the middle.
Musical Credits for Román Diaz
La comparsa Los Marqueses de Atarés. La Habana. 1983-86.
La comparsa Componedores de Batea. La Habana. 1983-86.
Escuela Nacional de Instructores de Arte. La Habana. 1983-86.
Grupo Raíces Profundas. La Habana. 1984-86. Juan de Díos, director.
Grupo “T con E”. La Habana. 1986-88. Lázaro Valdés, director.
Concerts in Panamá; Madrid and Barajas (Spain); Peru.
Orquesta Sublime. La Habana. 1988-89.
Grupo Yoruba Andabo. La Habana. 1989-1995.
Performances in Bogota, Colombia; Toronto, Canadá.
Grupo Añakí. La Habana. 1995. “Pancho Quinto,” director.
Escuela de percusión de Zurich de Billy ‘Cotún’. 1995.
Private percussion school. 1995.
Ekpe-Abakuá encuentro en Paris, 2007. Musée Quai Branly.
Percussionist, United States of America:
“Domingos de Rumba,” Esquina Habanera, Union City, New Jersey. 1999-2003
David Oquendo, director.
Collaboration with the Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernández album, New York City, 2000.
Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. Amherst College, Amherst, MA. April 2002. Funded by the Georges Lurcy Lecture Series Fund and the Willis D. Wood Fund, Amherst College.
Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. The Bildner Center for Cuban Studies, CUNY Graduate Center, New York City. March 2002.
Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. African Studies, Columbia University, New York City. February 2002.
Collaboration with Juan-Carlos Formell. New York City, 2003. “Misión Cubana.” Club Jazz Standard, Manhattan.
Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. A multi-disciplinary conference. April 2003. DePaul University, Chicago. Sponsored by the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.
Lecture demonstration conwith Dr. Ivor Miller. Román Díaz, singer. Black Studies: Methodology, Pedagogy, and Research. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library, February 2003.
International Festival of Yoruba Culture. San Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. 2004.
International Ekpe Festival. Calabar, Nigeria. December 2004. Collaboration with Dr. Ivor Miller. Sponsored by the Department of Tourism of Cross River State. Donald Duke, Governor.
Collaboration with Oriente López, pianista. Garden City, New Jersey. 2004.
Collaboration with percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, singer Marlon Simón, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera. Philadelphia, 2004.
Collaboration with Paquito D’Rivera, director. “Obra Panamericana.” 2004. New York City; Newark, NJ.
Grupo “Omi Odara.” Lincoln Center, New York City. Román Díaz, director. August 2003. August 2005.
Latin Percussion representative. 2001. 2005.
“Noches Cubanas.” World Music Institute, New York University. April 2005. With Candido Camero, ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros; Orlando ‘Punilla’ Ríos.
Espíritu de la Habana, with Jane Burnett. Toronto, Canada. Won Juno award in 1992.
Rumbos de la rumba with Pedrito Martínez, New York (2009)
Okobio Enyenisón with Proyecto Enyenisón Enkama (2009)
I would like to thank the Maestro Román Diaz for his patience & time he spent for this interview, Román is from Cuba and speaks Spanish. Therefore, I translated the interview as in many cases. Gracias Román for his preservation of the batá and Afro-Cuban folklore.
Me gustaría agradecer al Maestro Román Díaz por el tiempo que dedicó a esta entrevista y gracias por la preservación del batá y el folklore afrocubano.
composer and guitarist Julio Antonio Montoro Curbelo Julio studied the Cuban tres
as well as the guitar at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory in Havana. He graduated
school, he performed in jazz festivals playing with various bands. In 1993 he
joined the group of singer Mireya Escalante on keyboard and guitar and also as
In 1996 he
joined the group Kemell y la Barriada as pianist, recording several albums and participated
in various international tours. He toured Europe with several Cuban ensembles,
including Reve, Charanga Habanera, and later joined Felix Baloy of Afro-Cuban
he has worked with Edesio Alejando and his son Cristian performing in Cuba and producing
music television and film scores.
In 2014, Julio
Antonio became the musical director and arranger of the band Tomezclao. They
toured the UK, performed at Glastonbury festival and produced 3 CDs for Tumi
He has worked
as the guitarist with vocalist Laritza Bacallao, performing at the “Cuba
Mucho Gusto” festival in Brasilia, Brazil. While in Brazil, he also worked
with the famous Brazilian pianist Joao Donato at Club Do Choro.
In 2014 Julio
Antonio released his debut album Alma Latina with Tumi Music. This was quickly
followed by the CD Guajira Mas Guajira with Eliades Ochoa. In 2017 he set up
his Alma Latina Studio, where he recorded albums for Candido Fabre, Reina y
Real, Arturo Jorge among others.
In 2017, he
participated as the guitarist and tres player in the CD “Tronco
Viejo” with Johnny Ventura and also worked with Silvio Rodriguez.
In 2018 he recorded
the “Black Roots” album.
He currently lives in Havana with his daughter “Sady” and his wife. His daughter, 4 years old at the time, contributed towards the Black Roots CD.
Dany Noel was born in Havana, Cuba. He began his performing
career at only 8 years old singing and playing guitar. After taking up acoustic
and electric bass, he began to play with the top son, salsa and timba groups
from Cuba. Ultimately, he left his native country to settle in Torino, Italy.
Dany is a renowned bassist, musical director, arranger,
composer, producer, singer and graduate of classical guitar at the
Conservatorio Ignacio Cervantes de la Habana. He has collaborated and recorded
with prestigious musicians such as Celia Cruz, Omara Portuondo, Chucho Valdés,
Pio Leyva, Xiomara Laugart, Iovanny Hidalgo, Richie Flores, Jose Alberto El
Canario, Richie Rey, Rey Sepulveda, Mayito Rivera, Roberto Van Van, Changuito,
Alexander Abreu and Jerry Gonzalez among others.
He moved to Europe in 1997, first to Italy. Along with Cuban
drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, he formed Italuba as bassist, musical
director, arranger and composer.
Dany is currently living in Madrid and has worked with Spanish,
Argentine and Greek artists Luz Casal, Victoria Abril, Lolita Flores, Ainhoa
Arteta, Mariza, Arvanitaki Elefteria, Fito Páez, Ojos de Brujo, José Luis
Perales and film director Fernando Trueba in his movie Chico y Rita.
He has also entered the pop and flamenco scene, which has
led him to record with artists such as Niño Josele; Concha Buika on her album
Niña de Fuego, winner of a Grammy Award, produced by Javier Limón; and Limón’s
project Son de Limón, as bassist, voices and arranger.
In his 2017 album, Por La Habana , Danny focuses on the roots of Cuban music, his ancestors and his own words: “It’s an album so that my parents and my people won’t stop dancing”.
Mi Sentir (2006) Dime Si Tú Sabes (2006) Proposicion (2011) Confidence, with Dario Chiazzolino (2014) Tinta Unida (2014) Por La Habana (Abanico Records, 2017)
Italuba (Timba Records, 2002)
Italuba II (Cacao Musica, 2006)
There’s a revolution happening on the music front in Cuba led by a visionary group of millennials that’s banging down post-Buena Vista Social Club doors with an intoxicating mix of Santeria/Afro-Cuban roots, jazz, hip-hop, soul and funk.
In the vanguard of this new movement, alongside such as Roberto Fonseca, Danay Suarez and the project Havana Cultura, is Daymé Arocena.
In her mid-20s, this smoky voiced young songstress follows a 60-year conga line of Cuban musicians influenced by Caribbean Yoruba traditions. As she explains: “We have had limited information about musical activities internationally, so we’ve had to research our roots to create something new.”
Now, she declares, her generation is looking for a link with the world: “We wanna make Cuban music universal again by mixing the traditional with our young spirits. This new era is mixed and fresh.”
Arocena is both saddened and perplexed by the fact that international audiences and reviewers seem to expect all Cuban musicians to be in the old school mould.
“The Buena Vista Social Club represents the music of the pre-revolution period, but it’s crazy to think that we haven’t done anything else since 1959. We’re a little island full of music, because Cuba is a country with a mix of races, languages, religion and culture. People can’t just talk about Cuban music being in Spanish with one clave.”
The fast-rising diva – a disciple of Nina Simone and Marta Valdés — is on a mission to change preconceived ideas about Cuban music, but insists she’s not alone in that aim. “I just got the opportunity to do it with an international response, but there are a lot of us fighting.”
While Arocena’s acclaimed albums, Nueva Era and Cubafonía, contain a range of styles, she says her master plan is simply to make “Cuban jazz music for everyone“.
Her self-composed songs are imbued with the spirituality of Santeria: “It’s really the national religion of Cuba because it’s the only one that was born here. It’s the result of the mixing of Yoruba and other West African roots and Catholicism with other Cuban native, Asian and European influences. I’m crowned Yemeya — the saint of the sea — so I’m a practitioner and my music and my life are connected with it.”
Arocena proudly wears the traditional dress of Santeria and is bare-footed on stage: “It’s my way of keeping protected,” she informs.”
The singer, arranger and composer regards English producer Gilles Peterson, the man behind Havana Cultura that helped launch her international career, as part of the family. She says that Peterson and the Havana Cultura project gave her the freedom to be herself.
Music has been Arocena’s calling since the tender age of four, when she performed on dusty street blocks across Cuba.
At age 9 she was accepted into one of the country’s most prestigious music schools, where she studied choir directing rooted in Western classical tradition. By 14, she was the principal singer in the prestigious Cuban big band Los Primos, impressing the likes of jazz heavyweight Wynton Marsalis.
Arocena ascribes her love of jazz and hip-hop to the southern US, where rappers and musicians alike have affiliations to the Afro-Christian Church. She describes hip-hop as the urban spirit of the street. “As a creator and performer you have to be plugged into it; it’s the best way to understand the worries of the people.”
Daymé Arocena namechecks Herbie Hancock and Kendrick Lamar as musicians she’d one day like to work with. If her international profile continues to grow at its current rate, she may soon be able to cherry-pick her collaborators.
• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine.
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