A talk with Juan De Marcos, band leader of the Afro-Cuban All Stars
If their brand-new CD/DVD, Juan De Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars: Live in Japan (in stores May 27), is any indication—and it certainly is, says band leader De Marcos—the group’s two May 1st shows in CSUC’s Laxson Auditorium promise to be on fire!
I caught up with the dreadlocked De Marcos recently, shortly after his arrival in the United States from Cuba, while he was on his tour bus en route to the All Stars’ Atlanta, Ga., performance (he was taking as few planes as possible, he announced). As vibrant via phone as on his new DVD, De Marcos launched into a heavily accented, enthusiastic description of the current incarnation of the world-famous Afro-Cuban All Stars.
Don’t expect to see such now-household names as Ibrahím Ferrer or Omara Portuondo of Buena Vista Social Club fame, who have gone on to their own solo stardom. Ditto for Compay Segundo and Rubén González. Also, Manuel “Puntillita” Licéa has passed away since the making of Live in Japan. But since its inception in 1998, the Afro-Cuban All Stars project has been an alive, ever-changing musical group—always quality, always representative of Cuban music, always cookin'.
What’s different is that this show will be “very jazzy” with “lots of improvisation,” said De Marcos. It will not be all dance music; some of it “will be for listening, too.”
De Marcos has put together for this current tour an ensemble of 18 top-notch Cuban musicians (including himself; he plays tres and guitar)—"the best musicians of the world,” De Marcos proudly boasts. Ages in the band range from 24-year-old timbales player Antonio Portuondo Martínez to 79-year-old singer Ignacio Carrillo, famous for his work with Cuban bands of the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. De Marcos sees it as part of his mission to assemble a group of Cuban musicians representative of as many generations of Cuban music as possible, in order to keep alive the tradition, beauty and innovation of Cuban music.
As some of the older performers move on or pass away, De Marcos’ task becomes a little more difficult in some ways, but not so in others. While he will not always be able to present Cuban performers from, say, the 1940s, there are many new and recent stars of Cuban music the world has yet to fall in love with. It is some of these stellar performers who are currently on the road with the Afro-Cuban All Stars.
Singer Pedrito Calvo of the Cuban band Los Van Van, popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s, will be there. The fantastic pianist Davíd Álfaro will be there. De Marcos’ wife, Gliceria Abreu, the only woman on this tour, will be playing Cuban percussion (Abreu is also the band’s manager). And the handsome 40-something singer Luís Frank Arias will also be there. Arias’ buttery, suave version of the infectious “Chan Chan” on Live in Japan is reason enough alone to want to see the show.
De Marcos is at once concerned and confident that Cuban music will stay alive and grow in world-wide popularity. He mentioned to me the difficulties that Cuban musicians in particular have to deal with, considering the longstanding U.S. embargo on Cuba and its effects on the country. De Marcos sees the Internet as a potential way to spread the word about and access to Cuban music, but Internet access is still forbidden by the Cuban government, even though “everybody has it,” depending on how much money they have. This surely leaves out a lot of people. De Marcos recommended a Web site devoted to the promotion of Cuban music: www.cubanmusic.com. He will start his own Web site in about a month.
If you are lucky enough to see the Afro-Cuban All Stars when they come to town next month (both shows are sold out), you will be experiencing something that can truly be described as legendary while helping keep that legend alive. Or if you prefer to think of it in a slightly less grandiose way: ¡Viva la música cubana! ž