Two of Cuba’s hottest bands come to Reno
Wingfield Park300 W. First St.
Reno, NV 89501
The chachachá, the bolero, the son. It’s the kind of music that sets a body to dancing. Downtown Reno will be moving with the sounds of Cuba, not once, but twice this July. Miami-based timba band Tiempo Libre kicks off Artown on July 1 with their high energy performance that mixes traditional Cuban music with jazz and rock. Then, taking the stage at Wingfield Park on July 14 is the Afro-Cuban All Stars, whose original makeup includes members of the world-famous Buena Vista Social Club.
We spoke with Juan de Marcos González, musical director of the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Buena Vista Social Club, and with Tiempo Libre’s pianist and musical director Jorge Gomez. They represent different forms and eras of Cuban music, but as Gomez said about his own band members, “Same fruit, different flower.”
Afro Cuban All-Stars
In 1994, González and Nick Gold of indie label World Circuit were having a beer in a bar in London, where they were working together on an album. But Gonzalez had other albums in mind. He’d grown up listening to the music of his father, González Mauriz, who sang in Cuban bands of the 1930s and ’40s with such greats as Arsenio Rodriguez. González wanted to find the old guys his father used to play with and make some recordings. In 1996, he returned to Havana and, with help from his wife, Gliceria Abreu, contacted the musicians—people like Rubén González, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo. Then he made the musical arrangements for what would become the first two albums.
“In March 1996, we came into the studio, and we recorded, instead of two albums, three albums. The album with the big-band sounds, the first album, A Todo Cuba Le Gusta, we called this the Afro-Cuban All Stars—like a Cuban Duke Ellington. The second album was recorded straight after the first one, and it was later called the Buena Vista Social Club. Then I contacted a pianist, Rubén González, and we recorded one called Introducing Rubén González. He was 77 at the time, but he’d never recorded a solo album. On the second album, we were supposed to bring a couple of African musicians in, but they couldn’t come, but we had Ry Cooder to work with us.”
Gold had invited Cooder to make a fusion album incorporating the son—a traditional form of Cuban music—with Cooder’s slide guitar and African musicians, though the African musicians weren’t available. This album became the Buena Vista Social Club.
The album and resulting 1996 documentary by Wim Wenders catapulted the group from relative obscurity to international stardom, on a world music album, no less.
“Our hopes were to have, let’s say, a good cultural impact and sell about a half a million copies between the three albums,” says González. “But suddenly Cuban music came back in fashion, and we sold 12 million albums.”
Somehow González’s role in the Buena Vista Social Club was overshadowed with the film’s release. “Ry Cooder never went to the original recordings,” says González. “He made a very good documentary and did a couple of concerts in Europe, and he interviewed a few guys of the project. But I came up with the idea; my wife and I looked for the musicians; I conducted and I wrote all the arrangements.”
The Afro-Cuban All Stars went on tour to perform the three albums. “But in 2000, we split the band, and I created a different structure for the Afro-Cuban All Stars,” says González. “Because Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González became very famous, we had a lot of requests from all over the world.” So three bands were created, one for Ferrer, one for Rubén González and then the Afro-Cuban All Stars.
Compay Segundo and Rubén González died in 2003 at the ages of 95 and 84, and Ibrahim Ferrer died in 2005 at age 78. But the Afro-Cuban All Stars continue to perform, and they’ll bring a four-horn brass section plus woodwinds, percussion, piano, bass, and vocalists to Wingfield Park, in what González promises will be a journey through Cuban music. It will be an upbeat concert, one that’s “danceable, but at the same time the people can sit down and listen to the band members.” Many of the members of the All Stars do not live in Cuba. González explains: “Because of Mr. Bush, who was president for eight years, in 2003 we had to stop touring the U.S.A. because it was forbidden for Cuban musicians to tour in the U.S.A.” So he invited friends who played traditional Cuban music but who were living as expats in other countries, though Cuban musicians are now free to tour here. Some of the original All Stars are still in the group, but most of the band members, “They are not old guys,” says González, 56. “They are in their 30s and 40s. I used to be one of the younger members, and now I’m one of the older ones.”
Young or old, the international appeal of traditional Cuban music remains strong.
“I think Cuban music is very special,” says González. “I think, in musical terms, the fact that the accent is on the fourth beat of the bar, it’s something that’s connected in a certain sense to the essence of the human being. You move your hips to the fourth beat even when you are walking. The accent for western music—let’s talk first about popular western music—it’s on the first or third beat of the bar. In Cuban it’s on the fourth, and I think it’s something special that makes the music attractive for the people. Probably they don’t know what’s going on, they move on the fourth beat of the bar, so it’s danceable. And the quality of Cuban music is very high. The Cuban music makes the people happy. That’s probably the success of Cuban music.”
In timba music, a mixture of traditional Cuban son and jazz, it’s perfectly normal to hear a smattering of percussive rhythms, joined in by brass, layers of piano, perhaps some vocal refrains. But Tiempo Libre’s latest album throws in something wholly unexpected: Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach in Havana fuses the joyful, aggressive explosion of Cuban timba with the classical music of Bach. Think of a Cuban bolero overlapping a Bach fugue. Though the combination is surprising, the members of Tiempo Libre are adept at blending cultures and sounds. The musicians grew up in Cuba and studied classical music together at the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana. They left Cuba for different countries—Guatemala, Argentina, Germany, Italy—and reunited in Miami before forming timba band Tiempo Libre in 2001.
Bridging the gap between Bach and Cuba wasn’t such a stretch, says Tiempo Libre pianist and musical director Jorge Gomez.
“Bach had the perfect message, like mathematics—two plus two equals four. He had the rhythms we needed to make Cuban music. Chopin is too romantic; Liszt is too [sings erratic, busy notes]. You can’t make a good chachacha out of that.”
But Tiempo Libre doesn’t always throw classical music into the mix. Their 2005 Grammy-nominated album, Arroz con Mango, is straight-up timba music, which Gomez describes as “the evolution of Cuban music.” He adds, “When you have everything in your hand, you’re going to have a very physical music. All your roots that came from Africa, Cuba, you mix everything, and it’s going to be powerful.”
González of the Afro-Cuban All Stars has his own take on timba: “It’s a kind of reflection of the status of the Cuban society in the ’90s after the crash of the communist countries in Europe. In timba, you start playing the refrain about three or four times, then you start the song, then at the end, you go back to the refrain, and the refrain is very repetitive. In the late ’90s, there was a situation in Cuba where every day was the same, and there was no hope. The way Cuban musicians expressed this situation of society was by repeating many times the same refrain. This is my point of view; I’ve never seen this written.”
For Gomez, Cuban music is his life. “Not only my life, but everyone in my neighborhood listens to Cuban music all the time. If you’re working, you listen to Cuban music; if you’re in the bar, you listen to Cuban music; if you don’t have nothing, you make the music on every corner.”
Fortunately for Tiempo Libre, people outside of Cuba also listen to Cuban music—enough to earn the group three Grammy nominations and spots on The Tonight Show and Dancing with the Stars, among other places.
Of American audiences, Gomez says, “They are the best. They gave us the opportunity again to feel life, because in Cuba we had to run in that country from many, many things. When you start your life again in a foreign country, you don’t understand the language, the culture. You are nothing. Then they give you everything. We are so grateful for that. We have everything we need and more. We have liberty. We have all our dreams come true. All of them. Everything.”