¡Agua, por favor!
Cuban bandleader Adalberto Alvarez leaves his audiences begging for mercy
It’s a Monday night at the SOB nightclub in lower Manhattan. The room temperature is that of fire. The “Gentlemen of Salsa,” Adalberto Alvarez y su Son, have taken their first break for the evening, mercifully giving the audience a much-needed rest. People clamor to the bar, calling to the bartender: “¡Agua, por favor!” They breathe heavily, holding their sides and dabbing the sweat from their flushed faces with cocktail napkins. Over the frantic ordering of drinks, you can hear the impassioned, hoarse voices of patrons crying out, “¡Eso! ¡Ay caliente! ¡Gracias Dios para el Caballero del Salsa!,” then excitedly gulping down their water.
Caliente and caballero, the Spanish words for “hot” and “gentlemen,” are the two best words to describe Adalberto Alvarez y su Son—the band is electric, smooth, suave, sexy, gloriously rhythmic and just might be California’s solution to its energy crisis. Indeed, Vanity Fair found a solution to its own energy crisis by hiring Alvarez when the magazine needed a jolt of energy for its Academy Awards celebration.
“It will be our second year performing at the Oscar Awards, a very big privilege for any artist,” the soft-spoken, debonair Alvarez says. “I am truly honored the organizers of the event have requested us again.”
An accomplished composer, musician, arranger and singer, Alvarez has been an enormous influence in the production and promotion of Cuban son music. Globally, over 200 versions of his compositions have been recorded by such artists as El Gran Combo, Oscar de Leon, Felix Baloy, Arsenio Rodriguez, Roberto Roena, Sonora Poncena, Juan Luis Guerra, Wichy Camacho, Gilberto Santa Rosa and many others, tagging him as the most-covered artist in Latin music today. Internationally, Alvarez has won accolades from numerous musical critics throughout Asia, Europe, Central and South America and the United States for his work on the 1995 Afro-Cuban All Stars CD. That double-disc, released by English label World Circuit and in the U.S. by Nonesuch Records, helped inspire the launch of musician Ry Cooder and German film director Wim Wender’s Cuban-music documentary, Buena Vista Social Club.
Son is a generic term that is today used to describe all the traditional Cuban genres of music: the sones, boleros, afros, changüis, guarachas, son montuno, batas and other forms whose birth is said to be in the 18th century in Santiago de Cuba.
“It’s the music of the country people,” Alvarez says. “The lyrics and music are about the everyday life of the cubano—our relationships, families, parties, sorrows and joys.”
The genre’s first wave of modern-day popularity came in the ’20s and ’30s, when legendary orquestras such as Los Matamoros, El Septeto Habanera, El Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Pinero and El Cuarteto began performing at Havana’s upscale tourist clubs. There, vacationing socialites and wealthy businessmen became so enraptured with Cuban music that they invited the bands to play in their own countries. With each performance, the word about this vibrant music spread, often like wildfire, and son music became increasingly in high demand.
But that changed in the late ’50s and early ’60s with Castro’s revolution. The United States spearheaded global sanctions against Cuba; the revolutionary government countered by closing its doors to the world and silencing the musical voice of son. The desire for traditional son was then replaced by mambo and rumba. By the late ’60s, Latin musicians were migrating to the U.S., where they began blending and mixing Cuban rhythms with other Latin genres, naming this new style “salsa.”
In Cuba, a new generation of Cuban traditional son musicians began modernizing the music by punching up the tempo, adding tighter changeovers, highlighting the earthiness of the voice but keeping the original essence in mind.
“The social responsibility when I play son is to stay true to the genre’s roots and teach the new generation of musicians how the music is really played in its purest form,” says Alvarez.
Born into a family of musicians in Camaguey, a neighboring town of Santiago de Cuba, Alvarez learned at a young age to sing and play son. “At home I used to sing with my mother,” he says. “She taught me the songs of the old trova and always had music playing in the house—the music of Matamoros, Beny More and Sindo Garay. I then started working with my father’s traditional son band,” recalls Alvarez.
His musical peers considered him one of the major troubadours leading the way in reawakening interest in traditional son music. This journey, however, began thirty years prior in the early ’70s, where he began developing his musical ideas as director of Orquestra Tipica and scoring hit songs for Conjunto Rumbavana, which Alvarez cites as a paramount marker in his career. “Hearing my songs for the first time on the radio was one of my happiest moments still to this day,” Alvarez says. “It gets me when I hear one of my songs played.”
His big break as a performer came when he formed Son 14, a group that captivated and swayed audiences throughout Cuba, which eventually led to international travel. “When I look back at what I created in the ’70s, combining what I learned in art school, using modern technology, with the foundation based on what my parents gave me—the flavor of the old trovas. That’s been the base of all I have created musically.”
By the ’80s, Alvarez had disbanded Son 14 and placed his focus on producing and collaborating on musical projects. He began scoring music for films and working with respected artists in Cuba such as Juan de Marcos, musical director of the Buena Vista Social Club. But by the mid-’80s, his desire to perform prompted him to form his current band. “The biggest challenge as a bandleader of a popular group,” Alvarez explains, “has been making sure the orquestra remains on top and as the years go by doesn’t lose its musical quality—keeping the sound fresh and modern.”
This is quite evident with his current band: It is unstoppable, playing with the musical force of a high-speed, silver bullet train. The lead singer, Aramis Galindo, has it all—charisma, style, vexing dance moves and a voice that signals there are some seriously syncopated angels chillin’ in heaven. “I’ve always said that the hardest part of leading the orquestra is finding the right singers,” Alvarez says. “The singers have to have a lot of power in their voice because of the arrangements I do. The horns are heavily accentuated; they [singers] have to have perfect pitch, a good ear, a clean, strong voice with the tonal quality and sound of a true sonero. Without these qualities, their voice would be swallowed up by the band.”
With all the success Alvarez has already experienced, in 2000 he released his first CD, Jugando con Candela (Playing with Fire), on Havana Caliente, a Cuban-music imprint of Atlantic Records. “This CD, for me, is my musical jewel because of the quality of the singing, arrangements and improvisational interpretation—it’s a great CD,” he says.
From the disc’s first note, Alvarez showcases his musical alchemy, his ability to mix up pure rhythmic gold. His daughters Dorgeris and Yanithza Alvarez (featured on the cover) serve up superb spirited keyboard solos amid the band’s explosive, volcanic jamming. Perhaps what makes Jugando con Candela outstanding is that Alvarez orchestrated the production in the traditional way, with the entire band in the studio recording each track live, creating a cohesive, well-balanced sound that resonates musical excellence.
It’s a particular quality that should be in evidence Tuesday evening, when Alvarez y su Son take the stage at Harlow’s.
Looking to the future, Alvarez says he has realized many of his goals. But not all. “I never think I’ve completely got the goal,” he says. “There’s always something more to learn.”