The conversation I had with Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the man who created the Cuban “son” band “Sierra Maestra”, the Buena Vista Social Club project, and the Afro-Cuban All Stars, was very pleasant.
Juan de Marcos, who must have told some of these stories about 7 million times, was very open and enthusiastic during our long conversation. Despite all his success in his musical career, he is a very down-to-earth person who will gladly tell you the stories and share his Cuban music knowledge.
On Part 1 of our conversation with Juan de Marcos we covered his musical education and background, his involvement with “Sierra Maestra”, and how the Afro-Cuban All Stars and the Buena Vista Social Club projects came to life. On Part 2 we’ll touch on his evolution of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, the U.S tour he is currently doing, and upcoming projects he’s putting together.
Evolution of the Afro-Cuban All Stars:
After recording the two albums; the “Big Band” album, and the “Eastern” album, Juan de Marcos knew they had to get the band together and tour to promote the albums, particularly the “Eastern” album, as they nicknamed the Buena Vista Social Club recording. “We had to put the band together for a tour because these albums don’t sell all by themselves; we are not Cristina Aguilera, who has a big label behind her and has ads all over the main media”. The tour band was the Afro-Cuban All Stars.
After a couple of recordings and the death of some of the original members, Juan de Marcos sized the opportunity to make a shift in the band repertoire. The band’s next recording, “Step Forward: Next Generation”, was a change in the musical formula of the band. It became a smaller group and expanded to more contemporary music, and not as much, although still some, traditional Cuban songs. “I wanted to show that we can play many different types of music and still maintain the Cuban music essence.”
Today, the Afro-Cuban All Stars has a line-up based on trumpets and clarinet, and besides traditional Cuban songs, they also incorporated “timba” and Latin Jazz, all within a different type of arrangements than the ones they used in their early albums. Juan de Marcos thinks that although “timba” has been around a few years, it still has not caught as much popularity as it should and will. “I believe that in 3 or 5 years, “timba” is going to be a very popular rhythm around the world, like “son” is today”.
2011 United States Tour
This is the 2nd visit to the U.S. in 3 years for the Afro-Cuban All Stars, as they came previously in 2009. “We came a few times before that, but then we couldn’t come during the Bush years due to his tighter policy with Cuba” says Juan de Marcos.
I asked Juan de Marcos, what we can expect for the performance in Seattle. “We’ll do a trip through Cuban music, including traditional, bolero, son, contemporary, and Latin jazz. We’ll do a lot of solos to show the musicianship of our band members, and this also makes the music closer to jazz, as jazz provides space for improvisation and creativity. This music also suits well for an audience that is sitting, although we’ll be glad if we see people getting up to dance”.
Next Steps for the Afro-Cuban All Stars:
Juan de Marcos has several projects at hand. Regarding this tour, he recorded the performance at the Strathmore to publish a “Live” CD and DVD of the presentation. He also has an audio recording of a previous “Live” presentation he did in Edmonton, Canada, and wants to publish that presentation with the title “Step Backwards”, as the material was a look back at the traditional Cuban songbook, but with contemporary arrangements. I included one of these songs in Part 1 of this article.
The project that is keeping him awake at night is the one called “Breaking the Rules”. For this project, Juan de Marcos plans to make a studio album with Cuban musicians that live in different parts of the world, as well as a DVD of the project. “I believe that keeping people of the same nationality separated because of political ideas is not correct, so I’m going to break the rules. I’m thinking of inviting Cuban musicians like Gonzalo Rubalcaba and others that live outside Cuba, as well as musicians from the island”.
Complete the U.S. Tour:
I’m looking forward to witness the Afro-Cuban All Stars Live for the 1st time. After having seen groups like Irakere, back in the early 80’s with their full lineup, and later saw Los Van Van, with Pedro Calvo, Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso, Mayito, and Formell playing bass, I’m now going to see the Afro-Cubans. Of course I’ll be writing up about that experience here.
If you have a chance to see the Afro-Cuban All Stars Live don’t miss it. If you don’t have a chance, I highly recommend any of their recordings.