Harking back to old Havana

The Afro-Cuban All Stars, the embodiment of the Buena Vista Social Club, is coming to town.

Afro-Cuban All Stars (photo credit: Courtesy)
Afro-Cuban All Stars
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the late 1990s there was a musical in explosion in Cuba, a sudden outpouring of joyous sounds and rhythms. The music was produced by a unique ensemble of musicians, including a couple of octogenarians and even a nonagenarian – Compay Segundo – whose artistic magic had been buried beneath the strictures of the Communist regime for almost half a century. The venture became known as the Buena Vista Social Club and took the world by storm.
One of the younger members of the troupe was Juan De Marcos González, who has been an influential band leader for many years. He will bring his Afro-Cuban All Stars band here for a celebration of Latin music at the Zappa Amphitheater at Shuni on April 27. Besides González, who also plays tres guitar and sings, the 15- member lineup includes three trumpeters, a clarinetist, a pianist, a keyboardist-vibraphonist, three lead singers, a bassist and four percussionists. González is keen to keep the Cuban musical traditions alive for future generations. The clarinet player is Laura Lydia González and the keyboardist-vibraphonist is Gliceria González – the band leader’s two daughters.
González has been keeping the Cuban musical torch burning brightly across the world for several decades and has just returned to Mexico City, where he now lives, from an intense American circuit.
“We did 25 cities in 56 days,” he says, “and in a few days we’re leaving for Europe where we have eight concerts, and then we’re coming to Israel.”
González is looking forward to an easier time after the band’s concert at Shuni compared with what he had to face up to after the All Star’s first Israeli foray. “That was in 2001,” he says. “I remember the first time in Israel very well because, after I got back from Israel, I got a punishment from the Cuban government for playing for an enemy because the Cubans treated Israel as the enemy.”
González paid a heavy penalty for his “misdemeanor.”
“They punished me by not allowing me to work with my band for three years,” González recalls.
The enforced layoff couldn’t have happened at a worse time. González had been at the forefront of the resurgence of Cuban music for some time. He was born in Havana in 1954, and his childhood was suffused with music. His father was a singer and performed with many of the great Cuban band leaders of the time. The youngster studied classical guitar at the Havana Conservatory and privately with such maestros as Vicente Gonzalez and Leopoldina Nunez and also studied harmony and orchestral conducting. As music was not considered a secure profession, González decided to go for a degrees in hydraulic engineering and Russian and English languages before getting a job as a consultant at the Agronomic Science Institute. He got his doctorate in 1989.
But music was always a central element of his life. In 1976, while still a student, he co-founded the Sierra Maestra group. “That was the first strong band performing traditional Cuban music,” says González. “Before that, there were people like Compay Segundo and [Buena Vista Social Club vocalist] Ibrahim Ferrer who performed that music their whole lives, but they were not in fashion in those days because they were old guys. So we created a band, performing acoustic music in the style of the 1920s.”
Things went well for the group. “We were the number one band in Cuba for four or five years,” he recalls. “Sierra Maestra was the beginning of everything.”
The success of that outfit led to the later wave of Cuban music, based around Segundo, Ferrer and fellow veterans like pianist Ruben González, bass player Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez and vocalist Omara Portuondo, which swept the world. “In 1994, we [Sierra Maestra] recorded an album for a small label from London called World Circuit, which sold about 250,000 copies, which is pretty good for world music,” he says.
González had bigger and better plans for Cuban music. “I spoke to [World Circuit owner] Nick Gold and explained to him my idea to make a tribute to my father, using his friends who were still alive and to go into a studio. He agreed to make two albums – the first should be a tribute to the music of the 1950s, using the friends of my father.
My father used to play with Arsenio Rodriguez, who was like The Beatles of Cuba during the 1930s and 1940s. The second album, which was made with what became the Buena Vista Social Club – including [American guitarist] Ry Cooder – which was made using only acoustic instruments.”
González says that one of his primary intentions is to keep the Cuban traditional music flag flying as high as possible across the world.
“Now I am one of the older guys, but I was one of the younger ones when we did that recording with Compay Segundo and the other old timers who used to play with my father. It was such a pleasure to be conducting the big stars of the old times. Like when Cuba was a sort of American colony, before the Communists came with the revolution and messed everything up. It was so good to bring back those times.”
There is more of that on offer at Shuni next Saturday. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., and the show starts at 9 p.m.
For tickets and more information: (03) 762-666 and *9080, and www.zappa-club.co.il