February’s Afro Cuban Music Feast

February’s Afro Cuban Music Feast

FEBRUARY’S AFRO CUBAN MUSIC FEST

by Susan Kepecs

        “Y en la vida se debe andar derecho,                                                      “In life one should play it straight,

         Rendir tributo a quien se lo merece                                                       Pay tribute to whose who deserve it,

         Con la imaginación crear lo bello                                                            With imagination create what’s beautiful –

         Y que sea distinto, diferente!”                                                                  And let it be distinct, different!”

         – Juan de Marcos González, from his song “Distinto, Diferente,” on the eponymous album (World Circuit, 1999).

There’s nothing in the world as bold and bailable Afro-Cuban music. The thrilling syncopation of its basic rhythmic patterns, clave and tumbao, are gifts from the Orishas – the ancestral spirits of West Africa who crossed the Atlantic on slave ships and landed on the biggest Antillean island. The Orishas are the most dynamic of deities, and though Afro-Cuban music is unmistakable in any of its forms, it’s constantly evolving. Juan de Marcos, renowned leader of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, is a master innovator, as is his younger counterpart, Pedrito Martínez. Both will be in Madison the second week of February, giving us a chance to check out the state of Afro-Cuban music in early 2015. The Pedrito Martínez Group plays Overture’s Capitol Theater on Thursday, Feb. 12, at 7:30 PM. Marcos, the UW-Madison Arts Institutes’ Interdisciplinary Artist-in-Residence for fall, 2015, thanks to the efforts of Willie Ney, Executive Director of the UW-Madison Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives – what a coup! – is here to meet the community at a reception in his honor at the Cardinal Bar on Feb. 10 (5-7 PM), and to give a pre-residency talk at Overture’s Wisconsin Studio (it’s up on the third floor) at 6 PM before Martinez’ concert on Feb. 12. 

Both Marcos and Martínez were born to this music. Marcos hails from the hotbed of rumba called Pueblo Nuevo, a poor barrio in the city of Artemisa, about 40 km west of Havana. His puro – “pure one,” a Cuban term of respect and honor for father – sang with dance bands all over Havana (sometimes with the sire of son montuno, Arsenio Rodríguez, or with piano potentate Ruben González) – and led a chapter of the secret men’s society, Abakuá; its sacred Nigerian drum rhythms are rumba’s heartbeat.

For a while Marcos’ family lived next door to the late, great sonero Compay Segundo, whose song “Chan Chan,” sung by Ibrahim Ferrer, is opening track on the original Buena Vista Social Club album (World Circuit, 1997). “When I was about 10, my puro bought me Compay’s guitar,” Marcos says. “But music didn’t pay. He didn’t want me to be a musician. He always had various jobs besides his gigs. He was a guaguero [bus driver] and a stevedore on the docks. And he was a leftist – a union leader.” So Marcos ended up with a doctorate in engineering, though he organized his first band, Sierra Maestra (most recently in Madison in 2012, though by then Marcos was no longer involved) during his student days. Fortunately for us, Marcos ultimately gave up engineering for music. 

It was Marcos who brought the old soneros, then more or less relegated to the dustbins of prerevoltionary history, to the attention of Ry Cooder and Nick Gold. From that collaboration came the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, with its famous Wim Wenders film and its fat handful of group and solo albums recorded on the World Circuit label at the end of the 1990s, including the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ first album, A Toda Cuba Le Gusta (World Circuit, 1997). 

Today Marcos brings together several generations of Cuban musicians, now scattered across the globe thanks to the limitations of the island’s political economy, to perform and record under the Afro-Cuban All Stars banner. He also uses his astute eye for talent producing albums by the best of Cuba’s next-generation players. One of his outstanding successes in this role was the 2007 production (on his own label, DM Ahora!) of the landmark debut album by leading Cuban rapper Telmary Díaz, who melds Afro-Cuban rhythms with urban slam poetry.

Martínez grew up in the section of Centro Habana called Cayo Hueso, like Pueblo Nuevo a cradle of son y rumba. Martínez learned to play as a youngster in the streets. “He comes straight from the source,” Marcos says, “he developed by playing with rumba’s greatest protagonists.” Since 1998, though, Martínez has lived in New York. He was a founding member of Afro-Latin New York fusion band Yerba Buena before branching out on his own. The Pedrito Martínez Group’s first, eponymously titled studio album was released in 2013 (Motéma Music). It’s a chart-buster, the top Latin jazz seller on both iTunes and Amazon. 

 Martínez is the whole package – a superb percussionist (he won top honors in the Thelonious Monk Institute Afro-Latin hand percussion competition in 2000), a tremendous vocalist, and a surprising innovator. His instruments of choice are the tumbadoras (congas) and the hourglass-shaped, double-headed batá, the sacred drum used to call up the Orishas. 

Given its folkloric roots, Afro-Cuban music is organically linked to dance. “It’s important,” Marcos says, ”to speak of rumba as a music / dance complex, encompassing several relatively distinct rhythm and dance styles. But the term ‘rumba’ also applies to any fiesta at which these genres are played and danced. By extension, in Cuban slang when someone throws a great party, even if the music is reggaeton or heavy metal, people say “yesterday there was a great rumba at Pedro’s house.”  

But if Afro-Cuban music is for dancing, it’s also dazzlingly complex. Jazz is intrinsic, says Marcos. “In rumba, in particular, improvisation is and always has been key. It goes back to the abolition of slavery; the flow of blacks between New Orleans and Cuba led to a certain confluence of ideas and styles.”

In New Orleans, Jelly Roll Morton called it the “Spanish Tinge.” In Cuba, you can see it in the early twentieth century rise of the French-inspired Afro-Cuban danzón orchestras, which got their characteristic, stately sound from violins, flutes, and piano, mixed with bass and timbales. “Since that time,” Marcos says, “open solos for piano and flute have been part and parcel of Afro-Cuban music. Moreover, with the signing of the Platt Ammendment, which made Cuba a quasi U.S. colony [it was repealed in 1934, though heavy U.S. investments in Cuban land and the sugar industry remained until the 1959 Revolution], American capitalists living on the island and their allies, the elitist Cuban oligarchs, demanded to stay on top of the latest foreign fashions.”

By the 1920s, Marcos continues, U.S. jazz orchestras, like those led by saxophonist Ted Naddy and violinist Max Dolin, were common in Havana. Eventually, these leaders began using Cuban musicians – it was cheaper than bringing in and manitaining complete ensembles from the States. This musical interaction reached its peak in the 1940s, with the explosion of Afro-Cuban jazz – son y rumba now threaded with the structures of blues and bebop that originated in the African-American experience, like the call-and-response patterns of trading fours or eights. 

Juan de Marcos Tres.jpg

Juan de Marcos González, photo by Tom Ehrlich

Marcos’ talk next month – essentially a preview of his fall residency on campus, which will include a public lecture / concert series on the order of the John Santos Latin jazz residency of 2004 (also a Ney initiative) – will put all of this in context and perspective. “The talk’s about the history, development, and musicology of Cuban music since the eighteenth century,” he says. “I’ll go from Cuban baroque composers like Esteban Salas and Juan Paris, whose works stem from European rather than Cuban forms, through today. It’s a panoramic overview that, when I get to the present, will pay special homage to the artists we’re going to invite to Madison during my residency, and to their particular styles.” 

As a musician Marcos takes a similarly broad tack with his Afro-Cuban All Stars shows – and there surely will be one this fall, the first since March, 2009 (the All Stars also played here in April, 2000). “What I try to do in my concerts,” Marcos says, “is approach the greatest possible number of genres, to reveal the panorama of popular music in my country. I’ll play very traditional [late nineteenth and early twentieth century] genres, like danzón and contradanza, and go from there through son y rumba to timba” [an Afro-Cuban style invented by a new generation of rebellious youth invented during the island’s post-Soviet crisis in the 1990s, which opened the island to tourism and all the outside influences that brought, including hip-hop and the multiethnic, multicultural cross-currents of New York].

“I’m not going to say that I’ll play a lot of timba,” Marcos continues, “or that I’m going to include Cuban reggaeton. But sometimes in my arrangements I incorporate a few measures of that and of Afro-Cuban hip-hop.” He also uses elements of funk, swing, or anything else that feels right. I’ve posted a few recent videos of the Afro-Cuban Allstars on my blog, CulturalOyster – there’s also one of Martínez there – to give you a taste. 

“In general,” Marcos says, “I think music is all one thing, and it’s atemporal – only the quality and the richness of the language is what speaks, what’s transmitted to the spectator.” 

If Marcos – professor and musician – embodies the spirit of innovation in Afro-Cuban music over the long term, Martínez is the music’s U.S. present. Before he left Cuba he played with an amazing slate of rumberos, from the deeply traditional Muñequitos de Matanzas (who were here as part of the John Santos residency in 2004) and the late, great conguero / composer Tata Güines, plus batá master Pancho Quinto, one of the pioneers of the open, jazzlike, heavily improvisational, polyrhythmic rumba called guarapachangueo that evolved out of guaguancó, one of the three traditional twentieth-century rumba genres, at the end of the 1970s in Havana. 

The ‘70s were a revolutionary period in Cuban music. The sounds of yankee imperialism were prohibited, but young conservatory players who are legendary today – like Chucho Valdés, Paquito D’Rivera, and Arturo Sandoval – held clandestine radio parties on late-night rooftops, absorbing jazz-rock fusion and other styles coming out of the States. From this illigitimate crack in the iron curtain sprang new, experimental Cuban bands – most prominently Irakere, which included, at the time, Valdés, D’Rivera, and Sandoval. Folkloric rumberos like Pancho Quinto, exposed to these new influences, started opening up the way they played guaguancó, and guarapachangueo was born. 

Guarapachangueo, like timba, incorporates incorporates elements of hip-hop and the multiethnic, multicultural cross-currents of New York. It has the young energy of timba, and sometimes resembles it, but it’s more rooted, and more rumba than anything else. And Martinez is the guarapachangueo virtuoso in the Big Apple. He’s been something of a star since he arrived in New York 18 years ago – the list of musicians he’s worked with is a knockout – but today he’s at the top of his game. 

Photo by Michael Weintrob. PMG on Brooklyn Roof

Pedrito Martinez Group. Photo by Michael Weintrob

Nobody else sounds like Martinez, though he’s very modest. “I don’t think I’m a creator of anything. But I’ve been schooled by great rumberos and I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to play guarapachangueo here in the States and to raise its profile. At heart I’m an Afro-Cuban folkloric player, a rumbero from the marginal streets of Havana. I never studied in school. But I’d describe my music as Afro-Cuban with a lot of New York. 

“A lot of rumberos were here before me,” Martínez continues. “How many came here in the 1960s? But I represent my generation. I came to the U.S. at a good time for Cuban music, and it’s my responsibility to keep the Cuban flag flying and to keep the music moving ahead. I’ve played with Paquito D’Rivera, with Eddie Palmieri; I worked for several years with Wynton Marsalis, who’s on my latest album. I’ve worked with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon. I’ve had the opportunity – and the curiosity – to play African music, Brazilian music – to know and share sounds from so many places is a great advantage. I absorb other music, other harmonies, for my own use. I try out new sounds – if they don’t work they go, but if they click they stay. I’ve learned a lot this way.”

Martínez’ band – it’s a quartet, but it sounds so rich and full you’d swear there were more than four players – is international, too; pianist Edgar Pantoja-Aleman is from Santiago de Cuba, but bass player Alvaro Benavides is Venezuelan and percussionist Jhair Sala is from Peru. “I don’t want to impose my own folklore or any specific sound on the others,” Martínez says. “Each of them is a leader in his own right, with his own band and his own ideas. Each contributes his own themes to my group. Together the music we make is very complete, and we play con mucho sentimiento.”

If this description makes the Pedrito Martínez group sound like just another altermodern world beat band, it’s not. Despite the confluence of influences Martínez cites, its sound is completely, unmistakably, Cuban. Yep. That’s the power of the Orishas.  

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Here’s a bit of added info you’ll want to have: the reception at the Cardinal on Feb. 10 features Madison’s own Afro-Cuban son y rumba rock n’ roll jazz band El Clan Destino, plus Myriha Burton, from the UW-Madison First Wave Program, with her trio. Also, Juan de Marcos’ fall residency will be housed in the UW-Madison School of Music.  His pre-residency talk at Overture’s Wisconsin Studio is free and open to the public.      — SK

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