Juan de Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars (Photo by: Luiz C. Ribeiro Photography)
Juan de Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars launch U.S. Tour on April 12th
20 Years After His First Concerts In Europe And US Presenting The Music Of The Albums Recorded At The So-Called Buena Vista Social Club Sessions, Musician, Composer and Arranger Juan de Marcos Keeps Cuba’s Music Front and Center.
Spring 2017 Tour Includes a new release, the CD-DVD double album Absolutely Live II, as well as Concerts at The Moore Theater in Seattle, WA, San Francisco Jazz Center, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles (CA) and Phoenix, AZ.
“Whenever musicologists study the colorful sounds of the Cuban diaspora, it’s nearly impossible for them not to mention Juan de Marcos González and his Afro-Cuban All Stars” – VILLAGE VOICE
Twenty years is a lifetime in popular music. Yet the impact of Buena Vista Social Club, The Afro-Cuban All Stars´ A Toda Cuba Le Gusta and Introducing Ruben González, three albums recorded by a small independent label with a modest budget in Havana in two weeks in March and April of 1996, can still be felt. Those recordings helped reintroduce the classic sound of popular Cuban music to the world, transcending long-standing, and by then already obsolete, political prohibitions and anticipating the re-establishment of relations between the two countries by two decades. In the process, it also made global stars of a group of old but brilliant musicians, some of whom had been forgotten even in Cuba.
The musical director of those sessions was Juan de Marcos González, Grammy-winning bandleader, composer, arranger, tres player, producer and entrepreneur. “The Quincy Jones of Cuban music,” as Songlines, the authoritative world music magazine, once dubbed him. Much has happened to Juan de Marcos since.
In 2015, he conducted a semester-long residency at the Art Institute at the University of Wisconsin -Madison all while also continuing to tour and record with his Afro-Cuban All Stars. Over the years, the band evolved from an ensemble showcasing musicians from older generations to a combination of youth and experience. And while the Cuban music tradition remains the core of his work, Juan de Marcos, who splits his time between Mexico, the United States and Cuba, continues incorporating new elements to his music, be it working with rappers as part of his program in Wisconsin, or adding to his ensemble non-standard instruments in Afro-Cuban music such as vibraphone and bass clarinet, performed by daughters Gliceria, a classical pianist and orchestra conductor, and Laura Lydia, respectively. Rounding up the family presence in the band, Gliceria Abreu, Juan de Marcos’ wife, contributes Afro-Cuban percussion and also acts as the band’s general manager.
Discussing the anniversary of the Buena Vista Social Club sessions, González still sounds surprised at their impact: “We never thought that recordings made for cultural reasons might have any relevance commercially.”
“The idea of those sessions was to pay tribute to the creators and the sound of Cuban music in the 1950s, what I consider the golden age of Cuban music,” says, González, once a rocker who was kicked out of the Havana Conservatory after two years for being “a bit undisciplined.”
After that, he didn’t think he was going to dedicate himself to music for his father Marcos, a singer and player who had worked with several groups including the great Arsenio Rodríguez’ Septeto Boston, was not keen on the idea of his son becoming a professional musician. “He wanted me to be in a ‘real’ profession. He wanted me to be an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer,” he said. “And I wanted to please him.”
Juan de Marcos González (Havana, 1954) studied at the Universidad Agraria de La Habana, graduating as an Agricultural Engineer in 1980. For the next ten years he was in the faculty of the university, wrote science books and did research. But music was never far. He also finished his studies on guitar and Cuban tres at the Ignacio Cervantes Conservatory and took a course on orchestration and conducting at Goldsmith College in London. As a youngster, Juan de Marcos had listened to and played rock — “something that was not well seen those days in Cuba,” he notes. He remembers playing covers of groups such as King Crimson, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jethro Tull and Yes. Still, “despite my passion for rock and R&B, I also listened to a lot of Cuban classics.” As a result, in 1976, while still at the university, he decided to form a group “that would break all the established canons.”
Sierra Maestra was a band dedicated to recreating the sound of traditional Cuban music and the old, classic septets.” It was a pretty ‘punk’ thing to do, getting a group of young kids to play son,” he once said. “And from then on, we started to play Cuban music.”
And yet, Juan de Marcos continued his academic career, working on his thesis and receiving a PhD in Agricultural Engineering from Moscow’s Gidromeliorativny Institute (“a sort of MIT of agricultural engineering,” he notes) in 1990. In March that year, his father died. “Three months later, I was working in music full time,” he says.
As it turned out, Sierra Maestra not only deeply reconnected him to the great Cuban musical tradition but, improbably, led to the Buena Vista Social Club recordings.
In the 1990s, González found in Nick Gold, founder and president of World Circuit, a small London-based label, an interested and enterprising partner. The success of Sierra Maestra’s Dundunbanza, one of the best world music recordings of that decade, released by Gold’s company, opened the door to an even more ambitious project.
González´s and Gold´s initial idea was to record two albums: one utilizing the Cuban big band format with period orchestrations, which became The Afro-Cuban All Stars´ A Toda Cuba Le Gusta. The other was going to be an acoustic recording, “a tribute to the Cuban music of the 1930s and 40s, evoking the sound of Eastern Cuba, more laid back.” The album, produced by guitarist Ry Cooder, who also played in it, was eventually named after one of the songs selected: Buena Vista Social Club. And then, as the project progressed, “everybody fell in love with the playing of Rubén González, and because we had a little extra money, we could record him too. I wrote the arrangements right there in the studio.” A pianist with a rich musical history, González was by then retired. He didn’t even own a piano. The unplanned CD, Introducing Ruben González, became a best seller.
For Juan de Marcos, the Havana sessions were not just a musical but a personal project. That music was partly a tribute to his father Marcos Gonzalez, ex-singer of Arsenio Rodriguez´s Septeto Boston and to those great musicians who created it and kept it alive, such as Francisco Repilado, better known as Compay Segundo. But these were not just names in a music history book. The exceptional but nearly forgotten González was like his uncle and Compay Segundo was an old family friend and, for nearly 40 years, his next-door neighbor.
“I used to go to Compay’s house all the time. The first guitar my father bought me as a kid he bought it from Compay. It was an old guitar,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “After his wife died he didn’t have anybody to make him coffee so in the morning, when he was up, he would knock on the wall to let my mother know and she would prepare him coffee. And when it was ready, she would knock on the wall and they would come out to the balconies, which were side by side, and he would get his coffee and they would chat.”
Of that extraordinary music and those deep personal relationships, a global hit was made.
“I believe those recordings are the best-selling albums by Cuban artists—recordings of traditional Cuban music—selling 12 million copies worldwide. Unthinkable!”
“And inside the country, those recordings reminded a young generation of Cubans of our musical history,” he says, proudly. “Many young artists and groups, hip hop bands, rappers, began to incorporate traditional elements to their music. Unfortunately, for political reasons, Cuban music lost its place in the marketplace for many years. But that wealth of music is still there. And with the Afro-Cuban All Stars, I try to present it all. Our concerts are a tour of Cuban music through all its genres and its history. For me, all genres are valid. I make no distinctions. It’s all one Cuban music.”
This year Juan de Marcos Afro-Cuban All Stars is celebrating its 20th Anniversary with a new production, Absolutely Live II, a CD – DVD HD live double album featuring performances at the Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato, Mexico and Strathmore Center for the Arts in Bethesda, Maryland. The Audio disk is entitled “Viva Mexico” as a tribute to that brave and beautiful nation to which Juan de Marcos, some of the current band members and the Cuban people in general are linked by family and friendship ties. The DVD video was named “Live in Maryland” also as a tribute to the State where Juan de Marcos´s daughters, and also band performers, actually live. The production will be for sale in physical format only during their upcoming Spring Tour and aferwards distributed through the conventional digital channels (iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, etc).” Passionate and Authentic Music. The Sound of Cuba. No tricks, no Auto-Tune.”
Source: Rock Paper Scissors