Juan de Marcos & Afro-Cuban All Stars U.S. Tour 2017

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

Music A Yiddish-Cuban Opera to Have Its Premiere in Havana in March

Credit Anya Roz

Yiddish-Cuban opera is not something you come across every day. But a new one composed by Frank London of the Klezmatics — based on an 86-year-old Yiddish poem about Hatuey, the Taino chief who resisted the Spanish invaders — will have its premiere at Teatro Arenal in Havana on March 3.

The opera, “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” is based on a 1931 epic poem written in Yiddish by Oscar Pinis, a Ukrainian refugee who fled to Cuba and edited a Yiddish newspaper there, and who later took the name Ascher Penn. Mr. London said in a telephone interview that when he discovered the poem he decided “it had to be an opera,” and asked Elise Thoron to write the libretto.

“It’s quite a story — it kind of rocks my world,” Mr. London said, describing how the score weaves together several of his musical passions. “I’ve been playing Afro-Cuban music longer than I’ve been playing Jewish music.”

But bringing the work to Cuba — where it will be performed by the inventive troupe Opera de la Calle — required adjustments. Mr. London, who initially envisioned using an Afro-Cuban nightclub ensemble that could double as a chamber orchestra, had to reorchestrate the score to accommodate Opera de la Calle’s ensemble of guitar, bass, three keyboards and five percussionists. And he agreed to have most of the opera’s Yiddish passages translated into Spanish after the founder of the company, Ulises Aquino, warned that it would otherwise be inaccessible.

“I was willing to change so much of my conception of the piece for the experience of working with them,” Mr. London said. “They are so young, they are so enthusiastic, and this material is so far beyond what they normally perform, and pushing their boundaries in so many ways. And they’re game for it.”

Cuba’s Jewish population plummeted after the 1959 revolution, but there is still a Jewish population there. “There are still a few of the Jews almost, not quite, but almost from the generation of our poet,” he said, adding that one woman still had a copy of the opera’s source in its original Yiddish.

Cuban Ballet: Proud Past, Promising Future

Credit Lisette Poole for The New York Times

HAVANA — In the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, the woman with her name on the theater makes as grand an entrance as it is possible to make while being propped up by minders. On a recent Friday, Ms. Alonso, the 95-year-old director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, was ushered to her balcony seat. She opened her ballerina arms to the audience, who stood and cheered as if at a royal appearance. Ms. Alonso, blind or nearly blind for decades, has reigned over Cuban ballet for more than 60 years, longer than her stalwart supporter Fidel Castro lasted as head of state.

That night, the Ballet Nacional was dancing “Swan Lake” — Ms. Alonso’s version, based on the 19th-century Russian original, a staple of a repertory that includes almost no contemporary work. The performance was well-mannered, old-fashioned, trapped in time. It was as it has been.

And yet Ms. Alonso was surely aware of changes around her, including in the theater that now bears her name. Dating from 1838, it reopened in January after renovations, clean and bare on the inside, its ornate exterior casting the brightest glow in the city center, which remains rather dark at night. President Obama gave a speech there during his visit in March, the first by a sitting American president since long before the 1959 Cuban Revolution: a sign of a major shift in relations between the countries, and presumably of incipient change for Cuba.

[ How modern dance companies in Cuba are bracing for American influences ]

But what about for Cuban ballet? Ms. Alonso likes to say that she will live to 200 and will still be running the company 100 years from now. She has never chosen a successor. Ask anyone involved with the Ballet Nacional what happens “after Alicia,” and you get shrugs and sighs. Change must be coming but probably not while Ms. Alonso is in charge.

More important, though, might be what happens to Cuba’s National Ballet School. In 1948, Ms. Alonso — along with Fernando Alonso, her husband at the time — returned to Cuba from the United States, where she was a star, to found a company and a school. After the revolution, the troupe became the Ballet Nacional, funded and protected by the state, and the Alonso school soon went national, too.

The school has supplied generations of dancers for Cuba’s national and regional ballet troupes. It has stocked companies across the ballet world, which has long marveled at how a small, impoverished nation has produced so many beautifully trained classical dancers. (Amid a lengthy list, some of the best-known include Carlos Acosta and José Manuel Carreño.) The achievement could justly be characterized as revolutionary.

These days, this company’s official historian, Miguel Cabrera — when talking to a Yanqui journalist but even in the pages of Granma, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper — is prone to emphasize the roots of Cuban training in the United States, what the Alonsos picked up from George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet and from American Ballet Theater. The Russian (or — whisper it — Soviet) influence is nevertheless undeniable, in elements of style and crucially in the system of tuition-free schools across the island, identifying talent and funneling it to the center. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.
Music and Dance By LISETTE POOLE 00:59
Cuban Ballet School in Motion
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Cuban Ballet School in Motion

Students in class at the National Ballet School in Havana. By LISETTE POOLE on Publish Date May 5, 2016. Photo by Lisette Poole for The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

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Whatever the fate of this company, the school is the future of Cuban ballet. So said Mr. Cabrera at the school’s headquarters, a grand edifice with marble staircases, built in 1904 for a Spanish social club, commandeered for ballet in 2001, and recently named for Mr. Alonso, the man usually credited with developing Cuban ballet pedagogy. (He died in 2013.) The building is not one of the mildewed antiques that symbolize the island’s isolation and disrepair. Like the Gran Teatro, it’s a well-scrubbed showplace with an echoey emptiness, as if its current occupants haven’t fully moved in.

That isn’t to say that it feels uninhabited. On the morning before that “Swan Lake” performance, the second-year boys’ class sweated hard for their tough-minded teacher in pursuit of the heroic ease that distinguishes the school’s male graduates. Among them were the Ramirez Castellano brothers, identical triplets who have already been the subjects of a documentary.

The boys all displayed a disciplined attention matching the school’s reputation, but later a nosy visitor could spy them on break, their gazes fixed on the screens of cellphones. Anywhere else, the scene might be unremarkable, but cellphones have been legal in Cuba since only 2008. Public Wi-Fi, legalized last year, is not yet available at the school, yet such distractions are on the way, threatening a system that has worked partly by being closed.
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Influence from the United States remains limited, though the loosening of travel restrictions may already be affecting ballet education. This past summer, the triplets studied in New York at the School of American Ballet. “The great opportunity of the moment is interchange between schools,” said Ramona de Saá, who has directed the Cuban school since 1965. In the past few years, she said, there has been an unprecedented (and, in her opinion, wholly positive) rise in exchanges with ballet schools in the United States, many run by emigrants from Cuba.

Among them are Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez, dancers who defected to the United States in 1993. Hired by the Sarasota Ballet in Florida, they settled there, and in 2012, they opened the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School. In New York last week for the Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition, Mr. Serrano said that when he takes his students to Havana, they are surprised by the rigor. “We teach like Cubans, but American culture is more relaxed,” he said. “After the students return, they work harder.”

For all of the less restricted back and forth, though, defections aren’t Cold War relics. Just about every time the Ballet Nacional tours to the United States (most recently in 2011) or even to Mexico, there’s another round; the latest exodus came in 2013, when seven dancers left.

They all cite the same reasons: the Cuban company’s stagnant and conservative repertory; the restrictions and capricious decision-making concerning travel and career opportunities outside of Cuba; the poverty. United States immigration policy, with its fast track for Cuban migrants, exerts a pull. So does the likelihood of finding work. Check the rosters of American ballet troupes — San Francisco, Boston, Houston, Pennsylvania, Arizona — and you’ll find Cubans.

For younger Cuban dancers, international competitions still offer initial exposure to the broader world. Last week, Narciso Alejandro Medina Arias, 17, a student at Cuba’s National Ballet School, won first prize in the senior men’s division of the Youth America Grand Prix.

Asked about his dreams, he spoke of wanting an international career. What did he think of New York on his first visit? “It’s a very nice city,” he said shyly, “but it isn’t Cuba.”

A version of this article appears in print on May 8, 2016, on Page AR23 of the New York edition with the headline: Cuban Ballet: Proud Past, Promising Future. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe