Afro-Cuban All Stars put the social" in social club
Music can serve as a cultural bridge where politics have completely failed. Take Cuba. Six years have passed since the debut of the Buena Vista Social Club, whose wild popularity sent the world reeling in a new fling with all things Cuban. But for Americans, this musical bridge dates back to the late 1920s, when a Cuban composer named Moises Simons wrote a love song called "El Manicero" (The Peanut Vendor) on a drink napkin in Havana. When he played the song in New York, America's whirlwind romance with Cuba began for the first time.
Another 70 years would pass before Buena Vista consummated it, and the impact was far-reaching. The music was so delicious that the Grammy committee was forced to add a new category — Best Traditional Tropical Album — to its roster. Since Buena Vista, Cuba's tourism has doubled, bringing the island out of its cultural isolation, while new dollars flowed in to rescue the island's flagging economy.
A key influence behind the world's latest infatuation with Cuba is Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, founder and director of the Afro-Cuban All Stars. "I'm a star-maker, not a star," he likes to say. You wouldn't know by asking around in the streets of Havana today. In Cuba, few know about Gonzalez's work with the Buena Vista Social Club, and most remember him only as the 1978 co-founder and tres player for Sierra Maestra, one of the most important bands to emerge in that era of economic crisis. Their mission was to re-popularize traditional son — an Afro-Cuban rhythm — which had nearly fallen into extinction.
"In the hard times, Sierra Maestra rediscovered the spirit of the Cuban music," Gonzalez says. "We dressed as punks, and we were the first who brought out the maestros. People like Tito Gomez, Omara Portuondo, El Guayabero — all the top stars of their generation. But today, nobody talks about Sierra Maestra. Without Sierra Maestra, there would be no Buena Vista Social Club."
In 1995, Gonzalez was in Britain with Sierra Maestra to record the sDundumbanza! album with World Circuit Records producer Nick Gold. Gonzalez ran an idea past the producer that had been brewing for years: How about an all-star band of the dying Cuban masters? Gold agreed immediately. First came the Afro-Cuban All Stars' A Toda Cuba Le Gusta (All of Cuba Loves It). Gold's own project, Buena Vista Social Club — featuring the same musicians hand-picked by Gonzalez — came afterward.
"Buena Vista was important because it caught the attention of the world to show that Cuba does exist," says Gonzalez, who served as Buena Vista's musical director. "But now it's important to show the world that a new generation of Cuban musicians exist, and that the music didn't stop after Castro."
Having dropped out from under the Buena Vista banner, Gonzalez has continued to stay this course, mixing Cuba's best young talent with stars of other generations and bringing them to the world's doorstep through the Afro-Cuban All Stars. One of the musicians who toured with the band from its inception was Manuel Licea, a renowned Cuban singer of the '40s and '50s, who died in 2000. The All Stars' upcoming CD/DVD release, Live in Japan (due May 27), features one of Licea's last performances. The recording also includes a new up-tempo arrangement of the Compay Segundo classic "Chan Chan" and a live rendition of Gonzalez's "Reconciliación," a number intended to create a musical bridge to span the tone-deaf politicized chasm separating Cubans on both sides of the gulf.
"With 'Reconciliación,' I'm trying to say to Cuban people who live anywhere in the world that we really have only one race and only one culture, and it doesn't matter what you think politically. Because politicians are politicians, and the people are the people. It's important to remember that we are Cuban, and that the most important thing that we have is this land. It doesn't matter what you think or where you live, Cuba is Cuba, and we are all Cuban."