The "Buena Vista Social Club" album and movie of the 1990s flung wide the doors for Cuban music all over the world. But it may have been the work of an obscure band of Cuban music traditionalists that first pried those doors open.
Sierra Maestra, which specialized in a mix of African and Cuban traditional music known as son, released its "Dunbunbanza" album in 1994. It was a commercial success and led to the recording sessions that brought U.S. guitar adventurist Ry Cooder to Cuba to make that "Buena Vista Social Club" album, named for a pre-
revolutionary members-only Cuban music club, in 1996.
"Dundunbanza" "opened the door of the Cuban music," said former Sierra Maestra member Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, better known now as the leader of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, which will perform Sunday at UTEP.
"We sold about 250,000 copies of that album ... 250,000 is a lot for world music," de Marcos said.
It led to the making of three albums concurrently in Havana 17 years ago. One was the best-selling "Buena Vista Social Club," which spawned the Oscar-nominated 1999 documentary of the same name by German director Wim Wenders. Another was a solo album by the group's pianist, Ruben Gonzalez.
The third was "A Toda Cuba le Gusta," the debut by a newly formed big band called the Afro-Cuban All Stars. The "Le Gusta" album didn't enjoy the kind of commercial or critical success the "Buena Vista" and Gonzalez records did. But it was a more personal project for de Marcos, a classically trained guitarist and composer who studied in Havana and London. "I wanted to make it as a gift for my father, the sound of the Cuban bands of the '50s," he said from San Francisco, where the All Stars recently completed a four-day stand.
De Marcos' dad was Marcos Gonzalez Mauriz, who sang with Arsenio Rodriguez's big band before the Cuban revolution took hold in 1959 and pushed jazz and other forms into the shadows. The younger de Marcos grew up on rock 'n' roll but gravitated to traditional Cuban music in his 20s.
He's been dedicated to preserving and expanding it ever since. It was those intertwined desires that led to the recording projects in 1996.
Several musicians who had worked with his father, including Ruben Gonzalez and singer Ibrahim Ferrer, were involved. Both of them have since died. "Instead of one album, we made two (group) albums. The first one was a big lineup, with a big brass section, and this kind of music from the '50s," de Marcos said. "... The second album was more relaxed, the music of the eastern part of the island." The quieter, more acoustic "Buena Vista Social Club" led to Wenders' documentary, which included interviews with the musicians in Havana and performance footage from concerts in Amsterdam and New York in 1998.
De Marcos is no fan of what the director put up on the screen, suggesting it didn't give him the credit he deserved. The film focused more of that attention on the better-known Ry Cooder. "The film is not accurate at all," the bandleader said. "I was the creator of the Buena Vista Social Club, the one that wrote all the music, brought the guys to the studio and recorded the music in the film."
De Marcos is now married with three children and lives in Mexico City. "It's nearer to Cuba, so it's easier to go home and get back," he said, "and it's a nice place, so that's why we've been in Mexico about six years now."
While many of the original All Stars have died or moved on, de Marcos keeps the band alive by mixing old and new talent. Its 14 members range from in age from 23 to 67, and it features three singers, four percussionists, three trumpeters, two keyboardists, bass and a multi-instrumentalist.
Among them are singer Evelio Galan, 67, who sang with the orchestras of Pacho Alonso and Enrique Jorrin, and de Marcos' daughters, bassist and clarinetist Laura Lydia Gonzalez and keyboardist and singer Gliceria Gonzalez.
"We change the band every couple of years, bringing in new people, different players," de Marcos said. "If we want to play more jazzy, we bring jazz musicians. If we want to go more traditional, I bring some old guys and mix them with the young guys to give the music the flavor of the old times."
The group also incorporates newer sounds, such as the Cuban dance music timba and elements of hip-hop. "We go through the history of the Cuban music, though we never approach all of it. There's more than 75 different styles just of popular music," de Marcos said.
Their concerts, he added, are designed to start "more relaxed, more jazzy, more intellectual," while finishing on a "more aggressive, more danceable" note. The goal is to celebrate the music of their homeland while providing an escape from the day's troubles.
"Our goal is, after they leave, people can forget their problems for a couple of hours," he said. "We try to make them be happier after the concert, happier and stronger to confront their problems." What: Juan De Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars. When: 7 p.m. Sunday. Where: UTEP Magoffin Auditorium. How much: $35, $40, plus service charges, at the UTEP Ticket Center and through Ticketmaster, ticketmaster.com and 800-745-3000. Information: 747-5234, utepspecialevents.com.
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