Juan de Marcos gave Fly this candid and wide-ranging interview about his latest album Step Forward, the new label, the politics of the music business, the history of Cuban music, the vexing myths surrounding Buena Vista, tomorrow’s stars and, er, King Crimson.
Through Sierra Maestra, Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro-Cuban All Stars, impresario, arranger and bandleader Juan de Marcos González has long occupied an honoured place at the vanguard of Cuban music.
There have always been a lot of musicians under the Afro-Cuban All Stars banner, and Step Forward is no exception. How important a feature of the album is launching new musical careers on to the international scene?
I consider my work a way of carrying out patriotic acts. I’ve never been interested in drawing audiences’ attention to myself, but to the strength and diversity of Cuban music. The way to do that is to show the talent of many performers — the more, the better. It’s very satisfying when one of them triumphs.
The biggest achievement of my life has been to restore dignity to these great musicians who, because of the reverses of fate, had almost lost respect for themselves.
Also, maybe thanks to being born and growing up in an egalitarian society, I believe in the power of collectivism. I’ve never struck the poses of a star or of a talent hunter. I live side by side with my musicians, whom I consider and treat with great respect. To a certain extent I have founded a new kind of politics of social relations with my musicians. They know that even when I lose money at some stage of a project, they will never be exploited or cheated (which is very common in the popular music world). They also know that I will spend my profits on raising them to a privileged position as artists.
When we created Buena Vista [Social Club] and the first Afro Cuban All Stars, it took me a lot of effort to convince the old musicians (especially Ibrahim Ferrer) that the success they achieved was due to their own talent. The biggest achievement of my life has been to restore dignity to these great musicians who, because of the reverses of fate, had almost lost respect for themselves.
With Step Forward, the project is similar, with the only difference being that the emphasis is on musicians of younger generations.
Who do you think are the stars of the album with the big solo careers ahead of them?
There are several who I believe will go far, in spite of current difficulties in the market. They share two important characteristics: tremendous talent and a special kind of charisma. They are: Adel González, conguero and percussionist; David Alfaro, pianist, composer and band leader; Thommy Lowry, trumpeter and composer; David Suarez, saxophonist and composer, Juan Carlos Marin, trombonist and arranger and Tirso Duarte, singer, composer, pianist and arranger.
The fact that my albums haven’t sold better is a result of the myth which formed around Buena Vista, fomented by Nigel Williamson’s first article and Wenders’ film, where Ry Cooder is presented as responsible for the formation of Buena Vista, which is not the case
Distinto, diferente and now Step Forward — what statement do the titles of the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ albums make about their relationship to your other work, and other Cuban music productions?
They signify changes. Although I have my own style based on Cuban-ness, I don’t like standing still. Unfortunately, and probably thanks to the influence of the media, many uninformed consumers thought that the type of music presented in the first three Buenavista albums (Buena Vista Social Club, A toda Cuba le gusta and Introducing Rubén González) was all there was to Cuban music, which is an enormous mistake. So with Distinto, diferente, I tried to teach them that there was something more, by stretching a musical bridge between the older generation and contemporary Cuban music, which is much more permeated by jazz. With Step Forward I’m doing the same, but by presenting a yet more modern idiom and by featuring young musicians who are practically unknown internationally. This is my goal now, to showcase young talent. Without youth there is no future. Great artists at the level of Ibrahim, Rubén and Omara were all young themselves once.
How do you feel about the fact that the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ albums haven’t so far achieved the kind of sales that you reached with Buena Vista Social Club, and some of the subsequent solo albums under the BVSC banner?
For personal reasons, I never wanted to use the Buena Vista Social Club name as a brand to promote my albums and concerts. I couldn’t present myself under the Buena Vista banner, since it was I myself who presented Buena Vista to the world. That album had great success, much more than expected, and for that reason the story also sold well. In any case, my albums, even though they didn’t reach the level of Buena Vista, also sold well — almost a million copies, which is very successful for Third World music. In fact, the only disc which has sold better than my A toda Cuba le gusta was Ibrahim Ferrer’s first album, for which I also took part in the production and the A&R. The fact that my albums haven’t sold better is a result of the myth which formed around Buena Vista, fomented by Nigel Williamson’s first article and Wenders’ film, where Ry Cooder is presented as responsible for the formation of Buena Vista, which is not the case — though Ry played a significant part in the disc. Many people have since told the true story, but the seeds had already been sown for the misinterpretation of the facts. In the not too distant future I will publish a book of my experiences around Buena Vista.
In spite of all this, I consider my decision not to use Buena Vista in my publicity to be correct. I value my independence very highly.
Under Cuban legislation, which is based on a centralised economy, there are limitations on creating private enterprise. However, nothing stops you from carrying out your wishes within your own property
You’ve said that “we have to use all the heritage of Cuban music to create a sound for the future”. What does this balance between looking back and looking forward mean for the musical sound-world of Step Forward?
The balance derives from the fact that the only way to achieve a really valuable artistic product is by creating a structure based on the cultural roots from which it comes. And at the same time, the only way to reach transcendence at a given time is by embracing youthful values, which will determine the cultural future of a nation. As I said before, I feel absolutely committed to my country. I want its art and particularly its music to recover and maintain the leading position in popular music which it had always enjoyed in the twentieth century. It’s impossible to achieve that simply by repeating outdated styles parrot-fashion. You can do individual projects this way — that was what Buena Vista and the first project of 96 were for me — but it’s not a long-term, stable approach. Step Forward is about using contemporary content without abandoning tradition — eternal forms of Cuban music like the bolero and the danzón are mixed with a modernist language. To make a creole danzón you don’t repeat the musical structures of Cachao López, Antonio María Romeo or Rubén González. You can make the same danzón (like I do in ‘Glicy’s Mood’, for example), with jazzy mambos, complex harmony and instruments which aren’t conventional in the genre like the vibraphone. This is what I consider looking to the future based on your own roots.
Is it my imagination, or is there a bit of influence of the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora and Leo Brouwer in one or two of the tracks on Step Forward?
I haven’t noticed it, but it’s very likely. The two things which pushed me to abandon rock as a form of expression were the Grupo de Experimentaciòn with Brouwer, Silvio Rodríguez, etc and the albums of Carlos Santana which fused Cuban elements with sixties and seventies rock. The Grupo de Experimentaciòn established a very innovative way of interpreting the Cuban music of its time. Leo Brouwer, in particular, is a Mozart of this era.
DM Ahora! Records is the first independent record label in Cuba. How much of a struggle was it to establish it? What kind of institutional obstacles did you face?
In fact, I didn’t face any instutional obstacles. I’ve always been an independent artist and I am known as such in my country. Under Cuban legislation, which is based on a centralised economy, there are limitations on creating private enterprise. However, nothing stops you from carrying out your wishes within your own property. In my house, which is quite large, I’ve created a high-tech studio which I use for my productions. When I want to record string sections and I need a higher ceiling in order to achieve better natural reverb, I simply hire a state studio like EGREM. The administration of the label itself is based in London, where a couple of friends from my World Circuit days, Matt Robin and Jackie Harrison, work with me on marketing and distribution. Currently, I’m putting together a website (on the Internet, everyone’s territory) where I’m planning to sell my productions, and also to set up a radio station to broadcast all Cuban music, especially lesser-known types like singer-songwriters, orchestras etc.
If you analyse things coldly you could observe that rock music basically hasn’t varied for forty years. It’s impossible to find much that’s new in current bands, and indeed many of them seem inferior musically to bands like King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, Cream or Procol Harum
I’ve really had no difficulty with this. I also have a label and a concert promotion system in Mexico where I have permanent residence, though I basically live here in Cuba, the only place in the world where you can find musicians of such high calibre.
The press release for DM Ahora! Records reads sometimes like a political manifesto, describing the label at one point as “musical laboratory and Cuban musical embassy rolled into one”. How important is your mission outside Cuba compared to your mission inside Cuba?
You must know that during the first half of the twentieth century, Cuban music absolutely led the world market for tropical music, even as far as North American television and in Hollywood. But for political reasons which we all know, this presence was wiped out at the start of the sixties, and Cuba’s music and economy were absolutely blockaded outside of our borders.
In spite of that, our music and other arts carried on developing much faster than before, and notably faster than in the rest of the world. If you analyse things coldly you could observe that rock music basically hasn’t varied for forty years. It’s impossible to find much that’s new in current bands, and indeed many of them seem inferior musically to bands like King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, Cream or Procol Harum, to cite just a few examples. Meanwhile Cuban music neither slowed down nor turned in on itself. But NOBODY knew about it, because it was confined to the island.
The first bands in the island who had any impact internationally from the 80s onwards (in three different styles) were Irakere, Sierra Maestra and Los Van Van. With the Buena Vista project, we managed to bring the quality of Cuban music to the public’s attention, and we need to struggle to keep it there. This has always been my medium-term objective.
And of course DM Ahora! strives to be a musical laboratory, aiming to show ALL Cuban styles and their fusions, above all those which are unknown to people. Sometimes it saddens me to hear “specialist” foreign journalists speculating on the limits of Cuban music, when they don’t even know 10% of it. I’m going to work hard to convince them there’s much more. DM Ahora! is also an embassy because it aims to show young talents on the internataional stage.
There’s a mouth-watering list of future projects on the DM Ahora! press release. What can we look forward to next from the label?
We’re working on two discs for the near future: the pianist Dave Alfaro playing a fusion of jazz and classical, and David Suárez in a disc mixing Reggaeton (what the world is dancing to now) with a lyric singer and Afro-Cuban percussion. This one might be more commercial. Both will be serious music.
What will the label’s centre of gravity be? Is this a question of genres, or something else?
The label’s centre of gravity will be the presence of young Cuban musicians. It’s not about genres, although we’ll be showcasing some which many people had no idea existed here. In reality, there are quite a few Brouwers, Chucho Valdés etc here who deserve a hearing. That’s the essence of DM Ahora!
Of course we’re not excluding the possibility of making other discs with leading musicians from older generations. When we made Buena Vista there were many who were missed out for reasons of space — for example, Pepesito Reyes, Masacote Carrillo etc.
–Photo by Damian Rafferty–