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That percussion-oriented concept can be perceived in your music. I also notice a particular "signature" with the groups you´ve directed. What can you tell us about that?
I´m very detailed about tempo and rhythmic precision -- my concept is that rhythm is the most important thing in music. The first thing any musician should analyze when first aproaching any style is rhythm -- whatever the style -- timba, swing, funk, anything. If you don´t have "swing" there's nothing to deal with. The groove and the timing is what moves you -- the main transmission engine in music and when you're part of the audience, that feel is the first thing that reaches your heart. Someone with a nice sense of rhythm and a good groove has the power to transcend -- he imposes his authority with that rhythmic expression and he doesn´t need anything else. For a guy with a good timing, playing just a piece of wood is enough to make music and to transmit emotions. If this guy also has knowledge of harmony and melody, just imagine... I think rhythmic precision is fundamental to music. If you have to play an eighth note and a sixteenth note, you have to play exactly that -- not a triplet or something close to that figure -- that´s why notation was invented and everybody playing has to sound like that, with the correct dynamics and accentuation. When it comes time to play a bloque (rhythmic break), it has to communicate something -- create some emotion -- and all that comes from solid timing, good accentuation and good dynamics. If you listen to all those old recordings like Benny Moré, it´s unbelievable how they sounded -- everything is understood and heard. They were recorded with just a single microphone but the guys had an enormous sense of dynamics in their playing. From one section to another section of the tune they used to change their way of playing a lot -- those recordings had lots of drive and emotion.
Music needs all that -- it needs piano, forte, mezzo piano -- that´s why they were invented -- to be played. These are very important things and these aspects of music have a direct relation to expresion and communication. Music can´t be rigid or cold.
While we're on the subject of rhythm, could you talk a little about the famous tumbao of La Sandunguita?
You know that tumbao has raised a lot of questions because of its relationship to the clave. [the tumbao strongly accentuates 3-2 clave although the song is in 2-3]
I came up with that tumbao here in Spain in this same room we´re in now! We were rehearsing the song to record it on the next day and it just came out, I didn´t think about it or anything like that. Many people ask me about that particular tumbao -- it draws the attention of the musicians to the movement of the bass on that part [ejemplo de audio] This tumbao and some others we used to play with Issac get many bass players into trouble while they´re playing it -- they lose the time, and I´ll tell you some of them are very experienced musicians who have played "salsa" a lot. Getting back to the origin of this tumbao, I think it's a subconscious thing which probably came from Rumba. If you listen to a lot of Rumba, certain figures get stuck in your head and they come out when you're playing other types of music. I think that´s fundamental to developing bass tumbaos -- something that can make you free to come out with new and different figures than the standard basic way of playing bass in Cuban music. In order to get this spontaneous and natural feel, you should know la Rumba -- be conscious of its rhythmic movements -- all the percussion, "quinto" improvising -- all the rhythmic concepts that are happening there. If you have all that internalized you have the freedom to move and create interesting bass lines over any harmonic progression. On the melodic side I´d say it comes more from a "Funk" aproach of the thing, I always say timba is "Guaguancó con Funk", so there´s the whole idea on this tumbao.
In terms of the clave: in my head the "clave" that beats when I am playing timba is the "rumba/guagancó clave". I mean, I just don't treat the clave as a study or a profound analysis conceived around where it overlaps and where it comes in. I didn't learn it in that way. In Cuba we do not use that 2-3, 3-2 formula. Clave is clave, it is a "mother" feeling, it is not something to be analyzed, it is inside, with the exception of "Son". The clave that is being felt throughout timba is that of Rumba, but all those mathematical calculations of 2-3, 3-2 are not used in Cuba. That is how people learn Cuban music outside Cuba. When I conceive a tumbao, I don't stop and think or write to see where the clave fits and where it doesn't, if this hit coincides or if it doesn't. I mean, the clave will never be backwards, I just can't be out of clave. That is the problem of people who learn this music outside of Cuba, and it is because of this that the bass tumbaos used in salsa outside of Cuba stayed in that basic I---0I--0-I---0I--0-I pattern. Why is it that in tumbaos developed in Cuba, you hear quinto hits, Cuban Conga hits, you hear Rumba, you hear batá... All these rhythmic bases must be profoundly ingrained in you so that the tumbaos appear naturally. Let me tell you that in Cuba people have been playing the bass differently for many years. The basic tumbao is, let's just say, commercial -- something that has been exported, but for many years now in Cuba the bands have been employing different rhythmic patterns. It is amazing how the bass and piano have evolved in Cuba, and that is not something that stops. As I was telling you, the rhythm is the most important, internalizing the percussion, the clave, the rumba. If you know the essence of this, the possibilities are infinite. If you don't, you will never catch up to what is being done in Cuba.
Now that you have revealed to me that the "La Sandunguita" tumbao originated in Spain, I'd like to know your opinion on why, with so many Cuban musicians outside of Cuba, living and concentrated in specific places, there haven't been more projects or bands outside of Cuba?
It is very difficult to make music outside of your true environment. You are in a country that is not your own, the people around you do not understand what you are doing, adaptation takes time, you are constantly reminded and aware of the people you left behind. All that is not easy. Furthermore, even if the La Sandunguita tumbao was created here in Madrid, I always say that even if physicially I am here, even if I walk, live, work and eat here, mentally I am not.