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SpanishEnglishEntrevista - Alexander Abreu

It’s not often that a new band breaks into the Cuban salsa scene - many of the most popular groups have been around since the 90s; some, like Los Van Van and Orquesta Reve, have been going strong for more than four decades. 

But in the space of three years, the prodigiously talented trumpeter/composer/singer Alexander Abreu and his crack team of accomplished musicians have made serious inroads into the Cuban market. 

With Havana D'Primera, Alexander has taken the essence of Cuban music and imbued it with flavours from around the globe to create a sound that is thrilling and yet somehow familiar. 

The release of the band’s first album, "Haciendo historia", and their  commitment to their audience has ensured that they have steadily built up their fanbase. In Cuba, Havana D’Primera’s regular Tuesday matinees at Casa de la Musica in Miramar have become so crowded during the past year that there’s barely room to wriggle, let alone dance. 

With the band back in the studio to record the follow-up to their debut, it seemed like a good opportunity to sit down with Alexander to find out how things have changed for the band, and what we can expect from the new album.

You can find concert reviews and an account of a night's recording session with the band at yemayasverse.blogspot.com

– GW

Alexander Abreu

Copyright Gabriel Wilder 2011. Used by permission

MK: I would like to start by congratulating you on a phenomenal second year as a band leader and singer. During the last year there was hardly an important concert or festival —the fantastic Irakere closing concert at the jazz fest, the Festival del Tambor show with Changuito, the peace concert with Los Van Van— that you were not up on center stage; how does it feel to be so busy and productive, and such a recognizable figure all of a sudden?

AA: Well, it feels good, more than anything the reward of work, the reward of having made music and the acknowledgement from the people; it is all one can hope for, and when this happens in the way that it is happening with Havana D’Primera you feel great, you feel useful … you know what I mean … you feel like … well at least I do, I feel like I am defending Cuban music…really, I feel like one of the great crusaders of Cuban music. Because what is happening with Havana D’Primera is basically the recovery of music from the 1990s, a great period for music here in Cuba that had been lost to some degree. 

MK: One of the great elements of the 1990s timba that you capture is that feeling of soul; you sing with your heart, your music is very soulful, spiritual, you seem to give the audience that much needed opportunity to let off steam. Where does your soul and all that heart come from?

AA: For someone who writes songs, the nicest thing that can happen is to get the opportunity to present them to the public. All of my songs are about life experiences and things that reflect reality, and they speak to an audience that identifies with these songs because I think that they have alll lived a bit of what is expressed in these songs. And when you stand up on stage, and back up these songs in this way, and you see the crowd reaction to what you are saying, something supernatural takes over you and you feel the need to express yourself with even more power. I think that maybe this is what happens to me a bit on stage, and not just in Cuba – crowds outside of Cuba have shown lots of emotion as well; I have seen lots of tears of sheer emotion, I have seen things that have really fulfilled me. So when you feel this, you realize that you have to give more and more, and more and more, to the extent that you perform at each concert as if it will be the last one you will give in your life. 

MK: The result is that Havana D’Primera comes across as one of the most honest bands in Cuba. A current criticism of Cuban popular music is a lack of honesty, a lack of reflection on Cuban reality.

AA: The thing is that … I would say that Havana D’Primera is like a brotherhood, that is to say, many people see me as the director of the orchestra but in reality it is an orchestra where everybody makes decisions, where everybody contributes, where we all identify with every single musical note that is expressed, where all the profits are split equally. It is like a fellowship, in every aspect, where people have freedom, because life is very difficult –at times maybe someone has to leave to go work on other projects, other things, because that freedom exists to be able to make a living [and] to be able to make this music and … this is something that makes the band members put that little extra into what they are doing and people pick up on that. That is why they say that it is the most honest band, as you are saying to me, because what they see up there is a brotherhood. Everything is geared towards the music, everything is focused on what is going on, there is never a yes or a no … there are never confrontations between the musicians and the director, between someone who is more important and someone who is less important; we are musicians who are fighting together to boost Cuban music. 

So this is something that people pick up on. Right now we are recording our second album and what is being expressed on this album is the work and effort of everyone. I think this is something that has rarely been seen in bands in Cuba, something that is really very rarely seen and I am very happy about that. 

MK: Do you think it is important to be honest in music, even when it is dance music?

AA: Yes, of course. This is really important because by doing so you are giving force to the music that the public sees, credibility to your music, to your art. You are improving the way you express yourself. The sincerity in the music we are making allows the dancer to step more firmly, that is to say, to get more involved themselves. For example, there are people who have said to me, after seeing the band for the first time, “Your orchestra is addictive.” And that is it precisely; what we bring is sincerity [and an] explosiveness to the stage, positive energy in each and every one of the songs, in every word that is expressed. I think that is super important: without it there is nothing. 

MK: In just two years the band has come up with a unique and mature sound which is often a challenge for new bands. There have been several Cuban salsa bands that have become popular, for example Salsa Mayor, Nelson Manuel ... groups that found it difficult to maintain their popularity. It seems very hard to break through into that first line of orchestras. Has this been a challenge for Havana D’Primera? Do you think the band has managed to open that door?

AA: To open a door in terms of our sound, as we Cubans say, our hallmark? To a certain extent yes, and in a certain way it has not been so difficult. Why? For a long time in Cuba, the singers often, but not always – because there are orchestra directors such as José Luis Cortés who are giants, vastly experienced musicians who know exactly what they are doing... But many directors of this type of music are people who have not studied music in itself and, to a certain degree, encounters develop between the musicians who have gone through years of hardcore studying and these people who are trying to find a way to communicate what they have. In our case what happens is that the relation between musical director … to give you an example, I worked for seven and a half years in Paulo FG’s band, and at that time it was a great orchestra, I would even dare to say one of the best orchestras that this country had seen in a long time, and the emphasis was more on accompanying the singer, there was lots of emphasis placed on this aspect, that is to say, at times the musicians had to limit their creative abilities to instead focus on accompanying the singer.

The stamp of our orchestra precisely lies in the fact that the singer, in this case me, is just another instrument; they accompany me and I accompany them. At the same time I look for ways to express everything so that everyone hears what I have to say, but the musicians do not have to limit their creative abilities. That is what makes us different. When the percussionist comes up with something new on the spot, everyone follows, together … it’s not a case of them having to accompany me, I also accompany them. I think that this forms the foundation of what is the unique sound of the band. 

Havana D'Primera

MK: And is this the same process for when you are recording; for example with the arrangements? You spoke about the Élite, and the singer/songwriter and director/arranger relationship between Paulito and Juan Ceruto is legendary, does a similar relationship exist in Havana D’Primera? 

AA: No, it works a little differently here. I’ll have an idea, I’ll write a song and we’ll go to a little laboratory that we have in Amaury’s [Perez] house, the trombonist, and we’ll begin to work out the harmonies, searching for musical details between Harold Diaz, the keyboardist and me, that is to say, looking for our sound [and] affinities. I am in charge of the horn arrangements, I do all the brass arrangements, and then the percussionists listen to what we have come up with in the laboratory and, starting from that base, we start to create. It’s entirely a joint effort. If you stick around in the studio [today] you will see how all of that works. 

MK: As you said before, there are not many orchestras who work in this way.

AA: No, it is not very common. Almost always the process involves a musical director that draws up the arrangements and passes them around, and sometimes they will incorporate one or maybe two ideas from someone else, but it is almost never done the way we do it. We have lots of freedom in that sense. 

MK: You have spoken about the great influence that Ceruto has had on you as a trumpet player, but I wanted to ask you about his influence on you as an arranger and producer.

AA: Yes, Ceruto is the like the matrix of the music that is in my head. Juan Manuel Ceruto is the man responsible for 90 per cent of what I know in general, as a trumpet player, as a musician, and as a person. He’s like my father, Ceruto is everything, everything I have begins with him. He was the producer on my first album. I am producing this record. I am ready to begin this part of my life [as producer] and not only with Havana D’Primera, but also with the other projects and work that I am about to begin. But Ceruto is the matrix of everything, everything begins with him.

MK: And did Ceruto have a big influence in the overall sound of the first album?

AA: Yes, he let us work, he really let us do our thing, but of course his wisdom and experience was a key element in the sound on that album and on the two songs that he arranged, Resumen de los 90 and Vivencias, those were arrangements by Juan Manuel Ceruto. I think he has a couple of arrangements that he is going to do for this album as well.

GW: In an earlier interview you said it was hard to make your mark in Cuba, because of difficulties related to promotion, for instance. 

AA: Yes, it is still difficult.

GW: How were you able to overcome this, because it seems like you have become popular to a certain degree.

AA: I don’t think we have completely achieved that yet. We have opened up a space at the Casa de la Música, Miramar, where lots of people go [for the Tuesday matinee]. We are drawing big crowds [there]. And already in 2011, people are starting to talk more about Havana D’Primera across the country. 

GW: People, who hadn’t heard about the band before, who aren’t musicians, for example, taxi drivers, are now familiar with it.

AA: Yes, it is starting to happen. We are making a second CD, because in Europe people rapidly consume this music, and so we can back up the summer tours and all the other concerts programmed for this year [in Europe]. I have to have a new CD because [the first CD] Haciendo historia … not to say that it is old because good music can always be listened to, but people want to hear new songs, you know what I mean? But Haciendo historia, at least in Cuba, is still a very new CD; as soon as the discs come out they sell out. If you go to the stores to look for them it is very hard [to find], because people have just started to buy the album and I think that a large portion of the population are still not familiar with the music, that is to say, it continues to be hard to try to make a mark. 

MK: Yes, money is often needed among other things ...

AA: Yes, you need a lot of money for that. 

Jannier & Havana D'Primera

GW: Was having the regular matinee important? 

AA: Yes, very important. It has really helped to build the character of the orchestra. We started there with just a couple of tables of people. Nobody went to those first gigs, I think you were at one of them that was really empty – nobody knew about the band. Many people would leave the concerts saying, “How is it possible that this is happening, and that people don’t know about it?” But, those are some of the things that happen in a country like the one we live in. Other music, with less talent is widely promoted, because they have more purchasing power and it is more widely promoted than other music that has much more talent, quite simply and plainly, for a question of money: if you don’t have much economic strength there is no way to promote the music. 

Another problem is that the DJs in Havana are a threat to Cuban music: I would say it just like that, ‘they are a threat to the state of Cuban music.’ Why? Because in Cuba there is no place where you can go to dance to salsa, you have to go to a concert and then you can dance to whoever is performing, but there is no salsa club where there are DJs that play salsa, like Puerto Rican salsa or whatever. It simply doesn’t exist in Cuba. To such an extent that you can go to the Café Cantante [to hear a DJ] and the bands they will play … like, Van Van, maybe they will play one song by Van Van. Its incredible, the greatest band in Cuba and in Café Cantante which is suppose to be a salsa club, they will maybe put one or two songs … maybe they will play one song by Manolito Simonet, depending on how things are. However it might be … the work is really poorly done. I think there is only one DJ, who deserves praise, Mandy, the DJ at the Casa de la Música, Miramar, he does great work in this respect; looking for some way to bring back these values. But we have that problem in Cuba. 

MK: I have always been surprised in Cuba about how the adult population follows the musical tastes of the youth. Today, all 15-year-old Cubans like regueton and it often seems that the adults feel obliged to like it too, since it is popular. 

AA: The problem is that it’s kind of like everything is being downgraded. In the 1990s, timba was incredibly powerful and all the young people … it’s what everybody listened to. I remember I was studying at school and working with Paulo FG’s band and everyone was fanatical about hearing the latest thing that came out, it was what everyone listened to, and the quality was much greater, but when the regueton phenomenon began, it was just part of a series of other events. Because many people say that regueton … I can’t criticize the part that is regueton; that would not be right. It is simply a trend, a movement of young people, who maybe saved their own lives; many of them maybe were doing bad things on the street and [regueton] took them off the streets. They decided to make music and they are doing a good job of it. It is admirable, something to be applauded. 

But I think that at the same time as this phenomenon started to gain momentum, the quality of Cuban music groups began to diminish, especially in their creative capacity in this genre, it was like a decline. We lost figures such as Manolin, that is to say, we didn’t lose them because they are making music outside of Cuba, but many people say, “Cuban music has to be made in Cuba, if not it doesn’t taste the same.” There are lots of Cuban musicians who have emigrated to other countries and continue to make music, but … When I was in Denmark working with Grupo Dansón, there was this guy, an Italian friend of mine named Eugenio Signara, he told me, “If you want to have a career, if you want to tour all the music festivals and get people to know your music, you have to go to Cuba and make a band in Cuba. It will be very difficult to do that over here, because everyone wants to hear Cuban music made by Cubans.” I really respect the salsa groups that are doing great work, for example Dansón in Copenhagen, Calle Real in Sweden – those are groups that are doing incredible work with Cuban music and I thank them for that, because it is good to know that your music is valued in other countries. I really applaud that, but ...what I was saying was that the creative force that was around in the 1990s to make this music has been lost. 

That’s the point I want to make with Havana D’Primera, because lots of people say, “Salsa is no longer in style.” Wrong. Salsa did not go out of style, salsa simply went to another level, to another level that, incredibly, with the number of elements that this genre has, could not compete with a genre as simple as regueton; simple in quotation marks, because I have always said, ‘Its very hard to make the masses move’, you know what I mean? To move the masses, that is very, very difficult. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. There are few people who have had the success of Gente de Zona, of Los Cuatros, who are doing their work, that have moved the masses in Cuba with the work they are doing. 

But with so many ingredients as salsa has, to not be able to compete with this genre, I think has to be due to a lack of creativity, which I think, with the creation of Havana D’Primera, with what we have been talking about, that many people have recharged their batteries and are starting to make music again. 

MK: I think that a contributing factor to this problem is that it has always been the same salsa orchestras, the same six or seven that are always there, in the first line, without having to really fight to maintain that status, and people get bored with the same groups who, with their guaranteed position, lose the hunger to remain No. 1. 

AA: Look, every song is its own world, you have to go out and fight for every single song, and that is something that has been lost, it’s been lost. Back when there were … I always call them the avant-gardes: Manolín, el Médico de la salsa, Paulo FG ... there was lots of competition that forced all the other orchestras, any that were coming out, to really fight hard, really hard. But yes, if those on top let up, then what can you expect from the new bands coming out? I am really happy, for example with Nelson Manuel who has lots of strength and is doing really nice things with his lyrics … and that was another thing that was also very hard to do, it has been really hard in this genre … Nelson Manuel, who is just beginning to come out, Maikel Blanco’s orchestra, which is incredible, bringing back the songo tradition, that is to say, young people who are playing Cuban music and I think that the movement is beginning to grow. 

Alexander Abreu

MK: It also seems that over the last year regueton has begun to fall off a little bit, that you hear it a little bit less. 

AA: I don’t think it is falling off. I think they are still working very hard. They are still working hard … el Chacal … is working really hard, but now the salseros are starting to create things again, so maybe what you are noticing is a bit of an equilibrium. We still can’t compete, we still can’t compete … the day I can charge $45 CUC at the Salón Rojo del Capri, because if I don’t it will be over capacity, maybe that day I will be able to tell you that there is more of a balance. But we still cannot compete, they are still … that balance is starting to happen; the salseros are creating – they are doing things that are catching the interest of people. It has been a long time since a salsa band has been able to sell out a place, you know what I mean … a place were people go to hear music, to support this music. I think that is what is happening. 

GW: After the success of the first album, do you feel more comfortable going back into the studio or do you feel more pressure to do something as good or better?

AA: I feel much more pressure because many people have said that the first disc was so good it would be hard to improve on it. I sat down and really worked hard to pick the right songs to record on this album and I am really trying go about it in an intelligent way. The first disc is a more of a … how can I explain it … it features a wide range of genres, it had more Caribbean-type of rhythms. On this album I am going to focus more on salsa, it has more poetry and more Cuban style dance songs, that is to say I am going to … I have new ideas, with the same sound of Havana D’Primera. I have more experienced musicians, the groove of the band is much stronger – we have the base from which to make an album that could be better. 

I think that this album, based on my experience in recording studios and what I am seeing taking place [in Cuba], I think that the album will be better received in Cuba. More than anything else, and for the European dancers it is going to have a lot of new offerings, new things that might take them a little getting used to, but things that are already a part of Havana D’Primera. I think that this album is going to be better, its going to be better, with greater diversity.

GW: The new songs such as Pasaporte

AA: The song is called Pasaporte 2011, it might also be the name of the album.

GW: Songs such as Pasaporte 2011, Te la aplica, Levante las manos la gente que son de primera, although they have different sounds, the three are built on a solid groove, they have a different form to the usual salsa songs; they are almost like pop songs in their arrangements.

AA: Those are the new ideas that I am trying to express, it is kind of like making a fusion between the rich Cuban percussion and pop and regueton elements – why not? – without making it pop or regueton. To bring it to that point, a consensus where the people can identify with the rhythm. But the album will also have salsa songs, salsa, pure salsa, romantic songs that don’t have that kick, more danceable songs in the ballroom sense, that is to say … I am going to offer a wide-range, but everything based on salsa. I am eager to see how it will turn out. 

MK: So you are recording the new album, any idea when it’s going to come out?

AA: I think it will come out in March.

GW: So these songs you are recording this week are for the album and not demos?

AA: No they are not demos; they are songs for the album. I have chosen nine written by me for the album. I am also going to include a song by Giraldo Piloto that is called En la Habana and one by a new composer named Mauricio, that I think I am going to do with Isaac Delgado. We spoke about collaborating a while ago, I wrote to him and he said he was ready to do it. So I have to get in contact with him again to tell him that I have begun work on the new album, but I think that’s what is going to happen. 

GW: What are the titles of some of the new songs that you are already playing live? 

AA: [They are] Pa’ mi gente, Pasaporte 2011, Al final de la vida. There is another song called Amor a la roca, another that is called Plato de segunda mesa. The song I want to record with Isaac Delgado is called Donde quiera que te encuentres. Another one is called El regalito de dios. Those are the ones I can think of at the moment … Déjame a mi tranquilo, that is one that I have performed in concert and is one of the songs I am going to record today. Those are more or less some of the new songs. 

GW: There have been a few changes in the band: percussionist Miguelito went to live in the United States; Yuliesky is in Europe …  Are you happy with the line-up you currently have? 

AA: Yes, very happy. Yuliesky and Miguelito are great musicians; Yuliesky is a great trumpeter and Miguelito is one of the best and youngest percussionists that this country has seen. And now I have others … I have Keisel Jiménez who I would say is currently one of the most accomplished percussionists in Cuba, he plays the bongo and timbales in the band, but he plays all percussion instruments. And Orlando Martínez, a legendary trumpet player, he was one of the founding members of Havana D’Primera. Along the way he went to work for José Luis Cortés and when Yuliesky left he came back. 

GW: What happened?

AA: The problem is that the beginning for Havana D’Primera was hard, very hard, and so it was hard to believe in what was happening, for many reasons: because of the type of music, because of how hard it is to get ahead in this country playing Cuban music, because of the [material] conditions ... Many people had doubts about carrying out the project and they dropped out. Orlandito had his things, his life and he decided to go work with José Luis Cortés, but when there was an opening he came back. And by the time he came back it was a different Havana D’Primera. 

GW: And you continue to allow the musicians to go and play with other bands while they are in Havana D’Primera? 

AA: Yes, it has to be like that. It is the only way to keep an orchestra afloat. The day I can economically support the band for a whole year, where I can plan out a complete year where my musicians have a certain level of economic solvency then maybe I would change a bit in that respect, but until that day comes, which I think will be very hard to achieve here in Cuba, until that day, they are free to work [with other musicians] and that helps me, it teaches me and shows me that there are still lots of Cuban musicians with great potential. 

Havana D’Primera is a brotherhood that covers a really wide range, a place where many Cuban musicians come to show their work. 

MK: Are you still playing jazz, do you have any jazz projects that you are recording?

AA: Yes, I continue to record, I am still playing my trumpet, I continue to play on the records of lots of people, and not only jazz but with lots of people … that is what I really know how to do.  

Copyright Gabriel Wilder 2011. Used by permission

Wednesday, 23 March 2011, 03:31 AM