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Alain Pérez with Pepe Martínez
Translated to English by Ilán Greenfield and Kevin Moore
Alain Pérez is one of the most complete and important musicians in Cuban Timba. He wrote songs such as "LA SANDUNGUITA" and extraordinary arrangements like "Con La Punta Del Pie" when he was only twenty years old. In this interview he tells us about his musical career and shares with us some of his musical concepts.
First let's talk about your musical beginnings, your environment and your first contacts with music.
I was born in Trinidad, Las Villas, and grew in Manaca-Iznaga, about 100 miles from La Habana. My first contacts with music come from my home where we used to sing a lot "punto-guajiro", "son" and all that kind of stuff. From very early childhood I liked singing a lot and I joined a children's vocal group called "Cielito Lindo". That group's saxophonist and musical director, Enrique Pérez, was my first music teacher. Then I started studying guitar at Manuel Saumell, Cienfuegos and after that I moved to La Habana to graduate as guitarist from la "ENA" (National Art School).
And how you go from being a student at la ENA to being Issac's bassist?
That´s a curious thing. I had never played bass seriously before that. I was studying guitar and sometimes I had been playing bass at the "descargas" (jam sessions) at the school. I used to jam with Melón, Filiu, and all those people. I had always been drawn to the bass -- I liked the rigor of playing it and its fundamental role in music. One day Melón showed up at the school and told me that Issac´s bassist had left and he asked me if I wanted to join the band, but I told him that I had never played baby bass (upright electric bass). After one week Issac himself showed up at the school -- he already knew about me because he'd seen me playing keyboard and singing with Irakere -- and he asked me if I wanted to join them and I told him the same thing that I told Melón, thgat I have never played baby bass. But he offered me the chance anyway, and told me that their next gig wasn't for 15 days, so it was up to me if I wanted to try. Of course my answer was "yes". My situation was not easy at that moment -- I didn´t have a job, I was finishing school, and didn´t have a place to live either so I decided to give it a try.
So you had less than 15 days to learn how to play baby bass? How did you do that?
I had some vague idea about positions and technique. I was very curious and in the school I used to go to classes for other instruments. As far as what note to play, that was not a problem -- I had the concept in my head so I just had the physical problem -- my body and my hands had ti adapt to a different technique and a different instrument. I had to work on the intonation and hand positions, so I started studying, and I must confess that it was horrible! The first day I gave up. I was thinking, "I can´t deal with this". But I thought about my situation, and all the competition for musical jobs in Cuba. I had been previously playing with Irakere so I didn´t have any other option than doing it. Many bassists were disappointed since I was not a bass player and I had a big chance to play with a great act, so I had to show everybody that I could do it, and I started studying again. My fingers were on fire, I had to stop for a while and just work on my left hand, the first week was worse, Issac gave me the charts and while I was practising by myself it was not sounding good at all -- totally out of tune. Then my fingers started to feel better, and the tone and intonation improved.
OK, getting back to your school days, what kind of stuff did you used to play at the "descargas" ? How was the music scene there and what music you were listening to?
We used to play mainly jazz standards and Cuban music. Personally I was not that much into the jazz thing. As soon as I learnt some elementary piano -- which everybody has to learn at la ENA -- I started to play "tumbaos". I had always been crazy about those. At the same time, I didn´t avoid that jazz influence. My point of departure to jazz was a trumpet player named Dairon Peña who turned me on to Freddie Hubbard, Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett. I understood this was helping to develop myself as a musician and I used to play and improvise on standards on my guitar. At the school I had my my own group too, called "La Síncopa". I was singing, directing and arranging for that group, and my partners were people like "los Pututi", Yosvel, "Mandela", Varona, Adel González, and also Dairon Peña. As you can see, most of them wound up with the most important groups in Cuba. Chucho saw me with that group "La Síncopa" and called me to play with him in Irakere.
About the music we used to listen to, I can tell you that there wasn't that much information at that time. I didn´t have any tape recorder or hi-fi equipment or anything like that. The Cuban music I knew was part of my own living experience on the street. I knew all the NG, Irakere, etc... Apart from that , I listened to other kinds of music at school -- traditional Jazz, Chick Corea, Jaco, Pat Metheny, also the music we could see on TV. As I said, there was no information -- now that I'm here in Spain I´m listening to more music than I used to, but in any case I´m not the kind of musician who collects lots of music and different recordings. I just listen to a few things but I try to analyze them and get as much from them as I can.
So what are your main musical influences and what music do you listen to for pleasure?
I like a lot Brazilian music and also Funk. I love Keith Jarrett - apart from his technique, which is fantastic, I like his way of musical expression -- I think he plays very naturally and sincerely -- that´s a hard thing to get in music -- playing naturally. I like Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba a lot too, and Benny More, Tito Puente, Pérez Prado. I also like most Cuban Music. As a bassist, I like Jaco, I think he was really innovative and he took the instrument to another level. In terms of Cuban bassists I´d say Feliciano Arango. In general I enjoy music which has a strong rhythmic and percussive presence. I´m insane with percussion and I think I would have been better at percussion than any other instrument.
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 transcemd -- 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 [audio example] 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.
So why did you stay in Spain and not chose somewhere else?
I stayed in Spain with the intention of finishing my album. The opportunity came to me and I decided to stay. This is why I decided on the name "El Desafío" ("The Challenge"), because that's what this record is -- a challenge in many ways. In Spain, no one has ever released an album of "Cuban Music", and no artist has ever begun an artistic career of this type of music here, or at least, not that I know of. In Cuba it would have been too difficult to record an album. I don't know if now it would be possible, but at that moment in time it was impossible.
This leads right into my next question. From your perspective outside of Cuba, having lived timba here and there, why do you think Cuban Timba has not achieved world recognition for its musical quality?
I think that there are several factors that contribute to that. First of all, the lack of coverage of the media, there is no support whatsoever for this music anywhere, and that makes it hard for people to know that it exists. Another aspect is the quality of the recordings. In Cuba, the appropriate recording facilities were lacking for the longest time, and they are just being implemented now. There has been considerable improvement in terms of studio equipment availability and the musicians have learned a lot about recording itself. Now the musicians travel to the US and there is more of an exchange ... more information. In Cuba there was very little recording being done, since it was so difficult to acquire the right equipment. It was also difficult to achieve the right mood in the studio for the musician to feel comfortable and evoke all the "flavor" and clarity necessary to succeed in a good recording, without sacrificing the feeling and urban quality needed to produce a genuine street feel. This is street music and it is destined for the street, therefore that must be balanced into the recording with clarity and precision. I realized all of this here in Spain when I began to work routinely in the studios, participating, comparing different recordings, and in the musical sense, noticing the lack of balance in many Cuban bands. It's not about playing rigidly and without feeling, but it also isn't about going crazy, playing a bunch of notes with no control. It is important to have a style, a personality, and a little craziness, and the "flavor" will arrive by itself ... that which is already within us and comes naturally. Sometimes, however, we take it too far and we want to do too much, and nothing really comes across. Therefore, I think that balance is crucial. Another problem is that in many instances there is an emphasis on the Cuban public, the texts are, in many cases, excessively regional and it's hard for non-Cubans to understnad and relate to them. I think that it would be wise to make the lyrical content more universal.
But don't you think that a certain charm would be lost by modifying the lyrics that make Cuban Timba so distinctive?
No, not at all. Cuban music has always been like that. We've seen this phenomenon repeat itself over time. When Cha-cha-chá was born, the Cuban musicians made the lyrics and music more universal to get closer to the public that listened to it. And that is what made Cuban music so popular around the world. Suddenly, if there were two Germans and a Frenchman in the crowd, the musicians would try to stick something here, change a punch there, just to get the Germans dancing, but they also had to keep an eye on the Cuban dancers, so that they wouldn't stop dancing, so that the music wouldn't dwindle. One must be aware of the fact that the Cuban public has an excellent sense of rhythm, and that the dancing evolves at the same pace of the music, if not faster. Right now in Cuba people are dancing in a very unique manner. It's not ballroom or traditional dancing with combinations and turns. Now it is a hip-hop/guaguancó/Cuban Hip Motion thing. The truth is, Cuban people have a tremendous sense of rhythm. All thanks to Africa. But I think that timba could reach a different crowd with a more universal message without losing the spot it currently holds amongst Cubans.
What do you think of the idea of making the music you want without thinking of anything else, music that comes straight out of your soul without worrying about who likes it and who doesn't?
You have to do what you feel, I agree, but you also have to make someone grasp what it is you wish to convey, make that reach someone. If no one coincides with you, what happens? There is no sense in making or playing music for yourself. I think it's important to coincide with someone in order to receive a feeling of satisfaction within yourself.
Don't you think that at some point there was also a lack of confidence, that we didn't believe in the identity of the music being done in Cuba, and that we underestimated its quality?
It's possible. I think that comes from the fact that you don't learn about Cuban music in schools. Music education in schools was limited to classical music. You didn't learn the roots of popular Cuban music. You learn that on your own, in your everyday life. That is why it is hard to know what was happening before the moment you¹re in, because few people hold that information, and I assure you that Cuban music has already been going 1,000 miles an hour for a while. The problem is that it is hard to know about it. As I said before, now, from here, I am discovering Cuban music that I had never been able to listen to over there and I think that listening to that music stabilizes and completes your education. It creates a solid infrastructure for you to go on with your own music, with your roots in order. You can use Cuban music to study improvisation and Jazz as well, why not? Harmony also exists in Cuban music, and you can play and improvise over it like you would over any other standard in another genre. It is only now that we are beginning to do this and I think the musicians themselves are to blame. Especially since Cuban music is amongst the highest forms of expression together with Brazilian music, American music, as well as Flamenco in Spain. In Cuba there was a time when everyone wanted to play jazz. That's cool, but I come from somewhere else. I lived something else. When I play, the clave will always be shining through, be it Latin Jazz, Timba, whatever. And if it has clave it's Cuban music, and that is what I am. Last year when I was at E.N.A. the students would approach me to share advice and talk, they would ask me how to play and stuff like that... and my idea was that you have to know your roots, your music from 0 to 100, from the folklore and traditional backgrounds to the more recent developments. You need a solid understanding of your own music, and that will reinforce your identity and self-esteem.
Coming back to the notions of "balance" that you commented on before, who do you think reflects that balance in Cuba, be it through recordings or as a band?
I think one example could be Manolito y Su Trabuco, Issac Delgado, Los Van Van also have attained that balance I was talking about, and it is funny with los Van Van, because many musicians have said that Los Van Van was just old-fashioned. I don't find it so, everything that Formell does makes a lot of sense. I remember that once when I began playing bass with Issac's band, Formell called me one day at 8 p.m. to play at Habana Libre (Salón de embajadores). I had heard Van Van on the street but never even thought of analyzing what they were doing. So Formell called me, I was feeling bad, he had fallen and had broken his arm and couldn¹t play. He said that he trusted me, and wanted me to replace him that night. I decided to go. Everyone thought that I was going to arrive and play a million notes... but no... Van Van's style and essence is precisely that, playing the notes Formell thought out. And it was then and there that I realized that every note played by Los Van Van makes a lot of sense and is placed exactly where it has to be. It's no accident that Formell y los Van Van are staples of music in Cuba. The arrangements, the lyrics, the themes always say something. The colloquial language, the storytelling. Formell has been number one in Cuba for a long time and the band never stopped evolving. Formell, Pupy and Changuito are responsible for their sound and the band always knew how to assimilate with the changing of the times and the new influences that the younger musicians brought to the band. They definitively have that balance of flavor, clarity, street and lyrics that I mentioned before. They represent Cuban music and Van Van are Van Van all around the world.
In any case, don't you think that a creative standstill plagues Latin Music on a general level. It has been a while since something really has had a repercussion worth mentioning or created a hype internationally.
Yes. It's true. I think that in that sense songwriting and composing are very important. That is what reaches the public, the hook of a song, and let me tell you that that is the most difficult thing for an artist to achieve, the song¹s "cupid". Apart from the music and the arrangement, good composition is crucial, and today there is a true lack of good songwriters. There are none. Maybe there is some exception, but they've mostly disappeared. People just tend to go for the easy way out when writing, a lot of melancholic bla-bla, and apart from that there are a lot of singers without swing or clave that are just packaged as products. They aren't solid musicians and can't withstand the passing of time.
It's true. And there are so many nice ways to write about love, there are tons of wonderful lyrics in Cuban music about love, written with utmost feeling.
Exactly, and they don't take the easy way out. As I was telling you, the performer's delivery also has a lot to do with it. Another thing is the composition, the arrangement. I mean, many of those classic songs have been massacred at some point or another. I remember that my father -Gradelio Pérez- once approached the subject. My father has been a truly important influence in those aspects, in the lyrics of the songs themselves. He wrote almost all the texts in "El Desafío" and has shown me a more ample, international notion of music. He always told me never to "take the easy way out", that it has nothing to do with the joy and the dance, and he would get sad when he listened to those great lyrics with bad arrangements, he would tell me: "but, why did they do that? they killed the tune". The arrangement is very important, you can kill a good tune with a bad arrangement. It's the design or the "make-up" of the song.
Now that you have spoken of "arrangements", how can someone so young, only 20 years of age, arrive at something as mature as"Con La Punta Del Pie"? [audio example]
Well, listen to what happened with that. Issac told me in France that he wanted a very aggressive arrangement and that he wanted me to do it. I'd never heard the tune, and it's funny because it's in a minor key, but since I only heard the melody I thought it was in major, and until the second phrase of the verse I couldn't decipher it. I had no reference of ever having heard it before. First I thought of a piano tumbao, syncopated throughout, a type of changüí like they play in the hills, and to compensate for the syncopation, the bass would create stability and play on time. It's like the bass was telling you, "relax, I'm here, so don't go crazy with this piano tumbao". As I said before, the drums, percussion, rhythm, all of that is present in my music at all times, and that's where the concept of that arrangement arose.
And now, after witnessing how fast Cuban music evolves, and as your career evolves as well, what are your plans?
Now I am recording a fusion between rock and Cuban music. I also registered for the Latin Jazz Composition Festival at S.G.A.E. in Cuba. We've been nominated for the finals and we will be playing in Havana in December. [Editor's Note: Alain won the award in his category] After that, I'd also like to record a Fusion album, I have many ideas and tunes for that purpose, more in the Latin-Jazz vein, a little mix of everything... but that will come later on.
Well, knowing your approach, it should be a breath of fresh air for Latin Jazz. It's been a while since there was something interesting in that style. It's been a pleasure talking with you. I hope that those who get to read this find it as interesting as I have. I wish you luck in your projects and until next time.
Likewise. I have also enjoyed our conversation, and one more thing: May God bless Music!