Indice - Table of contents
Grupos: Guaco : The 3rd Phase: 86-91
Grupos: Los Van Van : Músicos
Grupos: Manolito y su Tr... : Músicos
Grupos: Guaco : 80-85: The Ricardo He...
Reportes: From The St... : Cubadisco 2...
Musicos: Lily La Amazona del Sabor
Grupos: Calixto Oviedo Mulens
Grupos: Calixto Oviedo M... : Discography
Grupos: Guaco : A Very Special Trilog...
Grupos: Guaco : The 1970s
Staff: Bill Tilford
Reportes: Curuyé in LA
Grupos: Guaco : Discography
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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 understand 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!