The All Stars play a repertory of son y rumba, timba and Afro-Cuban jazz.
The Afro-Cuban All Stars are back! The show I've been waiting for since 2002 brings aché to Overture Hall Friday night. The buzz on the street? The All Stars are on fire. The crowd that packed UC-Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall last week was dancing on top of the seats.
I have no idea how Overture plans to handle Mad City's rabid salseros - I've only seen people rise and boogie in the big hall once, for a single song. But the old Oscar Mayer Theatre's infamous dance police were no match for the Afro-Cuban All Stars when they played here in April 2000. That show coincided with a Canadian clipper that dumped slush on the city, creating hazardous driving conditions. But inside the sold-out theater the ambience was tropical, the audience ecstatic. The All Stars were slated for a November 2002 return.
While in Havana that summer I interviewed bandleader Juan de Marcos González for an Isthmus preview, but my piece never ran. Early that fall, W., in his increasing post-Sept. 11 delirium, started denying visas, essentially on the grounds that Cuban music was harmful to U.S. interests. Since then, squelched demand for economic reform on the island has driven a strapping diaspora of Cuban artists to spots around the globe. All the players in this incarnation of the Afro-Cuban All Stars are expats, which guarantees that this show will go on.
Marcos is the man who engineered the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon in the late '90s, in international collaboration with Ry Cooder and World Circuit Records producer Nick Gold. In September '97 - the month that album was released, along with its companion, A Toda Cuba le Gusta, the Afro-Cuban All Stars' first recording - Marcos came to Madison with his other band, Sierra Maestra. At the time Willie Ney, now executive director of the UW's Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives, was coordinating cultural outreach in the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies program.
In '97 a Cuban band on a U.S. tour was almost unimaginable. Ney jumped at the chance to book Sierra Maestra. A group nobody here knew, named for the cradle of the Cuban revolution, was risky business - and to make matters worse Ney was working on short notice. "Sierra Maestra was touring Europe, Japan and Canada," he says. "They were used to five-star treatment. But that weekend the Rolling Stones were in town. Not a hotel room in sight, and these guys weren't accustomed to sleeping on living room couches."
Venue problems popped up too, but a few days out Ney managed to book the Club Tavern. The funky Middleton beer 'n' burger bar wasn't what the Cubans expected, and to top it off the soundman didn't show. "I was panicked, and the musicians were really cynical. But when we got there the place was packed and the crowd was out the door. The band rocked. It was one of those memorable, electrifying events."
Marcos has had special Madison ties ever since. In December '02, Ricardo González, the city's patron saint of Cuban music and president of the Madison-Camagüey Sister City Association, led a group of local luminaries on a trip to the Havana Jazz Festival. Part of that party hooked up with Marcos for a tour of the city's Egrem Studios, where Cuban musicians have recorded masterpieces since 1943.
Remember the shots of the Buena Vista sessions there, in Wim Wenders' eponymous film? "The studio's even more amazing up close," González says. "It hasn't changed since it was built. We were in awe. It's got the patina of greatness, and Marcos told us stories about the studio and the music that made the history of the place palpable."
Few people know those stories like Marcos, 55, raised in the birthplace of rumba - the waterfront barrio of Pueblo Nuevo in the city of Artemisa, Havana Province. Cubop king Chano Pozo lived there; the late, great Israel "Cachao" López wrote a smoldering danzón in its honor. In Pueblo Nuevo, Marcos' puro - "pure one," an affectionate Cubanismo for father - led a chapter of the secret men's society Abakua; its sacred Nigerian drums are rumba's heartbeat. "Right by my house was 'El Africa,' where I went to hear the great popular artists of Havana play rumbas" Marcos says.
But where there's rumba there's always son, the Spanish-influenced Afro-Cuban music that's the sound of Buena Vista and the roots of modern salsa. And where there's son y rumba there'll be song and dance. Marcos' dad sang. "He worked with dance bands all over Havana and even sang with Arsenio Rodríguez ["the soul of son montuno"] and [piano god] Rubén González," Marcos says.
In the '60s Marcos' family lived next door to the late, great sonero Compay Segundo, whose "Chan Chan" is the opening track on Buena Vista Social Club. "When I was about 10 my puro bought me Compay's guitar," Marcos says. "But music didn't pay. He didn't want me to be a musician. He always had various jobs besides his gigs. He was a guaguero [bus driver] and a stevedore on the docks. He was a leftist - a union leader."
In the Castro's Cuba, everybody in the barrio has a shot at higher education. Marcos got a doctorate in hydraulic engineering while rescuing son y rumba from the dustbins of pre-revolutionary history with Sierra Maestra.
"A bunch of students got together to play music in '76," Marcos says. "Most of our peers were drawn to British and U.S. bands - that had the allure of forbidden fruit. But we [liked] the old-timers' music. We were after a punk look, and we played traditional Cuban son. We were notorious and very popular."
Sierra Maestra's still working, passing from one new generation to the next. Marcos quit in '98, after A Toda Cuba le Gusta got a Grammy nomination, to work full-time with the Afro-Cuban All Stars - an always-evolving project, not a band. A Toda Cuba features almost the same lineup as Buena Vista Social Club, minus the voices of Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa and Omara Portuondo. It's totally classic and by far the All Stars' most traditional album.
Marcos wrote his anthem, "Reconciliación," its message aimed at Miami and Havana, for Distinto, Diferente, a '99, post-Cooder production. He flaunted his rumbero roots with a super-tasty take on the traditional guaguancó "Waraiansa." Old-fashioned tunes got updates in the 50-player mix of Buena Vista old-timers and then-emerging stars like flautista Orlando "Maraca" Valle and Afro-Cuban jazz pianist David Alfaro.
Alfaro dazzles on the jazzy Live in Japan (2002), which runs the gamut from son through rumba and opens with a mambo from Cubop pop Mario Bauzá's Tanga suite. Watch it cook on the accompanying DVD. Step Forward (2005) pays homage to the elders - Compay Segundo and Rubén González were recently deceased - while forging ahead with big young beats like guaguancó-timba, plus an absolutely blistering horn section.
Both recordings got good reviews but didn't sell well, especially in the States. Both were produced at Marcos' DM Ahora! studio in Havana, opened during Cuba's short-lived late '90s economic expansion. When I interviewed him in '02, Marcos expected to see a florescence of small Cuban businesses. Instead, propping up the socialist system in the wake of Bush's new hard line, Fidel cracked down on petty privatization.
In 2005, Marcos and his family moved to Mexico City. "It's the most dangerous city in the world, but my daughters came here to study," Marcos says. "They're not married yet - I'm responsible for them. You can never take Cuba out of a Cuban, but for me home is where my family is."
Marcos still has the Havana studio, though he and his wife, Afro-Cuban All Stars manager Gliceria Abreu, have a second recording setup in Mexico City. From the land of Aztecs, NAFTA and narco-cartels, Marcos organized the latest incarnation of the Afro-Cuban All Stars - the one we'll see at Overture. The orquesta cubana's got a full lineup - three trumpets, two trombones, congas, bongos, drums/timbales, bass, piano and three lead singers - plus Marcos, who directs, wields a guiro at will, sings chorus and plays the trés, the melodic rhythm guitar you hear in Cuban son. Abreu often plays hand percussion on stage.
The elder on this 15-piece tour is lead singer Evelio Galan, once of the legendary Orquesta Riverside, who's been working with a Swedish salsa band called Hatuey for over a decade. Percussionist Calixto Oviedo played drums and timbales with the original timba outfit, NG La Banda, in its best days. Miguelito Valdés - not "Mr. Babalú," who sang with Xavier Cugat in the '40s, but a young trumpet player of the same name - toured the world with Omara Portuondo for several years before moving to Vancouver in 2006.
Trombonista Alberto "Molote" Martínez, who's on Distinto, Diferente and Live in Japan, plays global-age son y rumba, with shades of flamenco and hip-hop, in Holland. And conservatory-trained keyboard wizard Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera, former Cubaní simo! pianist/bandleader, has been in the Twin Cities since 2001. On the heels of this tour he leads his own expat Cuban band on a world jaunt.
Marcos calls the current Afro-Cuban All Stars show an advance on his upcoming album, Breaking the Rules. It's an engineering feat he's planned for years - a scheme to bridge the Florida Straits, bringing together expats and island die-hards on a single CD. The production's slated for this summer. Marcos says he'll record a trombone in Holland, a trumpet in Curaao, a sax in New York, a piano in Cuba, and keep going till he's done. He'll mix the tracks in Mexico.
Count on the All Stars to play an abundant repertory of son y rumba, timba and Afro-Cuban jazz, including some of the tunes Marcos wrote for Breaking the Rules. And brush up on the lyrics to "Reconciliación" so you can sing along. "I love to play it for Cubans who don't live on the island," Marcos says. "It's trickier in Havana. You know how it is there - subliminally, the topic's taboo."
This week, while a bill to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba, especially for Cuban Americans, creates the usual rifts in Congress, Marcos' song packs extra punch.
Before the All Stars show, get your cha-cha-cha's out at the Mojito Social Club pre-show party in the Overture Hall Lobby 5:30-7:30 pm, featuring Cuba's national drink, Cuban eats and Tony Castañeda's Latin Jazz Quintet. The Madison-Camagüey Sister City Association will have a literature table there, too, and their staff gets updates on the travel bill in Congress.