Cuban flair gets a twist of American jazz

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Band leader Juan de Marcos González… “I’m really happy to come; Australia is a civilised country, more civilised than America.”

THE Afro-Cuban All Stars are coming to town and with them a whiff of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Those famous names are intertwined with that of band leader Juan de Marcos González, who directed the Buena Vista Social Club in its only concerts at Le Carre in Amsterdam, New York’s Carnegie Hall and Mexico’s Auditorio Nacional.

“CityNews” catches up with dDe Marcos, as he prefers to be known, by phone, and finds the fires of patriotism well and truly ablaze.

“I put together a band of stars and they all made their careers in Cuba,” he says. “That’s very important to me – they should be Cuban, they must be recognised in their own country.”

It’s his fifth time in Australia since the 1990s.

“I’m really happy to come; Australia is a civilised country, more civilised than America,” he says.

De Marcos sketches a history of his kind of music from the early 20th century when the line-up was the Cuban guitar or “tres”, played with a bongo and a double bass. Trumpet was introduced in 1926, then in the ’40s the piano was added to the line-up. Going into the ’50s, Cuban music formed into big bands with many saxophones and three to four trumpets, “to create more depth of arrangement.”

“My daddy was a vocalist with Arsenio, who invented the salsa and the musicians I later worked with were all friends of my daddy,” he says, explaining the early origins of his musical focus.

No slouch in his studies, de Marcos went to university to study hydraulic engineering, Russian and English, taking out his doctorate in 1989.

While at university he co-founded the traditional Cuban group Sierra Maestra, blending Spanish and African elements, but left in 1996 to create the Afro-Cuban All Stars, focusing on the ‘Golden Age’ of Cuban music from the ’40s and the ’50s.

“The formation of the Cuban All-Stars was a tribute to my daddy, who died in 1990 aged 77 years,” he says.

“Basically it’s Cuban music with American jazz.”

The band is known internationally for the 1967 album “A Toda Cuba le Gusta”, recorded at the Buena Vista Social Club sessions with de Marcos, American guitarist Ry Cooder co-directing and Rubén González on piano.

“Remember, world music was not commercial music then and we had no resources to put into a marketing campaign, we had to just go to the streets and play,” de Marcos says.

“But two to three million albums sold? That was definitely not usual. We called it the Buena Vista Social Club as a kind of trademark to sell tickets.”

The age range in today’s 14-piece band Afro-Cuban All Stars (“there used to be 22, but that’s too expensive”), is 23 to 54, covering several generations.

De Marcos plays the tres, his wife plays the maracas but is also the administrator, one of his daughters plays vibraphone and the other plays B-flat bass cornet, an instrument he praises for its warmth of sound, preferable to the sax or trumpet played low, which he says “sound ‘ducky’, like a duck”.

As for the show we’ll see in Canberra? “It’s going to be a journey,” he says. “I never stopped playing traditional Cuban music but this is a bit more jazzy, more contemporary – to keep up with the times.”

The Afro Cuban All Stars, Southern Cross Club, Woden, Wednesday, March 27, Bookings to or 6283 7200.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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