Juan de Marcos González reflects on vibrant musical heritage
For Juan de Marcos González, there are three pillars that are constants in his life: family, spirituality and music.
From his days as a relative unknown paying his dues, to the enviable position he now occupies, each of these elements have always been intertwined in ways that have informed his circumstances. For example, when he lived and worked in London, the revered founder and bandleader of the Afro Cuban All Stars recalls hard times, writing songs for musicians in London and netting barely enough to take care of himself and his family.
“I spent a couple of years in London. I lived in London, Stockwell and Brixton,” said González. “I enjoyed it there, but they were tough times. I wrote music for local bands and made $193 in a week. I sent home $167 and lived on $26. I was providing food for all the family: my family and my wife’s family.”
In 1996, González’s fortunes also took an upward turn when he met Nick Gold, founder of World Circuit Records. González told Gold he wanted to bring together legendary, but neglected, Cuban musicians from the 1950s to produce a “Big Band” album. González carried with him a long-held desire to honor his father, who sang and played with the great Arsenio Rodriguez, and to also pay tribute to his father’s contemporaries and share the richness of Cuban music with the world.
“‘Buena Vista’ was on my mind for years. Nick Gold wanted to do a jam session so I went to Havana and started looking for musicians. I wrote them and found all the old guys,” González said with a chuckle. “It was music of the past with a more sophisticated sound.”
González said that some of the players were his father’s friends.
“Daddy was a special guy. He never had the chance to go to university. He was Black and poor, had no money at all, but he was the most intelligent man I’ve ever met,” González said, his voice taking a reflective tone.
“He had about a 152 IQ; he was a genius. He was a musician, a huge personality who played popular music in the ’30s and ’40s. He didn’t consider music a proper profession and insisted that I go to college.”
The Buena Vista Social Club brought together greats like Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Compay Segundo, who was a next-door neighbor and a family friend, Pio Leiva, Rubén Gonzalez and others.
González shook his head and laughed as he spoke of the creation and subsequent public and critical reaction to the Buena Vista Social Club.
“The music is infused with African spirit with a Spanish flavor. We are a spiritual people. We are Africa.”
“We had the budget to record only two albums. At the end we had £4,000 ($5,148) left and recorded in a couple of live sessions and a third album, Introducing Ruben González. So, the sessions brought three albums in total,” González explained.
“It was great to have all of them and be in front of them. We invited Ry Cooder and he was contracted to work with us. Ry convinced Wim Wenders to produce the documentary.”
González said that he thought that the Buena Vista Social Club album would produce some good reviews, but it became a hit.
“It was the touch of God, definitely the touch of God,” said González. “The guys died happy, onstage and loved. I enjoyed conducting these guys.”
At last count, about 12 million copies of the album had been sold, making it the best-selling album in Cuban history.
Music has always been a family affair. As a young man, González studied at the Havana Conservatory, studying classical guitar, but said he was kicked out for bad behavior “because I was a really bad kid,” he said.
Later, as a professional musician, he studied contemporary harmony and orchestral conducting.
“My daddy didn’t mind [me being kicked out] and bought a guitar from Compay Segundo and said I could play at university.” He honored his father Marcos’ wishes and went to Universidad Agraria de La Habana, where he graduated as an Agronomic Engineer and traveled to the Soviet Union to study Engineering, Russian and English Languages and earned a doctorate in Agronomy in 1989, the first in his family to go to university.
“My daddy didn’t consider music a real profession,” González said with a hearty laugh. “He wanted me to be in a ‘real’ profession like an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer. I wanted to please him.”
Soon after his father died, González became a full-time musician.
González considers the musicians he travels and plays with as family and the Afro Cuban All-Stars is very much a family affair with his wife Gliceria Abreu serving as tour manager and Afro Cuban percussionist, daughters Laura Lydia on saxophone and Gliceria, a classical pianist and orchestra conductor.
González spoke lovingly and reverently about the music, and was self-deprecating but firm as he shared his mission: to reveal the breadth, beauty, vitality and diversity of Cuban music. His contributions and participation with Sierra Maestra, Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro Cuban All-Stars has helped raise Cuban music to heights not reached before.
The music, he said, is deeply rooted in Africa.
“Cuba is perhaps one of the most musical places in the Hemisphere. Cuba is a very important country in this Hemisphere,” he asserted. “The Spanish were in touch with Africa. They didn’t mind Africans playing the drums. Cuban music is happy. You can dance to the gods. The music is infused with African spirit with a Spanish flavor. We are a spiritual people. We are Africa.”
González said reggae legend Bob Marley is his idol, as is Wailers bandmate Peter Tosh. The three-time Grammy-nominated musician said he also loves the music of Ivorian reggae phenom Alpha Blondy. The Afro Cuban All-Stars tours widely playing between 60 and 70 concerts a year, he said.
“We’re touring here, going to Europe, Colombia and Latin America,” said González. “We leave for Europe on January 18 and we have some private concerts. It’s been like this for 21 years. It’s the Afro Cuban All Stars, my wife and my two daughters. I bring excellent musicians together. They have to be great [people] and they have to have good spiritual energy. It’s difficult to find nice people. I picked the proper people who range in age from 23 to 63 years-old.”
The Juan de Marcos and the Afro Cuban All Stars Orchestra is celebrating its 20th Anniversary marked by a new CD/DVD titled, Absolutely Live II. There is a live double disc featuring a Blueray DVD of performances at the Strathmore Center for the Arts in Bethesda, Maryland and a CD of the Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato, Mexico.
Barrington M. Salmon is a NNPA Newswire contributor. Thanks to NNPA for sharing this story with us.