Afro-Cuban All Stars – Land of the rising son
In his book In The Country Of Country, Nicholas Dawidoff maps out a cross-section of Tennessee and Kentucky, including snatches of bordering states, as country music’s most fertile ground, its deep zone of talent and tradition. The island of Cuba, over 700 miles from east to west, shares much with this musical zone. In important ways, Cuba has remained isolated from outside influences — be they political, economic or cultural — and in equally important ways, Cuba has remained open to experimentation and selective adaptation to the forces of modernity. No island, in the end, is an island.
Cuba has its country music: son, the guitar-based dance music that emerged at the turn of the century in the fields, mountains, and small campesino towns of Eastern Cuba. Like traditional North American country music, son is a synthesis of white and black, European and African elements. It is a music of simple but vigorous instrumentation and language, an intensely sincere and sharp mirror of the lives of those who sing and play it, whether professionally or casually, around fireplaces or at picnics and family reunions.
All son requires is a six-string guitar and a set of bongos, although the most traditional son ensemble also consists of the botija (an earthenware, whistled-over jug), a marimbula (a bass instrument), the maracas or clave (snare-like percussion instruments), the tres (a guitar strung with three sets of double strings), sometimes a harmonica — and, of course, the song itself.
The last of these is one of the keys to Cuban son and its newfound favor behind the Buena Vista flood. To be sure, a smart marketing campaign, a touching story, a beautiful film, and the participation of Ry Cooder played no small part in the current Cuban craze.
Still it’s hard to imagine the music sinking in were it not for the refreshing brilliance of the songs themselves. Even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, the story behind Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan”, the lead track on Buena Vista Social Club and the movement’s theme song, is crystalline. It’s the story of a man traveling to find his beloved. The mood is both bawdy and sentimental, and the simple, repeated melody and dancing rhythms soothe the singer on his journey.
In musical terms, no one would mistake Cuban son for a country shuffle, and certainly no one should be persuaded that son and North American country are identical. But the cross-pollination between the whole range of Latin and American roots musics should not be underestimated.
Country and western music, specifically the careers of Marty Robbins, Johnny Rodriguez and Freddy Fender, would not be possible without Mexican music. Ditto for many great country recordings: “Ring of Fire”, “Amigo’s Guitar” and “Easy Come Easy Go”, just for starters, are all indebted to Latin music.
The very name of the Buckaroos derives from the Spanish word for cowboy, vaquero, and the storied, spangled Nudie suit is surely modeled on mariachi getup. Just as the horn blasts, gourd scrapes and guitar sounds of Calexico draw on Afro-Caribbean percussion, so too did the Sir Douglas Quintet frequently reach beyond just American roots music; sometimes they exploded into a whole cosmos of Latin sounds.
Cuban son may now be synonymous with the names Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, and Barbarito Torres, but “Los super-abuelos,” as they are called in Cuba, were not the first of the new Cuban wave. The Afro-Cuban All Stars, led by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez (who also appeared on Buena Vista), made their first album in March 1996, at the famed EGREM studios in Havana. The record, A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, was released on the World Circuit label prior to the Cooder-produced Buena Vista Social Club.
For many, A Todo Cuba Le Gusta remains the high point of the ’90s Cuban tide. If nothing else, it best captures the island’s musical idioms, traversing primal son montuno, danzon, mambo, mozambique, and cha-cha-cha. Its energy is devastating, and its songs are instantly memorable. This is dance music, to be sure, but the songs tell stories: at times comic, at times sexy and playful, at times as intense as nightmares, and always brimming with real people and real, lived-in, worked-on places.
Those stories seep into the fabric of the music and the private histories of the musicians, old and young, flooding every guitar lick, every horn riff, every bongo slap. They provide an alternative to the shiny, watered-down sound of mainstream Latin music. The Afro-Cuban All Stars sound so refreshing because they recall a fading period of classic Cuban music and also have an undeniable mastery of the son idiom, a mastery that rings with the force of truth.
Juan de Marcos is standing outside Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis, Missouri, where his fifteen-piece band, the touring version of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, has just done what no orchestra has done before: They made a thousand tuxedoed and evening-gowned Missourians rumba.
“This is the freest country in the world,” Juan de Marcos says in Spanish, “but don’t try to smoke a cigarette.” He gets a light in the open air outside the backstage door, smokes and signs autographs, and then invites the 40 or so onlookers inside to the reception. It’s a subdued party, full of snazzily dressed Cubans looking confused as their North American fans practice an incomprehensible Spanish.