IT’S BEEN EASY to get the impression over the past couple of years that Cuban music starts and ends with the Buena Vista Social Club.
The gold-certified Ry Cooder-endorsed album on Nonesuch, the Wim Wenders film about the group, and all the various offshoots the Social Club has produced have overshadowed just about any other music Cuba has had to offer. But the members of the Buena Vista Social Club aren’t the only ones out there mining the riches of Cuba’s past. ¡Cubanismo!, a group led by world-class trumpeter Jesús Alemañy, have been leaders in Cuba’s neo-classical movement since their serendipitous formation in the autumn of 1994. In fact, to a far greater degree than the Buena Vista Social Club, Alemañy has fused the traditional sounds of Cuba with contemporary jazz idioms.
“I’ve had a sound in my head since I was a child,” Alemañy explains when I reach him on his cell phone, on the road between Santa Barbara and San Francisco on the West Coast leg of an American tour that brings ¡Cubanismo! to the Roxy this Sunday. “I always believed I could balance what’s happening on the street today with the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic strengths of our Cuban cultural music. I was searching for a way to balance new arrangements of classics, songs that would keep the interest of the older generation, with new compositions that would appeal to young people.”
The band’s latest attempt to reach across cultural and generational gaps is the recently completed New Orleans Mambo project, the first ¡Cubanismo! album to feature vocals in English. As the title suggests, the album, which is due later this year from Rykodisc, mines the rich musical legacy of New Orleans.
“We wanted to do some American songs in a Cuban style,” Alemañy explains, “so we did what we usually do our albums — a mixture of old songs, like ‘Mardi Gras Mambo,’ and new compositions. We made the album in New Orleans and invited local musicians like pianist Glenn Patscha and singer John Boutt to play and mixed tubas and New Orleans-style drumming with Cuban arrangements.” (Patscha and Boutt have joined ¡Cubanismo! on the tour so the band can perform some of the new material.)
Except for the English lyrics and the New Orleans oldies, Alemañy and company followed the usual ¡Cubanismo! protocols. “Everything was recorded live, in one big room, so the musicians could communicate. Some of the vocals had to be overdubbed, and sometimes we’ll add another solo, but the situation is better when a musician is free to play what he feels. As before, we tried to balance older material with modern arrangements, without getting too sophisticated.”
Alemañy picked up the trumpet as a child, entering Cuba’s Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán when he was just 12 years old. “In the morning, you turn on the radio, or step into the street, and the first thing you hear is the trumpet. It got in my blood.” He was just 16 when he joined Sierra Maestra, the band largely credited with reviving the sound of the traditional son, the building block of all Cuban music. “Sierra Maestra, at first, was classical and nostalgic. The son is the root of Cuban music, like the blues in the States, but it had been forgotten. We kept the original ideas and rhythms but opened it up, creating a new era of dance music.”
In 1992, after a decade with Sierra Maestra, Alemañy left to pursue his own music in London. In December of ’94, he organized a descarga (jam session) in Paris to honor conga legend Patato Váldez, inviting some of the best Cuban session players in the world to join him and the Cuban expatriates he’d met in London. Hannibal Records head Joe Boyd was there and was so impressed he asked Alemañy to produce a similar session in Havana. The result was the critically acclaimed ¡Cubanismo! debut for Hannibal/Rykodisc.
“The recording was all acoustic, to achieve the traditional sound of the son-montuno, guaracha-son, and the guajira,” says Alemañy, referring to three variations on the traditional son. “We had never played together before and didn’t have time to rehearse, but we worked like a family from the first.” The album’s success created a demand for a tour, a tour that has continued on and off ever since, with ongoing shifts in personnel.
Although the band have become a big international draw, they’ve never performed in public in Cuba. That doesn’t mean Cubans aren’t familiar with ¡Cubanismo!’s major players. “All the guys in the band, except me, live in Cuba,” Alemañy explains. “And most of them have their own bands. The sax player, Yosvany Terry, is in his family band Los Terrys. ‘Tata’ Güines, our conguero, is in a couple of groups. So if you don’t live in Cuba, the only way you can see them play live is in ¡Cubanismo!”
© j. poet, The Boston Phoenix, 17 April 2000