In the nineties, The Buena Vista Social Club, a recording featuring elderly Cuban musicians, was a worldwide success. The American rock/blues guitarist Ry Cooder was credited with “discovering” the group. But it was Juan De Marcos, an enterprising Afro-Cuban singer, composer, bandleader and entrepreneur, dubbed “the Quincy Jones of Havana,” who was actually responsible for putting the group together and supervising the sessions.
Born in 1954, the multi-talented De Marcos, who also lived for a time in London, is an agronomist who also studied classical guitar at the Havana Conservatory, and co-founded the legendary Cuban group, Sierra Maestra in 1976. He created The Afro-Cuban All-Stars in the nineties, and their 1997 Grammy-nominated debut CD, A Toda Cuba le Gusta, featuring musicians from the fifties – including vocalist, Ibrahim Ferrer, bassist Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez and pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who all would later record in the historic BVSC sessions.
The urbane, beret-on-the-dreadlocks-wearing De Marcos and his Afro-Cuban All-Stars are currently touring the United States, and their latest stop is at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware on March 22nd performing authentic, homegrown Cuban music on American soil. We talked with De Marcos about his tour, his role in creating the BVSC, the infinite varieties of Afro-Cuban music, and his appreciation for the United States.
EBONY: Your tour is special because Americans will get to hear authentic Afro-Cuban music by real Afro-Cubans from the island. What will we be hearing?
JUAN DE MARCOS: We’re going to show the diversity of Cuban music, from the traditional to the contemporary. It’s going to be a danceable set. On this tour, we’re bringing the repertoire from era of the Buena Vista Social Club: the music of Compay Segundo, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea and Ibrahim Ferrer, along with six or seven songs I wrote for the tour in the contemporary style. We’re going to be performing son montuno, cha-cha-cha, mambo, guaracha, and pachuco salsa; a more contemporary kind of salsa. We’re also going to play danzon, Latin jazz, and a kind of Cuban funk beat called batumbata.
We’re going to perform a song, “Yo Tengo Pena” by Compay Segundo written 1923 – I wrote a new arrangement for that song. There’s a song “El Camino de Santiago,” that I wrote for a very close friend of mine, who got AIDS during the hard times of the nineties. There’s also an instrumental track, “Yamaira’s Groove,” written by one of my trumpet players. So it’s going to be a very diverse program that we will be performing in Wilmington.
EBONY: You mentioned the Buena Vista Social Club. People credit the American guitarist Ry Cooder for the “discovery” of that group. But in actuality, you are the real person who was responsible for the success of that ensemble.
JDM: I put all the musicians together...But I don’t mind, because what’s important is that we made something valuable for the Cuban culture and the Cuban music. Everyone who is a musician knows that it’s not possible for an American – with all the respect that I have for the American musicians – to conduct a Cuban band, because the music’s completely different: in American music, the accent is on the first or third beat. Cuban music is very syncopated, and the accent is on the fourth beat – it’s not understandable by people who are not Cuban.
EBONY: That brings me to my other point: Cuba is a small island, but its music has greatly influenced America. Your homeland never lost its connections to Africa, and so many Black musicians come from families.
JDM: In Cuba, we had the Spanish [slave masters], and Spain is a multi-tribal county. So they didn’t mind if the Black guys were playing the drums while they’re working. And that’s why we kept the spirit of Africa alive. And it’s normal for us to have musical families. For instance, in this band, I have my wife, Gliceria Abreu and my daughters, who are great musicians. My oldest daughter is an orchestral conductor who plays jazz and Cuban music. My other daughter is a clarinet player. So it’s a pleasure for me to have my family performing in the band.
EBONY: You’ve been touring the U.S. for a while. What are your impressions of the United States?
JDM: The USA is a great county. It’s the main market for Cuban music...My family is American: My grandsons are Americans. My son is American, and he works for your Army. So I have good feelings about America!
-Eugene Holley, Jr.