Internationally-renowned Afro-Cuban All Stars rock Honolulu

By José Villa, Senior Editor
Hawaii Hispanic News

HONOLULU, Hawaii – The Afro-Cuban All Stars (ACAS) is a unique orchestra that has always been devoted to promoting the full range of Cuban music, one that embraces several generations and all musical styles. Over the years many of the band’s musicians have become international stars, including brilliant performers such as: Rubén González; Ibrahim Ferrer; Guillermo Rubalcava; and Manuel “The Guajiro” Mirabal. This five-time Grammy nominated orchestra performed in the Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall on April 16, 2011.

Juan De Marcos González is the leader of the ACAS. (I interviewed him from his home in Mexico City). He said: “I was born in the Pueblo Nuevo section in the center of Havana. In Pueblo Nuevo there is a street called ‘Sanja,’ which has the reputation of having produced many excellent musicians. When I was growing up, there was an old historic
boarding house, about a block from my house, called ‘El Solar Del Africa’ (‘Africa Solar’). We used to call it ‘El Solar.’ And many great Cuban musicians – including Arsenio Rodriguez – lived there. I learned much of my musical basics there.”

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He said: “My father was a musician. He sang with many of the famous Cuban bands in the 30s and 40s – including a two-year stint with the Arsenio Rodriguez Band from 1939 – 1941, along with pianist Ruben González. Every Sunday the musicians would get together to play Rumbas and neighbors would dance in the street. Many of the musicians couldn’t afford drums, so they would play with the old milk crates. ”

He continued: “My mother warned me to stay away from ‘that place, which, of course, motivated to go over there. So I would manage to escape and go watch the musicians and the dancers. That experience – along with the fact that my father was a musician – strongly impacted my decision to become a musician too.”

He went on: “So I studied classical guitar at the conservatory. But, even as I sat there studying classical music, the hot, burning rhythms I grew up with on the streets coursed through my veins. Finally one day, I quit the classical guitar, picked up a tres (Wikipedia: “The Cuban tres has three groups of two strings each for a total of six strings.”), and started playing “Son” (Editor’s Note: Son cubano originated in Cuba. It combines the
structure and elements of Spanish songs and guitars, with African rhythms and percussion instruments.”) From that point on, this is the music I’ve played all my life.”

De Marcos said: “I lived in London from 1995 – 1998, went back to Cuba, moved to Cancún and returned to Cuba before settling in Mexico City, in 2007, so my girls could get their bachelors’ degrees in music. Both daughters are symphonic musicians and play with the Afro-Cuban All Stars. They are congueras (conga players) and Salseras (Salsa dancers).
One plays the bass clarinet, flutes and saxophones. The other sings, plays the keyboard and, at times, the vibraphone.”

The genesis of the Afro-Cuban All Stars has its roots early in the 1990s. He said: “I had
always wanted to do a tribute to my father, who was a great musician and my good friend. He died in 1990. My idea was to use many of his musician friends that were still
alive and could play for the tribute. Not many of them were still living, but I found enough.

In Cuba, every September we celebrate the day of La Virgen del Regla, also known as Yemaya. During that celebration, many of my father’s musicians friends came home and I had a chance to talk to them.”

At this time the son ensemble Sierra Maestra, headed by De Marcos, received a lot of international exposure. As a consequence, De Marcos was introduced to Nick Gold, president of World Music Records (at that time a small independent world music label). That encounter led to a couple of very successful tours in Europe. Later the group went to London and recorded Dundumbanza, considered one of the jewels of the world music
scene of the early ’90s.

Months later, de Marcos got the go-ahead to do an album celebrating the classic Cuban sound of the ’50s – a recording whose personnel would feature many great musicians that de Marcos knew. An agreement reached, the plan was to prepare two projects: one
featuring a Cuban big band, the other record favoring a more traditional sound reminiscent of the acoustic style of Nico Saquito or Portabales.

In March of 1996 they recorded the album A toda Cuba le Gusta, featuring nearly 60 performers. Then, with the addition of celebrated artists, such as: Compay Segundo; Omara Portuondo; Eliades Ochoa; and legendary American guitarist Ry Cooder, what became the legendary Buena Vista Social Club CD was recorded.

Finally, with a low budget, and only during two live sessions, and with simple orchestrations carried out at the studio by de Marcos, they also recorded the first solo album of Rubén González, “Introducing Ruben Gonzalez.”

This was destined to be one of the most successful of the “Buena Vista” series of recordings. During the spring of 1997 and along with the release in Europe of the three albums, de Marcos and a select group of stellar musicians started touring all over the continent under the banner of a band christened the “Afro-Cuban All Stars.”

The original line up, familiar from the records, included: Ruben González and Guillermo Rubalcava (piano); Orlando López (bass); Amadito Valdés (timbale); Carlos González and Roberto Valdés (bongos & Cuban percussion); Ángel Terry (congas); Daniel Ramos;
Alejandro Pichardo y “Guajiro” Mirabal (trumpets); Alberto “Molote” Martínez and Jesús “Aguaje” Ramos (trombones); and Raúl Planas, Manuel Licea, Pío Leiva, Ibrahim Ferrer and Félix Baloy (lead singers).

After several years of tremendous and unexpected success – including four Grammy nominations, being the subject of several documentaries and films, and being recipients of many other distinctions – the All Stars are certainly the best-known and successful Cuban orchestra after Los Van Van and Irakere.

The Afro-Cuban All Stars has also opened the doors to a new generation by incorporating young musicians into the band. With The Afro-Cuban All Stars, De Marcos
has developed a concept more so than simply creating a band. His approach has allowed him to expand its creative range by incorporating contemporary styles of Cuban
music; as well, a fluid approach to adjusting the orchestra’s line-up by changing or adding musicians as appropriate has made it easier to best reflect the different styles
of music from the various periods that the band features.

The Afro-Cubans are the same orchestra that can be seen in those distinct performances captured in the famous Oscar-nominated Buena Vista Social Club documentary by Wim Wenders, the Tony Knox documentary Salon of Dreams, or the DVDs Live in Japan or Live in The Hague.

The De Marcos family had never been to Hawaii, so they were really looking forward to this visit.

What’s on the horizon for them? De Marcos said : “Once my daughters graduate, we’ll
probably move to Russia so they can get the best classical music training on the planet. After they earn a masters’ and, perhaps, a PhD. we will return to live someplace warm – maybe Hawaii!”

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