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In the Barrio, growing up with legends....

My father was a musician, an excellent singer. He sang with several orchestras that were very popular in the late 40s and the early 50s. He sang with Arsenio Rodríguez's conjunto for a year and a half. He also sang with Los Sultanes del 41. When he was starting out, he sang with La Orquesta Ideal and La Orquesta de Belisario López. He also sang with Los Jóvenes del Cayo and with La Sonora Nacional de Pińon. He was a singer who had relative success in his day, a real Cuban-style artist. From his influence, and especially because I was raised in a marginal barrio right here in Havana, Pueblo Nuevo, just 100 meters away from a historic place that, lamentably, has been demolished, called the "Solar de Africa." It was on Zanja and Oquendo streets in downtown Havana. In this place lived people of the caliber of Chano Pozo, Luis Papín Abreu, Eliseo Silveira, the great Cuban musicians. In my house we'd have rumbas, especially each September 7. We're devotees of the Virgin of Regla, the patroness of Havana. And there were parties, on September 7, celebrating the Virgin of Regla. There'd be a rumba and there'd also be a rumba every Sunday, and all my father's friends came and from that time on I loved music. In 67 or 68, I met Compay Segundo, who came to live next door to me.

From rock 'n' roll to the Cuban "son"...

I wanted to play guitar because I was very influenced by the rock and roll bands of the day, I liked rock 'n' roll a lot. It was the musical language that I worked in during a great many years of my life. Through Compay Segundo I got my first guitar and from then on I was interested in guitar. I started to study it, I spent four years at the Conservatory. A little later I left music, because I was a bit  undisciplined and they kicked me out of the Conservatory. After junior high school I took up an engineering career at the University. I didn't think I was going to dedicate myself to music. And then around 1976 we formed the Sierra Maestra group, a band dedicated to recreating traditional Cuban music. Before that, I had played with most of the rock bands here in Havana, during a time when I was very  influenced by that kind of music and language, which was prohibited in this country. It was prohibited. But you know how it is for kids and prohibited things. We played rock here in Cuba. Mostly we did identical covers. We'd copy the  arrangements of people like King Crimson, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jethro Tull, Yes, Spencer Davis, all that kind of music. We were a bit "hippy" when we were in the University and we decided to form a group that would break all the established canons. It was a pretty "punk" thing to do, getting a group of young kids to play "son". So I bought a tres, and since I already knew the language of the guitar, started to study the tres. And from then on we started to play Cuban music. From that time up until last year I played with Sierra Maestra, which was always my group.

Afro-Cuban All Stars...

This whole project of the three albums, Introducing Rubén González, The Buena Vista Social Club and The Afro-Cuban All-Stars, was a project I'd had in mind for many years. I'm a fervent admirer of Rubén González, who I consider to be the last, or one of the last great Cuban piano players, and I always wanted to make an album with him on it.  And at the same time I wanted to have the great stars of Cuban music, who, unfortunately, have been marginalized by the Cuban recording industry because another kind of music is in vogue and the elders are considered to be obsolete. Nevertheless, I knew that if we made a record with these great artists and had decent promotion that we'd sell well and at the same time have an impact on the Cuban music scene.

Buena Vista Social Club...

In 1994, I was mixing Sierra Maestra's Dundunbanza album in London, where I have my work headquarters, where the company that I work for is based. In a conversation I had with the director of the company, Nick Gold, I told him about the idea I had for a record that would bring together the principal figures of Cuban music, the people who made history especially during the 50s, who were still alive and in Cuba. That's where the idea of Afro-Cuban All-Stars came from. At the same time, there was an album called Talking Timbuktu that Ry Cooder had made with Ali Farka Touré, an album that sold a lot, and Nick Gold had the idea to make a new album with Cooder. So we had the idea of making a fusion album using the Eastern Cuban son, which is completely different from the Havana son. The Eastern son has the same base, the same defining elements, but at the  same time has a distinct concept of syncopation. In this album, we thought we'd mix the Eastern son with Ry Cooder's American slide guitar and a couple of African musicians who'd play instruments like the kora, etc. All this to make a fusion album like the one that Cooder made with Flaco Jiménez, where the distinct genres would come together to make something new. So that's how the idea came about for this record, which we didn't know what it would be called, but the final result was The Buena Vista Social Club. I looked up all the musicians and I was the musical director of the project.

Introducing Rubén González...

At the same time it so happened that everyone fell in love with Rubén González, which I was sure would happed because Rubén has a vital characteristic that for me is of utmost  importance: he knows how to define the limits between one form of music and another. When you play Cuban music, you play Cuban music. In Cuban music, you can use the elements of jazz, but it's one thing to use the elements of jazz and it's quite another to use Cuban elements in jazz, like Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Michel Camilo do. They're two different things. And so everyone fell in love with Rubén González and there was some money left over, on one day we recorded, without overdubs, this album, Introducing Rubén González. It's true that this is his first solo album, in spite of the fact that Rubén is one of the greatest of Cuban musicians, who's played with everyone from Arcano y sus Maravillas, Arsenio Rodríguez, Enrique Jorrín, all the great bands, but he'd never made a solo album. That's how we made the album with Rubén González.

And the rest is history....

That's how the project came about. We  recorded it in about 16 or 17 days, at the Egrem studios, and then we did the mixes. I mixed Afro-Cuban All-Stars and Introducing Rubén González in London with sound engineer Jerry Boys, who is excellent, and The Buena Vista Social Club was mixed by Ry Cooder in Los Angeles. He made some overdubs there,  because Ry didn't want to play [in Havana]. He was so amazed by the talent of these great musicians who played on the album that he didn't even know where to fit himself in. So he took the album to Los Angeles, did the overdubs with slide guitar and a bit of acoustic guitar and that's the way these three albums came about which, thank God, have sold well and that serve as a symbol of the power of Cuban music, and which to a certain degree have contributed to Cuban music regaining the status it always had in Latin American and world music.

 

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Musical artists appear courtesy of World Circuit/Nonesuch Records.
Film Images appear courtesy of Road Movies.