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Betto Arcos : You were the instrumental figure that brought to the forefront so many generations of Cuban musicians. you were like a revolutionary. How do you fell about what you've done to Cuban music?

Juan de Marcos González : I can tell you the same as John Lennon said, "I feel fine". And really, I feel fine. I'm really happy because of the success of this original idea to bring different generations of Cuban musicians in order to fight for the Cuban culture and for Cuban music. Right  now, you can see guys like Ibrahim Ferrer on the top of the world. HE'S NOW FOR 'EM and everybody right now, the most important Cuban singer worldwide. Not only in World music or Latin music, but in Pop music as well. Rubén González, whom I looked for initially walking in the streets, is now probably the most important Latin piano player in the world.

Now Rubén González has his own band; Ibrahim Ferrer has his own band; Compay Segundo is on his own; Eliades Ochoa is a big success; The Afro Cuban All Stars are also very well known. Not only in the U.S. but worldwide, in Europe. I'm happy because it's like a realized dream. I knew that we would be successful, because of the authenticity of the music. The fact that it's the old guys coming to life again. Now everyone wants to do the same. In Brazil, they're preparing an All Stars of old guys, "Viejos

Sambistas". In Mexico, the same thing. So, I knew that bringing people from different generations and mostly the presence of the old guys should be something remarkable. But I never thought it would sell 4 million copies. That's something that's outside of the normal popular musician. The two albums of Afro Cuban All Stars have sold almost a million and Rubén González is selling 600 thousand  copies. And in the next few months, his new album will be out and will probably sell a  million. Ibrahim Ferrer is selling more than a million by himself.

BA: But you really never thought this could happen...

JMG: No, of course not. I thought that we would get a small success and reasonable sales. We thought Buena Vista Social Club would sell 400 thousand copies; Afro Cuban All Stars 100 thousand and Ruben Gonzalez 50 thousand. A big success inside the intellectual environment, but that's not what's happening. Right now, they're like pop stars. Compay Segundo is a pop star.

It's incredible, it's amazing. And he's selling really well. Eliades Ochoa is not selling well because he sells the concerts better. He's a live musician. It's a dream! So I'm really really happy.

BA:  After the worldwide success and recognition, has anything changed for these musicians in Cuba? Are they more respected now?

JMG: Yes, they are. Let me tell you why. About the middle of the 90s, a new kind of Cuban music started. Contemporary Cuban music has longer sequences of chords and it has been very much mixed with American pop and things like that. About the middle of the 1990s, there was this kind of Cuban music where the fashion was to recreate a very  American sound within the Cuban music. So, they tried to repeat, for example, the brass riffs of bands like Weather Report or Earth, Wind & Fire. All mixed with Rap, but a kind of Cuban Rap and with the basis of "son". So, I think that this kind of music that was called "timba", in the beginning was a little bit beyond the real thing.

So, what's happening now, because of the success of the old guys and the success of the kind of music that we've been playing, young musicians are coming back to the roots. And that's the most important thing that's happening right now in Cuban music. It's something like the new album of the Afro Cuban All Stars, "Distinto, Diferente". This album is not a traditional album. It's the mix of the traditional music with modern sequences of chords. So, it's completely contemporary, from the harmonic point of view. But at the same time, it has the swing, the power of the old times. Something similar is happening to Cuban music. There are very orthodox "timba' bands like NG La Banda. Paulito y su Elite is changing. Jose Luis Cortes, now has a 'Sonora'. And it's incredible because he is a jazz musician. NG La Banda is now called "La Sonora NG". They play music in a style very close to what I did in the first Afro Cuban All Stars.

BA: You feel good about this.

JMG: Yes of course, I feel really good. Because I think that's the right way. Of course, we don't have to go back. It's not necessary to go back, but you have to preserve your roots, you have to preserve your spirit. That's really important. Of course, we have Compay Segundo to play very acoustic and simple songs. Buena Vista Social Club is an excellent album of simple and quiet songs. And I don't think that the youth must go that way. The youth must recreate the roots, recreate the spirit of the nation, recreate the culture with a very contemporary point of view. They can use contemporary sequences of chords,  contemporary breaks, they can use even pop elements, rap elements, but it must be inside of what is Cuba, inside of what it means to be Cuban. That's the most important thing. So I'm happy because I'm the pioneer in this kind of stuff.

When I made this album last year, everybody started changing in Cuba again. At the beginning, I remember a couple years ago, they were saying "Oh the old guys, they're doing something simple..." There were very stupid statements by people whom I always respected but who spoke really badly regarding the Buena Vista Social Club and the old guys. But that's the reality and the reality is above your mind. You can't change life. The fact is, the Buena Vista Social Club is a great album and is the most important recorded album in the history of Cuba during the 20th Century. It has sold much more than Celia Cruz. Celia Cruz never sold 3 million copies of one album. It's something outstanding. It's like the revelation of the Cuban nation and thanks to albums like the Buena Vista Social Club, now the doors of the world are opening for Cubans. Mostly here in America. It was completely impossible to come and play here and sell albums in this country. Right now, we are opening the doors that politicians can't open. That's the reality.

BA: Who would have known that this was possible when you were a member of Sierra Maestra along with Jesus Alemańy of Cubanismo?

JMG: Well, I had the opportunity to do it. Jesus Alemańy and I had the same idea. Alemańy made Cubanismo. Cubanismo is not exactly the same style as the Afro Cuban All Stars but is on the same wave. Because we are both coming from the roots. When we started playing son montuno in Cuba 20 years ago, it was like a dream. It was something completely revolutionary as well. Because nobody of our age care for this kind of music. So, we come from the same place, That's why the music of Alemańy and mine is very similar. For me, Cubanismo is one of the best Cuban bands worldwide right now. And it's well respected. But Jesus is not that good of a businessman. But the band is punchy, strong, and really first class.

BA: The new album of the Afro Cuban All Stars, Distinto, Diferente, is a departure from the first one. The first one was a good sample of the sound of the music of the 50s in Cuba: the big brassy band with great "Soneros".

JMG: In the first album I had a message to say: the old guys do exist and the golden period of Cuban music was the 50s. So, it was a tribute to the music of the 50s. The punchy sound of bands like Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Mario Bauzá, Chico O'Farrill's band, Beny Moré's band, with some contemporary elements. I tried to capture the spirit of the live recording.

The first album is almost live. I used mostly old guys. I recorded the whole album with Rubén González on piano. Well it was a nightmare. Because he was almost 80 years old and we recorded the first album and for him it's a little bit difficult to read music again. He's a top star. He's an old heart. But it's difficult for an old guy to read music. But that was the message of the first album. But what happened after the success of the set of albums, Buena Vista Social Club, Ruben Gonzalez and the Afro Cuban All Stars and later Ibrahim Ferrer, people who don't know Cuban culture and Cuban music and are inside of a phenomenon in a sort of boom like what's in fashion, started writing and implying that the only kind of music that we have in Cuba is the music of the 50s. They started talking about pre-revolutionary music and post-revolutionary music and shit like that.

For me, there's only one music and there's no periods. You cannot box up the music by periods and say this is the music of the 17th century and so on. Because you can go to the absurd extreme to say that, for example, Beethoven is obsolete. That's completely a crime. So because of this, I tried to make something different in Cuban music. So, I took the risk to do this album. Because if I repeated the same thing I will sell more. It's a fact: what's in fashion is the music of the old times. So, I could repeat the same thing to earn more money. But that's not my spirit. I don't mind the money because right now I have much more money than all the money I have seen in my life. I don't need that amount of money to live. I have much more money that the money that I can spend in the rest of my life. So I don't need it, money is shit. The only value of money is that you can change the money for other things that you like. That's it: valor de cambio, exchange value.

I took the risk to do this album. Even my partner and friend, Nick Gold, who had disagreed completely with this album, because it sounded too modern. He wanted me to repeat the same thing and I said no, I'm going to make a different album. We have to show the world that we have to keep the roots but at the same time we have to develop, we have to put keep eyes toward the future. We have to make something that's useful for the youth. It's important to bring the youth to what's really valid in history, but at the same time give them a contemporary sound, because otherwise they're going to hate this kind of music after the fashion, after the boom.

So, in this album what I tried to do is to mix the contemporary elements with the roots elements. In the new album, we have like a journey, from the beginning of times. For Cuba it's the 19th century, because we are a young country of only two centuries of history. So it's a journey from the very tribal sounds of the Abakua music, one of the most important and less known Afro-Cuban religions, all the way up to "timba." But the valid elements of "timba." What's really valid in "timba' is the style of the piano players, the syncopations of the 'tumbao' of the piano. It's incredible. Nobody can do it. Puerto Ricans normally used to play Cuban music, but they can't play the tumbaos of timba. No way.

The Japanese can probably do it better and faster. So, I've included what's the most useful of the Cuban dance genres of the 20th century. So, I tried to mix everything. I brought friends from the old times, that started with me. Ibrahim Ferrer of course has to sing in my album at least one verse. Rubén González only has one solo. For this album, I brought what I think is the revelation of the Cuban piano players of this time, David Alfaro. He's very good. He's the main piano player. But I have not only Rubén González playing piano, but also Guillermo González Rubalcaba and Frank Emilio Flynn. So, we have four piano players. There are more than 50 people in this recording. Important singers like Fernando Alvarez, Pedro Calvo who's the lead singer of Los Van Van. Top stars of the young generations of soneros de la timba, like Leo Vera & Denis Martínez. It's all mixed. They're all making a tribute to Cuban music. In the end, it's a very sincere album. At this moment that's what I have to say. Next year I'll probably record pop music with batá drums or something like that.

 

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