Betto Arcos: Tell us a bit about your musical education and your years at the Conservatory. What motivated you to dedicated yourself to popular Cuban music?

Rubén González:  I started to study music and play piano at the age of seven, in the city of Cienfuegos. I lived in a nearby village and my mother would take me to Conservatory of Cienfuegos to take classes. My teacher, whose name was Amparo Riso, would give me enough work for a whole month, so that I could take it home with my to my village. She'd tell me, "Rubén, take this and study it." Then, after two or three trips coming and going, she told the other students, "Look here, Rubén goes to his village, I give him 18 or 20 exercises and he returns and plays them well. And you who live right here next door to me can't do it. I have to fight with you for you to do it." She motivated me a lot. So I studied seven years with her. After finishing those seven years she asked me if I wanted to learn classical music. I told her no, that I only like to hear classical music, serious music. But I told her that I very much liked to play popular music. So I finished up my studies with her and she gave me my diploma. Later, my family moved to Santa Clara and there I began to play in all the local orchestras. Then I came to Havana.

BA: When you arrived in Havana at the beginning of the 40s, there was a great music scene, it was the era of the big orchestras and the great artists of popular music. This was around that time that you met Arsenio Rodríguez, one of the most important figures of Cuban music.

RG: When I came from the countryside, from my village of Santa Clara to Havana, I became friends with a musician who knew Arsenio Rodríguez. One day I went to visit my friend at his house and there was Arsenio. And when I was playing, Arsenio asked, "Who is that playing?" And my friend replied, "It's a boy from Santa Clara, a young guy from the country." A while later it so happened that Arsenio moved in close by to where I was living. Arsenio was at his best in those years. Then he had a problem with his piano player and he asked me if I wanted to be in the orchestra. He'd already heard me play. Because I used to study and he'd hear  me from next door, because he was blind. I was with him two or three years. Then I went to Panama, I was there one year. Then I traveled through South America. Later I returned and started to play with other orchestras and that's how I was educated.

BA: You have some compositions that have become popular. Besides playing the piano, do you like composing music?

RG: Sometimes I get ideas and I'll write them down. But I put them away for a long time. I don't really dedicate myself to composition because I like playing the piano more than composing. There's a couple of numbers that have become popular. In the States, there's a piano player who's recorded a few and every time he comes to Cuba, he tells me, "Hey Rubén, you've got a lot of money up in the States, but you have to go up there and get it. They're not going to send it to you." And all this because of the political problem between Cuba and the United States. They've got the problem, not us. That's the rub. But there's a lot of money that belongs to a lot of composers, like me, that have earned money in royalties, but that can't go because of special circumstances. Or that can't go because they don't have time or money or they don't want to go.

BA: How was it that you were invited to record your first album as a soloist, at 78 years of age?

RG: It was during the sessions for The Buena Vista Social Club and for the Afro-Cuban All-Stars that I played a very fine piano they have in the Egrem Studios in Havana. During a break, Nick Gold heard me playing. He came up to the window, and I turned around and saw him, and I told myself, "He's going to say that I can't play." But he made some hand signals that I should keep playing and I stayed there a good while. Later, Nick Gold came and saw me and asked me if I wanted to make a recording with him. That's when it all started. We made the recording and there's been a few more. And everything we've done has sold very well. So I said to myself, I'm going to be 80 years old. It looks like I've been lucky, here I still am.

BA: What has it meant for you to record this first solo album, 50 years after having played with the best orchestras in Cuba?

RG: It's been a surprise for me. I've made many recordings. In the 40s, I worked with Arsenio Rodríguez, with Raúl Planas and Mongo Santamaría; also with the Arcano y su Maravillas Orchestra and Los Hermanos Castro Orchestra. In the 60s, I was the pianist for Enrique Jorrín. In the 70s, I recorded with the Estrellas de Areito. Up until now, nothing's ever happened. This is the only recording [as a soloist]. But the sound comes from the 40s when I first came to Havana and I started to play with all the local orchestras. That's how it's been, always on the move, from here to there, up until now.

 

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Musical artists appear courtesy of World Circuit/Nonesuch Records.
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