Published Apr 01, 2000To the world that's become enamoured with the Buena Vista Social Club, Ry Cooder is the patron saint of Cuban music. But it was composer/arranger Juan de Marcos Gonzalez who pulled most of the strings in reviving the careers of long-neglected masters of Cuban son and dancehall music, including BVSC's pianist Ruben Gonzalez and honey-voiced crooner Ibrahim Ferrer. Gonzalez masterminded the first Afro Cuban All Stars album, 1997's A Toda Cuba le Gusta, as a tribute to the varied musical styles of the pre-Castro era. Gonzalez says that helping bring so many legends out of retirement is the most important thing he's ever done, but as the title of the new Afro Cuban All Stars album, Distinto, Diferente, suggests, Gonzalez is taking a slightly different tack now.
"We are still working with the old traditions, but from a contemporary point of view," says Gonzalez from a Miami hotel room on the eve of their North American tour. "We are at the beginning of the 21st century, so we need to do something different, but we have to keep the old roots as well. Until a couple of years ago, contemporary Cuban music was too American, and yes, for some people the only Cuban music that exists is from the ‘50s. We are trying to make contemporary Cuban music that's not too American. The most important thing is to fight for the culture of my country."
For Gonzalez, the touring version of the band is not a revue of past glories. It's a startling change of focus for Gonzalez he was a mainstay of Sierra Maestra, the band credited with opening new audiences to the rural Cuban music of the ‘20s and ‘30s, but now, in his full-time role in the Afro Cuban All Stars, he takes their role as ambassadors of Cuban culture very seriously.
"We are opening doors with our music that politicians could not open before. I hope that it marks the end of political and cultural isolation for Cuba. I hope it means a new era for Cuba."