When Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, leader of the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, says that Cuba is one of the most musically creative places on earth, he tallies the many influences that have contributed to Cuban cultre. Spain, for example, has many distinct regional cultures — the Castilian, Andalusian, Catalan, Basque and Canary Islander — that have made contributions to Cuban culture, as well as the French, Native American, and Chinese cultures. But it is the African cultures that have been the most important historically.
“We have all colors, the same as you do here in America, but Cuba is a piece of African land,” he says. “The only place in the Caribbean, in the New World, where the spirit of Africa is truly alive is Cuba. You look at Fidel Castro, who appears to be white, but in reality he is more African than me,” says de Marcos, because Castro practices African religions such as Santeria.
The Afro-Cuban All-Stars, who will perform on Thursday, March 26, at Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, are not a band, says de Marcos, “they are a project.” The All-Stars evolved from his interest in bringing the older forms of Cuban music not only to the world, but to Cubans themselves.
The term Afro-Cuban, he explains, is a blanket term for all things culturally Cuban, because Africanisms are so deeply embedded in the island’s culture. In addition to speaking English, Spanish, and Russian, says de Marcos, he has some knowledge of two well-preserved dialects of African languages that survive in Cuba — Yoruba (Lucumi) and Carabali (Abakua). He has written songs with deeply imbedded references to his late father’s involvement as a top official in the Nanigo (pronounced nyan-yego), a secret social group which originated among the Ekoi, Efik, and Ibibio people of modern-day Nigeria. “The Nanigos are the black Masons of Cuba,” he says.
Born Juan de Marcos Gonzalez Cardenas in Havana in 1954, the Cuban impresario is in every way an active man, a trilingual, resourceful guy whose graying dreadlocks are almost always seen under a Kangol or other stylish hat.
“Here, it is freezing,” he says in a telephone interview from a concert tour stop in Madison, Wisconsin. Believe it or not, he’s used to it. He received a B.S. and Ph.D. in agricultural engineering from the Water Resources Management Institute in Russia in the 1970s.
The musician who has been called the “Quincy Jones of Cuba” now splits his time between the road and his homes in Havana and Mexico City, where his two daughters, Laura Lidia, a clarinetist, and Gliceria, an orchestral conducting student, are attending college at a conservatory of music. He and his wife also have a son, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez Perez, who lives in San Diego and works for the U.S. Navy.
Juan de Marcos, whose specialty as a musician is the Spanish guitar known as tres — he hooks it up to lots of electronic gadgetry such as wah-wah — began playing music in the ’70s. His father, Marcos Gonzalez Mauriz, was known in their Havana neighborhood of Pueblo Nuevo and beyond as one of the country’s great soneros, or improvisational singers, and he was an integral member of the ensemble of Cuban great Arsenio Rodriguez. De Marcos himself was more of a rockero (rock guy), he says. His first love, despite being surrounded by traditional Cuban forms such as son, son montuno, and danzon, was rock. American rock and punk rock, to be exact. He and his friends enjoyed listening to American rock and soul music clandestinely on radios tuned to Miami stations. “When I was growing up, I was into rock and roll. In the ’80s, some of my friends went to Miami and played in the Miami Sound Machine. But at a certain point in my life, I realized that if I were to do anything musically and within my culture, it would have to be in Cuban music.”
So in 1976 he and a few his friends, all long-haired and dressed like American or Latin pop stars, put together the seminal group Sierra Maestra, which played old Cuban music with new, up-to-date arrangements and sensibilities. The music of Mexican-born rock icon Carlos Santana, who combined his culture’s music with rock and pop, inspired him as well. “I began wanting to learn more about my history,” he says. Sierra Maestra “was able to reintroduce the styles of Cuba to the youth. Suddenly, son montuno became a famous style.”
In the early 1990s, de Marcos thought about putting together a group of musicians who had known his father and/or who had played with the elder Gonzalez. The group included musicians, most 70 years of age or older, such as Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Pio Leyva, Ruben Gonzalez, and many others, and the first album that he produced, “Buena Vista Social Club,” was a massive international hit that made de Marcos and his bandmates international stars, Grammy winners, and millionaires. “These were people who I’ve known since I was a kid, who used to come to my house,” he says. “I wanted to use them to pay tribute to my father, and to pay tribute to the Cuban music of his period, the ’40s and ’50s.”
Nick Gold, president of a small British label called World Circuit, released the first Buena Vista Social Club and the subsequent Afro-Cuban All-Stars record.
Today the Afro-Cuban All Stars feature exiled musicians such as pianist Nachito Herrera, former leader of Cubanismo who now lives in Minnesota, and drummer Calixto Oviedo, formerly of NG La Banda and now of Stockholm. Other musicians are based in Europe, America, and Latin America; all are helping spread Cuban music worldwide.
Not that the culture isn’t already worldwide. Juan de Marcos’ groups continually draw sellout crowds all over Europe and Asia, especially Japan.
Now de Marcos sees a need to end Cuba’s political isolation. “Because of the political differences over the years, we have been divided for a long time,” he says, referring both to Cubans and the rest of the world and Cubans themselves. His next project, in fact, will be called “Breaking the Rules.” The record will feature Cubans on the island as well as exiled Cubans from all over the world.
De Marcos also hopes that the new Obama administration will open up some of the doors that have been barring cultural and commercial exchange between the two countries. “I think we might have a reason for optimism,” he says. “Your new President is a smart guy, a forward-thinking guy. We need an atmosphere of mutual respect; we in Cuba have so much to offer.”
Afro Cuban All Stars, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Thursday, March 26, 7:30 p.m. More than 50 musicians present the music of Cuba featuring Dave Alfaro, piano; Juan Carlos Marin, trombone; Luis Lang, violin; and Tirso Duarte, vocals. $18 to $45. 609-984-8400 or www.thewarmemorial.com.