We got a chance to talk to Juan de Marcos, the founder of the Afro Cuban All Stars band, made famous by the album Buena Vista Social Club from 1997. The band will perform on Saturday, November 2nd in Belgrade’s Sava Centar.
BR: Your father was also a musician, you own a record label with your Music seems to be a family business. And yet, you have a PhD in Agricultural Science. What led to that and how did you return to music?
JdM: Well, as you said, My father was a musician, and precisely for being a musician, he knew that to make a living out of music was pretty difficult so he wanted me to become what he used to call a real professional, he wanted me to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or whatever. But, he payed for my music classes since I was a kid, and then a conservatory, but I knew that he wanted me to be a professional in another carreer, so I gave hIm what he wanted. After I finished conservatory I went to University, I got a degree in Agricultural sciences, and then my master, and after that my PhD. At the university where I studied, myself and a group of friends created the first band performing traditional Cuban music. The name of the band was Tierra Nuestra and it was a number one band in Cuba from 1978 to 1993. My father was so proud, but he was very proud as well that I was at the university. Then I finished my music carreer in 1980, I kept working at the university as a professor. I finished my PhD back in 1990 and in the march of 1990 my daddy passed away and then, in july, I became a full time musician because that is what I have in my blood. So, I decided to make a professional approach to it and Ive been working from 1990 up to now as a professional musician. My daddy was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough money to make a living out of music but I was succesful, simply. I have sold about 3 million copies of my albums and I’m really well known worldwide as a musician. But, at the same time, the fact that I went to University, that I got a Phd, that I have studied that much really helped me in my carreer as a musician a lot, because it’s very important to develop the brain to be able to confront different situations and to get a proper approach to the different dificulties that life brings. So my daddy didn’t want me to be a musician, but thank God I’ve been lucky, I’m still standing, I’m still performing, I’m still selling my albums and concerts after nearly 30 years.
BR: Buena Vista Social Club is popular all over the world to this day, but the stories of the musicians are a bit less known, such as that of Ruben Gonsales and Ibrahim Ferrer. Would you like to share them with us?
JdM: What the people know about Buena Vista is what’s been published in the film of Wim Wenders, which, if I’m going to be honest, is more an fiction film than a documentary because it’s not accurate at all in how the album was made. So there is no story of Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzales. The fact is that my father was friends with many of these musicians, and my desire to make Buena Vista was to pay a tribute to him, who was a great and wise person. Ibrahim Ferrer was peerforming all his life, since childhood, but never got the success he deserved, always in the background of another star. With Buena Vista he finally got the popularity that he deserved. When we went to look for him to record, he didn’t believe me at first, he thought i was joking. He was already retired, cleaning shoes to make a living. He, Compay Segundo and Ruben Gonzales were the most succesful characters of Buena Vista. Ruben Gonzales was one of our country’s great piano players, but was always performing with other bands, also in the background, for example with Arsenio Rodriguez, one of our most important African musicians of the 20th century, and also with the ICRT (Cuban national television) band. He never recorded an album of his own until Buena Vista. The only member who was relatively succesful was Compay Segundo.
BR: Your project involves working with a lot of musicians, young and old, and each one of them has their own style and spirit that they bring to the band. Do you try to channel it all into one thing or song or do you let everyone do their own thing and things add up by themselves?
JdM: I like to work with people of different generations, because working with older people gives the band the sound and spirit of experience, while working with younger musicians gives the band strength of youth. I try to with this kind of project to give the band a certain touch that can cover the whole history of the afro Cuban music in my country. Right now, the band is a lot younger then the one that I had at the beginning. Actually, I’m the older band member now, I was one of the younger ones when we began 23 years ago. Me and my wife are 65 now, the age Ibrahim Ferrer was when I brought him to the studio a long time ago. So I have people in their 20s to me and my wife in our 60s, as well as the pleasure of performing with my own family, my two daghters in the band, Gliceria on the vibraphone and keyboards and Laura Lydia, the clarinet player. I also created a different sound with this band thanks to them. The goal of the band is to present Cuban music, its strength and diversity, so we conceptualize the performance in a way that anyone can give a touch of their own sensibility to the music. I take the talent of the musicians and let them express themselves in a way that expresses the quality of the music.
BR: Do you feel like Afro Cuban All Stars had an impact on other projects in the world? Any other genres of the sort in other cultures you have noticed, or is your project unique?
JdM: Yes, of course, I’ve noticed Afro Cuban has influenced not only young Cuban musicians, but also bands abroad. When we began the project with the people of the older generation, I was the only one recreating the old musicians because normally the people don’t take care of the old guys. Afer our success, many countries did the same. For example, in Argentina, they created Café de los maestros, with people of the older generations, great tango performers and composers, also in Mexico, and in Brazil. I got an offer from Virgin records back in 2003 or 2004 to make an album similar to Buena Vista bringing an older American guitar player like Carlos Santana, but I refused. They would’ve payed a lot, wanted me to record five albums, but there are things that you cannot repeat, and Buena Vista was something unique, made out of love in the right moment, because the only way that the album could be succesful is to record and present it in the proper timing. I think that there are some factors that influenced its success: number one, it was the first project linking American and Cuban musicians, which was a political taboo, never done before; number two, after the crash of the communist countries in Europe, including Yugoslavia, all eyes turned to Cuba, people were coming to Cuba expecting to see the same of Castros regime; number three, the main characters were older musicians which is not normal in popular music. There’s no way to repeat something that was done before, I ve never done the same in my life, I refused. Many people tried to do the same but didn’t get the success that they expected.
BR: You said in an interview that had it not been for the American boycott of Cuba, that your country’s music would have ended up having an artificial pop sound. Where do you see its future, now that we’re all connected worldwide?
JdM: Well I am a nationalist, for me it’s very important to keep what we have alive. Here we have no oil, no gold, no natural resources, but we have the art, the culture, some of the most beautiful women in the world, the best coffee, cigars, probably the most influential music, it is very important to preserve the resources that we have. I think that the only positive aspect of the American embargo on Cuba is that we were able to preserve our culture. During the presidency of Mr. Barack Obama, he tried to make an approach to Cuba in order to change the governments policy, but unfortunately right now everything is back to where it was with Trump. I hope that, in the future, the economical and political sistems will change, but we have lived in very bad times in the past and we survived. So I think that we will survive again. Now that the world is completely connected and there s a kind of globalism going on, it is possible that we are going to have more influence from abroad.
BR: This is Afro Cuban All Stars’ first time in Serbia. What are your expectations of the concert in Belgrade?
JdM: This is the first time were are going to be performing in Serbia but I’ve been here before in transit, coming from Macedonia, we have played in the region in slovenia as well. And Serbia is an important country, some of the greatest musicians of the romantic period came from here, your great scientist Tesla is loved in our country, we are very excited to be playing here, we hope that the people are going to be happier after than before the concert. We are bringing our flag, we are going to be ambassadors of our music to you and I hope that you are going to enjoy it. We prepared the repertoir as a kind of journey through Cuban music, presenting different styles. The concert is going to be jazzy and cool concert styled, but at the same time danceable. I hope at the end, same as everywhere, the people are going to dance with us ad we are going to have a great party and everybody, including us, will be happy after the concert.