What I want to tell the people of St. Louis, above all else, is that I send my affections, and when I arrive I will give all that I can, with all my heart and with all my art.
-- Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, sonero
Havana, its labyrinths and balconies, columns and stairways, shade and sunlight, its generals on bicycles and flower vendors on park benches, its Chryslers and Edsels painted in the colors of flags of nations that don't exist, its boardwalks and promenades, its old men talking baseball and its youth hustling to survive -- is a city most of us have never known save through films, novels, news reports and the music that continues to pour from the barrios, across generations.
The name Buena Vista Social Club has become synonymous with a new generation's sense of Cuban music, just as, at one time, Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco were the defining voices of the '50s and '60s. But Buena Vista would not have been possible without the Afro-Cuban All Stars, whose 1997 debut, A Todo Cuba Le Gusta (World Circuit), was the first of the new wave of Cuban music and whose director, Juan de Marcos González, is one of the unsung geniuses of Cuban music. On April 5, González brings his 18-piece band of young and old Cuban musicians to Powell Symphony Hall for a concert of such importance and wonder that one can only hope the New Madrid fault will be up to the explosive strain.
González was born in 1954 in a musically obsessed barrio of Havana. His father played with the legendary Arsenio Rodriguez, and as a boy, Juan would spend time at the nearby solar, a meeting place for some of Havana's most significant musicians. While he studied engineering, he also studied classical guitar and formed the seminal Sierra Maestra, a traditional septeto group that revived the classic son sound in the '70s and '80s -- but with, in his words, a "punk style." Sierra Maestra prefigured the Afro-Cuban All Stars, a band that links an earlier generation of such Cuban greats as Ruben González, Pí o Leyva, Manuel "Puntillita" Licea and Amado Valdés with younger musicians like David Alfaro, Ricardo Muñoz and Miguel Angá Dí az.
For González, overcoming that generational divide -- not only reviving the careers of older musicians like Ibrahim Ferrer and Orlando López but integrating them with young players -- is the most urgent concern for Cuban music. "The problem is that everyone is so focused on their own generation," he explains. "Sometimes the younger musicians think they have some absolute advantage over the older musicians. And in historical and political terms, Cuba has been very isolated. A country that is so isolated can begin to believe that things outside of the country are better than what is within the country. For example, jazz has became very popular with the younger generation, but I think it's much more difficult to combine North American influences with a Cuban base. At the same time, the younger generation wants to forget the past, especially if the past has been difficult."
The Afro-Cuban All Stars' most recent recording, Distinto, Diferente, further combines the young and old, paradigmatic son with more contemporary jazz, lushly orchestrated supercharangas with lyrics reflecting contemporary Cuban life. Thirty-two-year-old Alfaro, who has worked with Pablo Milanes and NG La Banda, plays piano beside septuagenarian Ruben González; their styles contrast so dramatically that a whole new music takes shape. "I feel great admiration for Ruben González and Frank Emilio," Alfaro says. "I'm their student; they are the masters. And a student must take advantage of what they offer. Ruben has his own absolutely distinct style. He is full of ideas and spontaneity, and, at the same time, his playing is so clear and precise. But in the end you must develop your own style; that's the most important thing."
Whether it is just serendipity or a result of Juan de Marcos González's leadership, the Afro-Cuban All Stars have both reasserted the value of the most traditional Cuban music and changed the rules completely. "Juan de Marcos is very intelligent," Alfaro says, "but he never restricts my own expression. Cuban son music has its parameters, but my style draws from many sources, and Juan has never tried to limit my playing."
One of the greatest rediscoveries of the Buena Vista and Afro-Cuban All Stars recordings has been the legendary sonero Licea. That's his voice, burnished but full of life, closing the Buena Vista Social Club experiment, singing of the Bayamo woman who "can hear her homeland crying out." Licea, now 73 years old, started out as a drummer but quickly became the lead singer for Havana's best bands of the '40s and '50s. "My father didn't approve of my traveling with these groups," Licea says. "Finally we convinced him that I should become a musician and tour with my uncle's band. And at this time there was a great flu epidemic and the lead singer couldn't sing on a radio program. I explained that I could do it, and my uncle agreed, but the rest of the band thought I was crazy. I was just a boy. But I learned the songs and sung them, and everyone noticed and commented on my singing. And that's how I began my career as a singer.
"For a while I was nearly forgotten," Licea continues. "You know what they say: Sometimes a pretty face is worth more than the quality of an artist. But I've always loved baseball, and in an orchestra, the singer is the pitcher. The pitcher is the one who must have good control and strength, and to always give his best, the singer has to take care of himself. That's even more important than study and practice. I've always tried to take care of myself so that I can continue to perform well, until I can't perform anymore."
For six decades Licea has continued to sing: It's all he's ever done. Although the version of the Afro-Cuban All Stars coming to St. Louis will not feature some of the better-known Cubans -- Ruben González, Ibrahim Ferrer and Barbarito Torres will all be absent -- Licea will be one of the featured soneros. He'll be joined by Felix Valoy (probably the best singer from the generation of the '70s) and Teresita Garcí a Caturla (the most distinctive singer of the Estrellas de Arieto and a member of Las d'Aida). The All Stars appearing here will also include Yanko Pisaco, Daniel Ramos and Yaure Muñiz on trumpets; Alberto Martënez on trombone; Polo Tamayo on flute; Ricardo Muñoz on bass; Amadito Valdés and Miguel Angá Dí az on percussion; Alfaro on piano; and Juan de Marcos González on tres.
As a result of the merging of traditional and contemporary Cuban dance music, the Afro-Cuban All Stars have no single identifiable sound: From song to song they sound like different Cuban bands altogether, although the rhythmic drive is an irresistible constant, as are the voices of Licea, Ferrer and Caturla. "For me a record is like a novel," Juan de Marcos says. "It has chapters, and each chapter has to be distinct but there also has to be an overall unity." Although recordings by the All-Stars and the rest of the Buena Vista cadre are yet not available for sale in Cuba, González believes they have influenced Cuban culture. "The records are played on the radio, and so everyone knows them. There's been a change in the language of the young music. Too much American influence in Cuban music is not a good thing, just as it would be a bad thing if Cuban music overly influenced American music." The success of the All-Stars albums has allowed González to found his own record label and production company, Ahora, which will be releasing solo projects from Valoy and Licea.
Midway through the All Stars' most recent recording, González makes the band's only direct political gesture. The song "Reconciliation" includes an opening verse that will ring true for any Cuban, or for anyone who has tasted exile and separation:
You went to find another life
Dreaming of a triumphant return
But incomprehension threw down her veil
And we couldn't understand
"This song has no specific political objective," González emphasizes. "Politics don't interest me. But in the case of Elian González, for instance, I think like any intelligent person: If the mother has died, the father then must have the rights to the child. It's all become a political game, and the child has suffered for it. This song 'Reconciliation' is really just a call to conscience for the Cubans in Havana and in Miami. We've passed through more than 40 years of political problems, and what good has it done any of us?"
The music of the Afro-Cuban All Stars -- their guajiras, sones, son montunos, danzones and mambos -- is music made for dancing and for experiencing live, in the flesh and blood, in the full presence of the personalities and histories of its greatest practitioners. For one night in St. Louis, the Afro-Cuban All Stars will provide that opportunity. It's the chance of a lifetime, for audience and musicians alike. "I don't have words for these feelings in my heart," Licea says, his voice flooding with the love he has for performing, "or the way I feel about coming to this country and singing for the people here. Because we sing and play collectively and always from the heart, the music will reach the public; if you sing mechanically, it will never work."
The Afro-Cuban All Stars play Wednesday, April 5, at Powell Symphony Hall.