Twenty years is a lifetime in popular music. Yet the impact of Buena Vista Social Club, The Afro-Cuban All Stars´ A Toda Cuba Le Gusta and Introducing Ruben González, three albums recorded by a small independent label with a modest budget in Havana in two weeks in March and April of 1996, can still be felt. Those recordings helped reintroduce the classic sound of popular Cuban music to the world, transcending long-standing, and by then already obsolete, political prohibitions and anticipating the re-establishment of relations between the two countries by two decades. In the process, it also made global stars of a group of old but brilliant musicians, some of whom had been forgotten even back in Cuba.
The musical director of those sessions was Juan de Marcos González, Grammy-winning composer, arranger, producer, bandleader, entrepreneur and tres player. “The Quincy Jones of Cuban music,” as Songlines, the authoritative world music magazine, once dubbed him.
Much has happened to González since.
Last year, he conducted a semester-long residency at the Arts Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, all while also continuing to tour and record with his Afro-Cuban All Stars. Over the years, the band evolved from an ensemble showcasing musicians from older generations to a combination of youth and experience. And while the Cuban music tradition remains the core of his work, González, who splits his time between Mexico, the United States and Cuba, continues incorporating new elements to his music, be it working with rappers as part of his program in Wisconsin, or adding to his ensemble non-standard instruments in Afro-Cuban music such as vibraphone and bass clarinet, performed by daughters Gliceria Gonzalez, a classical pianist and orchestra conductor, and Laura Lydia Gonzalez, respectively. Rounding up the family presence in the band, Gliceria Abreu, González’s wife, contributes Afro-Cuban percussion and also acts as the band’s general manager.
Discussing the anniversary of the Buena Vista Social Club sessions, González still sounds surprised at their impact: “We never thought that recordings made for cultural reasons might have any relevance commercially.”
“The idea of those sessions was to pay tribute to the creators and the sound of Cuban music in the 1950s, what I consider the golden age of Cuban music,” says, González, once a rocker who was kicked out of the Havana Conservatory after two years for being “a bit undisciplined.”
After that, he didn’t think he was going to dedicate himself to music. And his father Marcos, a singer and player who had worked with several groups including the great Arsenio Rodríguez’ Septeto Boston, wasn´t keen on the idea of his son being a professional musician. “He wanted me to be in a ‘real’ profession. He wanted me to be an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer, “ he said. “And I wanted to please him.”
González (Havana, 1954) studied at the Universidad Agraria de La Habana, graduating as an Agricultural Engineer in 1980. For the next ten years he was in the faculty of the university, wrote science books and did research. But music was never far. He also finished his studies on guitar and Cuban tres at the Ignacio Cervantes Conservatory and took a course on orchestration and conducting at Goldsmith College in London. As a youngster, González had listened to and played rock — “something that was not well seen those days,” he notes. He remembers playing covers of groups such as King Crimson, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jethro Tull and Yes. Still, “despite my passion for rock and R & B, I also listened to a lot of Cuban classics.” In 1976, while at the university, he decided to form a group “that would break all the established canons.”