Sierra Maestra was a band dedicated to recreating the sound of traditional Cuban music and the old, classic septets. “ It was a pretty ‘punk’ thing to do, getting a group of young kids to play son,” he once said. “And from then on, we started to play Cuban music.”
And yet, González continued his academic career, working on his thesis and receiving a Ph.D in Agricultural Engineering from the Gidromeliorativny Institute (“a sort of MIT of engineering,” he notes), Moscow, Russia, in 1990. In March that year, his father died. “Three months later, I was working in music full time, “ he says.
As it turned out, Sierra Maestra not only deeply reconnected him to the great tradition but, improbably, led to the Buena Vista Social Club recordings.
In the 1990s, González found in Nick Gold, founder and president of World Circuit, a small London-based label, an interested and enterprising partner. The success of Sierra Maestra´s Dundunbanza, one of the best world music recordings of that decade, released by Gold´s company, opened the door to an even more ambitious project.
González´s initial idea was to record two albums: one utilizing the Cuban big band format with period orchestrations, which became The Afro-Cuban All Stars´ A Toda Cuba Le Gusta. The other was going to be an acoustic recording, “a tribute to the Cuban music of the 1930s and 40s, evoking the sound of Eastern Cuba, more laid back.” The album, produced by guitarist Ry Cooder, who also played in it, was eventually named after one of the songs selected: Buena Vista Social Club. And then, as the project progressed, “everybody fell in love with the playing of Rubén González, and because we had a little extra money, we could record him too. I wrote the arrangements right there in the studio.” A pianist with a rich musical history, González was by then retired. He didn’t even owned a piano. The unplanned CD, Introducing Ruben González, became a best seller.
For Juan de Marcos, the Havana sessions were not just a musical but a personal project. That music was partly a tribute to his father and to those great musicians who created it and kept it alive, such as Francisco Repilado, better known as Compay Segundo. But these were not just names in a music history book. The exceptional but nearly forgotten González was like his uncle and Compay Segundo was an old family friend and, for nearly 40 years, his next-door neighbor.
“I used to go to Compay’s house all the time. The first guitar my father bought me as a kid he bought it from Compay. It was an old guitar,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “After his wife died he didn’t have anybody to make him coffee so in the morning, when he was up, he would knock on the wall to let my mother know and she would prepare him coffee. And when it was ready, she would knock on the wall and they would come out to the balconies, which were side by side, and he would get his coffee and they would chat.”
Of that extraordinary music and those deep personal relationships, a global hit was made.
“I believe those recordings are the best-selling albums by Cuban artists – except for Gloria Estefan … and she is pop,” he says. “Recordings of traditional Cuban music, selling 12 million copies worldwide? Unthinkable.”
“And inside the country, those recordings reminded a young generation of Cubans of our musical history,” he says, proudly. “Many young artists and groups, hip hop bands, rappers, began to incorporate traditional elements to their music. Unfortunately, for political reasons, Cuban music lost its place in the marketplace for many years. But that wealth of music is still there. And with the Afro-Cuban All Stars we try to present it all. Our concerts are a tour of Cuban music through all its genres and its history. For me, all genres are valid. I make no distinctions. It’s all one Cuban music.”