Juan de Marcos Gonzalez followed his father’s advice up to a certain point. His father was a musician in Cuba in the 1950’s and did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. He told his son to study something that he could make a living at rather than playing music all night for a few dollars. Gonzalez took his father’s advice and studied engineering and then received a Ph.D. in Russian. He taught Russian at the University of Havana until his father’s death. He then quit teaching to pursue music full time.
Although he was initially interested in British and American rock music, Gonzalez quickly went back to his Cuban roots forming a band called Sierra Maestra, which was a great success. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba had little alternative but to open itself to European tourism and Cuban music began to achieve popularity world wide.
Gonzalez was approached by British music producer Nick Gold to record an album that would bring Cuban and West African musicians together. The West Africans were unable to reach Cuba because of passport issues and so the album focused solely on traditional Cuban music. Gonzalez brought together many of his father’s former musical collaborators to form the smash group known as the Buena Vista Social Club. It featured the old guard of Cuba’s musical elite, many of whom had not worked in decades, including pianist Ruben Gonzalez and vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer. Gonzalez is especially proud of these collaborations and bringing back old masters “to receive flowers at the end of life.” He was the band leader and arranger for all three of the Buena Vista Social Club albums. Ry Cooder joined the ensemble on the second album breaking the American embargo on musicians performing in Cuba. He was fined for his outlaw performance but Gonzalez says it was a trifle compared to Cooder’s earnings off the recording.
Wim Wenders’ film “Buena Vista Social Club” extended the fame of the group. Gonzalez calls Wenders one of our greatest filmmakers, but says the director’s existentialism rendered the film a little dark. “In Cuba life is colorful,” says Gonzalez, “being poor we dance and make jokes, even with all of our problems.” Gonzalez extols Cuban music as being a primary influence on many other genres including New Orleans jazz and classical composers including Copeland, Debussy, Gershwin and even Prokofiev.
The Afro-Cuban All Stars is Gonzalez’ new band. It brings together young musicians and older and plays both older styles of Cuban music and the music of younger generations. The 14 piece band includes traditional Cuban instruments like timbale, congas and bongo as well as trumpets, bass clarinet, and piano. Among the band members are Gonzalez’ wife and their two daughters (a son followed his father’s advice and became an engineer). The concerts are high energy and audiences often dance their way through them.
Gonzalez describes his creative process as one of serendipity, “I don’t plan to write a song,” he says, “a song finds me.” He says his creative energy comes in waves and he might work on a song or arrangement for 18 hours straight. He collaborates with other musicians including his daughters on new music and draws inspiration not only from Cuban music but from West African music which is the source of much of the traditional beats that drive Cuban music. He has played in Atlanta several times before and looks forward to returning. He says hopes his audience leave the concert happier than before they came. For Gonzalez music is a rich tradition and a vibrant innovation where spirits are lifted and bodies cannot resist the dance of life.
Juan de Marcos and his Afro-Cuban All Stars play on Friday, May 13, at the Variety Playhouse.
Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta based psychotherapist and consultant, writer and community organizer.