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Cuban Music Lesson: Juan De Marcos Gonzalez

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

They say that to know the present. you have to understand your past. We’re not sure what that means. I know that I didn’t attract women in high school as president of the chess club, but that didn’t help me figure out how to get girls in college. Still, it’s a nice thought. You should especially have an appreciation for your cultural past. Juan De Marcos Gonzalez has such a respect for the traditions and history of Cuban music, that he was one of the driving forces in its renaissance in the last twenty years.

Juan was born and raised in a musical family in Havana. He was born in 1954, so he spent most of his life under Castro’s revolution. In the aftermath of Fidel’s takeover, more recent forms of Cuban music such as the mambo as well as older traditions like the son fell by the wayside among the young.  Salsa was coming to the forefront in the 60’s and soon became the acceptable music. If you wanted to rebel, you listened to American rock and roll. My mother used to buy Beatles and Rolling Stones records off the black market. They were considered bourgeois and decadent and some other commie stuff. Ironically, there is a statue of John Lennon in Havana now. Anyways, this is the world Juan grew up in. He showed an early interest in music, and by the time he was in his teens he had already become a multi-instrumentalist. It was in his twenties that he rediscovered traditional Cuban music. In 1978, he formed the storied band Sierra Maestra that got away from the salsa thing and back to a roots music sound.

Juan had great success with Sierra Maestra and other bands, and became the go-to guy for old school Cuban music. In the early 90’s, he had the idea of rounding up a bunch of the old fart musicians to make an album of Cuban standards. That project turned into the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Ibrahim Ferrer, Pio Leyva, Ruben Gonzalez, Cachaito Lopez, and other Cuban legends made the band an instant success. You can probably see where this is going. American bluesman Ry Cooder heard the Afro-Cuban All Stars and contacted Juan about a new project. He wanted to create an album for American audiences to introduce them to the traditions of Cuban music. Juan acted as Cooder’s guide in the state controlled Cuban recording industry as well as using his contacts to find potential musicians. The result was the Buena Vista Social Club. Juan played several instruments on the albums, as well as arranging and leading the band. Though Cooder gets most of the credit for the whole Buena Vista thing, the band would never have existed without Juan De Marcos Gonzalez.

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