site stats


Cuban Music Lesson: Ruben 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.

Cubans are a resilient people. Not that they’ve had much choice, really. Cuban history is pretty much just a series of kicks in the groin by God, Nature, and more powerful countries. Yet, Cubans always find a way to persevere. Such is the case with Ruben Gonzalez. His career had more ups and downs than a roller coaster ride, and still he never gave up. By the time he was in his 80’s he could barely move his fingers from arthritis and he hadn’t owned a piano in over a decade. But he didn’t let that stop him from having one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Cuban music.

Ruben Gonzalez was born in 1919 in Santa Clara, Cuba. His parents had a bit of money, which was lucky for someone of mixed racial identity at the time. His parents bought a piano when he was a kid and he started taking lessons from the neighborhood piano teacher. Ruben’s parents wanted him to be a doctor, so they sent him to med school in Cienfuegos. Ruben’s long-ass fingers were meant to tickle the keys not slice people open, so he quit school and started playing in bars in Havana. Lucky for him, his next door neighbor in Havana was none other than the great Arsenio. No, not the horse-faced dog-whooping talk show host from the late 80’s. Arsenio Rodriguez would one day become one of Cuba’s great bandleaders, and Ruben would be his pianist. Arsenio was a big guy who liked to get into fights. Unfortunately, he was also blind. One of Ruben’s extracurricular jobs was to push Arsenio towards the guy that Arsenio wanted to fight. Imagine being in a nightclub in Havana in the 50’s, listening to this amazing pianist have to stop in the middle of a song to guide a fat blind singer towards a rowdy heckler. No wonder Cuba was such a tourist attraction!

In the 60’s, he began playing with singer Enrique Jorrin. They played together until the 1980’s when Ruben semi-retired. Although he was plagued by severe arthritis, he still played at the Cuban National Ballet School for a few bucks a month. Like a true artist, he couldn’t just give it up. Lucky for him and all old fart musicians in Cuba, American musician Ry Cooder came to town in 1997 and formed the Buena Vista Social Club, which featured Ruben on the piano. Cooder would go on to record two solo albums with Ruben, both of which went multi-platinum. Ruben got to travel the world for a second time as part of Buena Vista. When he died in 2003 he was as famous as he’d ever been, just going to show that sometimes there are successful second acts in life.

Promoted Content

One Response to "Cuban Music Lesson: Ruben Gonzalez"