My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
I produced Maraca’s 1996 album Havana Calling , the first album he made with his group Otra Visión, so I’ve watched him grow. Havana Calling came out on our label Qbadisc, and, being a Cuban jazz record, didn’t sell much at all. We reluctantly let Maraca go over to our friendly competitors, Ahí-Namá Records, for whom he records to this day, having shifted the style of his albums toward dance music with vocals.
Despite his name, Maraca doesn’t play maracas, he plays flute. (He got his nickname when he was a skinny teenager with an Afro and he had the silhouette of a maraca.) Besides his technical proficiency as a flutist, Maraca has a lightning-fast ear. Melody pours out of him like water out of a fountain. On Havana Calling he created a light, lovely horn section unlike any other in Latin music, using two flutes (played by Maraca and his French flutist wife, Céline) voiced together with trumpet and sax. This interview took place in Manhattan on August 25, 2002, at the Travel Inn, the hotel on West 42nd Street where all the visiting Latin musicians stay. I took the liberty of adding some background info and editorial comments, shown in italics.
Ned Sublette So tell me about your background.
Maraca My father had an African great-grandmother who spoke no Spanish, just a few words. I have some Chinese blood, my mother’s grandfather was from the Canary Islands, and out of that mix came five brothers, all five of us musicians. I’m the fourth, I was born in 1967. I started studying flute when I was ten. From the time I started studying I was composing—first a danzón, then a samba, then other kinds of compositions. I played with Bobby Carcassés, then Emiliano Salvador (1951–1992), then with Irakere (with Jesús “Chucho” Valdés as music director, the Cuban supergroup had a dual identity as dance band and jazz orchestra; Maraca was one of a passel of impressive younger players who came into the band around that time). Then I was a soloist for a while and after that I formed my group, Otra Visión. In September 2002 the group has its seventh anniversary, and we’ve visited 27 countries, or maybe 28.
NS Tell me about playing with Emiliano Salvador. (I saw composer-pianist Emiliano Salvador play only once—a ferocious set, in Cuba, in February 1990. All stories about seeing Emiliano play describe him as having a legendary quality. Effectively, he drank himself to death. He was a sweet, enigmatic, tormented virtuoso who would have had a brilliant international career had he lived longer. Recordings of his performances are spread out haphazardly in private collections all over the world. The name of Maraca’s group, Otra Visión, echoes the name of Emiliano’s landmark album, Nueva Visión, and Maraca is one of only a few musicians who has attempted to keep Emiliano’s memory alive.) How long were you in his group?
M Only months. It was in 1987, I was 21. Emiliano had his problems with alcoholism, and some people left the group. At that time they called me to join Irakere and I decided to go. I know a composition of his that I don’t think is complete, but no one else knows it.
NS Emiliano fascinates me, because he was 100 percent jazzista and at the same time 100% Cuban, something very few people have achieved.
M Absolutely, he was legit Cuban, but at the same time a jazzista. A jazzista cubano.
He was a personality. I was playing with (jazz singer) Bobby Carcassés, at Maxim in El Vedado—a jazz club that no longer exists, at Third and Tenth. We played there every night. And Emiliano showed up sometimes with his group. One night I was at the bar having a soda—I don’t think I was drinking alcohol yet—and Emilio saluted me and said, “Chico.” And I say, “Cómo está, Emiliano?” And he says, “I’m saturao. Doesn’t it sometimes happen to you that you get saturated by music?” I told him yes, but really, music has never saturated me—what happens is that I have the desire to saturate myself with music. He said, “No, no, I’m completely saturated. I need a rest.” He had a drink, and then he spent the whole night playing. And afterward I kept thinking, if he was saturated, why did he play? (laughter) A contradiction, completely. And he played incredibly well.
I spent months rehearsing with him, beside the piano. I remember that in the last rehearsals I would actually sit down at the piano. I am broadly receptive; I can capture musical things fast. After hearing him every day, I knew his style of playing and the tunes, like “Angélica”—all of it, including the solos. Of course, the solos were impossible to copy, because he always did them differently, but I learned his style pretty well. That’s what I kept from the experience, that and a recording of when we played at the Téatro Mella during the Jazz Plaza Festival, one day before I started to play with Irakere. It was Saturday, February 20, and by Sunday I was in Irakere.
NS Did you replace Tosco (flutist José Luis Cortés, who left lrakere in 1988 to start NG La Banda)?
M Not exactly. Javier Salva, who played flute and bari sax like Tosco, took Tosco’s chair. I entered on keyboards. But I said to Chucho, “Look, I’m not a pianist.” And besides, how could I, a flute player who played a little bit of piano, play keyboards alongside Chucho? It’s almost impossible to play keyboards with him, because he’s always changing things around. He said, “Don’t worry.”
NS So you were 22 years old and you’d had the experience of playing alongside two lions of Cuban piano. What did you learn from Chucho?
M Muchísimo. I learned much from Emiliano Salvador, but I also learned much from Chucho. And not just from Chucho, but from Irakere. Because Irakere is Chucho but it’s Irakere—a constellation of very good musicians, and although there were individualisms and egos, there was a very tight collectivity. The experts say that it was the best Latin jazz group at that moment in the world. I made my first recording then in ’91, at Ronnie Scott’s in London. We worked hard. We rehearsed every day, many hours. (Trumpeter) Jorge Varona (1932–1989)was still alive. Angá (conguero Miguel “Angá” Diaz) came into the group about a month before me. There was Jorge Salva (trombonist), Carlos Álvarez “Afrocán” (saxophonist), and César López. There was Manuel Machado on trumpet, who lives in Spain now and was playing with Ketama. Then (saxophonist Carlos) Averhoff came into the group, and (trumpeter Juan) Munguía.
And we learned above all a secret that no one explained to us. You know that we are all a product of the same historic process, one that we’re living through. American musicians don’t know what’s happening in Cuba, and Cuban musicians don’t know what’s happening here. Imagine what it has meant to have had access to international recordings or videos, imagine our curiosity! You know because you’ve traveled, you’ve been both here and there. Those who do that have both points of view.
Cuban jazz was in a very good moment in the ’80s. There was Emiliano’s group, there was Fervet Opus, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Afrocuba, Irakere, even (number one Cuban dance band) Los Van Van played jazz at a festival. But what happened was that people thought it was very advanced to make music like the Yellowjackets or Weather Report. People thought that was lo máximo, that it was a better way of playing Cuban music, and there was confusion.
But with Irakere, who played more, who had more Grammys, who played all over the world—I realized that what we were playing was Cuban music, and it had nothing to do with Weather Report or the Yellowjackets. In those days it shocked me that we’d be playing a danzón or a chachacha —why don’t we play swing?—but then I realized that it always went over marvelously, people loved it. We played alongside McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock—everybody who played everything—and Irakere always surprised everybody, coming with tambores batá, with Afro-Cuban music, with Catalina’s guayo (i.e., Arsenio Rodríguez’s “Díle a Catalina,” a mainstay of the Irakere repertoire). I noticed this, and I learned from it. You think when you arrive somewhere to play that your repertoire functions perfectly, and it doesn’t. That is, you have to capture the idea of the audience fast, smell it, what they might like and what they don’t like.
NS But at times people use too-simple solutions to deal with that …
M If I had a repertoire of 3,000 or 5,000 active tunes it would be easy; in Japan we could pull a Japan tune out of the computer. But I have a limited repertoire that has to work in unlimited territory. We played in Ireland, in a town where no Cuban had ever gone, not even the Buena Vista Social Club. They knew who Fidel Castro was, but they knew nothing, but nothing, about Cuban music. We were a little nervous. We said to ourselves, “Maybe we’ll take out our instruments and they’ll all go to sleep.” Quite the contrary, the people danced, got drunk, and wanted to get us drunk; when we played they were euphoric. This year we’ve been to Croatia and the Ivory Coast.
NS What did you play in the Ivory Coast?
M A little of everything, but mostly traditional music. When we arrived, the president of the republic received us with all the government, the minister of culture, the minister of the forest, the minister of agriculture, and I don’t know who else.
NS Your group was traveling solo or together with others?
M Solo; we’ve always traveled solo, and when I was with Irakere it was the same—I never traveled with delegations, except when I was playing with Bobby Carcassés on my first trip out of Cuba, to Panama. Well, in the Ivory Coast everybody, even the president, understood us perfectly well. The bodyguards had record collections—Arsenio Rodríguez, Belisario Lopez, Pancho El Bravo, that’s what they listened to. They had incredible rhythm. When we started to play, a couple came out to dance like they danced in Havana in the ’50s—the suit, the shoes … and everybody started to dance. It seemed like we were more in Cuba than if we’d really been in Cuba.
NS About a year and a half ago, I was talking with Angá, and I said that before there was the Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro-Cuban All Stars there was Cubanismo, produced by Joe Boyd (for whose album Maraca played and contributed compositions), and Angá said to me, “Yes, but before that there was Pasaporte.” (Pasaporte was an intergenerational album Maraca produced in 1994, featuring the new-jack conguero Angá and the still-youthful conga eminence Tata Güines. It preceded the aforementioned titles in bringing together musicians of different generations.)
M That’s right. That was almost my first production. I produced, did almost all the arrangements, played the piano, keyboard, composed. Merceditas Valdes (Afro-Cuban heritage singer, 1922–1996) was on it (singing Chano Pozo’s “Blen, Blen, Blen”). I think it was her last recording. She fainted in the studio and had to go to the hospital. The next day she came back and sang perfectly. On that record there was (Orquesta Aragón flutist) Richard Egües, Frank Emilio (pianist, 1921–2001), Raúl Planas (singer, 191?–2001), Laito (singer, 1914–1999), so imagine. That was in 1994, and Buena Vista was in ’96. But there are moments, coincidences, there is luck and there is promotion and undoubtedly Buena Vista was an interesting project. But it was perhaps a project that came together almost by chance, it fell off the tree, as we say …
NS Since we made Havana Calling, the concept of your band has transformed, your stage attitude has changed …
M It’s changed a lot. You have to have evolution, never involution. But Havana Calling over the years has had more and more results. I don’t know why. One by one, people are playing the tunes. There’s a flutist in Santa Clara who calls himself Maraquita, a kid, and I hear he plays “El Tren” (the complex, high-velocity tune that opens the album) live, a lot of people play that number now. And a lot of people are playing “Continuación.” You know (New York Dominican sax and flute player) Mario Rivera? I went to his house with Céline a couple of years ago and he told me he’d been listening to “Continuación” (a long, complicated number from the same album) for a week. We spent two hours in his house listening to “Continuación,” “Continuación,” “Continuación,” and at three hours I shouted, “I can’t listen to it any more!”
NS Listening to it continually?
M Yeah, then he said, “Play it on the piano now,” so I sat down at the piano. The whole visit was a “continuación”! “Nueva Era” is on a big-band record—I have a copy in Paris, I’ll send it to you. “Monte Adentro”—I’ve seen scores that people have made for it. What’s happened is that now we’re not only a Latin jazz group. I don’t want to mix one thing and another up on the records—live yes, but not on records. Live we play Latin jazz and vocal music too. Obviously, the latest record, Tremenda Rumba, is more for dancing. I’m using more bass guitar, and we’re going to continue evolving on the next records. More and more people are asking us for instrumental music, so we see the necessity of creating another parallel group to make other records, to play what I’m calling instrumental music just to have something to call it, but not with the concept of Havana Calling. You could see it as a continuation of that, but not the same thing, something more up-to-date, for a larger audience but with an instrumental language. That’s hard to do, but I think it can be done. It’ll be a more international group, not an all-Cuban one.
NS What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an international musician based in Cuba?
M Well, I am a musician based in Cuba, but with European residency. I’ve had that now for a year. I think the advantage—well, let’s not say the advantage, but the characteristic of being Cuban is that I was born in a country with so many musicians, so much music, so much history, so much culture and so many changes within that culture that a great rich evolution has happened. Cuba is a real musical power at the international level, and music is a translation of what’s happening in the country. You know what I’m talking about, because you live in a private home when you go to Cuba. If you go to a hotel you live like a tourist, coldly. If you go to a private home, when you walk down the street you’re one more Cuban. You get things you don’t have here in New York, and one day you get on a camello (a giant bus for worker transport) or you go to the beach, things happen that can change a human being’s ways, even more so when that human being is born there and has lived all his life there. The language in Cuba is constantly changing, the words change, the style changes, the music transforms, the musicians too. You see young musicians who never have studied music and they can play a lot. That’s important. When you leave Cuba, you lose—often, not always—you tend to lose contact with that reality. Then you’re making Cuban music but it’s different. It has a Cuban root but it’s not the same, it’s not up-to-date like it is there.
NS Are you afraid of that happening to you?
M No, because I live in Cuba.
NS How much time do you spend in Cuba?
M This year we’re spending five months on tour, but I know exactly what’s happening in Cuba.
NS And at the end of the tour you return to Cuba?
M Yes, but it’s different. I bring influences and information that no one has in Cuba—not on records but in my heart, things that I live and see and feel, and that goes into the scores I compose.
NS Do you think that the isolation of Cuba has advantages?
M Everything has its advantages and its disadvantages. I think the lack of airplay of Cuban music affects us—because of the political isolation, the American embargo. I think if the embargo didn’t exist, all the record companies would go to Cuba to record.
The phenomenon of Buena Vista cleared up some doubts and brought other doubts. It cleared up doubts some people had; they thought that Cuban music had stopped in 1959; it demonstrated that that was false. It demonstrated that music was still being made in Cuba, and that there are talents in Cuba who could make money and achieve fame. As a consequence some record companies became interested, but the hoped-for critical mass did not appear. In Cuba there is not yet a directly established link with Sony or BMG. It brought doubts also, because there were people saying that the good Cuban music is that of before and not that of now, because Buena Vista is practically all pre-1959 music. That also is untrue. As you know, from 1959 until today music has been continually created in Cuba. They keep making new styles.
There are contradictions that exist in all the world’s music; for example, you find in the United States, the cradle of jazz, an enormous decline in the promotion and knowledge of jazz. Many young people don’t know their roots here. Nor do they know their roots in Chile, nor in England. It’s an international phenomenon, people know disco music and music that is promoted with much money, while the rest of music is taken away. Of course in Cuba there are also discothèques … .
One of the fundamental tasks that I have is to teach the younger musicians who play with me—as well as those who don’t—how to play the different genres and to respect and know the Cuban roots, so that afterward they can do something more. Last night I played with Wynton Marsalis at a club called Fat Cat’s. What we played was jazz. I can’t come playing charanga or son montuno in that situation, impossible. But to be able to play jazz, I first had to learn son montuno and I also had to learn the chachacha. But I didn’t just learn it from a book and I didn’t just learn the elementary models of those genres. I had to get with people like Richard Egües, I had to know José Fajardo, I had to have Tata Güines at my side to be able to play traditional music with the traditional guys, who were the ones who really showed me how to play.
NS Do you feel comfortable playing with North American jazz players who have a different feel, who have a concept of swing that Cuban music doesn’t have? Cuban music has clave and tumbao … .
M It has sabor. Swing and sabor are not the same thing.
NS How do you reconcile the feels?
M I can play Cuban music, I can play jazz. I can also play classical music, or bossa nova.
NS But when you play with an American musician and you have to agree on a common language?
M The common language is easy: it’s music. I think intention is the most basic thing. I can play jazz because I learned Cuban music first. If I didn’t know who I was, and where I was from, I couldn’t play jazz. I’d be confused. Jazz and Cuban music are very distant. Although many people say they’re very close, it’s not so.
NS In the old Village Gate, when they had “Salsa Meets Jazz” at times they invited jazz soloists who didn’t know how to fit with the clave.
M Doesn’t work.
NS And many times I’ve seen Cuban jazz musicians who can’t swing and don’t feel the inflections of the scale.
M That’s true.
NS The genius of Chano Pozo was in how he could adapt himself to the swing of Kenny Clarke.
M It’s how you place yourself. We tried an experiment in Havana, with some Brazilian musicians who were invited to play samba with my group. They were good musicians. I figured we’ll play, and it’ll be great. It was a disaster, at least at the beginning of the rehearsal, because everybody played their own way. It’s like playing swing together with clave. I said, “Hey wait, we’re all playing different cadencias.” I said, “Play your samba. OK, now let’s put on the conga, the timbal should do this …” Finally the Cubans played their way and the Brazilians played theirs, but there was no problem of clave. Because we looked for the compatible rhythms. They have hundreds, and we also have … many. Some contradict each other, if you play them together they clash. We looked for the ones that were compatible.
NS And putting Cuban and Brazilian music together ought to be easier than Cuban and North American music.
M You’d think so. But not really.
—Ned Sublette has been a part of the downtown New York music scene since the ’70s. Bilingual in English and Spanish since his childhood in Texas, Sublette traveled to Cuba in the early ’90s and cofounded Qbadisc, a record label devoted to introducing contemporary Cuban music in the US. A renowned advocate of Cuban music, Sublette spent seven years as a senior coproducer of Afropop Worldwide, heard on Public Radio International. He is currently working on a book about Cuban music.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.