With an artistic career of more than 30 years, Adalberto Alvarez has not given up his roots. He has rescued a dancing partners’ tradition: “casino”.
The affirmation uttered four decades ago by renowned late Cuban musician and band director Elio Revé was a premonition: “Rosa Zayas, let your son play with my band! Your boy is going to get very far. He has stamina and that can be easily seen.”
But, instead, his cautious mother wanted her child to finish his faggot studies.
“Thank you, Elio, but no thanks. He has enough with the school band for now. Everything has to go through a process in life and I don’t want Adalberto to violate that process.”
Even though Adalberto Alvarez is now nearly 60-years-old, a composer, writer, arranger, singer and pianist, he is not yet satisfied. “I’ve given my little contribution to popular Cuban music; I’ve never given up my roots, because those roots are the source from where we nurture; I still have a long road to walk,” the outstanding musician confessed.
Alvarez is considered a Cuban from head to toe, he is kind, organized and is always creating. Critics say his pieces are the ones of which most versions have been composed both on the island and abroad. For example: 18 versions of La soledad es mala consejera have been made in New York and Puerto Rico alone.
“I started my musical career very early. In 1957, I joined the Avance Juvenil orchestra which my father directed. Four years later I got involved in the country’s literacy campaign and, when it was successfully over, I changed the course of my life toward aeronautics. A few months later, I realized that I wouldn’t make a good pilot and returned to music. I set up a band without instruments.”
He studied faggot at the National Arts School in 1966 and directed the school band there for eight years. “It was like a sort of experimental workshop. I remember that the band was made up of boys who later became great musicians such as the director of the NG La Banda orchestra José Luis Cortés, better known today as El Tosco; Andrés Alén, Joaquín Betancourt, the late pianist and jazz musician Emiliano Salvador ... I made arrangements, composed music and I had good experiences with Cuban music legends such as Miguelito Cuní and Félix Chapotín. The professional Rumbavana orchestra even played some of my works, including Con un besito, mi amor.”
Adalberto from inside
When entering his home, you’ll see a platinum record and several portraits, including one of Benny Moré, the renowned Cuban musician, better known in Cuba as “the Wild Man of Rhythm”. You can also see photos of his children, his wife and relatives, the phonograph won at the Cubabadisco event as the Prize of Honor, a computer, the essential keyboard and music scores, African religious attributes and various diplomas and objects granted by several Cuban regions naming him “Illustrious Son.”
After he wound up his studies, he worked as a professor of literature and music at the Arts School in the eastern Cuban city of Camagüey, 600 kilometers east of Havana. One day in 1978, Rodolfo Vaillant invited him to join a band in Santiago de Cuba. “I didn’t hesitate, I packed up and took off, and that’s how the band Son 14 was set up.”
Adalberto Álvarez became famous. For five years, he was a musician and directed the band at the same time. Son 14’s international debut was made at the Salsa Festival in Berkeley, California, in the United States, where the Cuban band shared the stage with David Valentín, Sheila Escobedo and Mongo Santamaría.
His first record A Bayamo en coche (Heading to Bayamo by Coach) was made in 1979, whose leading vocalist was former baseball player Tiburón Morales, whose cracked voice gave a colorful tint to the tune and the band.
“During the recording, I met maestro Frank Fernández, who invited me to go to Havana and, later, became the producer of my first six records.” With Son 14 other albums came, including Hojas Blancas, Conjunto Son 14 and Adalberto presenta a Son 14.
His compositions spread like wildfire all over the Americas. Outstanding musicians such as Gilberto Santa Rosa, Andy Montañez, Juan Luis Guerra and others included Alvarez’s songs in their repertoires.
Five years in the band Son 14 gave him the necessary ingredients to give free reign to his talent. Back in the capital in 1983, he feverishly worked on his new project for a year: trying to avoid analogies with other bands, changing formats and taking advantage of all rhythmic and melodic possibilities. That’s how his new band Adalberto Álvarez y su son was set up.
He used trombones, a “tres” and a “paila”, he kept the trumpet, piano and bass as part of the string instruments, and the bongo and the drums as part of the percussion instruments. He turned old and modern Cuban music into something that maestro Frank Fernández defined in a single phrase: “It contains and clearly and simply expresses the best elements of the sensuality of Cuban dancers in perfect harmony with the lyricism of the traditional troubadour’s movement.” In other words, he incorporates the best traditional and modern tendencies and structures a highly volatile mixture that excites listeners and involves dancers regardless of sex or age.
So, tunes such as Esperando que vuelva María (Waiting for María to Return) or My negra (My Black Woman) quickly became hits.
“I’m open to other people’s opinions and, with that conception, I try to innovate and leave a trace of contemporary, mixed with old tendencies, until I get the tone that identifies the tune.”
Paris and Tokyo, New York, Caracas, Madrid, Bogota, Rome, Los Angeles ... and many other foreign cities are part of his international curriculum, where Cuban music presented by the outstanding director and musician has excelled and pleased the most demanding audiences.
The following review by the Mexican daily La Jornada would be enough to attest to the band’s quality: “We can assure you that Adalberto Alvarez y su Son can even make stones dance.”
Something little unknown. He was touring Venezuela and teaching a course in Caracas Ateneo when he was baptized as “The Gentleman of ‘Son’ “because of the elegance and correction of his compositions.”
Let’s move our feet!
Turned into an institution within popular Cuban music, Aldalberto’s orchestra has not stopped in his permanent search for new things.
“As of the 2002 “Son” Festival, I thought of what I could do with “casino” dance. Then I included it as a competition in the annual “Son” Festival held every year in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. It was surprising and had an impact on people there because in 15th birthday parties, even wearing long costumes, youngsters dance “casino” rather than the usual “waltz”. Then, I realized that recovering “casino” would be very good for Cuban dancers and musicians.”
“After the Festival, we made a TV show with director Víctor Torres entitled Bailar Casino or Dancing “Casino” which ran every Sunday evening and is currently running on Saturday. The idea was so successful and popular that we recorded the CD Para bailar casino (To Dance “Casino”) and held the first International “Casino” Encounter in Matanzas and Varadero beach resort from August 8 through 11, 2003.”
Adalberto’s band has played an essential role in all these efforts. It has tried to make music for dancing partners. At the same time they are linking the music group with that phenomenon. “Wherever we go, people ask us to play music to dance “casino”. This is the effort in which we are currently involved.
The CD was launched on August 28, 2003 at Havana’s La Tropical Dancing Hall, where thousands of Cubans gathered and moved their feet with the famous band.
As of that moment, the compass reoriented its direction to reaffirm the quality and typical nature of “casino” dancers and dancing groups. “Casino” is everywhere in the world. “When we summoned the festival, people from all over the planet called us. Now we’ll be the spokespersons of that modality in different stages where we’ll work.”
“There are “casino” schools in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the United States, Puerto Rico ... There are very good “casino” dancers everywhere. That is why, since the beginning of our efforts, we feared that the movement would be stolen and transferred to another nation as occurred with salsa, which started as “son.” Later, it wasn’t “son” anymore, and the time came when nobody knew if it came from Puerto Rico or Cuba. Now we made it straight that casino is a Cuban dance that emerged in Havana in the 1950’s, so that there is no confusion at all.”
To Adalberto Álvarez, current Cuban music is returning to its roots. “To make a good “son” in the 21st century, you need to know the precursors and those who made it in an early stage when it emerged as a typical Cuban music genre. You have to hear Matamoros, Arsenio Rodríguez, Miguelito Cuní and make your own arrangements. Cuba has young and talented musicians who are working in that direction. Small format music groups with a new sound such as septets and sextets are currently on the rise and maybe they don’t sound like Ignacio Piñeiro’s Septet during its times in the early 20th century, but they are nurturing from that source.
“I greatly admire and respect the music of yesterday’s “soneros” and troubadours. They are a permanent source of inspiration. My music, however, is a type of modified “son” that follows popular and up to date tendencies. If I was granted the right to make a wish, I would ask to have a place in the hearts of dancers. If it were so, a great dream would come true.”