By Mike Connor
Despite his devotion to traditional Cuban music, the leader of the Afro-Cuban All Stars and co-creator of the Buena Vista Social Club still has room in his heart for Christina Aguilera.
The term “Latin Explosion” is sufficiently vague that we could easily interpret it as a reference to my Salvadoran friend’s gastrointestinal troubles, but that was the term that the masses latched onto when describing the sudden popularity of Latin pop acts like Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Mark Anthony and Christina Aguilera back in 1999. Now, it’s conceivable that these pop stars took their cues from Latin-pop acts before them like, say, the Miami Sound Machine, but Buena Vista Social Club co-creator and Afro-Cuban All Stars’ bandleader Juan de Marcos González has a different theory.
“I think that the success [of Buena Vista Social Club] created a fashion in Spanish,” asserts González from his hotel room in Montreal. “Christina Aguilera recorded a Spanish album, and Mark Anthony, too—they sing a Latin pop. I think that the Buena Vista Social Club influenced this kind of music and these musicians in the States as well, because it happened after the success of Buena Vista.”
Sincerely devoted to securing a place for traditional Cuban son music around the world, González, who was born and raised in Havana, still has his guilty pleasures.
“I like certain—but not all—pop stars,” says González. “I like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera—she’s good, she really sings. I’ve seen her sing live at a music festival, and it was not overdubbing; it was the real thing.”
Asked if he would consider inviting Aguilera to perform with the Afro-Cuban All Stars, González chuckles. “I don’t think so. The kind of music I do is more conservative, more jazzy, more serious, I think.”
Not to mention a lot better, but, hey, we’re not here to pick on pop stars. We’re talking about the lively blend of popular Cuban styles—son montuno, Afro-Cuban jazz, danzon, bolero and cha-cha-cha, to name a few—that the All Stars are successfully reviving. Their first album, A Todo Cuba le Gusta, was the first of the three-part “Buena Vista” trilogy, which also included Buena Vista Social Club and Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer. Since then, González has assembled a separate band for Ferrer and has been touring with the All Stars almost nonstop.
“I think that what happened is that people realized Cuban music was really good, but it was out of the American market for almost 40 years,” says González. “Up until 1961, it was really popular here in this country. People enjoy the flavor of the Cuban music; I think that it has something special, and makes the audience enjoy what we play onstage.”
True believers relate stories of four-hour dance marathons at All Stars performances. Currently a 13-piece multigenerational incarnation, the All Stars vary as much in their musical styles as they do in their ages.
In his private moments, González dreams about recording with old American stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Ray Charles, or Gladys Knight, who González idolized as a kid. And while it might be fun to entertain the thought that he might mix a bit of Aguilera or Spears into his repertoire, González is committed to Cuban music.
“I love the rock & roll of the late ‘70s,” says González, “I used to play in rock & roll bands until I was 10 years old. But I decided to turn completely to the Cuban tradition when I discovered the essence of the Cuban music, how deep and how beautiful it is.”