Cuban composer/arranger/ multi-instrumentalist Juan de Marcos Gonzalez is one of Cuba’s national treasures. As one of the co-founders of the legendary band Sierra Maestra, de Marcos helped re-introduce son, that bedrock style of Cuban popular music, to a whole new generation. And his work with the Buena Vista Social Club project helped spread son around the world. De Marcos was one of the key figures behind BVSC’s worldwide success. As bandleader and arranger, he mapped out the group’s vintage sound and maintained its consistency throughout the many incarnations of the BVSC. Though he’s unmistakable in his ubiquitous dreadlocks and beret, de Marcos kept a fairly low profile during the BVSC sessions, graciously letting such old masters as the late Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez and Ibrahim Ferrer have their day in the sun.
But de Marcos’ vision of Cuban music extends far beyond Buena Vista, and lately he’s been working extensively with a talented, multigenerational group of Cuban musicians under the banner of the AfroCuban All Stars, a band—currently 17 fine young musicians—that seems to take on the whole history of Cuban music with its charged mix of everything from classic son montuno to contemporary timba, swinging big band guajira, Afro-Cuban jazz, danzon, the pure tribal rhythms of abakua, bolero and more. The group recently issued Step Forward, the first release on de Marcos’ new DM Ahora label.
De Marcos was born in Havana in 1954 and grew up in a musical family. His father sang with the legendary blind tres master Arsenio Rodriguez, one of Cuba’s most important mid-century composers, while young de Marcos’ neighbor, Compay Segundo, gave him his first guitar. After mastering the guitar, de Marcos moved on to the tres, the small, indigenous Cuban guitar that had its roots in the Island’s rural guajiro mountain communities, symbolic of the connection between the traditional music of the countryside and Havana’s swinging big bands.
As a young man, de Marcos studied Russian and hydraulic engineering by day, and played in Sierra Maestra by night, co-founding the nine-piece band in 1978 to further explore son and other traditional styles. By the ’90s Sierra Maestra was the undisputed ruler of the son in Cuba, so it was no coincidence that de Marcos could dig up the old masters at the core of the Buena Vista Social Club. It was his goal to bring back the big band sound of the ’40s, the sound of Beny Moré and Arsenio Rodriguez, which was lost after the revolution, but in a contemporary context. “My first idea was to bring old Cuban musicians together who were living in Cuba and the U.S.A.” says de Marcos. “I wanted Cachao and Patato Valdes together with Ibrahim Ferrer. But we didn’t have the money to do it."
For many people Ry Cooder is the man behind the success of Buena Vista. But it’s easily forgotten that without the help and advice of de Marcos, Cooder never would have realized the project. “Ry Cooder is a great musician, but he could never make a pure Cuban album. Cuban music is much more complicated than American music. It would be the same if I went to the States to produce an album of Bruce Springsteen. No way. That’s impossible because it’s not my blood.”
In a short time, the son of Buena Vista received worldwide success, much like what happened in the ’40s and ’50s with Cuban musical styles like rumba, chachacha and mambo, and later with the salsa that came into existence in New York. De Marcos stresses that Arsenio Rodriguez introduced Cuban music to the U.S. “Without son, salsa never would have existed. The Puerto Ricans and Cubans in New York recreated the Cuban music of the old times. They introduced more complicated harmonies and more jazz arrangements. This kind of music was called la salsa. But the basis of la salsa is the music of Arsenio Rodriguez.”