For Juan De Marco González, there are three pillars that are constant in his life: family, spirituality and music.
From his days as a relative unknown paying his dues to the enviable position he now occupies, each of these elements have always been intertwined in ways that have informed his circumstances. For example, the revered founder and band leader of the Afro-Cuban All Stars recalls hard times when he lived and worked in London, writing songs for musicians in London and netting barely enough to take care of himself and his family.
“I spent a couple of years in London. I lived in London, Stockwell and Brixton,” said González, who will be playing with his orchestra at The Hamilton and the Richmond Jazz Festival on Aug. 12 and 13. “I enjoyed it there but they were tough times. I wrote music for local bands and made £150 a week. I sent home £130 and lived on £20. I was providing food for all the family: my family and my wife’s family.
“The ’90s were tough times,” he said. “They were very bad for the Cuban people. It was the ‘Special Period.’”
The “Special Period” refers to the years following the collapse of the USSR, which had been Cuba’s main source of food imports and petroleum. According to historians, the collapse in 1991 devastated the Cuban economy and saw the island nation lose about 80 percent of its imports and a corresponding percentage of its exports. The imports of food and medicine slowed significantly or stopped altogether.
For almost a decade, the government and people struggled to regain their footing. Over time, Cuba diversified its agricultural production. Then with the ascension of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of Venezuela, Cuba again had access to oil, entrée to credit and much-needed food, goods and products from the socialist government.
In 1996, González’s fortunes also took an upward turn when he met Nick Gold, founder of World Circuit Records. González told Gold he wanted to bring together legendary but neglected Cuban musicians from the 1950s to produce a Big Band album. González carried a long-held desire to honor his father, who sang and played with the great Arsenio Rodriguez, and to also pay tribute to his father’s contemporaries and share the richness of Cuban music with the world.
“Buena Vista was on my mind for years — Nick Gold wanted to do a jam session so I went to Havana and started looking for musicians — I wrote them and found all the old guys,” González said with a chuckle. “It was music of the past with a more sophisticated sound. Some of the guys were friends of Daddy’s.
“Daddy was a special guy,” González said, his voice taking a reflective tone. “He never had the chance to go to university. He was black and poor, had no money at all but he was the most intelligent man I’ve ever met. He had about a 152 IQ, he was a genius. He was a musician, a huge personality who played popular music in the ’30s and ’40s. He didn’t consider music a proper profession and insisted that I go to college.”
The Buena Vista Social Club brought together greats like Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo — who was a next-door neighbor and a family friend — Pio Leiva, Rubén Gonzalez and others.
González shook his head and laughed as he spoke of the creation and subsequent public and critical reaction to the Buena Vista Social Club.
“We had the budget to record only two albums — Big Band, Afro-Cubans and Eastern, Buenavista,” he said. “At the end we had £4,000 left and recorded in a couple of live sessions and a third album, ‘Introducing Ruben González.’ So, the sessions brought three albums in total.
“It was great to have all of them and be in front of them,” González said. “We invited Ry Cooder and he was contracted to work with us. Ry convinced Wim Wenders to produce the documentary.
“I thought it would produce some good reviews but it became a hit,” González said of Buena Vista Social Club. “It was the touch of God, definitely the touch of God. The guys died happy, onstage and loved. I enjoyed conducting these guys …”
At last count, about 12 million copies of the album have been sold, making it the best-selling album in Cuban history.
A website details the Buena Vista story:
“As Cuban revolutions go, it was an entirely peaceable uprising — but its impact could not have been more profound. On the release of the Buena Vista Social ClubTM album in 1997, few outside the specialist world music audience initially took much notice of the record’s elegantly sculpted tunes and warm, acoustic rhythms. Then something extraordinary occurred. The album was spectacularly reviewed by a few discerning critics, but although their words of praise did Buena Vista’s cause no harm, they cannot explain what subsequently happened …
“Buena Vista’s sales figures kept steadily rising week by week, building almost entirely by word-of-mouth until it achieved critical mass: all who heard the record not only fell in love with Buena Vista’s irresistible magic, but were then inspired to play or recommend the album to everyone they knew. It was one of those rare records that transcended the vagaries of fad and fashion to sound timeless but utterly fresh. Once you heard it, you had to have a heart of stone not to be swept away by the music’s romantic impulses and uninhibited exuberance.”
Music has always been a family affair. As a young man, González studied at the Havana Conservatory, studying classical guitar, but said he was kicked out for bad behavior “because I was a really bad kid.”
Later, as a professional musician, he studied Contemporary Harmony and Orchestral Conducting.
“My daddy didn’t mind [me being kicked out] and bought a guitar from Compay Segundo and said I could play at university,” González said.
He honored his father Marcos’s wishes and went to Universidad Agraria de La Habana where he graduated as an Agronomic Engineer and traveled to the Soviet Union to study Engineering, Russian and English Languages and earned a doctorate in Agronomy in 1989, the first in his family to go to university.
“My daddy didn’t consider music a real profession,” González said with a hearty laugh. “He wanted me to be in a ‘real’ profession like an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer. I wanted to please him.”
Soon after his father died, González became a full-time musician.
González considers the musicians he travels and plays with as family. The Afro-Cuban All Stars is very much a family affair with his wife Gliceria Abreu serving as tour manager and Afro-Cuban percussionist, daughters Laura Lydia on saxophone and Gliceria, a classical pianist and orchestra conductor.
González spoke lovingly and reverently about the music and was self-deprecating but firm as he shared his mission: to reveal the breadth, beauty, vitality and diversity of Cuban music. His contributions and participation with Sierra Maestra, Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro-Cuban All Stars has helped raise Cuban music to heights not reached before.
The music, he said, is deeply rooted in Africa.
“Cuba is perhaps one of the most musical places in the hemisphere,” he said. “Cuba is a very important country in this hemisphere. The Spanish were in touch with Africa. They didn’t mind Africans playing the drums. Cuban music is happy. You can dance to the gods. The music is infused with African spirit with a Spanish flavor. We are a spiritual people. We are Africa.”
González said reggae legend Bob Marley is his idol, as is Marley’s Wailers bandmate Peter Tosh. The three-time Grammy-nominated musician said he also loves the music of Ivorian reggae phenom Alpha Blondy.
The Afro-Cuban All Stars tours widely, playing between 60 and 70 concerts a year, he said.
“We’re touring here, going to Europe, Colombia and Latin America,” González said. “We leave for Europe on Jan. 18 and we have some private concerts. It’s been like this for 21 years. It’s the Afro-Cuban All Stars, my wife and my two daughters. I bring excellent musicians together. They have to be great persons and they have to have good spiritual energy. It’s difficult to find nice people. I picked the proper people who range in age from 23 to 63 years old.”
Mimi Machado-Luces, an award-winning Maryland-based documentary filmmaker, producer and teacher, said she’s had a love affair with the music of Juan De Marcos since he played with Sierra Maestra. As a producer at BET Jazz, Machado-Luces said she landed an interview with González when he came to perform in D.C. in 2003.
“I completely and utterly fell in love with this man professionally during the interview,” said Machado-Luces, who won an Emmy in 2005 for the documentary “Pasos Latinos; A Mambo-mentary.” “He is excruciatingly, almost painfully intelligent. He showed me how ‘Cuban Son’ was designed. The things that we talked about were very intricate, very, very high level of intelligence. For our BET Jazz audience, he made for great television.
“Juan probably doesn’t understand or have any idea of the effect he and his wife have had on me,” she said. “I am grateful that I was able to meet my brother. Through him I learned how Cubans revere African culture, African religion, African mannerisms, cooked food, every single different aspect. It’s more than magic. It’s that big. Their influence is that big.”
Patrons who come to these shows never leave unnourished spiritually, Machado-Luces said.
“Every show they play, they’re sending that note out to the world,” she said. “So if you want to feel something in your soul, if you want to experience the roots of who we are as a people — because this music takes you through this cycle that makes you feel good. His formula of young and old, playing traditional music, mixing it with new music and new sounds, and having it be played at the epitome of craftsmanship. This is a formula that he gives to audiences every time he plays.”
The Juan de Marcos and Afro-Cuban All Stars Orchestra is celebrating its 20th anniversary marked by a new CD/DVD titled “Absolutely Live II.” There is a live double-disc featuring a Blueray DVD of performances at the Strathmore Center for the Arts in Bethesda, Maryland, and a CD of the Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato, Mexico.