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music: Hot and Spicy

In Cuba, music is like food.


If over the past few years Americans have remembered how much they like Cuban music, bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, whose Afro-Cuban All Stars visit the Carpenter Center on Thursday, April 17, has played a key role in stirring those memories.

Our "rediscovery" of Cuban music started with the breakthrough CD "The Buena Vista Social Club." Produced in 1997 by roots guitar legend Ry Cooder, the recording assembled a magnificent lineup of great Cuban singers and players. A Wim Wenders documentary of the sessions was nominated for an Academy Award.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez came up with the concept and the organization. "It was the third of a set of three albums I was doing for World Circuit," he recalls. "I tried to bring in some African players as well, but they had visa problems, so in the end only Ry came.

"The original idea was to re-create the sound of the '30s from the eastern part of the island," Gonzalez recalls. The passionate performances by the older generation, many in their 70s and older, brought the past transcendently alive.

Gonzalez welcomes the involvement of established musicians like Cooder; he credits Carlos Santana with opening his eyes to Afro-Cuban music. "But I think, honestly, that nobody had championed Cuban music more than the Cubans. The syncopation of our music is too complicated."

While Gonzalez loves the richness of his country's musical culture, he knows that it won't survive without innovation. "I don't want people to think that the only music that we have is old, old guys," he says. "What I do, it is precisely to give a contemporary sound (based on very recent harmony concepts and the teaching of the classical music) to the traditional music of my country."

This balance of old and new is reflected in his band. The Afro-Cuban All-Stars has a trans-generational lineup ranging in age from 24 to 79. "The younger players mix free jazz with traditional Cuban styles," Gonzalez says.

As demonstrated in the soon-to-be-released CD/DVD set "Live in Japan," the Afro-Cuban All Stars are a dynamic show band, having as much in common with James Brown as Ricky Ricardo. The horns are hot and tight, the piano shifts between Latin percussion and jazz-tinged angularity, and the rhythms are complex and multileveled. The singing has a playful intensity, equal parts conversational confidence and celebratory exhortation. Gonzalez leads from the front, singing and playing, cueing the band at the transitions.

The concert will be a journey through the multitude of complex rhythmic genres shoehorned into the inadequate category of salsa. "I hope that the audience enjoy what we do," Gonzalez says. "And they will do what they want to do: dance or simply enjoy the concert sitting down in the theater. Music covers both possibilities."

Before committing to a career in music, Gonzalez studied hydraulic engineering, working long and seriously enough to receive a doctorate in agronomy. The gap between culture and agriculture may not be as wide as they first appear in an isolated country that has struggled to be self-sufficient.

"In Cuba," Gonzalez says, "music is like food." His Afro-Cuban All Stars serve a multicourse meal. S

The Afro-Cuban All Stars perform Thursday, April 17 at The Carpenter Center at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, $32.50-34.50.

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