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[whitespace] Pedrito Calvo
Photograph by Dan Pulcrano

Shifting Gears: Longtime Los Van Van singer Pedrito Calvo now commands the mic for the Afro-Cuban All Stars.

Marrying Past and Present

Afro-Cuban All Stars keep tradition fresh

By Jesse "Chuy" Varela

LAST YEAR, Juan de Marcos González was on the TV show 60 Minutes 2 talking about his hopes for the future of Cuban music in a piece looking at the phenomenon of the Buena Vista Social Club. As a pivotal participant in the landmark 1997 Havana recording session with Ry Cooder and Nick Gold, de Marcos spoke with sincerity about marrying the past with the present and maintaining the traditional identity of Cuban music around the world.

Since the late 1990s, he has caravanned through Europe and the United States with an illustrious cast that has included Ibrahim Ferrer, Pio Leyva, Manuel "Puntillita" Licea and Ruben Gonzalez as part of his musical project the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Now the 46-year-old guitar player/bandleader visits the Bay Area to unveil a new edition of this multigenerational "old wine in a new bottle."

"Pedro Calvo of Los Van Van joined the group last year," de Marcos says, "and brings his musical excellence to the band. We're longtime friends and wanted to work together for a while, but he was busy with Los Van Van. When he left, it was a good time to bring him into the band. He's a great singer and very charismatic."

As co-founder of the pivotal 1970s retro-son band Sierra Maestra, de Marcos has drawn from the fertile traditions of such giants as Arsenio Rodriguez and Benny More to express the vitality and vibrancy of the traditional Cuban son. It was a response to the fusion-heavy 1980s in Cuban music when such legends as Irakere, Afro-Cuba, Emiliano Salvador and others were digging deep into jazz-rock experiments. A nostalgic revival, it would spawn Jesus Alemañy's group Cubanismo and the Afro-Cuban All Stars.

"The group is a musical project to raise the stature of Cuban music around the world," de Marcos explains. "My first efforts were to rescue a generation of older musicians and singers who no longer had a venue to perform within contemporary Cuban music."

Their debut album, A Todo Cuba Le Gusta (Nonesuch), paid tribute to the 1950s and the mambo and son-montuno. But on his 2000 release‚ Distinto y Diferente, de Marcos was criticized for betraying his trad-roots by bridging the past with the present.

According to de Marcos, "The Buena Vista Social Club gave an impression that the only music happening on the island was from the pre-Fidel Castro era. Music can't live stuck in a historical time warp, and while this traditional music is imbedded in our popular culture, if I want Cuban people to listen to my music I have to play what's happening today."

"I see my role as someone who is trying to modernize traditional sounds," he adds. "Recently I've been incorporating young people into the band because that's the only thing that will guarantee a continuance of these styles. It teaches them about their musical heritage but also shows that we are moving forward from where we began as the Afro-Cuban All Stars."

To that end, joining de Marcos for this tour is the gifted young trumpeter Julio Padron, who is currently with the 2001 edition of Irakere and just made his American debut with a fine Latin jazz album, Buenas Noticias, for Sunny Side records.

The Afro-Cuban All Stars perform Sunday (June 10) at 6pm at Villa Montalvo, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. Tickets are $28-$48. (408.961.5800)

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From the June 7-13, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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