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[whitespace] Conjunto Cespedes
We Are Family: Since Guillermo Céspedes and his aunt Bobi (seated center) started Conjunto Céspedes in 1981, the band has grown into a powerful 12-member ensemble with musicians from all over the U.S. and Latin America.

Guillermo Céspedes talks about the Conjunto, a Bay Area organization that merges contemporary concerns with the timeless rhythms of Cuba.

By Andrew Gilbert

At the center of the Bay Area's thriving Latin music scene is Conjunto Céspedes, a group firmly rooted in both the East Bay and the rhythmic, spiritual sounds of West Africa as filtered through Cuba. Under the musical direction of Cuban-born pianist Guillermo Céspedes, who founded the band as a trio in 1981 with his aunt, singer Gladys "Bobi" Céspedes, and his uncle, Luis Céspedes, the group has grown into a powerful 12-member ensemble with members from all over the U.S. and Latin America.

Using La Peña Cultural Center as a home base, the group has maintained its close ties to Oakland even while gaining an international reputation as one of the premier Afro-Cuban folkloric groups in the country. The first two Xenophile albums, 1993's Una Sola Casa and 1995's Vivito y Coleando, were both awarded "Latin Album of the Year" by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD).

Flores, their latest Xenophile release, is their best album yet, a gorgeous, high-energy session that unfolds much like a Conjunto performance, capturing Bobi's brilliant vocals surrounded by the highly cohesive ensemble. A priestess in the Afro-Cuban Lucumi tradition, Bobi Céspedes has emerged in the '90s as a rightful successor to Celia Cruz. But the Conjunto is far more than a backup band for a glorious singer; it's an organization that has found a way to merge contemporary concerns with the elemental and timeless rhythms of Cuba. On a break from his day job as a counselor at Vista College, Guillermo Céspedes talked about the band.

Metropolitan: Bobi is a priestess in santería; how much does that influence her vocal sound?

Céspedes: She is what's called a lead singer in that religious community. It's an African-based tradition, and the basic concept is worshipping various aspects of nature that to us are deities--the river, the ocean, the mountains, the sky. That's the best way to summarize it. It is the religious tradition of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. They were brought to Cuba and maintained the religion there. I believe that a lot of the volume of her voice developed through spending many years singing at religious services where you have to sing over the drums without a microphone.

Metropolitan: You've described Conjunto Céspedes as a community band. How does that work?

Céspedes: Both in Oakland and throughout the Bay Area, the Conjunto has served as a medium for bringing attention to issues. We try not to get involved in abstract politics. The difference between a community band and a political band is that we try to deal with the issues that everybody living in the Bay Area has to deal with. It may mean that at a given point there's a child-care center that needs funding, and we may be involved in calling attention to that. We may advocate for more bilingual education services, or at another time we'll help to raise money for someone whose house burned down.

Metropolitan: Salsa has become a generic term for Latin music; what rhythms do Conjunto Céspedes play?

Céspedes: Salsa is a New York term, but let's not talk about what salsa isn't. What we do is base a lot of our stuff on the rumba concepts, religious music and all of the folkloric rhythms--son, guaracha, guajira. We usually record one or two danzones, and we use rhythms from the folkloric string styles.

Metropolitan: Looking at the credits on Flores, some of the songs are arranged by half the band.

Céspedes: If you're not a percussionist, you're likely to come up with a better percussion part if you consult with the percussionist. The same thing with the vocals and the horn lines. If you're not a pianist, you may come up with a piano part that's not really fun for the pianist, and therefore [he] won't play with that spirit. On this album, there are very few tunes written and arranged by one person. The collaboration is really important to the group's identity.

Metropolitan: When Conjunto Céspedes came together in the early '80s, the Latin music scene in the Bay Area was pretty narrow. How has it changed?

Céspedes: In terms of Afro-Cuban music, it has become probably one of the more vibrant scenes in the country. Some of that has to do with the musicians that have been here, that all of them seem to do a lot of teaching. Some of it has to do with the contact that the Bay Area has had over the years with masters from Cuba.

Metropolitan: It does seem kind of strange that a band like Conjunto Céspedes came together here as opposed to, say, New York or Miami.

Céspedes: I think that New York has a stricter sense of boundaries on the musical scene. For us, the Bay Area has been a real good place to define our sound, without paying attention to what's popular. I think the band developed here for the same reasons people move to the Bay Area. It's kind of a mixture of many different things, and boundaries are less rigid, and that's the same in the musical field. There's something about the Bay Area that gives us the luxury to dig under the surface, to think about what we do differently.

Metropolitan: With the band's progressive bent, how is it received when you play in Miami?

Céspedes: We love playing in Miami. That is our community as well. People in the Bay Area tend to bad-mouth the political ideology of the Miami community and we try not to take part in that because that's our community and our people. Our role is not to criticize. Our role is to fuel the spirit.

Over the years, we've learned that the press and the community have a real strong need to see Cuba in polarized terms--good or bad, for Castro or against Castro, for revolution, or not, black or white. We try not to get caught up in that polarization because we understand that being Cuban means living with contradictions. We're a country that sprung out of a relationship between Spain and Africa, and you can't get two more contradictory cultures than that. And therefore we are a people filled with contradictions, and to some degree I think our music represents that. It's folkloric and contemporary; it's very refined and very earthy; it's Cuban, and yet it incorporates international themes.

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From the July 13-26, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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