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Tucson Weekly Cuban Dance Crisis

Take Flight With The Afro-Cuban All Stars.

By Simon Zealot

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  CONFINED TO THE historic city of Havana are a people who, despite living in a state of economic slumber and government oppression, somehow manage to embrace life in celebration of love, and persist in their quest for everything that is happy. That happiness is exemplified in the electrifying brass and thunderous percussion behind the sounds of the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Before the 1959 revolution, the Cuban ethos was to be "socialism with pachanga (rhythm)." The All Stars are pachanga squared.

Fronting this explosive, 13-member ensemble (15 members for their first-ever U.S. tour) is musical director and founder Juan de Marcos González. The Havana native began life surrounded by traditional Cuban rhythms aired by his parents, who continued to pilot a musical childhood by taking him to all-night rumba parties called rumbas de solar. In the '70s, González performed with the son group Sierra Maestra, all the while sketching out plans to conquer his dream, which is now a reality in the All Stars.

"I wanted to take the spirit of the old big-band arrangements, re-record with a modern sound and use some of the original voices and players of the period." This bag has it all: the legacy of Cuba's heavy-hitters and its legends of tomorrow, all rolled up in one big, fat musical cigar.

The talent involved in this project is bottomless. To name a couple: Ibrahim Ferrer (born at a social club dance), who performed with Orquesta de Chepin, one of the most famous Cuban dance orchestras of the 1950s, Banda Gigante (of the legendary Benny Moré); and Teresa García Caturla (daughter to the renowned composer Alejandro García Caturla), who lead the Azuquita Quartet, Las d' Aida, through Panama, the Caribbean, Mexico, Spain, Finland and Africa in the mid-'70s. The magnitude of this line-up could be compared to an American ensemble consisting of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

Throw out any preconceived notions of what Cuban music should sound like. You'll need no prerequisites as you hear the All Stars bend their way through a variety of traditional Cuban styles including Danzón, Son-Montuno, Afro, Mambo and Guajira. Once the sounds reach your ears, your feet will lead you to believe they've been leaving your body for midnight rendezvous with dance floors in Cuban hotels.

Due to embargo, traditional Cuban rites are virgin to most American ears. And this is true not only of the music, but the hard realities of the lives of those who create it. Small state pensions support a large number of classic musicians, who like Ibrahim Ferrer, often supplement this by earning $15 a month shining shoes. Reaching over all of the adjectives that could explain the All Stars' powerful stance in music, Ferrer best describes the emotions that ground them: "I'm so happy. I don't have to shine shoes anymore."

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