Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, current leader of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, has been a major figure in Cuban music since the early '90s. For the past two decades, his band has been at the helm of numerous key events, most notably the sessions that became the blockbuster albums Buena Vista Social Club and Introducing Ruben Gonzalez.
But the All Stars' sound is constantly evolving, and the group Gonzalez will bring to Vanderbilt's Langford Auditorium 8 p.m. Friday, April 1, will be quite different from the ensemble that gave a robust and greatly appreciated performance here only two years ago.
"We've made some stylistic changes," Gonzalez said during a phone interview. "One thing is we're replacing the baritone sax in the group with the bass clarinet. It gives us a warmer sound, and a richer one that we're incorporating into the group along with the traditional three trumpets. It will be part of the four-horn frontline. Then we'll have the keyboard this time instead of vibes. The vibes is an instrument that you have to bring along yourself, because the sites seldom have them or want to rent them, but they will provide you with a piano.
"Then we'll have the bass, timbales and the rest of our usual percussion, plus our singers. It is a very dynamic, exciting group. I think with the changes we can do some more things in a looser, faster vein, both instrumentally and vocally. Plus I have one of my daughters on the keyboards, and that's a very rewarding and happy thing for me."
The Afro-Cuban All Stars operate with ease and distinction in every type of Cuban music. Over the course of a show, they'll delve into bolero, danzon, rumba, son montuno, even lesser known (to Western listeners) forms such as timba and guajira. They will also incorporate elements from salsa, jazz, rock and funk into their set.
Such late musical greats as Ibrahim Ferrer, Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez and of course Ruben Gonzalez were originally members of the All Stars, and the ensemble has been nominated for four Grammy Awards. All the while, it has issued great records spotlighting acclaimed musicians such as Felix Baloy and Amadito Valdes. But the Buena Vista phenomenon has overshadowed it to a degree, even as it brought a vast new audience to the group's music. In Buena Vista's wake, Gonzalez feels the band hasn't fully gotten its due.
"There's a documentary done by Tony Knox called Salon of Dreams that is a far more accurate portrait of that whole experience than what [director Wim] Wenders did," Gonzalez says. "For one thing we had already had recording out there that did really well and sold millions of copies around the world [A Toda Cuba Le Gusta] before Ry Cooder even got involved with the project.
"Then when he got involved, there started to be a wave of publicity in America, and he and Wenders are friends and the whole Buena Vista thing emerged. There's a lot of fiction in that documentary. I'm going to upload in the next few months Salon of Dreams on my website and that will give people a more accurate account of that whole experience."
A Toda Cuba le Gusta featured nearly 60 performers, and many of those participants were later part of the Buena Vista Social Club recordings. But Ibrahim Ferrer, who later got his own solo recording, was a key member of the vocal unit on that recording, and Gonzalez says others such as Lopez and conga and bongo players Carlos Gonzalez, Roberto Valdes, and Angel Terry, as well as timbales player Amadito Valdes and those in the trumpet and trombone sections, didn't get their just credit.
He remains a staunch champion for Cuban music and culture and towards that end formed his own label DM Ahora! Reocrds in 2002. Some of their finest recent releases, among them Live In Japan and Step Forward from 2005 and 2006 display the influence of hip-hop production and beats on their sound. He's also been recently working on two projects titled Breaking the Rules and Step Backward, where he gathers great Cuban musicians scattered around the world. Some of them he's encountered during world tours, and he later recruited them to work, tour and play with the Afro-Cuban All Stars.
"Politics has divided the Cuban people for decades," Gonzalez says. "Everywhere that you go, there are Cubans with different alliances to politicians or ideals, but the Cuban culture is a unifying one. I'm always anxious to find great Cuban musicians and get involved with them. Our music is a dynamic, happy force, not a divisive one. I'm confident that in the future we'll see more Cuban musicians who'll be glad to celebrate and perform both the traditional music and some of the newer songs that are emerging now."
Now in the middle of a U.S. tour that will include 12 more stops before they return to Europe, Gonzalez has plans for even more Afro-Cuban All Star releases in 2012 and 2013.
"I want to do two new albums in the next few months, and we'll start preparing those sometime later in the summer," he says. "One will be CD/DVD with material I've gathered over our last few shows in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, plus some of our American shows. We've used HD cameras and recording technology to ensure that this music will look and sound great.
"Then I'd like to a live album with songs from a wonderful show that we did in California, and another one we did in Canada. I hope to get both of these done and at least one released early next year, probably the CD/DVD. The other one will probably come out the year after that."
Gonzalez says he'd like to keep playing and performing maybe another five years. "It's getting harder now to keep doing the traveling and keep the energy level up for the shows the way I used to when I first started," he says. "I've got two daughters who are involved with the group and eventually I'm going to give the band over to them. In the meantime, we're going to continue making people happy and bringing them our music."