RUBEN GONZALEZ(born Santa Clara 1919) Ruben Gonzalez could have been a classical pianist or he could have been a doctor. Instead he became one of the legendary figures of Cuban music, whose piano sound has created trends and established styles for more than half a century.
Now 77 years old, Ruben graduated from the Cienfuego Conservatoire in 1934. He then went to medical school, thinking he would be a doctor by day and a musician by night. Yet the rhythms of Cuba and son in particular were in his blood. By 1941 he had abandoned his medical studies and moved to Havana to make a full-time career as a musician.
Within a year he had joined the conjunto of the great Arsenio Rodriguez and also played with Mongo Santamaria in the Orquesta de Los Hermanos. “In the 1940s there was a real musical life in Cuba. There was very little money in it but everyone played because they really wanted to,” he recalls. Today he is the only survivor of a trio of pianists from the period, with Luis “Lili” Martinez and Peruchin, who helped shape the future sound of Cuban music, developing the mambo and embracing modern jazz harmonies. “Everything you hear now in Cuban music comes from that brilliant period,” he says.
At the same time Ruben also developed his own very distinctive style. “Arsenio said to me don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. Just play your own thing and don’t imitate anyone so when people hear your music they say that’s Ruben.”
After traveling in Panama and Argentina where he played with tango musicians, Ruben returned to Havana and played with cabaret bands at clubs such as the Tropicana, and by the early 1960s he had teamed up with Enrique Jorrin, the creator of the cha-cha-cha. He stayed with Jorrin for 25 years and when the band leader died in the mid 1980s Ruben briefly took over. He did not enjoy the extra responsibility and retired soon afterwards until tempted back into the limelight with the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Ry Cooder.
ELIADES OCHOA (Born Santiago 1946) From a musical family, Eliades began singing and playing the guitar at the age of six. He is known affectionately as “guajiro” because he is every inch a countryman and wears an ever-present cowboy hat to prove it. By his young teens he was playing the bars and brothels of Santiago. He had his own radio show at the age of 17 and by the 1970s was a regular attraction at the Casa de la Trova, the town”s most celebrated music club.
In 1978 he took over the band “Cuarteto Patria,” a Santiago institution since 1940, expanding their repertoire and touring the band widely outside Cuba. Known as one of the finest guitarists of his generation, his instrument is a self-made hybrid between a guitar and the tres which has nine strings. Eliades doubles the third (D) and fourth (G) strings, with the additional strings pitched an octave higher.
IBRAHIM FERRER (Born Santiago 1927) Born at a social club dance, Ibrah”m has never looked back from that musical introduction to the world. He began singing professionally in 1941 with local Santiago groups, working wherever he could to make a living by day and singing by night. By the 1950s he was established as the singer with Pacho Alonso’s group and he was able to concentrate on his music full-time. He began guesting with “Orquesta de Chapin” and Benny Mor”, two of the legendary names of Cuban music. Alonso’s band finally moved to Havana in 1959 and Ibrahim stayed with the group for over 20 years. By the 1970s the group became known as “Los Bocucos” and pioneered the pilon rhythm, popular at the time and reputedly based on the sound of pounding the coffee beans.
Today Ibrahim lives in a run-down apartment building in Old Havana where the centerpiece of his living room is an alter to Saint Lazarus or Babalu-aye, one of the African Catholic saints of Cuba’s dominant Santeria religion. A devout man, his shrine is decorated with candles, fairy lights and fresh flowers every day. When a country-style sonero of the old school was required for the World Circuit sessions, Ibrahim was literally plucked off the streets of Havana where he was taking his daily walk.
MANUEL “GUAJIRO” MIRABAL VAZQUEZ (Born Melena del Sur, 1933). A trumpet player who learned at his father”s knee, Mirabal began playing professionally in 1951. He joined the jazz band “Swing Casino” in 1953 before forming the “Conjunto Rumbavana” three years later. In 1960 he joined the “Orquesta Riverside”, whose singer Tito Gomez gave him his nickname “Guajiro” Mirabal. There followed spells with “Orquesta del Cabaret Tropicana”, directed by Armando Ramer, the “Orquesta Casino Parisien” in Havana’s Hotel Nacional under Leonardo Timor and then the “Orquesta del ICRT”, the official orchestra of Cuban state radio and television. He has also toured with Oscar de Leon and Jose Feliciano.
OMARA PORTUONDO (Born Havana 1930) The only woman on these recordings, Omara is known as one of the glories of Cuban music and perhaps the best bolero singer on the island. She started singing with the “Cuarto de Orlando de la Rosa” and then joined the all-women band “Anacaona”. In 1952 she joined the “Aida Diestro Quartet”, with whom she stayed for 15 years. During that time she developed her solo career and now directs her own orchestra. She has toured the world extensively and has worked with Nat King Cole and Edith Piaf.
ORLANDO LOPEZ VERGARA “CACHAITO” (Born Havana 1933) The Lopez family is virtually synonymous with bass playing in Cuba. Cachaito’s father and uncle, Orestes and Israel, were both fine players, having learned the instrument from their father Pedro. In the 1930s the Lopez boys rewrote the book of bass playing. While Orestes along with Arsenio Rodgriguez helped create the mambo rhythm, Isreal, known as “Cachao”, played a key role in the development of the descarga style. Cachaito as a young boy flirted with the violin but inevitably the lure of the bass was too strong.
His earliest love was danzon and by the age of 12 he had already played with “Orquesta Riverside”, a hugely popular dance band of the time. He was then asked by his uncle to stand in with “Arcana y sus Maravillas”, a band that had been around since the 1930s, and the teenage boy so impressed that he was asked to stay.
A musician of astonishing versatility, in the 1960s Cachaito started playing classical music with the “Orquesta Sinf”nica Nacional” and would play Beethoven in a concert hall in the early part of the evening and then move on to play electric bass in a club into the small hours. Yet his preferred instrument is the acoustic bass and he also has a deep love of jazz, influenced by Charlie Mingus. He played with Irakere in the 1960s, helping to shape modern Latin jazz and he continues to play Cuban rhythms, classical and jazz with equal enthusiasm.
BARBARO ALBERTO TORRES DELGADO (BARBARITO TORRES) (born Matanzas 1956) Barbarito is perhaps Cuba’s finest player of the la”d (laudista), a small 12 string lute-like instrument. He began playing professionally at 14 with a variety of bands, including in Campo Alegre alongside the great Celina Gonzalez. In fact, Barbarito has played with most of the greats of Cuban music, from the composer and guitarist Leo Brouwer to the pianist Papo Lucca, as well as with the Venezuelan salsa singer Oscar de Leon. Barbarito is also a music teacher .
MANUEL LICEA “PUNITILLITA” (born Holgu”n,1927) “Punitillita” began singing at the age of seven and joined the “Orchestra Liceo” in 1941. He went on to achieve huge popularity in he 1950s as lead singer with some of Havana’s greatest bands including Adolfo Guzman, Roberto Faz and Cascarito. He also sung with the legendary “Sonora Matancera,” with whom Celia Cruz once sung and which has been in existence for almost 70 years. “Punitillita” recorded the hit “The Rooster, The Hen and The Horse” with the group. His polished vocal style has at different times tackled the whole gamut of Cuban rhythms but he specialises in the son and bolero.
RAUL PLANAS (Born Camajuani 1933) Raul is one of the great soneros of the 1950s and another who sang with the legendary “Sonora Matancera”.
FELIX VALOY (born Holguin 1944) One of the great soneros who has sung with Chapotin, Adalbarto Alvarez and Orquesta Reve, led by the veteran timbales player Elio Reve.
RICHARD EGUES (born Havana 1916) Richard was the flute player with the legendary “Orchestra Aragon”, one of the most influential groups in Cuban musical history. The group’s flute and strings first influenced the New York mambo sound and then in the 1950s Aragon went on to become the seminal charanga band.
JOS”ANTONIO “MACEO” RODRIGUEZ (Born Holguin 1953) One of the most distinctive soneros of the younger generation, “Maceo” has shared lead vocals with Sierra Maestra since 1980 and can be heard on their 1994 World Circuit album Dundunbunza!
PIO LEYVA (Born Moron 1917) Pio Leyva composed some of Cuba’s best known standards and is one of the island’s personalities, known everywhere as “El Montunero de Cuba”. He won a bongo contest at the age of six and made his singing debut in 1932. With his deep, country voice he has recorded over 25 albums since he signed his first contract with RCA Victor in 1950 and is known as one of the great improvisers. Pio has sung with the bands of the great Benny More, Bebo Valdez and Noro Morales and for a time was a member of “Compay Segundo y Sus Muchachos”.
JULIENNE OVIEDO SANCHEZ (Born Havana 1982) A phenomenal 14 year old timbalero, drummer and bongo player who has been touring since he was eight, Julienne’s performing career began at three as the drummer in a band of famous artists’ grandchildren. He has already toured Japan, Europe and Latin America and has played with several of Cuba’s most celebrated new style big bands, including NG La Banda, Los Van Van, and Adalbero Alvarez.