“Right now,” says legendary Cuban musician Juan de Marcos Gonzalez in his patient Cuban lilt, “we’re damaging the Earth and the Earth is taking revenge. But if we take care of the planet, we’re going to become very homogeneous—with one race, one culture throughout the world. Otherwise we’re going to disappear.”
Just hopefully not before Thursday night.
De Marcos says his mission is “to show the wealth, diversity and vitality of Cuban music to the world.” He’s made a name for himself spearheading groups like the Buena Vista Social Club and, now, the Afro-Cuban All Stars—who will be making their inaugural trip to Maui.
Even in the blended future he foresees, de Marcos says the preservation of “cultural styles” will be important. He likens this acculturation to his own country, Cuba. “All these guys came [from Spain] to Cuba and brought slaves from Africa,” he says. “All of these cultures mixed in Cuba to create something different, something unique. But even Spain, for seven centuries, was under the power of the Muslims—so they are mixed as well. All of these mixes created something special. This is Cuban.”
De Marcos vividly recounts his childhood in Havana. “When I was a kid, I grew up inside of the Cuban Revolution, so we never had a great relationship with America. But the United States is only 95 miles away from the Cuban border, so we had the radio. Everyday we would listen to radio from America. One was called WXAM broadcasting from Key West, Florida and the second one was KAAY, coming from Little Rock, Arkansas. KAAY used to have a program every night where they broadcasted underground music. We used to copy this material and perform it in our private parties.” It was then that de Marcos says he fell in love with contemporary music, “in the golden age of American and British rock and roll.”
Trilingual and with a doctorate in hydraulic engineering, de Marcos says he’s always had “a strong tenacity for working.” Though he was encouraged to pursue academics and music simultaneously, engineering work was “a proper career” at the behest of his father, Marcos Gonzalez, “one of the greatest Cuban musicians of the ‘40s and ‘50s.” The formation of the Buena Vista Social Club, among his other work, is a tribute to his father, his father’s friends—and their music.
“At a certain point I listened to Santana,” de Marcos says. “I listened to this guy who was one of my idols and I heard him use cha cha cha and mambo with a rock and roll band. I said, well, if these great guys are performing with Cuban music it means that World Music is really important. So I turned my eyes back, and in 1973 I started performing only Cuban music. It was an important step in my career because I rediscovered my roots. It’s very important to stand on your roots.”
“In 1990 I had to make a decision,” continues de Marcos. “It’s difficult to work two, so very different jobs. So I made the decision to become a full time musician. Since that time, I’ve been working as a musician, sometimes very successfully.”
But de Marcos says even his bands’ successes—especially alongside “the old guys” of the Buena Vista Social Club, including Arsenio Rodriguez and Ibrahim Ferrer—didn’t prepare him for the international acclaim he’s enjoyed.
“In those times, you couldn’t sell even 10,000 copies of a World Music Album,” he says. “Of course, if the album is good you can get the respect of journalists, but selling 12 million copies? That was not normal.”
Ultimately, de Marcos says, it’s about the quality of his ethnic music and the contributions it stands to make on a global stage.
Which goes back to his predictions for the future. One race or no, preserving what’s worth exalting about your culture—specifically through music— says de Marcos, “is important because in this way you are doing something vital [and] it’s the only way you have to be really at peace. Once you are preserving your culture, you are doing something that is going to stay.”