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Music runs in the family

Juan de Marcos and the Afro–Cuban All Stars, November 12, 2006

The Vancouver Sun

by John P. McLaughlin

Talk to Juan De Marcos Gonzales about Cuba and it sounds like Canada with palm trees. We’re quite similar, he contends, in our social policy, in education and medical care, we’re one of the civilized governments. We share the wealth. Somebody light Harper’s Montecristo.

Gonzales is a great ambassador, no question. He can joust against imperialist blockhead you-know-who with the best of them – U.S. satellites jam his phone-card calls from Canada and Europe to Havana. Drives him nuts. But he wouldn’t mind doing business with them, he’s capitalist enough for that.

In fact he’s very much the capitalist. For a while there, after he and Ry Cooder released the mega-selling Buena Vista Social Club album, relations with the U.S. had relaxed a bit and business was looking up before the door slammed again in 2003. Fine, figured Gonzales, and began building his empire in Havana, Mexico City and London, what he calls the USA of Europe.

He makes records, goes out on tour, counts his money and takes holidays just like any regular, hard-hustling entrepreneur. This is one rich, free commie, by Che.

He grew up with a father who was a famous island singer through the ’40s and ’50s, widely regarded as the golden era of Cuban music. After the ’59 American embargo, Cuba went on to develop some amazing strains and permutations of their music.

At the same time, about the only thing anybody else north of Miami knew about Cuban music came from endless re-runs of I Love Lucy when puffy shirted Ricky played with his band down at the club while Lucy, Ethel and Fred snapped their fingers. Babaloo, baby.

“I never saw I Love Lucy because it was an American program,” says Gonzales. “But I listened growing up to all American music because of the radio. I even started my career as a rock ‘n’ roll player. Still I remember some of my compositions of my rock ‘n’ roll period, imitating a little bit the great bands of America and England and even Canada. I remember that I sang ‘American Woman’ many times when I was a kid.”

But what stuck is the musical legacy he received from his father, his father’s pals and the neighbourhood. Just up the street was a scruffy club called En Africa where Juan Carlos would sneak in as an 11-year-old to “see – of course, behind my mom’s back – some of the greatest Cuban rumberos (rumba singers and dancers) of all time.”

For years every Sept. 7, a feast day in honour of an old Cuban goddess, many of the top musicians would descend on the Gonzales household to party and play.

As the men rolled and lit cigars, poured out the dark rum and tuned their instruments, the wide-eyed kid watching quietly from a corner was absorbing everything and marking time, the unknowing future conduit of this culture to the world.

“Many of the musicians that I worked with later used to go to my house to these parties,” says Gonzales. “So I knew for the first time (composer/singer) Pio Leyva who worked with me in the Buena Vista project. And (singer) Puntillita as well. This cultural heritage that I had was really important for my career later as a musician. I’m very happy for that.”

Sun Nov 12, 2006