Listen to the beat of my drum

A session with the percussionist of the Afrocuban All Star.

For 14 years Rolando Salgado has been a member of the Afrocuban All Star, a group that made a deep mark in popular Cuban music and therefore that of Latin America. A legend began with the international success of Buena Vista Social Club in 1996, whose architect was and is Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González. Eighteen years later, the story continues and its percussionist, who it’s worthwhile to get to know, brings us close to it.

TO THE BAY OF MANZANILLO

It’s not by chance that Benny Moré sang to Manzanillo, a city in eastern Cuba where Rolando Salgado was born in 1962: “When I was a child, Manzanillo had 10 professional bands, a concert band, two jazz bands, two charangas, more than 15 amateur groups, a great many trovadores, four street dances and four organs. We had the first organ that came to Cuba, brought over from France by the Borbolla family. I come from that musical environment.”

And from where did you get your vocation?

“My father, who made a living as a shoemaker, was an amateur baritone with the Manzanillo choir; my mother, on the other hand, liked dance a lot. I also danced quite a lot, but during carnival time I preferred to watch how the musicians played.”

Were you enthusiastic about the carnival?

“A lot. There was a big competition between the carnivals of Manzanillo, Santiago and Guantánamo. Out street dances were very different from those in Santiago, they were more like Uruguay’s Candombé. I started playing in the street dances since I was seven years old: the quinto, bells, bass drums, frying pans, sifters.”

You were self-taught?

“Yes. I couldn’t go to the Manzanillo music school because it was very restricted. That’s the reason a great many talents were lost, people who went, but didn’t have the right contact and they were not enrolled. I taught myself, watching and asking all the percussionists in the town, learning as much as I could about the conga drum, the bongo and the kettledrum. And I listened to a great diversity of musical genres, all types of music.”

What caught most your attention of the bands that you saw in Manzanillo around those years of formation, when you were very young?

“I was able to see a great many good bands and none of them were alike, each one had a timbre. We used to identify them by the singer, by the way they played, by the percussion. Los Bocucos were not like Los Latinos and these were different from the Chapottín group or the Saratoga band or Son 14. This no longer exists. Now, except for some exceptions, it is hard to recognise who you are listening to; there are Cuban bands founded 30 years ago that don’t have a number that represents them.”

Which percussionists inspired you, which are the ones you remember with special admiration?

“I remember Jorge Alfonso, the founder of Irakere, who used to play with five conga drums; Tito Lino, of Los Reyes 73; Chicuelo, of Roberto Faz; Baudilio, of La Riverside; Dominguito Cruz, Jabuco and, of course, Tata Güines.”

When and with whom did you start as a professional musician?

“At 17, in Manzanillo, I joined the Lino Borbolla jazz band and afterwards I was in the Conjunto Sonero, the América band; later I came to Havana, around 1987, through the son of Félix Chapottín, to work in his group; I was also with Niño Rivera and with Los Bocucos, when Ibrahím Ferrer still sang there.”

And how did you join the Afrocuban All Star?

“Well, because I participated in the production of a record with Félix Baloy which was produced by Juan de Marcos and when he saw me play he liked my work, my knowledge of the different genres and the way I played percussion. He told me he needed me in his group, but that I had to wait for Miguel Angá to leave. That’s how it was, in 1998 I joined the Afrocuban All Star and that changed my life. I found what I was looking for there.”

WITH AFROCUBAN ALL STAR THROUGH THE WORLD

Tell me about your latest tour1 with the group.

“We gave 40 concerts in the United States between January and July 2013. We started in Alaska, to a full house, where we got a lot of applause. We played contredanse, danzón, son montuno for those audiences that have no knowledge – many of them – about the origin of that music, where it came from, to the point that some of them ask if it is from Cuba or Puerto Rico, though they notice the difference because they say: ‘but the Puerto Ricans don’t play like you.’ Remember that before the Buena Vista in many parts of the world it was believed that that music was from Puerto Rico, because with the exception of Tito Puente, none of them said they had learned it from the Cubans.”

How do you explain the success of Afrocuban All Star in so many different places?

“Respecting those audiences, caring for their diversity in the different spaces where the group performs. We are used to playing for Israelis, Germans, North Americans, Asians, but one has to understand that those audiences do not respond the same way as the Cuban ones, who are very knowledgable and like to dance.”

What’s behind Juan de Marcos’ so many years of success?

“His vision of the path he took 18 years ago. In his previous experience with Sierra Maestra he understood what had to be done. He found that path and has not changed it. The musician who plays with him has to understand him and do what he asks; even though he accepts your opinion, he always tells you: ‘let’s not lose what we want.’ His cultural training and his dominion, not just of music, but also of the music market in general has also helped him a great deal.”

And what method does Juan de Marcos use to direct?

“His method consists in being the director, friend, brother; he is your family, but he is demanding. A director who respects you as a musician, because he respects you as a human being; if he says he’s going to pay you a certain amount for a tour, he keeps his promise, he always does so and that’s why in so many years he has never had a concert that has failed him.”

TEACHING CUBAN MUSIC

His work with Afrocuban All Star does not take up all of Rolando Salgado’s time. He has carried out in-depth studies of Cuban music, especially percussion. The fruit of that knowledge are the clinics and workshops he has given in universities in the United States, Canada and Ecuador and the documentary where he demonstrates how groups like Irakere and Rumbahavana, for example, executed the percussion. In that audiovisual, filmed in Cuba, 52 percussionists play accompanied by Salgado in a sort of history of Cuban percussion.

As a man who is passionate about music and a Cuban through and through, Rolando Salgado feels sad about some sociocultural questions, like the flight of musical talents: “We lose the talents that emigrate and not all of them do well.” Something that is paradoxical because “music could generate a great deal of money here, but for lack of a musical policy we don’t earn millions of pesos.”

He is also upset about the panorama of our popular music: “Some Cuban bands have accepted the vulgarity that now exists in popular music, the humiliating and offensive messages toward women.” He also mentions how young people of today have no knowledge of the wealth of Cuban music and its history, but he says that “The new generations are not to blame for not knowing the value of the major musical groups we have had.” (2014)

1 There was another tour after the interview.

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