´Sierra Maestra´ - authentic son from Cuba
Sierra Maestra is one of Cuba’s favourite son-bands. Founded on Cuba in 1976 the group has revived the traditional son of the 20s and 30s, cautiously modernised it and led it into the Cuban mainstream. After Sierra Maestra had conquered the island and been sent to represent it at various festivals, the ensemble produced several international albums. Concert tours have led the musicians to Europe, Africa, Asia and the USA. Their band-leader, the très virtuoso Marcos Gonzales is also the head of the Afro-Cuban All Stars and the mastermind of Buena Vista Social Club.
As nine students got together in Havana in 1976 to play ‘genuine’ Cuban music – the son autentivo – they could hardly have thought that Sierra Maestra, as they named themselves after Cuba’s highest mountain, would soon be one of the best known and liked Cuban bands and that a quarter of a century later, thanks to the Buena Vista Social Club, the son would even soar into hit-parades all over the world. The recipe of their success has consisted of excellent musicians and singers who have sought to imitate the best Cuban music groups of the first part of the 20th century while adding new elements to the music and creating their own personal style.
According to old sugar-planters, the son arose about a century ago in the mountain range Sierra Maestra in the east of Cuba. The folk in this region still count as being more hot-blooded than their compatriots in the west of the island, in Havana or Pinar del Rio. This may be true and due to a series of blends of various ethnic groups and peoples over the centuries, including Spaniards, Frenchmen, (Afro-) Haitians, Dominicans, American Indians and many and various African groups like the Bantu. It may be no coincidence that the Sierra Maestra mountains gave birth to the first war of independence against the Spanish in 1868 and to the Cuban revolution in 1959 as well as to the son. Even though the son reached the capital Havana in 1920, it still survives in the east.
The musicians of Sierra Maestra mostly play acoustic instruments in the traditional son combination: trumpet, guitars and Afro-Cuban percussion. The Spanish guitar and a small three-stringed très are supported by a bass, which is now electric instead of the old mirimbula, and to this traditional combination the group adds further percussion (congas and maracas). This all serves as a background for the song-parts, which are a particular strength of Sierra Maestra, since the musicians are also outstanding singers, and the band’s main singer, Maceíto, has become one of Cuba’s most famous soneros. A further important innovation consists in speeding up several guaracha rhythms, which in the 20s accompanied slow, intimate pair-dances.
Sierra Maestra is certainly one of the best son- or salsa-bands to be found at present in the Spanish Caribbean. Since the enthusiasm for Cuba roused by the Buena Vista Social Club, the musicians have become known to fans of world-music, salsa and song by playing in other bands too, and they now count as being the only real ambassadors of son. The Sierra Maestra trumpeter and professor of the trumpet Jesús Alemañy, for instance, also plays solo or with the internationally famous ensemble Cubanismo. This applies especially to the musical director, très virtuoso and singer Juan de Marcos Gonzales, who hardly has any more time for his original band, since he now goes on world tours with the Afro-Cuban All Stars and is the arranger and general manager of the Buena Vista Social Club. With Sierra Maestra he was able to conquer Cuba with the son and has since conquered the world with the Buena Vista Social Club and continued his success with the Afro-Cuban All Stars.
In Sierra Maestra there are suddenly wind instruments once more, the three-stringed guitar très, bongos and claves at the heart of a timeless dance-music living from penetrating trumpet solos, polished vocal solos and rhythms which seem to be as self-evident as they are wayward. "We love what we are doing, so our fire is not going to die,” say the musicians, who at live concerts fan the fire and lift the most reluctant dancer out of his seat.
Appearances of Sierra Maestra are always a celebration of the son. The band has Cuban moods of all shades in its repertoire. There are wonderfully harmonious and polyphonic songs from which the leading voice of José Antonio Rodriguez, better known as Maceito, emerges to compete with radiant brass duets. Roots-heavy Guajira, raffish Afro-Cuban jazz and deeply felt Boleros lead to fiery montunos, three of which are normally to be heard in a Sierra Maestra concert. Whatever the piece, the band never loses its wonderful swing.
Sierra Maestra has decisively saved the son, the source of such widely popular musical styles as the mambo, cha-cha and salsa, from extinction and has led to the fact that there are now in Santiago de Cuba alone about 40 groups dedicated wholly to the son and to other traditional musical styles.
Events at the HKW:
Wednesday, 10th August, 1994
Heißer Sohn aus Kuba (Hot Son from Cuba)
Alejandro Suárez - vocals, claves
Alberto Valdés - vocals, maracas
Luis Barzaga - vocals, cowbell
Carlos González - bongo, congas, batá-drums, cowbell
Carlos Puisseauc - güiro
Jesús Alemañy - trumpet
Eduardo Himely - bass
Juan de Marcos González - vocals, tres
José Antonio Rodriguez - vocals, tres
José Antonio Rodriguez - vocals, guitar
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Author: Haus der Kulturen der Welt
In 1976 in Havana, nine musicians calling themselves Sierra Maestra, after the chain of mountains in which the traditional Cuban son arose, performed together for the first time in public. Their aim has been to resuscitate this traditional style of music and to have it unfold in all its shades. They were soon playing at yearly festivals at Cuban universities, appearing regularly on television and popular all over the island.
In 1978, two years after Sierra Maestra began, it was chosen to represent Cuba at the Festival de la Juventud y los Estudiantes in Havana. Its first album, Sierra Maestra llegó con el guanajo relleno (1981), was warded a Silver Disc due to the great number of copies sold, its great popularity and good reviews. The same year the band appeared for the first time abroad in Nicaragua. In 1982 it recorded its second LP Y Son Asi and toured once more through Nicaragua and then Angola. In 1983 it won the Benny Moré-Prize and gave concerts in Finland, Sweden, France and Spain. The same year it recorded the soundtrack for the Cuban television series Las Impuras, and its song A los rumberos de Belén was used in Robert Redford’s film Milagro, the War in the Bean Field.
Since then Sierra Maestra has time and again thrilled its public in Europe, Africa, Asia and the USA and has also recorded several albums in other lands. In 1992, during a tour of Europe, the CD Son Highlights from Cuba was recorded in Berlin in co-operation with the House of World Cultures, the SFB and WERGO. In 1994 there followed Dundunbanza from World Circuit Records in London. Since then there have appeared various albums like Rumberos de la Habana, Tibiri Tabara, Sierra Maestra, and the group has appeared in the French feature film Salsa.