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Cuban musician González to lead UW-Madison residency

The first thing Juan de Marcos González wants American music fans to understand is that Cuban music is too often mislabeled as simply another form of Latin American jazz.

“Cuban music is not properly Latin jazz,” says González, leader of the Afro-Cuban All Stars and its spinoff, the Buena Vista Social Club. “It’s jazzy because we do improvise a lot, but the accent of the music is in a different place. Overall, it’s really pretty different.”

Musicologists agree that the syncretic nature of Cuban music and its many genres makes it one of the world’s richest regional styles. The music’s son Cubano foundation, which merges Spanish guitar, melodies and harmonies with West African percussion and rhythms, has made it one of the most popular and influential forms of music in Latin America and beyond.

González, along with a full ensemble of fellow Cuban musicians, will explore Cuban music’s influence this season as an interdisciplinary artist-in-residence at UW-Madison. 

Supported jointly by the UW School of Music and the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives operating within the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement, González will teach a lecture course called “Afro-Cuban Music: Roots, Jazz, Hip Hop” and a production course, “Music Production: Afro-Cuban and Hip Hop Music.”

But it is the wealth of González’s public lectures and musical performances with various ensembles that will find Wisconsin’s capital city awash in a season of Cuban rhythms. Festivities begin with a Sept. 15 public welcome reception at Madison’s Cardinal Bar, 418 E. Wilson St., and extend through a Dec. 8 lecture and student Afro-Cuban music performance at the Frederic March Play Circle in the UW Memorial Union, 800 Langdon St.

Also, the Cuban String Ensemble led by Gliceria González Abreu, one of Juan de Marcos González’s two daughters, will offer a six-week performance workshop for budding musicians. The workshop, which begins Sept. 13, will introduce the classical side of Cuban music to student players of bowed string instruments, including violin, viola, cello and bass.

“The repertoire will cover her own compositions, arrangements of other Cuban Composers and music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was the first great artist in close relationships with my island,” Juan de Marcos González says. “He wrote contradanzas exactly as if he were a Cuban, sometimes mixing in proto-ragtime elements.”

Clarinetist Laura Lydia González, Gliceria González’s sister, will also participate in the classical workshops.

Juan de Marcos González will sit in with Pellejo Seco, a San Francisco-based Cuban fusion ensemble, when it appears at the Madison World Music Festival on Sept. 18 and Sept. 19, with performances held on both the UW campus and in conjunction with Madison’s Willy Street Fair.

The residency program also features performances by the Afro-Cuban All Stars on Oct. 2 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, on Oct. 3 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Milwaukee’s Brookfield suburb, and at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. 

González also is bringing in Cuban spoken word artist Telmary Diaz to Madison. She will appear at three “Passin’ the Mic’” open microphone sessions Oct. 22–24 at the Overture Center’s Promenade Hall. 

From professor to artist

Born in 1954 in Havana, Juan de Marcos González is the son of Marcos González Mauriz, a vocalist who performed with prominent Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez. The elder González stressed a non-musical career for his son, who earned a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering from the Universidad de la Habana and taught there for 12 years.

But González was always interested in music, citing the influence of U.S. pop, rock and jazz traditions on the early part of his musical education. He finally launched his musical career in 1990 following his father’s death.

“I was a rock and roller as a kid,” he says. “I played the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Grand Funk Railroad and others.”

González studied Spanish classical guitar, eventually picking up the tres, a Spanish guitar with three sets of double strings, as a way to better explore the music that had evolved in his homeland. Cuban music is the result of multiple influences, he says, including American big bands that have contributed to the full, almost orchestral sounds of many Cuban ensembles.

“Cuban music has evolved over the years and we have kept it alive even during those periods when we were unable to play the drums,” says González. “We were not able to play the congas until the late 1940s, because they were considered primitive instruments for second-class citizens. But we were able to preserve our music and it’s even stronger today than ever before.”

González adds, “The most important thing for anyone who wants to perform Cuban music to remember is to understand the two bar-pattern called clave, because we don’t use beats. They also have to put their spirit into the music to transmit to listeners, and they should dance, if not on stage then inside of themselves, to feel the taste and flavor of the music.”

The recent warming of relations between the United States and Cuba gives González and other Cubans confidence that things will improve. But the musician sincerely hopes that Cuba will be able to retain its culture and not suffer from homogenization as more and more U.S. citizens and corporations take an interest in the island nation.

“I hope we can preserve our spirit, our nationality and our freedom,” González says. “People are waiting for change, but it doesn’t really matter who sits at the top because Cuban politicians are a social class. I predict that Mariela Castro, Raúl Castro’s daughter, will take over when Raúl and Fidel are gone.”

Change is definitely in the wind, González says, but most Cubans have a wait-and-see attitude. How life on the Caribbean’s largest island will change is a frequent topic of discussion, but one thing most expect not to change is the music, which González calls one of Cuba’s most important exports to the world. It’s a spirit he hopes to pass along to his UW students.

On Stage

Juan de Marcos González will perform multiple times during his residency, including at the Overture Center and Sharon Lynne Wilson Center with the Afro-Cuban All-Stars Oct. 2 and Oct. 3, respectively, and a final performance at the Memorial Union Dec. 8. Visit artsinstitute.wisc.edu/iarp or afrocubanallstarsonline.com for a full schedule.