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In 1976, two decades before helping put together the Buena Vista Social Club, then-Havana resident Juan De Marcos Gonzalez began revitalizing interest in classic Cuban son dance music with the group Sierra Maestra. Thirty-five years later, Gonzalez is no longer a member, but on Tuesday night Sierra Maestra, featuring five of Gonzalez’ original bandmates, will be at Artisphere. Embarking on its first United States tour since 2001, this nine-member Cuban group includes four musicians who were part of the Buena Vista Social Club. Over the years Sierra Maestra has frequently toured internationally and records regularly, playing their catchy take on an island music style that long preceded salsa. Using call and response vocals, plenty of Afro-Cuban percussion, soaring trumpet notes, bass, and Spanish-rooted stringed sounds, Sierra Maestra deliver sophisticated music designed to move hips.
Eduardo Himely, bass player and director of the group, explained via e-mail that Sierra Maestra’s musical approach is more a product of choice than the outfit’s geographical origins. He noted that while Internet and radio access is restricted in Cuba, he and his bandmates hear music from the rest of the world during their frequent international tours. A planned 2003 U.S. tour was cancelled when the FBI, for unexplained reasons, would not process their background checks. Despite their globetrotter status and Cuban peers working in more modern styles like timba and reggaeton, Sierra Maestra happily prefers sticking with a 20th century musical methodology and a present-day lyrical slant.
“The band members write a certain amount of new songs for each record,” Himely writes. “But we have always delved into the old repertoire of son, which goes back to the 1920s as a style. We choose those songs written by others that we feel can be best arranged for our three-part harmonies and our instrumental line-up, which is the classic son one of one trumpet, percussion, guitar and tres, with harmony vocals. In addition we choose a balance of the different styles of song within the son tradition: ‘son’, ‘son guaracha,’ rumba, guajira, son montuno, etc. For our latest record, Sonando Ya, we invited new young writers in Cuba to compose in these traditional styles, but with lyrics that are addressing more contemporary themes.”
At home, Himely notes, “opportunities to play in Cuba are limited, but we play regular shows at a certain club in Havana.” While the bandmembers do not have day jobs, Himely adds, “some of us sometimes teach music.” The band has undergone a few changes since it was last in the United States. It has a new trumpeter, Yelfris Carlos Valdes, and added lead singer Jesus Bello, who replaced founding member Maceo José Antonio Rodríguez, who died in 2005. The sound is staying put, though. “We do what we do best and have done for over 30 years,” Himely says. “We play a couple of instrumentals which are like latin fusion, more groove based, which go well in concert. We each personally like different styles, maybe jazz, Brazilian, rock etc., but that doesn’t mean we should incorporate any into our work.”
When asked whether he worries that some might find their style old-fashioned, Himely says, “Not at all. When we started in the 1970s no one was playing son music. It was like a forgotten style. We introduced it to a whole new audience in Cuba then, especially a young one as we were students too. We were involved in the creation of Buena Vista Social Club which proved to have a massive audience. The appreciation of all this was a little slower in Cuba; it took a few years for the home audience to appreciate what was happening abroad. The popularity of classic Cuban music probably comes and goes, peaking noticeably in the 1920s, 1950s, 1990s amongst other times… If it dips sometimes it will be back again because it is such great timeless music.”
Sierra Maestra performs today at 8:30 p.m. at Artisphere (preceded by a 7:30 dance lesson), 1101 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington. $22-$25.