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In 1976, then-Havana-based Juan de Marcos González founded Sierra Maestra, a large band that specialized in danceable Cuban son music, one of the root sounds of salsa. Maestra became popular in Cuba, toured Europe, and recorded a number of albums between still beloved by hardcore fans of Cuban music. In the late ’90s, González began reaching a larger audience with two bands he helped assemble, the Afro-Cuban All Stars and the Buena Vista Social Club. A conductor, arranger, and percussionist who plays the tres (a small guitar-like instrument), González, now 57, brings a new version of the Afro-Cuban All Stars on tour every few years. Tonight, they bring their Latin jazz and Cuban big-band sound to Strathmore. González responded to Arts Desk’s questions via e-mail.
Washington City Paper: Where do you live ? In Havana part of the year and in Mexico City; or just Mexico City?
Juan de Marcos González: I’ve been in Mexico City during the last four years taking care of my daughters, who are studying there at the university. I visit Havana every half a year, more or less. In fact, Mexico is my second motherland and I’ve been going for more than 10 years very frequently. For college, we were thinking to move to Russia (Saint Petersburg or Moscow), which I consider the top country in terms of symphonic music, perhaps because I studied there, but we found a Russian high-level conservatory in Mexico City and we decided to be in a warmer and nearer place.
WCP: Do you have bandmembers do more individual solos, because you often play for seated theater crowds and not standing and dancing ones? I ask this because it seemed like there were more instrumental solos in the 2009 Strathmore show I saw than in a show I saw years earlier before a smaller standing and dancing crowd at the Barns at Wolf Trap.
JDMG: Of course our repertoire and the way we play depends on where we are. I like to play clubs and danceable music, but also like that the audience understands that the Cuban music is not only “Pachanga & Fiesta,” that it also can be listened and appreciated as symphonic music or jazz. If in a concert hall we play basically danceable music it could be boring for the people in their seats. Meanwhile in a party a lot of solos is not desirable. That’s why the difference. In fact, what we try is to approach different Cuban genres and leave the danceable part of the show to the end, when, normally, the people are ready to “pachanguear.” In concert halls, I also like to give space to the band members to show their skills and musicianship to the audience.
WCP: Live and on the Step Forward album, the group seems to be nicely highlighting the best of the past. Are there any plans on this tour and on new and future albums to add more rap and other current Latin styles—-reggaeton, etc.?
JDMG: Well, we are basically an Afro-Cuban band, so we have our style. In the future and depending on the album, you can find a more jazzy style. I also like hip-hop and spoken word, so it’s very probable that we mix a couple of arrangements with a hip-hop section. In terms of the reggaeton, sometimes I’ve used the groove live in “over-mambos.” In general we do not follow the fashion, but the roots.
WCP: New album coming out?
JDMG: For the end of the year, probably two productions out: one live album performed in Edmonton with a DVD from our last concert at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts and a studio album that will bring a DVD with the footage of the concert at the Strathmore you were at in 2009. I’m already mixing the music and editing videos.
Juan D’Marcos and the Afro-Cuban Allstars perform at 8 p.m. tonight at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. $25-$52. (301) 581-5100.