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Tony Pérez: Soneao

New Cuban Masters

Andrián Pertout speaks with pianist Tony Pérez and drummer Ramces Baralt from Havana, Cuba about the great musical spirit of the Caribbean.

Cuba, the birth place of the rumba, the mambo, the son, the chachachá, the danzón, the habanera, and more recently, salsa, represents the last Spanish stronghold in the Americas, finally gaining its complete independence from external domination in the revolution of 1959.  Its strong African roots have had a great influence in the musical landscape, creating Afro-Latin hybrids that are both rich in rhythmic and harmonic content.  This is also home to a multitude of talented musicians, and among them are pianist Tony Pérez and drummer Ramces Baralt, both graduates of the renowned National School of Arts in Havana.  The birthplace of Pérez happens to be the small Cuban town of Sancti Spiritu, and at twenty-six years old, with his collaborations with Cuban salseros Isaac Delgado and Klimax, as well as the legendary Fania All Stars, has already accomplished milestones.  The latter project including the participation of Latin greats Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Cheo Feliciano, Papo Lucas, Alfredo de la Fé and Willie Colón.  His more recent adventures highlight European performances with Paco Sery from the Zawinul Syndicate and international tours with Irakere, filling in for Master Jesus ‘Chucho’ Valdes.  Together with trumpeter ‘el Indio’, bassist Jorge ‘el Sagua’ Alexander and drummer Ramces Baralt, Tony Peréz is scheduled to appear in the ‘New Cuban Masters’ segment of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival of 2000.

You both graduated from the National School of Arts in Havana, Cuba.  What can you tell me about its musical program?

TP: ”Here study requirements are very demanding and very deep, because not only do we study the instrument, but also the nature of music, which is like for example, the solfège.  In other words learning to read music, and to understand music theoretically, knowing how to write down what is heard, knowing how to read what is written.  And also classical music history, and we study classical music, not jazz, although today there are jazz schools.  And in the same school, popular music is also done, say popular Cuban music, which may be mixed with perhaps a little bit of Cuban jazz.  But all of that is very brief, because what is mainly studied and taught is classical music.  And we start from a very early age.  I have studied the piano since I was seven years old, and I’ve had to go to the conservatoire every day.  The same with Ramces, but he began a little later.  (Suddenly dogs are heard barking in the background.)  I’m here at home, and the dogs are barking (laughs).  With piano and violin it is compulsory to begin at seven years of age, but Ramces began drumming at ten years old.  But I suppose he was still a kid when he started.  So I studied seven years of complementary piano, along with all those other subjects that I mentioned, music history, music appreciation, harmony and piano lessons, and then I followed that up with studies at the National School of Arts, for four more years, on top of the seven years.  So I studied eleven years in total, and right after that I started out on my professional career.”

One of the great things we hear about Cuba is how support given to promising artists by the communist Government of Fidel Castro.  How does this work in actual practice?

TP: ”I can tell you that we have been lucky, because we haven’t had to pay for our studies, or anything else.  And as Cubans, we are very grateful for that.  This is for everybody, because for us to be accepted into a school, we only have to fulfil the criteria.  But if you don’t have the right qualities, then you cannot enter the school.  It’s to do with that, and auditioning at the right age.  Seven for the piano and violin, and ten for drums, trumpet and guitar, all those things.  So if you audition in time, pass the musicianship tests, you get in, but without fulfilling those criteria, you don’t get in.  Once you become a professional you begin a normal career, you may later provide a service as a schoolteacher, and then also have projects like these, for example, releasing your own record.  And if you get tours, promotions, concerts, that’s normal, you do the paper work and it all works out fine.  So that’s normal, like any other artist in any other country in the world.  The only thing you have to have is the capability to participate in that kind of encounter, because to study you have to sacrifice yourself, and even though you may have finished school, you still have to keep on studying quite a lot, that is if you want to be a musician capable enough of facing up to a stage with artists of high standing.  But studying music is endless.”

Tony, your playing style is described as being a hybrid of classical, jazz and traditional Cuban forms.  What is at the heart of Cuban pride and its artist’s ongoing commitment to their roots?

TP: ”For me especially, it’s interested me a lot for that very reason, because of the roots, and as an interpreter of music, popular Cuban music, classical Cuban music and European classical music.  So what I studied at the conservatoire served me as a base, and that’s why you can hear it in the cradle of the mystical form.  And classical American music, that’s where all the classical pianists get their inspiration from, including the Cuban classical pianists and the contemporaries.  And there are some contemporaries that serve as guidance, because they have revolutionized music in an interesting manner, so they have also contributed a lot to the music.  All that interests me a lot, and I’m always trying to improve, to perfect myself, because this is a career that I try to do with a lot of love and desire.  And I listen to all good music, and good music exists in any part of the world, not just in Cuba.  Although Cuban music interests me greatly, it’s in our blood, you know that the Cuban is musical, happy and rhythmic, that it’s a very rich musical tradition, because there’s also Cuban folk music, there’s African music and Brazilian music.  You can find great traditions all over the world, and you may perhaps notice the influences, which at some stage may blend into a fusion.  Let’s say a mixture of tumbao (the base pattern) and harmony, with other classical things.  And musicians perform music in one way or another, but the important thing is doing it with love, interest, seriousness and happiness.”

In 1997 you composed, arranged and played for the legendary Fania All Stars, involving Latin greats Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Cheo Feliciano, Papo Lucas, Alfredo de la Fé and Willie Colón.  How would you describe this experience?

TP: ”Yes, this took place in Caracas, Venezuela, and also in Medellín and Cali, so in Colombia too.  And I was invited by Fania All Stars, by their director Jerry Masucci, who used to run Fania Records.  He is dead now, but he invited me because we got to know each other in Cuba, and recorded many records together.  We met each other during my studies, and he was doing records for Fania All Stars, but using young players.  Young talented singers, pianists and so on, and we played Cuban music, salsa, and merengue.  And he liked the way that I interpreted the music, my arrangements and piano improvisations, so he then invited me to record in South America with Fania, which was actually in ’95.  And I can tell you that it was something very important in my life, and something that I enjoyed a lot.  And it was great to play with them, because I’d been listening to them since I was a kid, and following their careers.  And at that moment it was like reaching the top in what I had been doing, because although I had worked with a lot of famous salsa orchestras here in Cuba, like Isaac Delgado, Klimax, Afro Cuba, Rodidas, and shared the stage with Los Van Van, Manolito Simon, at that moment I was in an international market with artists that I admired a lot, like Celia Cruz, Cheo Feliciano.  To also have shared the piano with Papo Lucas and Andy Harlow, being directed by Johnny Pacheco, with a great number of artists there such as ‘El Bajo’ Valentin, this was and will be the story of my life.  And to think of the ‘savor’ (talent) that those people have, and in front of a hundred thousand people!  It is a dream that any Cuban artist would love to have come true.  So I always remember that as something really great that I have done in my life.”

How did your stint involving Master Jesus ‘Chucho’ Valdés to lead Ikarere during their European and American tours come about?

TP: ”I did two tours overseas with Ikarere, one in Europe and another in the United States.  The two were important tours, but the US tour was longer, lasting two months.  And this was recently, I just got back from the US tour a few days ago, where we also went to Costa Rica.  And I did these two tours because Chucho couldn’t do them, and he called me to fill in for him.  And he gave me the job with a lot of kindness, security and trust.  And I took on the job, because here, we are all great admirers of him and his music, and for me it’s guidance as well, because I see him as a great jazz pianist in the world, a figure representative of Cuban music, and of jazz in Cuba and the rest of the world.  The tours were very successful, he was very happy, and so was I.  But for me it was a great honour to do that job, and will continue to do it because he has many commitments with his jazz quartet.  And so, when he can’t do it, he’ll call me, and although I have my own career, I will try to do it because it interests me.”

On the other hand, you Ramces, in your own release of ‘Fetecun’ include a homage to Eleggúa, a prominent Orisha from the Santería religion.  Tell me about the importance of West African traditions in the Cuban music of today.

RB: “African musical traditions in Cuban music are quite strong, in view that with the passing of time it has been taking over with a more principal role, and especially with regards to percussion.  And percussion is what I believe to be the ‘plato principal’ (main course) of Cuba.  Cuba being a country quite rich with everything that is percussion.  The folk, be it religious or urban, which is what we have here in Cuba, is very tied to what is African music.  This has resulted in Afro-Cuban music, which is an union between the reverence, the Cuban nation and the tradition that it brings with it from Africa.  And so over time Cuban music has been like retaking from the same folklore, it hasn’t had to borrow from outside of Cuba to enrich its music.  So what has been done is a mixture between the same folk genre or the same Cuban genre.”

Other styles covered include blues, jazz, rock and rap.  Is this the new face of Cuba?  Does it reflect current trends in the country?

RB: ”Yes, I think so, because before in Cuba, and by before I mean perhaps ten or twelve years ago, everything was very concentrated around pure Cuban music, and the scene was not open to other genres.  There were rock and rap groups, but now I think there is space for nearly the whole world here in Cuba.  There are the rappers, the rockers, and there are good groups in each genre.   And I think that jazz gives you the possibility to be open to all genres, but in reality I like them all.  So I will listen to jazz, fusion, rap, as long as it’s well done, because the music is what’s important to me, what it communicates.”

What will be the music showcased in your upcoming Australian tour?

TP: ”Coming to Australia is ‘el Indio’, the trumpeter, myself on piano, Ramces the drummer, and ‘el Sagua’, Jorge Alexander, who is the bass player.  And what we will be playing are works by the different members, because each musician that is coming has his own album out on this collection that Claudio Ajavon has put together.   So that’s what we’re doing, jazz fusion.”

Tony Peréz will be performing together with trumpeter ‘el Indio’, bassist Jorge ‘el Sagua’ Alexander and drummer Ramces Baralt and as part of the ‘Nuevos Maestros Cubanos’ (New Cuban Masters) at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.  Their appearance is scheduled at 9.30pm, Saturday, January 22, 2000.  ‘Soneao’ and ‘Fetecun’ out on Tamarindo Records (‘Nuevos Maestros Cubanos’ collection).  Email: tamainfo@tamarindorecords.com The Tamarindo Web Site. I would like to thank Alexander Pertout senior for his assistance in the English translation from Spanish.


'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #69, January 1, 2000


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