Pepe Gavilondo: "They are taking curiosity away from people"
If you ask a random Cuban who Pepe Gavilondo is maybe, with a lot of luck, he or she may recognize him as the current keyboardist of the band Síntesis. If the person surveyed is from Havana, might remember to cross with him some weekend in the halls of the Fábrica de Arte Cubano. But surely nobody would recognize him in his true self; the man behind these masks lives for contemporary music, a terrain unknown to most Cubans. Gavilondo has had the rare occurrence of dedicating himself to making contemporary classical music - sorry for the qualification, if you do not find its meaning, think that I do not either - a music that even in countries with a more receptive audience does not happen to be more than a strange occurrence for minorities. But we should be grateful that there are people like Pepe, anonymous superheroes bent on updating the codes of classical music that seem to live a long dream of more than a century. His works will never fill stadiums, but his experimentations help build a path through which music to come will walk, as rock and timba owe to Bach, Chopin and Wagner.
As a child, José Víctor Gavilondo Peón (Havana, 1989) was not like the others. While the rest played the usual things -marbles, hide and seek, inventing an excuse to get dirty, the usual- Pepe built castles with his dinosaurs: a tower of velocirraptors, the base of a bridge arch with long necks, the battlements with pterodactyls. He took an element, in itself strange, and put it in terms of something for which it was definitely not designed. Pepe is not clear if there was something planted in that will. But there lies a good image of his poetics as an artist.
In any case, art was never alien to him, with grandparents who loved plastic arts, a mother who was a teacher at the National Ballet of Cuba, a scientific father obsessed with photography and a designer brother.
"It was not a family of artists completely," he tells me on a sunny morning at the beginning of the year, "but there was an artistic atmosphere everywhere, and a scientific one too. Those were two things that we always had very close to each other: on one hand the artistic and subjective; and on the other, the rational side".
Then came the usual, some beginnings in piano studies at the Manuel Saumell conservatory after which he did not give much and failed the level pass. Something, however, prompted him to take the tests for theoretical subjects. He was not especially excited, but it was the only way he had to continue his studies at the Amadeo Roldán school. "I was always a good student and everything", he says, "but [the theoretical subjects] did not fill my heart". There, without being too clear how, began the interest in composition and improvisation. It must have helped that, at that time, he had met Juan Piñera, who accepted him in his workshops. One thing led to the other and one day in 2014 he finished a composition degree from the University of the Arts (ISA).
But, he repeats, that is only a part, the academic one, perhaps the least important.
"With the aesthetic here there are two worlds where people tell you that if you are not of this, you are of the other. And if you are not from a world where your family instilled in you popular music, folklore, cliché; then you are from the other. Within that paradigm I would be the other. In no way I rejected the popular, folkloric, classical Cuban aspects; but it was not the environment where I developed.
"Here," he refers to his home, "there was not much Cuban music, but classical music and rock and roll, and that in any case did have an impact on me. I never had innate aptitudes -that you see of talented people, who carry it in their blood- for what Cuban music is. I have had to try to reinsert myself in my own context and take what I can. But it's definitely not my roll. I love it, I appreciate it, I carry it in me, but not in that way that is seen in other musicians.
"When I started composing, mine was concert music. Debussy, Vivaldi, Stravinski were my influences, even now I still have those aspects of the twentieth century, although I do much more with music. But that was like my background basically"
"In the ISA happened that I started to link with troubadours. I worked with Heidi Igualada and later with Ariel Díaz and Liliana Héctor; that as an arranger and also as musical director showed me the other side of popular music, and then I started to insert myself into that world. "
2014 was not only the year in which Pepe Gavilondo graduated in composition, it was also the year in which his life collided with one of the most important bands of the second half of the 20th century in Latin America - and of rock itself, I would dare saying.
"In 2014, Síntesis appeared. I think I had the tremendous luck of being the only person who was around when they needed a keyboardist. The legacy of Synthesis has always weighed heavily on me. "
And is not for less. To occupy a position for which names of the likes of José María Vitier, Lucía Huergo and Esteban Puebla have passed, must be as exciting as disturbing.
"I could not believe it," says Pepe, I still do not believe it. I say that I am the luckiest guy in the world, because I go back and repeat, that was not my world, that kind of music I did not do it or listen to it or study it, it was not my culture. I listened to Síntesis in a concert and I loved it, but that's it. And suddenly I see myself in that world, where you not only have the legacy but the obligation to live for that legacy, to be up to the task. And over the years I've realized that I'm not -I do not want to be, it's not the objective- nor Mike Pourcell, nor Esteban Puebla, nor [Ernán] López-Nussa, nor Vitier, nor Lucía Huergo, nor anyone who has gone through the keyboards or the creative aspects of Synthesis.
"Esteban, for example, who is the figure who was more years there and is a legend; I would not reach him or be the keyboard player that I am not, nor having the knowledge or culture that I should have, according to my paradigm to be in Synthesis. I have realized that the things that I can contribute to Síntesis are other: intensity, commitment, and another type of creativity that I put on the keyboard, according to my abilities and limitations. Again, I am super lucky to learn from Carlos and Ele, that they are not only great musicians but also great people. Assere, I learn from them every day as human beings, and of course as an artist, and they make me a little better. "
And why were you interested in contemporary music and composition? You already told me that for a matter of sensitivity you were not in a timba group, not even jazz. Particularly this type of aspect of music, what was it that you found there?
"There are a lot of music that I love, but there are some music that speaks to me (really, they talk to me). It's funny, for the time that I started to compose, to be interested in these music, I also started doing photography, influenced by my dad. Digital photography started here in Cuba; We are talking about the years 2003, 2004. I managed to find in those primary years, very raw, a symbiosis between color, abstraction and the musical world that I embodied in my compositions.
"I can not explain why I liked Debussy more than Chopin, or more whatever. I can not explain it, I can not find the words. Simply my brain responded to those musics. They were the music that I listened to at school and I found that I could communicate through the piano, which was my instrument, those languages better than jazz or popular music. I dont know.
"When you start to compose and say I will be a concert music composer, and it does not have those clear influences of Cuban music, you have to go the Attila horses, let me see what they did, you have to go to Debussy, to Bartók, to all those masters of the 20th century, which above all were the ones that interested me and that broke the schemes.
"Today, for example, in the field of concert music, I am still influenced by that aspect, which I have already discovered other music and now, for example, I already have the influence of Síntesis, even in concert music. I also have influence of minimalism, for example, which was something else that I discovered and I became more interested in the ISA period or later. And what is experimental music, that is, what is more contemporary, interdisciplinary, the most avant garde what can be done, it was thanks to that we started the project of the Interactive Ensemble of Havana (EIH).
"That music that I do in the Ensemble to me is not born to me alone. It is a very funny thing. I do not like to compose that music alone, or I do not feel the need. Maybe because I have the EIH that is more satisfying, it is a feeling in that sense. The music that I compose alone is another type of music that is much more conservative, more rooted in those influences of the 20th century ".
When Pepe Gavilondo speaks of the Interactive Ensemble of Havana something is caught in his eyes. That's how I learned about his work, in a street in Old Havana during a season of the Ciudad en Movimiento event, in which I suddenly came across some musicians with instruments of indigenous cultures who danced and improvised in a sort of apparently infinite performance and disconnected.
The Ensemble idea began cooking in 2009, after Gavilondo participated in the Havana Festival of Contemporary Music with a workshop called Thirteen facets, by the Catalan composer, pianist and sound artist Josep María Balanyà.
"It was a project of directed improvisations," explains Pepe. "He basically taught us a series of gestures he did and those gestures meant one thing. From these gestures he suggested to us what to improvise and we improvised on that. That was more or less the thing. We did a week-long workshop, and then a concert.
"In 2014 he returned, I took care of his return, and there I was able to join the musicians, prepare the Ensemble, and we did that workshop again and a concert in the Basilica [Minor of the Convent of San Francisco de Asís]. At that specific time in November 2014, several of us said: 'Caballero, we have to do it again because this kind of musical art is not done in Cuba, it was lost; Composition students do not care much, they do not teach you, they do not teach you. ' There was a common feeling that this work was much needed. This is how the Ensemble project began.
"We started very raw, making real improvisations, without any preparation, without anything. We mixed all kinds of music with performances, with clowning, with theater. Everything we wanted to do we did. Little by little we were changing: people came, people left; We were listening to music and learning from our mistakes. After four years I would say that I see myself in this world without doing many things that I do now and that I love, but I can not imagine my world without the Ensemble because it is not only the music that I do as an individual, it is knowing that all this has created collectively.
"Working with the Ensemble and with other projects has made me a less lonely composer. I have realized that my ego only exists when I am nurturing other people. Every time I compose less alone (especially because I have less and less time). Before I sat down and in a week I composed a symphonic piece. I do not have time for that now. Instead, I find the greatest satisfaction doing things in the groups: Synthesis; the Ensemble; play with troubadours; my work with Acosta Danza, with dancers and choreographers. I increasingly hate being alone composing. And it all started with the Ensemble.
Now that you mention Acosta Danza, there is a very strong vocation in you to go beyond the traditional boundaries of artistic disciplines; Why this interest, in a world that sometimes hyper specializes? How do you feel to be in so many different worlds?
"Notice that they are different worlds, but they are specific worlds. I do not work so much for theater because it does not fill me so much, it does not mean as much to me as dance and cinema - which is my other passion, but I have not been able to explore it.
"Music is my life, it's not my vocation. My vocations are dance and cinema. I was a little kid all the time at the National Ballet of Cuba with my mom, and when you grow up in that kind of environment, for you, dancing means something, even if you are not a dancer. When I started to compose I did not see myself in the world of dance because I was not in an environment in which I could exploit that aspect. I liked it, but it was an external thing; I had other interests as a composer. "In 2010 I went to Mexico and met a Mexican choreographer who was working at that time for the National Dance Company, her name is Yazmín Barragán and her husband Jasmany Hernández, who is a Cuban dancer. She was beginning her career as a choreographer. One day we met and she invited me to work, to write something. I started going to the headquarters of the National Company of Mexico every day and I composed a 40 minute ballet, a monstrosity of five movements that I can not remember right now or how it is played. That was my first attempt to make music for dance. "
After that, there have been collaborations with the Mexico City Ballet, Yosmell Calderón, Marien Valdés, and above all, an intense and fruitful work for Acosta Danza, which includes choreographies for Raúl Reinoso, Beatriz García, María Rovira, Marianela Boán.
"I've realized that I like and have fun making music for dance," says Pepe. "I can do things that choreographers, especially those of contemporary dance, are not used to having as music, but I propose them and they like it. It is all very comfortable. Everybody wins".
You have not chosen the easy way, and you have decided to focus on a music that in itself does not have large audiences. Now, how difficult is it to make classical or contemporary music, not popular, in a country like Cuba, one of the bastions of popular music worldwide?
"Right now Cuba is going through a musical, artistic, cultural crisis. It does not mean that everything that is done is bad, not at all. What happens is that the bad first-and I say bad not because it is a music that I do not like, but because I believe that the cultural and human values that promotes that music are negative, and are not helping this people to progress mentally and culturally
"Within that crisis, classical and contemporary music are having, for me, the biggest blow. And it's not because I come from that world; I know that alternative musics are still alternatives for a reason. Making classical music and contemporary music in this country is a challenge and you have to do it with a lot of love because if you want to get rich or want to live from that you will not be able to, at all. It's very hard.
"I'll tell you why it's so hard: most rockers and rappers have not studied that, and those who have studied have not studied since they were six years old. Classical musicians, on the other hand, are studying from that age. Since you are a child, you are becoming who you are going to be some day. Those dilemmas that university students have of "Oh, I do not know what I'm going to do with my life, I took this race, but I do not know what ..." No, no, no. If you are a musician you can go, you may not like it and you want to go. But if you started at six and you're 29 that means you've been doing 22, 23 years doing something like your life. That's why I tell you music is not my profession or my vocation, it's my life.
"Then, when you graduate from ISA or from Amadeo [Roldán], you're already a professional, you've studied that music and you want to do it because you love it, because it's what you love, you go out into the world and you find yourself with the serious reality that there are no spaces, there is no market, there is no public, there is no money. This happens in the whole world, I am not now emphasizing Cuba; but here the phenomenon gets worse because it is a paradox that you get so much! Free education, so much preparation, and then you can not do anything with that. I'm grossly generalizing, I know, but, you know, how many symphony orchestras are there? The Symphony Orchestra in Havana, the Symphonic Orchestra of Holguín and the Orchestra of the ISA. Super closed spaces. Then you have to go to the chamber orchestras and the chamber orchestras are also super trained. Recording a record is still a dream, let alone living from it.
"Then there are limitations, barriers with which the classical musician has to move forward. And everything is accentuated with the lack of culture and taste of the people, in a general way, for that music. So, if you make that music and the people are not interested in listening to it on the radio or on television, you will be forced, perhaps, to do other things. Something that has nothing to do with you, but you have to do it because you have to eat, you have to live.
But it is not something that works as a way of life.
"Exact! What you have to do? Work in Factory [of Cuban Art], work in Synthesis. I have tremendous luck because I am in the best places where someone could be, but there are people who do not, who do not have that luck. It's hard, it's really hard. "
In his essay The soul of Hegel and the cows of Wisconsin, the Italian writer Alessandro Baricco holds several criticisms of classical music today; who is responsible for entrenching herself, accepting the role of canon and having lost her way. As part of your scene, what do you feel about this statement?
"I definitely agree with that aspect. It is not that we are now talking about classical music as a phenomenon of poor angel, innocent, who is suffering everything. No. I think it is a training problem. If they tell you when you are a child: ′ Classical music is to give in the concert halls, and it has to be done like this, I don't know what… ′, and they don't open your mind and they don't tell you that you are doing art, no music ... All the structures and paradigms that you receive throughout your training tell you the same thing, they tell you nothing more than this belongs here and it has to be done like this. So you somehow grow up thinking that this is so. I realized through the Ensemble that, if you make people see what they don't know exists, people will be curious, even if they don't like it. That is the goal. I have played in the street with the Ensemble and people stop to see it. You can think anything, but stop to see it because these people have never seen such a thing.
"People are super curious. The Cuban sees something new and is interested. The problem is that the Cuban is vitiated by the same things. They are taking away curiosity from people, they are taking away the desire to see if there is something different or better, that maybe you will like it or not. That's what I mean when I talk about cultural crisis. It's not reggaeton. Reggaeton has to exist. It is a problem of the society mentality. People's goals do not include that curiosity.
"What is helping? Art Factory is helping, definitely. Because Fábrica has the best of contemporary Cuban art. Be classical music, be it painting, whatever it is. When you go to the Art Factory and you go for a drink, you go to the ship 3 and you do not know what's there, you see a string quartet and you say: 'Wow !, I can have a mojito and watch a quartet of ropes. ' And the string quartet says: 'No! I can play in a cafeteria. ' Notice that it is a double process. Then, definitely the classical musicians are entrenched. Or do not entrench themselves, but that world of them leave you as incorrigible.
Let's talk about your music. I did not have the disc signed Voices of the subconscious, I heard it when it came out in Cubadisco 2018 nominations and I went back to it because it was mentioned a couple of times in the survey we did in the magazine to get the best Cuban albums of 2018. How was the process of building that album? Do you feel satisfied with the result?
"I am super accomplished, not satisfied. I mean, I want to make a million like that. But definitely being able to listen to your music recorded by the best symphonic orchestra in this country comes to you. I won the Musical Creation Conmutations grant awarded by the AHS, in 2014. I spent a year and a half doing the project. In May of 2016 I did a concert, Dreams, in Fine Arts with the chamber music he had presented. At that moment Carmen Souto calls me and says: 'Look, Hummingbird is interested in recording this.' According to the parameters of the scholarship, you can also record another music of yours, symphonic music. When I saw that 'Wait, Symphony ?!', I got to the thing and I finished Pearl and How to assemble a Volkswagen? Then, I said, "We're going to make the album have my whole trip, from the piano, the flute and the cello -which are the other two instruments that I love-, to the symphonic, chamber music, and the Ensemble, which is a very important thing. Now, from my perspective I would have liked to record Voices of the Subconscious otherwise.
I like the subject, I like it a lot. I'm not in the plan: "It was recorded as it could live, during the concert", but it was complicated. And now I know it would be much better because that was with a version of the Ensemble in 2016 and we are in 2019. Now my Ensemble really is "The" Ensemble. I do not want anyone else in my Ensemble, because I know that we are going to create things collectively. But hey, the Ensemble was at that important moment and I said 'there's nothing to be called Voices of the subconscious -Which was the name of the album- why do not we put this piece to it ?, and so we created it collectively. I tell you, recording it was a challenge. I think I became partially hypertensive thanks to the production process of that record. It was not easy to play and produce, and it was not easy to ride a truck holding a vibraphone and a marímbula standing around Old Havana. Luckily one year later the master came out, and the following year the album was finished by Colibrí. Now I'm lucky to have a copy, because apparently I'm in a long queue ...
Yes, the paths of the disc printed in Cuba are very complicated ...
"But hey, I have it there on SoundCloud, on Facebook. I want to put it on YouTube too, I'm not interested in charging copyright with this. Of course you have to collect and earn money, but there are things that you do from the heart and what I want is for people to listen to you. So far the biggest thing that I've done, what makes people say "Pepe, composer of concert music", is that record. But I still want to do other things: I have two symphonic pieces that I am working on now because there is no time, and when there is time there is no inspiration. Luckily I have the support of Pepito Méndez, of the Orquesta [Symphonic of the ISA], of course, Daiana García and the Chamber Orchestra of Havana, of the Camerata Romeu. Here all the ensembles are eager to have music from young people. This is very important. The problem is that they play it in front of the same people always. "
Among the many projects that boil in the head of Gavilondo, the recording of an album with the Interactive Ensemble of Havana is his most cherished dream. "Right now we are happy because they gave us an AHS scholarship, The kingdom of this world, to a project called Night snail, which is with Lezama's poetry, and we are going to record it. There are three moments, like three movements, with fragments of anthological poems by Lezama. Yesterday I went with the producer and the sound engineer to the house in Lezama because we are going to record it there [the material was recorded and it is in the final moments of the edition].
Are they going to record it there?
"Yes, at the house in Lezama at the beginning of March."
Good luck with the conditioning there! It must be a challenge, but sometimes you feel that you have the feeling and it does not matter.
"We want to do it there. First, because that has not been done before. Here Lezama is for those who read Lezama and for no one else. I met Lezama thanks to this. Yes, I knew who Lezama was, and Paradiso, And I do not know. But I love Lezama now because thanks to his poetry, to his word, this could be done. I'm super happy that we're going to achieve it.
"But like that video I would love to make a million. We do it ourselves because if we put ourselves to wait for three thousand CUC to appear, which is what everybody asks for to make a video michi-michi here, or that an institution or someone appears, is for pleasure. I return and I repeat, if you have the means, the availability, the time and the talent and you do not do things, it is your fault, it is not someone else's fault.
"It is true that right now in this interview I have complained; one complains, but he has to do. I think complaining is good if you really do something about it and we do something about it: we make videos ... with tremendous work and without the best conditions, so that they are there, so that those things are recorded, for someone 150 years from now 'Cojones, this was done. Look at these people! ' It's not because you feel good about yourself, but because I think you need the country, as you need other music and art projects. First, do not be so pretentious-you said that about entrenched music. I think there is a type of art that says 'I am like that and who does not like to be screwed'. I think you also have to adapt a bit. The experimental music that is made in Europe can not be done the same here because that works in Europe where people have another reality, other mentalities, another climate. I believe that it has to be done here, that it be from here. Something that we have tried to do, in the Ensemble especially. Little by little there we are achieving it, little by little. "
In 2018, you were selected to participate in the OneBeat project that year. How was the experience? I imagine that it must have been very motivating that the theme of that year was the recording of the album that was launched into space with the Voyage in 1977.
"I had applied in 2013 and 2014, but they had not accepted me - luckily! When I received that letter from the State Department of the United States saying 'Congratulations' I could not believe it.
"To give you an idea, tomorrow I'm going to tattoo the OneBeat logo [it was actually tattooed on his left arm]. My experience with OneBeat transcended the music; It was totally inspiring in every way: creative, interpretive, cultural. But the experience was first of all human. I shared my real life - which I had never done before - with 23 other human beings from all over the planet. Because here one can not do it because a foreigner comes and already. But that you sleep next to a person from Ukraine, from Mongolia, from Indonesia; that you share their realities. You realize that we are all truly the same.
"Musically I felt misfit all the time, because there everyone was a genius. At first I did not know what my place was, then I realized that my place was listening to what those people were saying and playing. I knew the musical culture of all those countries, the way of making music, the way of thinking about music. There were many cultural encounters because my way of seeing the rhythm and tempo is not the same way of seeing the rhythm and tempo of a person coming from Malaysia, for example. But there it was done, it was composed little by little, music collectively.
"We sat every day for dinner and lunch at the tables, and we talked. How does a person from Egypt, one from Hungary, one from Brazil, one from Cuba and one from Indonesia laugh at the same Cuban joke? Or the same Egyptian joke? Or they say 'Oh, but you eat this too?' One day the Ukrainian said he was going to prepare a traditional dish. Do you know what it was? Cold salad! Their version of cold salad: soft pasta, with mayonnaise, onion, apple and ham. I said 'I can not believe it! Do you eat this? ' I showed her pictures of Havana and she said 'It's identical to Kiev'. And she showed me pictures from there and I said 'That looks like Alamar'. And so both of you, asere! It's a pinga, a pinga! When you have the opportunity to see that in the world we are all part of the same thing.
"I think I came back as a better collective musician, because I became humble in front of all those people, despite my ego, even though I said 'this is not so, this has to be different', because he spoke from my reality. I came back a little humbler, and I came back with 22 brothers and sisters that I miss very much right now. Those people were stripped completely - even literally! -; we strip our souls, our music, our lives. It is an experience that I will keep in my heart all my life.
"Here in Cuba we need more things like that. It's necessary that a guy who changüí and come together with a guy who makes rap, come together with a guy who makes classic, meets jazz musicians and makes music. And that's the same with dancers, with theater people, poets, with people from the street, because there the music was played by ordinary people from the street, workshops were held in secondary schools, where children have their realities and a musician goes from Malaysia, another from Ukraine and another from Mongolia to make music, to show them how beautiful this world is. Because the beauty of this world is how different everything is, but how different it is.
Rafa G. Escalona
Certified Journalist. Father of a music magazine.