Maykel Blanco. Photo: ©NATHADREAD PICTURES / NATHANAEL MERGUI
Maykel Blanco. Photo: ©NATHADREAD PICTURES / NATHANAEL MERGUI

Maykel Blanco and Salsa Mayor: "And after add it songo"

19 minutos / Rafael Valdivia is right

24.02.2020 / Interviews

“Life is changing and we have to understand that. How to dress, how to walk or how to project yourself will not change a genre. Around this there are many clichés that we have to break. Now, if we want our culture and our values to last over time, we have to maintain the essence, but those little banalities that surround us have to vary with the times." 

I came to think that he was getting off the subject, but obviously, the one who didn't understand was me. The question was about the (in) compatibility between the rhythmic cells of songo and reggaeton. In the end, I was burning him with more of the same and he was killing me with an obvious while intelligent response. Because the question is not whether Maykel Blanco refuses or not to make reggaeton: “This genre I think that, musically, does not give me many possibilities. But I think it has other values in terms of image and other things to absorb, far from criticizing it.”

Perhaps there would have been a good headline (although they have already asked him several times). The old prejudices —which are the new ones—, the schemes, the stereotypes, the capacity for renewal, the conceptual commitments and the fidelities, the sacralization of heritage, the idealization of a past, that is, the same problems that always surround the music, eternal, told in its sententious and synthetic way, made me realize that the one who tried to avoid the subject was me.

I have been reflecting more after the interview than what I had to prepare for it. I confess, so many meanings overflow me. Maykel Blanco and Salsa Mayor is renovation and continuity. It is Cuban music in the most conventional and orthodox sense of the term. However, a look at its performance places us fully in today's Cuba, with more diverse people in their identities. It doesn't matter if we enroll them in that abstraction of “Cuban dance popular music”. The idea of how this plasticity of music on the Island has historically contributed to a process of social osmosis and, at the same time, is nourished by such disparate elements. Diversity can also be understood from the canon. At least in music. At least in Cuba.

Maykel no llega a los 40 años, pero ya acumula horas-vuelo (literal y metafóricamente) para delinear otros horizontes en su mecánica de trabajo. No es preciso conocerlo para percatarse de que, aparte de la creación, se inserta con efectividad en otras dinámicas de producción, organización de eventos y conocimientos técnico-escénicos. Sus resultados hablan por sí solos. Es posible que lo intente, pero al final no puede evitar expresar alguna contradicción: “En Cuba siempre hay una tendencia a sobrevalorar lo importado, y no nos damos cuenta de que en muchas ocasiones nos valoran a nosotros mismos en otros países, por nuestra música, por encima de gustos y músicas de esos mismos países”. Muchos no se enteran, pero la Salsa Mayor es una de las orquestas cubanas que más gira en los momentos actuales y que mayor proyección internacional tiene. Más allá del éxito de sus relaciones públicas y su imagen fresca, se me dibujan, entre otros, tres factores claves en esa pegada, allá y aquí.

Planning

In the orchestral approach of Salsa Mayor, the primacy has the arrangements. It can be said that musicians are completely subject to the ideas of their director. There is almost no room for improvisation. Each instrument is part of a gear, not only rhythmically very conceptual but also of sound filling and mixing. The arrangements run through a bold planning of the rhythm that, differentiated by typologies, maintains the identity of the band.

“Desde un principio, la base fuerte (bajo, piano y percusión) fue algo que nos caracterizó. Yo soy percusionista, y aunque ya no lo tengo que hacer, en los inicios le tocaba a cada instrumentista exactamente lo que quería que hiciera. Así los fui adaptando y ya hoy no hace falta hacerlo. Solo los miro y ellos saben”. Maykel  se sorprende cuando le refiero que eso mismo se dice que hacía Arsenio Rodríguez, a pesar de su invidencia. El hombre que más ha revolucionado el son en toda su historia, parecía querer que todo se fraguara exactamente tal y como lo tenía en su cabeza. 

Setenta años después, y no obstante al desarrollo musical alcanzado, la fórmula sigue pareciendo efectiva, sin hablar del entronque entre el ciego maravilloso y el songo que le sucede hasta el día de hoy (Juan Formell también era un planificador por excelencia). Maykel Blanco confiesa: “El arreglo lo llevo como si fuera un diseño exacto en el que no se puede mover nada de lo que está escrito. Ahora, yo no sé ejecutar el bajo, pero si sé escribirlo al dedillo. Hay dos variantes: escribir en cifrado o en figurado. El primero es cuando pones una especie de notación del acorde y el instrumentista sabe por cuáles notas puede caminar porque conoce el acorde. En este caso, el bajista puede interpretar qué puede o qué no puede hacer. Yo lo hago en figurado porque quiero que toque exactamente en cada compás, nota por nota, lo que concibo como parte del arreglo. Además, eso da otra ventaja a cualquier director, si por casualidad se enferma el bajista o no va a estar más en la orquesta —por las razones que sean—, el que venga atrás tocará exactamente lo mismo y la orquesta siempre sonará igual”.

Maykel Blanco. Photo: ©NATHADREAD PICTURES / NATHANAEL MERGUI

Maykel Blanco. Photo: ©NATHADREAD PICTURES / NATHANAEL MERGUI

Differentiated structures for the compositions

Although this is something that has characterized the most prestigious timba groups, in Salsa Mayor this aspect acquires an extra value given the excessive rhythmic stability that compromises any attempt to break or segment that rhythm. The heavier the load (understands as a base with very evolving sub-low frequencies, with dry and closed percussion, moving under a very regular pattern), the harder it will be to attempt a change in speed or accentuation and, consequently, oxygenate such structures by way of rhythm. That is why the orchestras with a strong base (Los Van Van, Adalberto Álvarez y su Son, Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco) are less flexible in that sense than those that practice aggressive and novel passages and optionals, than on the other hand they do not have as objective that rhythmic stability nor a powerful base (Irakere, NG La Banda, Bamboleo). 

En este tipo de música hay una lucha permanente contra la repetición, y Maykel Blanco conoce de sus riesgos. “Existen ciertos tipos de estructuras típicas, muy comunes, que hacen que todo se vuelva predecible. Desafortunadamente, algunas agrupaciones, desde que comienzan, ya se sabe más o menos lo que van a hacer. Por ejemplo, muchas hacen una introducción que comienza con una frase de metales que dura entre ocho  y 16 compases, después hacen el cuerpo del número, tras lo cual van al primer tumbao (o montuno), hacen el primer mambo para entrar en el segundo tumbao, y después vendría el clímax que es la parte más caliente del tema. Casi siempre tienen un mismo tipo de bloque o efectos para tumbar en ese clímax, que muchas veces se repite disco tras disco. Después levantan con el segundo mambo y marcan coda para terminar el tema. 

“That is why I try to make each number have its own identity and an independent block, that are made optionals to go from one place to another, I mean, I look for a route and not do a repetitive mambo. The idea is that when the song is heard for the first time, nobody can be sure where it is going; but at the same time, I always have something, which is the pen, the writing of the composer and the arranger. I try to do all these different things, studying what I did before so as not to fall into repetitions.” 

The gravitational effect of songo

This permanent search to avoid repetition could also compromise the group's own seal. When I ask him about the restrictive nature imposed by these two needs, the issue of songo emerges.

“In the beginning, we were criticized for following in the footsteps of Los Van Van. At that time that position had advantages and disadvantages. The best thing was that they were comparing us with the first orchestra of Cuba, and that was a good step because we were already in sight of all when we were just started. It is true that we make our own songo, and of course, there are meeting points. Since the 70s and 80s there have been many groups that have gone by the same style, I don't know if it was by chance or with any intention, but none had been projected along the path of songo. Then this was created as a myth, that The Van Van, who had been the creators, were the only ones who could touch it. What I mean is that Salsa Mayor initially had meeting points with Los Van Van because we were doing the same genre. Then we have been finding ourselves, just as the public was finding our peculiarities, and today, since it breaks, it is known that it is Salsa Mayor, while still doing timba with songo and with all the influences of other Cuban and foreign genres."

When I ask him how many doses of each item there is in Salsa Mayor, Maykel replies:When I ask him how many doses of each item there is in Salsa Mayor, Maykel replies:

“The songo is a rhythm that has undergone transformations over time. But I think this songo is now influenced by many elements, including timba. It has harmonic cycles and very specific things. But the timba, at the same time, has a lot of influence from jazz and traditional son. So this songo we do is a mixture of many elements difficult to separate; but ultimately, in Salsa Mayor, if you ask me, what predominates is the songo ”. 

It happens that this genre, which fortunately has not been limited to the premises of Los Van Van, in the last decade has shown a capacity for selective absorption of different rhythm semantics with a high degree of efficiency. Van Van are still the numen; Pupy and the Son Son may be the orchestra that has achieved the best synthesis between styles that have run in parallel (son-songo and timba brava of more flexible rhythmic elements), in addition to the rumba dart that is permanent; and Maykel Blanco and Salsa Mayor has given it its own course with interesting and innovative proposals.

Por ejemplo, el songo de Maykel Blanco saca a flote un grupo de elementos ancestrales de la música yoruba y su influencia en el movimiento de la timba. Los guiños y las reminiscencias son constantes. Si bien no ha sido la única agrupación timbera que nos ha retrotraído a esa raíz lucumí, en Salsa Mayor no parece ser un hecho aislado o casual. Si prestamos atención a las diferentes tipologías rítmicas (más bien polirrítmicas) desarrolladas por la orquesta desde el disco Soy lo que te hala (Planet Record, 2010), encontraremos patrones similares a algunos toques de los tambores batá (entendiendo toda la base percutiva y el bajo como un ensamble que recrea el sonido de esos tambores). Un ejemplo claro, precisamente de ese disco es Y qué tú crees, que parece ser una suerte de ensayo timbero-songuero de un chachalokuafún urdido por los batá yorubianos, sobre todo notable en el clímax del número. Es en esta parte álgida (bomba) de los temas donde más se hace notar esta conexión; aunque no puede decirse que hay un “viraje” del ritmo, se perciben ciertos cambios de acentuaciones que nos llevan a interpretar esa madeja con una carga semántica temporalmente diferente al montuno pero mucho más batalera.

Aunque parezca accesorio, en este juego de significaciones los tipos de instrumentos escogidos aportan mucho, así como la afinación de la percusión y el arte de mezclar en un estudio, el timbre de los cantantes (en el caso de Salsa Mayor con cierta propensión a decantarse por los de color oscuro y cierto espesor, que se acomodan mejor a la tímbrica general de la orquesta).

In view of so many space-time connections, and reviewing his discography, I have to asking about it.

With Suprema Ley (group prior to Salsa Mayor) you recorded Dile a Catalina and with Salsa Mayor Yo como candela . Why have you not slipped in the recent discography some other very traditional song that allows you to capture other types of audiences both outside and inside Cuba?

"We have not done it because it has not really been within our strategies when it comes to shaping the recent discography, although I am a fan of Chappottín. In general, I am a lover of our more traditional music, but I consider that Chappottín had a special flavor with the one that identified me a lot by the way of moving the metalwork and the treatment of percussion. That's why I in a certain way decided to recordYo como candela At this moment, given the path that is touring Salsa Mayor, it has not been convenient to include another traditional song on a record because we have had different ideas regarding genres and things we want to do, but I can tell you that we intend to do something with a large participation of traditional music later. For a long time, I have wanted to make a fusion between Orquesta Aragón and Salsa Mayor, not only from the musical point of view but also from the image. I have proposed it to Rafelito Lay and I am in that phase, trying to convince him.”

Son muchas las ramificaciones y los antecedentes que atestiguan la riqueza de la música cubana, desde el pasado lejano hasta el más reciente. Lo que no parece efectivo, si se quiere contextualizar un patrimonio en el presente e interpretarlo de una manera viva y dinámica, es apelar a códigos visuales obsoletos y estáticos que en nada conectan con las generaciones actuales. Lo visual en la gestión del patrimonio musical puede decirse que no es esencial, en tanto que puede no “tocar” o cambiar el contenido artístico de una obra. Pero que no sea esencial no quiere decir que sea recomendable prescindir de esos códigos, porque en definitiva, el camino pasa por adaptar ese patrimonio a la visualidad y dinámica actual y no viceversa. No obstante a la vitalidad de su agrupación y su desempeño contemporáneo, el pianista lo refiere de esta manera:

“I don't understand why at this point we have to make country music with a guayabera in the style of the 70s; you can make current guayaberas and they would not cease to be, or you can simply try other ways of dressing. When you buy a record you are listening to music, you are not looking at the artist's face. Then you see it and you can get the attention that you expected with a guayabera and go out with a suit, for example. I convinced myself that I cannot pretend that one of my children, who is 16 years old, dresses like me, eats the same, walks and projects himself the same.” 

But this pairing between audio and image in dance music of large formats entails special challenges today because nothing is worth a good image design and good context management if the arrangements and performance do not translate with quality to through sound systems, both for a disc and for live presentations.

Las orquestas cubanas, como otros tantos formatos y géneros musicales han sido víctimas de lo que se conoce como “guerra de los decibeles”. Por una parte, tal y como nos refiere Alfonso Peña, ingeniero de sonido y una voz más que autorizada en este tema: la mezcla comienza con el arreglo. Por otra parte, es un hecho inobjetable que el pop y lo que de este lado conocemos como música urbana, gracias a los sistemas de compresión digital y al uso de playbacks en las presentaciones en vivo, ha elevado la demanda y la percepción de presión acústica en la música. Por tanto, podemos decir que para “timbear” actualmente se necesita hallar un punto medio entre estas dos lógicas. Maykel lo refiere en estos términos:

“It's a super important point, but that's no concern to the public. The ones we produce are the ones who have to think about solutions. Generally in urban music musicians play above background, that is, they play adding to what is already done. But the essence is that this music is already recorded, it will not have problems with the bass drum, nor with the bass; as bad as the sound engineer is, you already have 70% of the guaranteed path. When you are going to play all the music in a real way, any technical failure will throw you on the floor. The dancer does not understand that, he will simply stop feeling something or notice that something is loose. What I mean is that urban music has a number of considerable advantages: the air (tempo) is constant, the sound will always be the same because it is recorded, etc. [In our case] If a microphone lacks pressure at any given time, that is for the entire concert.

“Keep in mind that we work with 32 channels. This last album was mixed in an important studio in Miami, where Marc Anthony and Prince Royce mix, to name just two. I remember that the sound guy put his hands on his head and asked us: 'but how many instruments do you have?' Because, generally, the other music has 14 tracks, and sometimes less. Mixing those 32 tracks both live and in a studio is a very complex job. This music that we defend, if one manages to mesh it well and that the sound works, you will feel great pressure and great artistic value, but if something fails, however small is the detail, it kill us.” 

In relation to production issues, let's say, what surrounds music and is not the music itself, what do you think are the main demands in Cuba today?

“We still lack good shows. In addition, it is counterproductive that you appear at a festival of any kind, among all those that are made at this time, where they take care of many production details, and then go to present yourself in a place where there is a white light bulb that creates a shadow on the face singer. I think we have to start thinking not only about the number of concerts but also about the quality of concerts. Our life system brings as a consequence that we have to play a lot in order to win the daily, and that brings problems. However, I am of the criterion that is preferable, if at a given time, during a month, one gathers five thousand people among all the presentations, make a single one with that amount where the same could be incomed but with more quality. Because in the other way one is assuming a permanent risk ”. 

Maykel Blanco. Photo: ©NATHADREAD PICTURES / NATHANAEL MERGUI

Maykel Blanco. Photo: ©NATHADREAD PICTURES / NATHANAEL MERGUI

That is why in this fifth edition of the Festival of Salsa, Maykel Blanco, as his organizer, he has insisted through the media not only on the festive event and on its calling capacity but on the scenographic quality as another source of enjoyment not at odds with the intrinsic popularity of this type of music and shows.

The Salsa Festival grows from year to year, and in that it plays an essential role the feedback that is received from a group of promoters, DJs, dance teachers, from all over the world, who according to Maykel are doing the work that does not make any transnational with Cuban music. With their daily work and thanks to the networks —social-virtual and social-face to face—, these profiles expand the number of followers that the orchestras of the Island have.

From a modest home office in the Almendares neighborhood, Maykel cooks several of these ideas with his team. Intuitive and pragmatic, with his sustained work he has been responsible for dismantling some myths and activating certain demands, inside and outside, for the music he defends. Like a good musician, he offers us answers along the way and leaves us, at the same time, several questions. 

Rafael Valdivia is right

Rafael Valdivia is right

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