Musical theater is a great school for any musician, and for me it was. Whoever has that experience acquires a concept of their broader work, much more alive. It takes you to face a very different audience, because people are going to judge you from the seat, not just to enjoy themselves. I had done enough radio, television, cabaret, concerts. I had even played trumpet in groups like Artemiseño, where I started, and Rumbavana, but participating in the foundation of the [Teatro] Musical de La Habana and working there for years, changed my personal life and as an artist too, completely.
When I arrived at that theater -which used to be called Alkázar, in Consulado y Virtudes, where the Alhambra had been-, there was already an orchestra formed by an American musician based in Havana, Fred Smith, who was an extraordinary harmonica player and composer, but maybe he was not too aware of "the Cuban thing". I heard a couple of things that played and, as I understand not all members were efficient, I put as a first condition to assume the direction to change those that did not suit me. As they said to me: "Tony, you can do what you want", so as not to affect the young people who were already there, what I did was to throw away some old people and put new people with perspective. I was 25 years old, but there were no gestures of friendship or any kind of consideration other than quality, I assure you.
The first thing I did was replace the first parts: the first trumpet, the first alto saxophone, flute, the first violin ... and then the thing was fixed along the way. The orchestra really sounded great. It wasn't very big, but it had wood, metal, strings, two percussionists and the base: piano, bass and drums. I have the great satisfaction that the specialized critics, before each premiere of a work, said “the best was the orchestra”. I don't know if it's a luck I have in life, because I don't think I'm such a good musician, conductor, or arranger, but I admit to having had the enormous advantage of always working with very good instrumentalists.
Figurize: when I arrived at the Musical, Chucho Valdés was a pianist, who played almost as he plays now, but he did not read. Carlos Emilio Morales was the guitarist, who played better than now, but he did not read either. With me they became stand musicians. I also had the wonderful luck that Tito Rivera, Paquito's father, wanted me to start working professionally and put in my hands the boy, who was fifteen years old, but he played better than anyone else. I had a big problem with the Ministry of Labor, because I paid the maximum salary and in Cuba there was what was called the trident, that you have to pay the minimum and then you go little by little to earn more. A leader called me and told me "how is it going to be possible for you to pay the maximum for that new graduate?" Then I answered: "Very easy, find me one who plays like him, I take it out and we put that " He fucked up, because there was no way to find one who played like Paquito.
I really like to remember Nilo Argudín here, the first trumpet, a man of exceptional interpretative quality. We had one of the Hernández brothers on the bass, Kike first, and then Felo, Papito's brothers: three great musicians, double bass players. The first violin was a Mexican, whose name was Waldemar Gómez, very good. We only had four violins and a viola, but as the pen can do everything, what you write thinking about that formation, sounds perfectly. With me there were twenty members.
The first work that premiered was a comedy that was called Oh, the people, the second one was The Boy Friend and the third was a very interesting camera work that was called The nine new minstrels, with music by Leo Brouwer: nine musicians and nine actors on stage, nothing more. Then I started working as a composer, orchestrator and wrote the music of several works. The most significant was Mi solar, which was originally a ballet with music by Gilberto Valdés. That work was made film with the name of A day at the site, the first Cuban musical comedy that took to the cinema in 1964. More than twenty years after its premiere it was successfully restored, a great joy for me. It was the last work of the Musical Theater of Havana before it was closed, it seems that forever. It's very sad, I do not want to go through that corner.
In the Musical Theater I orchestrated a lot: Irma the sweet, Duck, The opera of the three cents, and in '64 I had to accompany that orchestra with Josephine Baker, who had come to Cuba before the Revolution when she suffered an unpleasant incident at the Hotel Nacional, which did not host her because she was black. He even left some songs recorded here with the excellent CMQ orchestra led by Enrique González Mantici.
I remember when we started rehearsing he interrupted me: "No, no, too fast". We started again and interrupted me again: "No, no, too slow". "Well, ma'am," I say to him with a frown, "call me a cappella now to find out at what speed you want the orchestra." And he replies: "No, teacher, I'm not going to sing it, find out. Have you ever been in a little boat like that in an amusement park? Ah, that's the rhythm of the waltz Mussette. It is not necessary that you sing anything, feel that sway and it will be everything ". That was a mnemonic device that she taught me, and she was not the only one. I never forgot again what is the time of the waltz Mussette.
With me it was lovely, very lady. On one of the occasions when we worked together, she had a bowel disease and I went to see her at the hotel the next morning. I was lying in great pain. Even so, he allowed her to come to his bedside. Before greeting me, he took my hand and said: "Whenever I come to Cuba, my director will be you." That was the way it was, and for me it was a great compliment. Enferma continued to present herself with her usual glamor. The previous night had given a phenomenal function.
In 1966 we made the disc Josephine Baker in Havana. As it was leaving the next day, we had few hours to record. Things that happen here, always in a hurry and running, all at the last minute. The fact is that we started at one in the afternoon. The technician was Medardo Montero, the best engraver in Cuba. The orchestra of the Musical live, complete in the studio, nothing background and then put the voice. Although we had made a tour of the interior of the country and the musicians knew the roles, -which was a formidable advance-, at six in the afternoon we had finished, including the overture, all in stereophonic sound. A record, I think. It was not so bad, because so many years later the album has had many reissues in compact, in France, in Japan, everywhere.
I found it in 70, in Bulgaria. It was in a place called Pic Nic during a reception that was offered to the participants of the Orfeo de Oro festival. I tried to reach her, but as I was next to the president of the State Committee of Radio and Bulgarian Television, I did not They allowed me to approach. I signed him with my arms raised, but he did not distinguish me, as he was very myopic. Then I went to the sound, I picked up a microphone and shouted, Josephine! Immediately he recognized the tone of my voice and answered Tony! with that high voice he had. He left the protocol, came to kiss me, took me by the arm and sat next to her. I was sorry because people would ask, and who is this little cuban that Baker wants so much? He began to ask me about people I knew, for Adolfo Guzmán, for Tania Castellanos, for Meme Solís ... From then on that night he did not pay any attention to the Bulgarians.
You had to share the stage with Josephine Baker to know the rigor that was demanded and demanded from others. He did not allow the smallest spontaneous detail, loose. Everything that happened on the scene had to be as it had been rehearsed. That lesson was useful for my work in the theater, and it gave me very good results. Whatever they say, being demanding is not a defect.
When it was first put My solar, the season was interrupted because I had to leave to France with the show Grand Music Hall of Cuba to direct the orchestra of the Olympia of Paris. On the last day, in August '65, we had to perform two functions in a row because, although it was very late when the curtain fell, the line still turned around the theater. Nobody protested or pouted. Everyone who worked there learned a lot and we felt fortunate, although we received more or less symbolic salaries. It was a priesthood that began from eight in the morning until one or two in the morning, every day. We did it for the love of art, just as it sounds, in the full extent of the word.
It is clear that the phenomenon of improvisation, which is what characterizes jazz, has existed for a long time in Cuban popular music, although not with the harmonic richness with which it was made in New Orleans. Notwithstanding the blues -one of the jazz's nutritional sources-, originally it had three chords, not seventeen, so it got richer over time with added intervals that were not used here in the Cuban son, which was where it first improvised, and in danzones, of course. Many flutists and violinists improvised and all the typical pianists had to improvise. The proximity with the United States was very influential. The most brilliant thing in the world passed through here. I already have a few years and I remember seeing the passage through Cuba of very famous musicians, colossal jazz players. The concept of improvisation that identifies jazz as a free genre is not so free, because it is subject to certain harmonic patterns that are inviolable.
I gave my musicians the freedom that was possible within the logical limits of a group that worked for the stage day after day. That orchestra was the genesis of the Chucho combo and the Modern Music Quintet that formed him, Paquito, Cachaíto [Orlando López] -which was not Musical Theater, but joined them-, Enriquito Plá on drums and Oscarito Valdés on the percussion That was the true embryo of the Modern and Irakere, which was created in 72.
The Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music - I do not know who has come up with that name - was founded in April of 1967 and was an all stars like never before seen here. There were no musicians of the bunch, ripiers, as the Italians say. Let's start with the six trumpets: Luis Escalante, probably one of the best musicians that Cuba has given, a poet of his instrument, who was also a soloist of the Symphony, where he finally stayed, since he was already an older man, and he is that Arturo Sandoval entered. There was Leonardo Timor, no less; [Adalberto Lara] Trompetica, who was 19 years old, the youngest of the orchestra; [Manuel] El Guajiro Mirabal, Jorge Varona and Andrés Castro. The order in which I have said it is the one I remembered, not because of its qualities. Each one with its characteristics, were very first. The trombones: Antonio Linares who also played in the Symphonic, Modesto Echarte, [Leopoldo] Pucho Escalante, who is also jazz, and Antonio Leal in the bass trombone. Then Juan Pablo Torres entered when Linares decided to stay in the cultured music.
The saxophones, which was an incredible, reckless string, were on the highlands: Paquito and [Rolando] Sánchez, affectionately called Pata de callo; the tenors Braulio Hernández Babín and [Jesús] Lam El Chino. In the baritone was [Julián] Fellove or Fellové, who had just returned from France where he lived for many years. Those were the winds. La Moderna had two drummers: Plá and [Guillermo] Barreto, and two guitars: Carlos Emilio and Sergio Vitier. The first bass was if I remember correctly Cachaíto, who also played in the Symphony; Carlos del Puerto and then Fabián García Caturla. I'm just going to mention these musicians. They do not need more.
Although I was not the director of that orchestra, I did direct it often. I remember especially the memorable festivals of Varadero. I have never seen festivals like those. Very warm the first, the 67, with the newly created orchestra to which were added as twenty strings, between violins, violas and cellos, some percussion as timpani, vibraphone, lyres and a chorus of twenty voices. The second was huge, the 70, for the number of artists who participated and for the work that was done, which was titanic: they played 625 different works in 15 days. You could write whatever you wanted to any musician, there was that formidable orchestra to answer.
Many say that the purpose for which it was created was distorted, but think how many people should have written to keep a concert schedule of the Moderna, say once a month? And that the director in property, Armando Romeu, was very fast writing and transcribed many works of discs. It could not cope, it was impossible. The orchestra was, as we jokingly said, "a dragon of music".
Then came that pilgrim idea that, if there was a Moderna in Havana, there had to be one in Santiago, another in Matanzas, in Pinar del Río, and so on. When that was six provinces, and as the saying goes "there was no bread for so many people". A country of the proportions of ours can not maintain six giant orchestras. It's crazy Everyone wanted to have the same number of musicians. A nonsense.
When Irakere was created, which was a smaller musical organism with very good people and with a lot of quality -with Chucho at the front, which is a source of ideas-, excellent results were immediately seen. A large orchestra is not the same as a small group. It did not occur to anyone to tell Irakere to accompany him, because he was a soloist group, in concert. It seems to me that it was a mistake to get them to play dances, because it was not conceived for that function, but they did it with an incredible quality and many of them got the taste, why? Because the popular musician needs a contact direct with the dancer, that feedback, gives energy. However, I am sure that a Paquito D'Rivera did not like to play a dance. Each one in his own.
I like to accompany myself, I love that job, of course with good figures, like Elena Burke, it's something that excites you. When you get a bad one, figure it out, you get upset, you feel it's time lost, and I've had everything. My biggest performance with the Moderna was to accompany singers and write arrangements. The arranger has to invent an introduction, perhaps an interlude, a coda, harmonize or re-harmonize, create counterpoints. My teacher Felix Guerrero was a marvelous arranger. Have you heard the arrangements he made for the zarzuelas of Lecuona? Magistrals He was also a teacher of Chico O'Farrill, in my opinion the best arranger that Cuba has given. Put that disc right now Chico's Cha Cha Cha So you're going crazy, and look what he did in 57 or 58.
This country also gave an Adolfo Guzmán, a feather lady, -the orchestra sounded re-nice-, and a Rafael Somavilla, who was a music machine. He said that the only one who could follow him was me in terms of skill, speed, because to write quickly, look for us. I thank that to life and to Guerrero, who in his first class told me: "Beethoven said that at the piano he goes to check what has already been written". I explain: first you have to give birth to the idea in your head, you write it, then you go to the piano. If you do not like it, you change it, total, the work is yours. Yes, you have to think about orchestration first, because otherwise the timbre of the piano or the guitar - the instrument you use to write the arrangement for - betrays you. If you write for an oboe, for example, you have to have in your head the sound and the possibilities of the oboe, to hear in there what is going to look nice, or a trumpet, or a clarinet, or a harp, the instrument that is. It is orchestrated, first, in the imagination. Then you check.
Musical theater is a specialty with its own language, music for movies, radio and television are other. The world of the album is very different: when passing through the microphone, the console and all the equipment of a recording studio, it does not take so many people to accompany a singer. But in the 70s, all the members of the Moderna had to be given work. That is the dilemma, it was a trap in which we fell in this country. The arrangements were sent for the group, not for a song, not for the album. A work may have six trumpets and another does not carry them because it does not need them. But if you are forced to write to six trumpets, five saxophones and four trombones, everything will always sound the same approximately. It does not make sense, but it had to be done.
In other countries, for many years and now here, luckily, musicians are hired: "come, come, you", they are paid for the session and now. But since there was a fixed staff here, we had to find what to do to the Moderna that had become an accompanying group, a studio orchestra and nothing else. At that time it was decided that the musicians would come to record at the Egrem that, for those barbarities that have happened, was a company that did not have the budget to pay them. It was a stage of great confusion in the artistic questions and the musicians had to justify a fixed salary recording, something that had neither head nor tail. I worked a lot like this, before and after, as musical director that I was from that record company, which was the only one that was there. I said a thousand times that is very wrong, but very bad. Until the Modern disappeared, by natural death.
There is no doubt that it marked a milestone, it was an epoch, it was born at an important moment, yes, but it cost dearly. In order to do it, many other orchestras had to be dismantled. I was taken five of my best musicians at a time and how many were taken from the ICRT? Without talking about groups and different groups. It was necessary to undress many saints to make a beautiful saint. Yes, I have not worked with another like that and see that I have traveled in a few countries and conducted many orchestras of all kinds.
Although some people think that there were other better ones here, I do not share that opinion. Of course, with the detachments, the solo aspect was greatly weakened. It must be understood that those tremendous artists -Chucho, Paquito, Sandoval, Juan Pablo, Trompetica, Varona ...- felt limited in their performance, in the ideas they wanted and could express. Very well that they will continue their journey as soon as possible. When I took over the direction in property in the year 80 there were hardly any soloists in the Moderna, but very good lectern musicians.
I'll tell you something like a sample button: I had to go to Europe for a week, but the contract was extended and when I returned there was very little left for the premiere of an immense show called Gala de Julio. Everything was to be done and there were mountains of papers to be worked on. We assemble no less than 111 works in four days! And when that was no longer all the sacred monsters ... Ah, but there was the foundation, the spirit of the orchestra. One tells it now and nobody can believe it. It seems physically impossible, is not it? They are things that are forgotten, unjustly. Look for someone to do something like that, sooner or later, and make it look good.
If the Musical Theater of Havana was an important school for the development of Cuban musicians in the last forty or so years, the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music was a University. Those who did not see it that way and did not want to suckle from that udder, simply lost it.
Interview conducted in Study No.1 of the Egrem (San Miguel 410), in February 2006.