Master pianist-composer Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns 51 today. Three years ago, I posted a couple of interviews and a review of his brilliant self-produced solo piano album, Faith. They might provide an interesting context for the DownBeat feature, posted below, that I was given the opportunity to write in 2006.
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Since he emigrated from Cuba in 1992, Gonzalo Rubalcaba has embodied the adage that discretion is the better part of valor, communicating to his public primarily through the medium of notes and tones.
“If you talk about things far away from your main function, it gives people an opportunity to be confused,” the pianist said. “It’s frustrated me that people refer to me in two directions—politically or about virtuosity. I am not a political man, but like everyone I have a right to express my feelings about my country, its history, the government. But people have interpreted my words as though I were a politician speaking, and the repercussions are heavy.”
One such repercussion was a picket line whose members spat, threw bottles and waved Cuban flags to greet Rubalcaba on the occasion of his Miami debut in 1996. But during a week in New York last June in support of his current release, Solo [Blue Note], Rubalcaba, who is now a U.S. citizen, spoke at length on the aforementioned subjects, on aesthetics, and on his own personal history.
“I try to be balanced; nothing in this life is black or white,” Rubalcaba said. “To make the more radical people in the Cuban community feel happy about you, you have to adopt a certain a way of speaking, and apparently I never did it. The other part of the community says, ‘You are a Communist; you should say that everything is bad.’ I had serious health problems from the time I was born, and I never went outside Cuba for treatment. It wasn’t only because of that—we have our faith, our hope, things we really believe. But I was treated by wonderful doctors and a great hospital. Why not say that? It’s my truth. Now that’s destroyed. I have to support my mom in Cuba, send her medicine, money, everything to keep her alive.”
From the distance of exile, Rubalcaba notes, he is “in a stronger position to discover what happened in Cuban history.” On the other hand, despite the large Cuban emigre population and strong Latino culture in Miami, an hour south of Rubalcaba’s home, he is no longer directly connected to the Cuban street, and therefore is cut off from the raw materials that fed his imagination in formative years.
How has he sustained his muse? “One thing is to be updated about what happens in your country,” he responded. “Another is to have that sense of nationality inside you. You can’t explain it, but you feel that way, and that’s enough. That makes you different, because since birth you put together what you saw and heard, what they told you, the spectrum of colors and sounds, how you understand light, your sense of rhythm, the way you walk and speak and communicate. How to live.”
In the process of putting together Solo, a lyric meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz, Rubalcaba, 43, thought long and hard about issues of identity.
“I’ve always looked for music as a space where I can throw everything I know and feel,” he said. “The ability to get into different styles and languages is typical in Latin-American musicians. They move around the world, assimilating everything possible to make them powerful artists. And the way they think they are powerful is working in different areas. For example, a lot of writers work in musicology, in novels, in social studies. In music, we see the same. It’s not just Cubans. Astor Piazzolla left Argentina looking to develop his career. He established himself in Paris, and when he returned to Argentina he was criticized because nobody understood exactly what he was doing with the tango. But the tango we hear today is 100 percent Piazzolla.”
On Solo, Rubalcaba applies that paradigm, interpreting 20th century Cuban composers—“serious” music by Almadeo Roldan, Sergio Fernando Barroso, and Rolando Bueno, boleros by Rafael Hernandez (“Silencio”) and Conseulo Velazquez (“Besame Mucho”)—and signifying upon them with his own syncretic pieces.
“European culture had a strong presence in Cuba in the ’30s and ’40s,” Rubalcaba said. “Composers like Roldan and Alejandro Garcia Cartula, for example, used tools from the European school to tell their own stories, their own roots and traditions, on the level that we know as classical music.”
As an example, he analyzed Roldan’s “Cancion de Cuna del Niño Negro (Lullaby For A Black Child),” which appears on Solo. “The melody is not exactly a folk melody, but Roldan’s vision of how a folk melody sounds, and he placed it in a form that mirrors Europe,” he said. “There is the ambiance of the Impressionist composers. But the score shows us that the left hand, the ostinato, does not work as a French or Russian composer would do it. It’s against the beat, as in popular Cuban music—as we dance, as we accent and phrase our speech. My challenge was to combine the worlds of interpretation—my vision of that music—and improvisation.”
Asked if the experience of living in another culture has illuminated the raw materials of his formative years and made them resonate in different ways, he responded affirmatively.
“This depends on each person,” he added. “For example, people in Cuba refused to use cowbell or congas or maracas or timbales; they said that the real music was straight ahead and bebop. They moved. A few years later, after you’re supposed to see them work with the top representatives of the hardest music in the world, they start to include bongos and congas. Are we talking about feelings or a pose? Many people adopt things because they believe it’s a way to call attention to themselves and to appear in front of people as the most pure, 100 percent national from Cuba or wherever.”
Rubalcaba carries the Cuban vernacular in his DNA. His grandfather, Jacobo, who lived in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province, was a conductor, a brass player, and a noted composer of danzons, such as “El Cadete Constitucional,” which Rubalcaba performed on Super Nova, a 2002 trio project. His father, pianist Guillermo, still active at 78, spent the ’50s with the charanga orchestra of Enrique Jorrin, inventor of the cha-cha-cha; he now directs Charanga Rubalcaba, a traditioncentric unit, and has toured over the past decade with such nostalgia ensembles as the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Buena Vista Social Club.
At 6, Rubalcaba asked his parents for a drum. “It was not easy to find an instrument at that time in Cuba, but they found a very rustic drum,” he said. “I played it and the timbales, congas, bongos, and maracas in our family band. So I went into music through percussion. When I was of age to apply to the classical school, they rejected me. I had no rhythm sense, they said. My father and one brother refused the test result. They repeated the test in front of them, and I passed. I wanted to be in the percussion department, and they said I wasn’t the right age; I had to choose between piano or violin, and my mom persuaded me to choose piano. In my second year I got lucky with a teacher, and I developed. A few years later, the principal asked if I still wanted to be part of the percussion department, and I said, ’Yes, but I don’t want to leave the piano.’”
He grew up in Centro Havana, a neighborhood he describes as not unlike a U.S. inner city district. “Simple people, full of folklore. Street people. Tough people. You’d see a wonderful party, religious or not religious, and at the same time a big fight and a knife. That was a tremendously strange picture, because I was living in that reality but getting Mozart and Beethoven and Impressionism at school.
“The classical school in Cuba talks too much about European music and not about Cuban traditions or folklore,” Rubalcaba continued. “One of our mistakes, as with all revolutions in history, was trying to eliminate our past. When my generation were kids, the revolution was trying to create a society where everything was new, so we had problems being able to listen to Arsenio Rodriguez or Celia Cruz or Cachao or Beny More or Peruchin or Bebo Valdes or Frank Emilio. We heard Spanish pop music and music from Eastern Europe. Jazz was prohibited; it was the music of the enemy. They prohibited rock musicians because they did not want the new revolutionary young people to be dressed like them with long hair—this was synonymous with capitalism.”
While immersing himself in the European legacy by day, Rubalcaba spent evenings in various Havana venues playing with the giants of Cuban pop—Orquesta Aragon and Los Van Van, singers Omara Portuendo and Elena Bourque, salsero Isaac Delgado. He crystallized those influences into the funky timba style that would become Cuba’s lingua franca in the ‘90s, and also into a distinctive jazz vision, one deploying unstoppable technique towards articulating a sensibility that drew on the harmonic lexicon of Bill Evans and the follow-the-line imagination of Herbie Hancock.
Rubalcaba learned the codes of older Cuban styles first hand from his father and his cronies, a veritable who’s-who of Cuban pop. “I saw them discuss how to do this and that, telling the story of how the music was played 30 or 40 years before,” he said. “But I found a sound that matched the time I lived in. Timba is the bolero, cha-cha-cha, rumba, conga, danzon, proposed in a very contemporary way. It extended the tradition. Timba represents the dynamic of Cuban society, the way people think, look at things, make love. It’s also the way they criticize, which is ambiguous, because it’s their only outlet. They use that context to say what they usually cannot say.”
With the government’s permission, Rubalcaba emigrated from Cuba to the Dominican Republic in 1992, and moved to Florida in 1996. “I said that I would never choose the dramatic way—like taking a boat or swimming—to emigrate anywhere,” he said. “I knew the United States was the country where I should live. But I wanted to make that move with my family. To leave them and not know when I could see them again would have destroyed me mentally. So if we can do it together, that’s fine. If not…”
Rubalcaba departed at the onset of Cuba’s “special period,” when the regime, adjusting to the endemic economic and social problems spurred by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the concurrent loss of Russian subsidy, began to treat its musicians as exportable commodities. The repercussions to which he refers began full-force on the occasion of his American debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center in December 1993, four years after the U.S. State Department denied him a visa and forced the cancellation of a concert. In a New York Times profile before the event, Paquito D’Rivera, who had defected 13 years earlier under arduous circumstances, stated that the Cuban government was using Rubalcaba, saying, “they want to avoid his escaping, so they give him more freedom than anybody in Cuba has.”
“A few months earlier, I joined a double-bill concert in Valencia with my Cuban Quartet and Paquito’s group,” Rubalcaba recalled. “We saw each other at the soundcheck, and he was very gentle and sweet. I played first and he closed the show. He made a wonderful speech about me in front of the audience. Everything was fine.”
A few days before the concert, Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall invited D’Rivera to an informal welcoming party for Rubalcaba at the label’s offices. “I said, ‘Why not?’” Rubalcaba said. “I saw Paquito arrive. But when the party started, some people asked for pictures. Everybody came together—and Paquito disappeared without a word. It was a strange move. A mystery. I was in the middle of an intense schedule of interviews, and one guy gave me a letter Paquito had written for the New York Times. The minimum thing he said was nasty. I couldn’t respond. I had nothing to respond to.”
“I was among the first invited guests to arrive at the reception,” D’Rivera recalled by email. “Mr. Rubalcaba apparently wasn’t aware that when the press photographers asked for pictures, Don Lucoff, who was doing public relations for the company, discreetly called me to a corner and asked me to please stay away from the cameras, because Gonzalo was nervous that taking his picture with me on it could make it to the newspapers. Humiliated and deeply hurt, I quietly ran out, only to find out that Gonzalo had declared to the media that ‘Life in Cuba is not that bad.’ It was not that bad for him, authorized by the Cuban dictatorship to reside abroad with his family, while most honorable Cuban families — mine included — were divided by that same government he was representing. I replied throughout the New York Times and other publications.”
Through the ensuing years, Rubalcaba developed and sustained an international career while absorbing slings and arrows from various factions of the Cuban diaspora. “It wasn’t just people involved in politics, but musicians, not only Paquito, but Arturo Sandoval, Manuel Valera, and many others, including people from my generation, people who played with me in Cuba, who know me personally,” he said. “They invented arguments, distorted my life, my essence as a human being. The motivation cannot be personal, because I never had a problem with any of them. I don’t know if it was politics or professional jealousy.
“The people who were forced to leave Cuba in the ’60s and ’70s lost everything, and we should respect their pain. They were separated from their families. They didn’t want to leave. They were forced to do it; they had a different point of view in terms of ideology and politics. I don’t feel able to criticize their position. I just want to know more about them. But this is not their position about the new generation. They attack and criticize. Not only that, they don’t give you space to be part of the society. I think they lost time talking about me, writing little letters. I know what I’m saying is kind of hard, but this is the way that I think.”
“At the beginning, I was a bit rushed, and pushed by the record company,” said Rubalcaba, contextualizing the bravura soloist-over-rhythm section quality of his numerous early ’90s all-star trio albums. “I was still in the process of feeling comfortable and safe. It took time to be part of the musical reality of the States, and meanwhile I was supposed to do something.”
As is evident on the trio disks Inner Voyage (1998) and Super Nova, Rubalcaba worked hard to assimilate the nuances of jazz syntax into his presentation. “Gonzalo just now is getting a real feel for playing trio piano,” said Ron Carter, who is responsible for the more conversational quality of Diz, Rubalcaba’s 1994 trio homage to the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. “He’s learned not to feel so responsible for all the ideas—all the good nights and bad nights—and to let the chips fall where they may. He understands some things are out of his control, which frees him to be even more creative.”
“I don’t pretend to be the best jazz player in the world,” Rubalcaba said. “A lot of reference and influence comes from jazz, but I am looking for something beyond that. When I heard my father’s records of Art Tatum and Charlie Parker, what put me in orbit was the importance of improvisation within the jazz form, how musicians interact and create another story in relation to the main thing, like composing another piece. Everybody was able at the same time to say their speech and their voice, and collaborate as a group. Then the question was to figure out what sign gave them the green light to develop this speech—how they came to play those harmonies and chords, how the bass player decided what line to do behind the saxophone player. With time, I understood that it wasn’t only about musical knowledge, but about spirituality, instinct, conversation.”
Rubalcaba referred to a family friend who taught him to read music. “At the beginning he told me: ‘Read music as you read the newspaper. You don’t know exactly what the newspaper will say tomorrow. But you get it and start to read.’ The music is an idiom, a language you have to control. Later I had composition lessons with Roberto Valera, a great contemporary Cuban composer. He said, ‘I will give you the tools to get a good balance, instrumentation, a good sound. But you have to feel the need to say things your own way, and I cannot teach you to do that.”
Not one to take his creative process for granted, Rubalcaba sustains freshness with a regimen reminiscent of a chess grandmaster.
“I have been touring for many years literally around the world—different contexts, different audiences, different weather,” he said. “But offstage is the time to look inside, to create a platform for developing my thoughts. I have a strict discipline, which I enjoy. At home, I wake up, and spend a minimum of 4-5-6 hours working with the instrument. Sometimes the work is technical. Sometimes I make time to read music that I am not going to play, which helps you think and interpret fluidly. How did composers in a certain period work? What harmonic ideas and harmonic statements did they develop? Why did Bill Evans or Monk or Peterson or Jelly Roll Morton play in the way they did? What historical moment made possible a figure like Duke Ellington? You don’t leave that in the room where you studied. You bring your knowledge with you. It helps you preserve the attitude to try to invent when you’re on stage.
“Talent and imagination is good, but not enough. I believe 100 percent in the history and culture of jazz. But there’s also a lot to learn about our music that nobody knows yet—especially the folkloric, religious music, which is so rich. There is also still a lot to hear from Europe. You find points in common. Roldan and Garcia Cartula were focused on developing their own heritage, but were also open to an interchange of opinions, of tools to do their music. They were fresh until the end of their lives. Everything they did contained something new, some risk, which to me is the most important thing in music.”
It is unclear when Rubalcaba will next have an opportunity to share his explorations with audiences in his homeland, where he has performed only once—at the 2002 Havana Jazz Festival—since he emigrated. “During those years, people around the world asked me, ’Why don’t you play in Cuba?’” he recalled. “I always said, ’Because they don’t want me to play there. When they extend an invitation, we’ll discuss conditions.’ Finally the invitation came, and I said, ’Why not?’ Against many people. But I was not thinking about those people. I was thinking that I had that responsibility. Many people came to see the show. But my feeling about the trip was split. On the one side, I had the joy to see my family, that people who really love me had the opportunity to see me play after many years. I hate to say it, but I also found mediocrity and jealousy, terrible actions from professionals, from musicians. Very sad.
“When the airplane started to fly over the island, when I saw the color of the earth and everything down there, automatically I said to myself, ’That’s Cuba; that’s my country; I feel that I am from here.’ Hours after, I still believed that, but I add something. I know I’m from here. I can feel it and smell it. But I am not any more part of that. It’s a big contradiction.”
At risk of amateur psychoanalysis, one might speculate that Rubalcaba’s Oedipal break from the fatherland has liberated his spoken voice. “I’m very happy saying what I’m thinking now,” he said. “I am not going too far. I think that to speak in this way now gives you the opportunity to speak that way tomorrow.”