X marks Sweet Spot in Cuba
Alfonso is island's musical sensation.
By David Cázares
Posted January 7 2006
HAVANA · Ask people in the United States what they know of Cuban music and they'll likely mention the Buena Vista Social Club, the storied ensemble of once-forgotten elderly performers that rocketed to fame a few years ago.
Others might point to the island's salsa musicians, or perhaps the timba bands whose fiery contemporary blend of percussion and streetwise refrains is still a big hit in Cuba.
Anyone who thinks only of those categories, however, is way behind the times. Cuba is awash in creativity from traditional Afro-Cuban sounds to jazz, rock, pop, rap and hip-hop.
But arguably the best of modern Cuban music defies categories, especially the invigorating work produced by X (pronounced EH-keys) Alfonso, the island's musical sensation.
Leading a group of seven musicians and vocalists at Havana's Teatro Nacional last month, the composer showed his chops on keyboards, percussion and bass in a roaring set. As he does on recordings, Alfonso held nothing back, dancing, rapping and singing his way through a 90-minute concert that was half jam session, half aerobic routine.
Alfonso recently claimed several statues at Los Premios Lucas, the Lucas Awards, a star-studded presentation that honors the best of Cuba's music videos. The singer and composer's fusion of multiple genres has also won international acclaim, particularly for his recent CD, Civilización.
For Alfonso, 33, the eclectic mix is simply a continuation of the creative spirit shown by African slaves who arrived in Cuba centuries ago.
"Here in Cuba, African slaves from all over the continent had to create a new language to communicate -- Yoruba. Each one brought his rhythm, learned from
ancestors and tribes."
Alfonso has an impressive pedigree, having studied at the Conservatorio Amadeo Roldan, a school that has produced scores of internationally renowned musicians, among them pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, flutist Orlando "Maraca" Valle and singer Issac Delgado.
He also hails from one of Cuba's top musical families. His parents, Carlos and Ele, head Síntesis, a progressive rock band founded in the mid-1970s that draws on
Afro-Cuban and hip-hop influences. The younger Alfonso wrote some of the arrangements on the group's 2001 Grammy-nominated CD, Habana a flor de piel
Alfonso also was a member of the groundbreaking ensemble Amenaza; three of its members now comprise the popular pop and hip-hop group Orishas.
His other recordings as a leader include Mundo Real in 1999, X More, a Grammy-nominated 2001 tribute to legendary Cuban bandleader Benny Moré, and Delirium Tremens, in 2002.
Unlike other performers who rely heavily on computers and recorded samples, Alfonso employs plenty of live instrumentation with hefty doses of Latin house music, funk and jazz. He also makes use of repintos, performers who improvise lyrics over music.
Though he likes the hip-hop coming out of England and France because of its varied rhythms, Alfonso thinks reggaeton, with its repetition and raunchy lyrics, is a
passing fad. And as much as he likes the music of Tupac Shakur, he disdains the often narcissistic and nihilistic work of many contemporary U.S. hip-hop and rap artists preoccupied with commercial excess and sex.
"All they want to do is rap about fancy cars and women," he said. "With so many problems why must they sing of that? For me, hip-hop has nothing to do with vulgarity, but with daily life."
On Civilización, he also combines his lyrics and those of Cuban troubadour Carlos Varela with fresh raps on tributes to Havana, songs of love and social commentary. The title cut compares the slave trade five centuries ago to the trafficking of immigrants today.
But even with its American and European influences, Alfonso's work is inherently Cuban, a rhythmic conversation between performers.
"The defining mark of Afro-Cuban music is the call and response between the lead singer and the chorus," he said.
David Cázares can be reached at email@example.com.