David Álvarez grew up in Manzanillo amidst sones and guarachas. That is perhaps one of the reasons why, after studying in several music conservatories of the country and being part of prestigious music groups, he decided to return to his roots with a group that rescues the best of our musical traditions. With a handkerchief tied around his head and a contemporary sound capable to captivating the young generations, he then created his group Juego de Manos.
Juego de manos long ceased to be a juego (game) to become one of the most important groups of traditional Cuban music. How was this project born and how has it been developing up to the present?
Juego de Manos was born of the need of a group of musicians graduated from ISA, whom I was lucky to meet when I played with the group of the renowned troubadour Pedro Luis Ferrer between 1989 and 1992.
We initially joined to create an experimental project that would defend the values of traditional Cuban music, comprising its diverse genres and additionally including the songs of the Nueva Trova.
In 1993 we began to rehearse our first arrangements, which were under my care, as well as the composition of the majority of the themes, and early in 1994 we already recorded our first CD.
One of the genres we broached in this initial production was the guaracha, and although this CD also presented genres like the song, the tune, the conga oriental, the son, among others, it was the guaracha that was to identify the group with the Cuban public from the point of view of its sound, making it attain great popularity.
We premiered our first concert on February 15, 1994 in what today is the Museum of Rum – previously the House of the Young Creator, the most emblematic space ever enjoyed by the new Cuban troubadours, having considered that day as foundation date of the group. From then on we had a number of successful moments with the recording of the albums Mundo Loco and Son Demasiado in 1997 and 2000, respectively, and ceased to be just a popular group to become a group recognized by the critics and art institutions of the country, who later granted it the Premio Abril, the Alejo Carpentier medal and the distinction For National Culture, all for its acknowledged contributions to Cuban culture.
In times of reguetón, a different type of music may perhaps not be too profitable. Juego de Manos, however, has remained faithful to the authentic Cuban music. Why? How can the market influence your work?
Contrary to what some people think, creating new trends in music – something that I consider valid and necessary to evolve with the new times – is not necessarily the only way to compete in the markets today. The music of the different peoples and their roots will continue to be the identity of nations and what distinguishes them as part of universal culture at a time when a large majority of artists choose fusion and world music begins to have great demand of millenary sonorities like the Celtic, the music from India, the Tibet chants, the most autochthonous African music and others that had never known mass dissemination. Evidence of it in our country is the case of Buena Vista Social Club, which, presenting the most traditional aspect of our music culture, conquered the world market, excelling all standards of success obtained until then by any other Cuban group. This example is very encouraging for me, and the market will have to discover us – if they haven’t done it yet.
In addition to the work with Juego de Manos you have a solid career as a troubadour, composer and musical producer. Tell us your experiences in these fields.
I was lucky that when I was only 14 I began to work as a composer and interpreter in a professional group called Convergencia which was part of the Movement of the Nueva Trova. There I began to give my first steps in music, still a student of the basic level in the specialty of guitar concert player. Later I continued my studies at the Esteban Salas conservatory, adding to my knowledge the specialty of Conductor of Popular Orchestras. I think that this training, together with my experiences producing my own records and the love and enjoyment I feel when I work as a music producer, earned me the confidence of other artists who later relied upon my work to ensure the quality of their productions. These productions gave me ever more experience and definitely it is something that I will continue to do, irrespective of my musical work.
Some of your songs are in the repertoire of great musicians, for example Willy Chirino. How did this happen? What is it for you to have others sing your work?
With Willy I was lucky that he listened to my work thanks to a common friend, Ernesto Fundora, an excellent audiovisual filmmaker and wonderful person, who also had to do with the recording of my first album, Rimasones.
It was a big surprise for me when I first listened to his version of my theme Bongó, played for me by Willy himself and his wife Lisette on the telephone. He was in Miami and I was in Galicia, Spain, where I had been living for three years. I have always been very grateful for what he told the media about me and my work. Lisette Chirino also included one of my themes in one of her CD’s. It is always a great pride and pleasure to listen to one of your works in the voice of another artist; you feel the matchless sensation of importance, all the more if it is done by musicians of that height.
Something worthy of highlighting in your work is the poetry in your songs, your ingenious – sometimes roguish – texts, but without any vulgarity. When many prefer more “popular” and direct languages to achieve success, what importance do you grant to good lyrics?
Artists have great responsibility in the ethic and aesthetic development of the people, because as a result of the privilege of massiveness, their followers tend to adopt them as aesthetic standards. Therefore we have to be careful, because music – the most massive of all arts – is an instrument that, poorly used, may distort the civic outlook of the populations, particularly of the millions of young people who, in their transit through adolescence, tend to imitate what their favorite artists propose to them, considering them as indisputable values.
Where would you like Juego de manos to be ten years from now? How would you like your work to be recalled by those who will follow?
What most nourishes an artist is the acknowledgment of his people and of the public in general, the kind words of appreciation for your work, making someone smile instead of being angry, or making someone cry who never does; unleashing the people’s feelings – feelings that, just for the sake of existing make us better human beings. The world is and will be more dependant of the arts with each passing day, and I think that without them only chaos would exist.
How will future generations recall my work? I don’t know. If only they would recall it, it would already be my greatest achievement.