NPR Special
Interview: Gonzalo Rubalcaba discusses his musical influences and his new CD, “Paseo”

Time: 9:00-10:00 AM

TONY COX, host:

From the studios of NPR West, I’m Tony Cox.

Jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is among the most celebrated of the more recent batch of musicians to have defected from Cuba. He lives near Miami now, but during the mid-1990s his refusal to out-and-out denounce the Cuban government outraged many in Florida’s Cuban-American community. That tension seems to have subsided these days, but all is not quiet. Rubalcaba hadn’t made a record in three years, until now. It’s called “Paseo.” In a recent conversation with the pianist, I asked how a musician in such demand could wait so long to record.

(Soundbite of jazz piano music)

Mr. GONZALO RUBALCABA (Pianist): Probably because I need some time. I need time to compose and to conceive what I’m supposed to do next. I really appreciate when I see musicians, they can produce every year something different. I can’t. I can’t. It take, to me, long time to divorce with what I was doing before, until I found the culmination or the high point, and then I can see the new road, new way to arrive to a new point. So that’s the main reason.

COX: So you need something to sound different and new and innovative every time out.

Mr. RUBALCABA: Exactly. I don’t know if I would say new, but at least a new organization of my experience, of my traditions, of my point of views. And I try to do that. I try to expose that every production.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COX: And while you’re trying to do new things, as you say, and become even more innovative, you also re-recorded some tunes that you’ve had on previous CDs. I’m thinking now particularly about one song–I wanted you to talk about this one–“Santo Canto.”

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COX: Why go back?

Mr. RUBALCABA: I didn’t come back. I didn’t come back. I look back, which is different.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. RUBALCABA: And I think we found something that still is open to create, still is open to work with. It means to me that still this music is fresh, is young, is open. So why not to project that period in a different way with all the experience that I have now with the age where I am now, with my musical conception right now? And I think we get something different.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COX: Speaking of looking back and looking forward, that seems to be a theme that we’re sort of developing through this conversation, which is good. You have gone back to the quartet, you know, which was something that you had earlier in your career. And, you know, was it nostalgia? What was it that made you do that again?

Mr. RUBALCABA: A lot of people around the world were asking, why not to do something again in the same way that you did with the Cuban quartet in the beginning of the ’90s? It took me long time to decide to do that, and it has been for long time doing my career with trio, and I was missing one or two more instruments to expand my capacity as an arranger, as a composer, to share some information, so–you know, some experience.

(Soundbite of “El Guerrillero”)

COX: This particular tune–I’m going to ask you to pronounce the name of it. It’s the first cut on your–“El Guerrillero”? I don’t know if that’s right…

Mr. RUBALCABA: “El Guerrillero.”

COX: “El Guerrillero.”

Mr. RUBALCABA: “El Guerrillero.”

COX: All right. This particular tune starts out one way and then it seems to sort of nuance into some other things. My question, I suppose, is this: Are you finding that there are many different strands that you try to tie together in your compositions now?

(Soundbite of “El Guerrillero”)

Mr. RUBALCABA: Well, about this tune, specifically, I don’t think that I did a lot of stuff or newer stuff doing that, playing that music. This is a very old music. It’s part of our heritage, our traditions. There are Cuban traditions which contain not only African influence, but also influence from Haiti, from the island around Cuba, and it’s all fresh. It sound very natural, because this music has been part of our life for a long time. Since we’re born we has been listening to that music, not on the radio, on TV, but in our religions, activities. Normal people, they used to–Saturdays and Sunday, they used to do parties, religion parties, and I remembered through–heard and playing that music, singing that music, dancing with that music, invoking the saints with that music.

(Soundbite of “El Guerrillero”)

COX: Let’s talk for a moment, if we can, about you as an artist and as a Cuban who is now living in the United States. There’s a price that you paid for that, wasn’t it, Gonzalo, coming to the United States the way that you did, being in Miami with the strong political feelings about Castro? Was there a price that you paid both musically and personally to come here?

Mr. RUBALCABA: In some way, I think we gain a lot, moving out of Cuba, because we get our freedom to learn, to discuss, to say, `This is good,’ or `This is bad,’ or `We want this,’ `We don’t want to do that.’ We will fight for this because we know we have rights, and nobody can stop us. Even in that country where we live today, United States, we have the privilege to say, `Well, we don’t want to make a really commercial music to live.’ And that’s the reason “Paseo” exist.

COX: So a song like “Sea Change”–just on the title alone, I would have thought that perhaps “Sea Change” talked a little bit about it, but I guess not. No?

Mr. RUBALCABA: The original name was “Sin Ramerio El Maro.”(ph)

(Soundbite of “Sea Change”)

Mr. RUBALCABA: I can say that I didn’t decide to use that name consciously thinking about any political vision, any political point. I had to recognize that since the moment that that record was released, everybody, especially here in south Florida, connect that piece with the Cuban situation about freedom, about politics, about everything.

(Soundbite of “Sea Change”)

COX: What’s it like for you in Miami now? You’re living in Miami with the political and musical mind-set that you have. How are you being received?

Mr. RUBALCABA: I have knowledge about everything which is happening here in Miami–you know, knowledge of the Cuban people here in Miami, position about Cuba, about the US government, about everything that involve Cuba. But again, we are in a territory where you can choose. You can say, `OK, I have nothing to do with this argument’ or `I support this argument and I’m part of that’ or `I feel they’re wrong and I will take a different direction.’ So that’s the good thing about that.

(Soundbite of “Sea Change”)

COX: Do you think that, were you still living in Cuba today, your music would sound the same as it does now?

Mr. RUBALCABA: Nobody knows that, not even me. But there’s something that for sure I could see, which is my intention to grow up, no matter where I was living. And my attitude, my discipline, my vision to renovate myself constantly, was the same when I was living in Cuba.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COX: Gonzalo Rubalcaba is the extraordinary jazz pianist. His latest recording is called “Paseo.”

Gonzalo, thank you very much for dropping by.

Mr. RUBALCABA: It was wonderful. Thanks.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COX: This is a news and opinion program created by NPR and the African-American public radio consortium.

As you may have already gathered, this is my last broadcast. And before I get out of here, I’d like to thank you for your letters, your e-mails and your phone calls. It has been a pleasure and a privilege. And, of course, it’s a great staff.


COX: I’m Tony Cox. This is NPR News. And believe me when I say: Thanks for listening.

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