Interview May 17, 2011
The Legacy of Cuban Son: An Interview with Frank Oropesa of Septeto Nacional Ignacio Pineiro de Cuba
Translation by Chris Parisoff & Rafael Otto Photos by Rafael Otto Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro de Cuba is widely regarded as the premier champion of Cuban son music. Founded in 1927 by the talented and prolific Cuban bassist Ignacio Piñeiro, the group’s repertoire stems from Piñeiro’s compositions that built upon the rumba traditions from Havana and Matanzas. By blending Spanish and African musical elements, Piñeiro laid the groundwork for a new kind of Cuban son music that eventually gave rise to modern musical forms such as salsa. Today, his work lives on with the fourth generation of band members who are regarded as Patrimonio Nacional de la Cultura Cubana (a national treasure of Cuban culture). Frank “El Matador” Oropesa joined the group 17 years ago and is both the administrative director and the percussionist. Largely self-taught by listening to early recordings of Septeto Nacional, Oropesa is a talented bongocero who is committed to maintaining the established son traditions. Septeto Nacional toured in the United States in 2009 for the first time in 76 years. They returned briefly in 2010 and again in March 2011 for a 14-stop tour that started at UA Centennial Hall in Tucson, Arizona. Despite fatigue after taking four flights from Havana to Tucson, the group invigorated the crowd with many songs and musical styles including bolero, son, cha-cha-chá, guaracha, and more. The day after the show, I had a chance to talk with Oropesa about the history of the group, his personal musical tastes, the link between Septeto Nacional and Cuban Abakuá traditions, the most legitimate way to learn son music, and much more. Septeto Nacional is currently preparing to celebrate its 85th anniversary with a world tour in 2012. Rafael Otto: Could you talk about the differences between playing for audiences in Cuba and the United States? Frank Oropesa: We live in Cuba where this music is nationally recognized, a symbol of Cuban culture, but it’s not the same as playing in the U.S. When we play a show in Cuba, the audience tends to be older adults, and a typical concert is not appreciated as much by younger audiences. The music, I think, can be valued more outside Cuba. It’s different in the United States and other parts of the world, because often people are more responsive to our music, we hear more applause, people dance more. In general, the music by Septeto Nacional is very respected by institutions, the government, but younger audiences tend to like other styles of music like salsa, hip-hop, reggaetón … Son, however, is the source of musical styles like salsa. Rafael: What is the historical relationship between rumba and son? Frank: The last CD I produced for the group is titled Sin Rumba, No Hay Son, for no other reason than to reflect the relationship that exists between rumba and son. Rumba emerged in Havana and Matanzas with origins that go back to 1836 when the first group of African slaves arrived belonging to the Abakuá secret society. Obviously, they brought their own culture and dialects with them from Africa, mainly from Nigeria, Cameroon, and what they call “Old Calabar.” This greatly influenced the development of rumba and son, because these blacks, as they called them, were members of Abakuá, not a religion but a secret society. Their instruments and drums were of African origin and the mixture of African and Cuban elements resulted in rumba. Looking back, the majority of the rumberos were from different sects of Abakuá. Ignacio Piñeiro was born in a rumbero neighborhood and was initiated into the rumba and Abakuá traditions from a very young age. He belonged to what is called the Efori Nkomon sect. Piñeiro was raised on these African rhythms, and he was the one who started to introduce elements of rumba into son. He began mixing these musical forms and also started the Coros de Clave Ñañiga (Abakuá singing groups) in Havana (ñañigo refers to a member of the Abakuá society). Rafael: Could you talk about the concept of clave and the importance of clave in Cuban music? Frank: In Cuba, people often say that son developed in the Oriente province. Recent research has proven that son was played in Oriente, but it was also played in Havana, and the son in the east was influenced by trova. It was a kind of son that didn’t have clave, and it was a son that basically included “montuno” refrains consisting of four lines. Ignacio Piñeiro was the one who gave son its poetic form, lyrically speaking. He introduced the clave that originated from rumba. There are two claves that are very similar, with the difference being just one beat. (Oropesa demonstrated both clave patterns by clapping and saying the notes.) Rafael: Let’s explore the early days of Ignacio Piñeiro. Frank: Ignacio Piñeiro had traveled to New York as a bass player for recording sessions with Septeto Occidente. The musical director was Miguel Garcia, but the owner of the group, as they said in those days, was Maria Teresa Vera. Piñeiro had many years of experience recording rumba and son compositions, but the first group to form in Havana was Septeto Bolonia, and after that, in 1920, Septeto Habanero. In 1920, Septeto Habanero was the most popular group, but Piñeiro was a huge talent playing in Septeto Occidente. Septeto Occidente broke up in 1926 because Maria Teresa Vera sang an Abakuá tune that Piñeiro, who was Abakuá, composed. But since she was the “owner” of the group, she sang it, and it aired on the radio. This was a huge offense to the Abakuá in Havana and Matanzas, mainly because the secret sect was only for men. At the time, since almost all of the important son and rumba musicians were Abakuá, Maria Teresa Vera had to stay away from the group for a while, and she eventually decided to break up the group. She returned to her hometown of Guanajay to see her godmother who recommended that she become a “santo” in order to calm the situation down a little. This was in ’26. Septeto Habanero was popular, RCA Victor had a great deal with them, and they were selling a lot of records. So, Columbia came to Havana to try to find a group that would offset the success that RCA Victor was having. The word was that Piñeiro was a great songwriter, and they told him to put a group together that would sell records and overshadow Septeto Occidente. At the end of 1926, several people got together with Piñeiro… Alberto Villalón was one of the great trovadores of Cuba, and Bienvenido León, a great baritone. They got together with Juan de la Cruz Viznaga and decided to form a septet called Havana Sport. They called it Havana Sport because there was a dance hall on Galiano Street by that name in Havana, and the owners, together with Columbia decided to form the group. So, how did they wind up with the name Septeto Nacional? Because there was Septeto Occidente, there was Septeto Oriental, and so they said neither west, nor east, nor Havana, we are going to call ourselves Septeto Nacional. Why did they decide to take this name? Because when they were introduced by the name Havana Sport they said it was a very Americanized name and they had to find a different name, and that’s when they named it Septeto Nacional. Rafael: Who were the other founding members? Frank: So you have Alberto Villalón and Juan de la Cruz Viznaga, two great trovadores working with Piñeiro. Then Jose Manuel Incharte, from Septeto Habanero, played bongos. They called him “El Chino.” There was also Abelardo Barroso, who was the singer for Septeto Habanero, and the tresero Francisco González Solares, who was called “Panchito Chevrolet.” An incredible tresero. After these players were together, Lázaro Herrera Diaz came in on trumpet, and they called him “El Pecoso.” Rafael: What is the importance of seven players? Frank: Maintaining seven players is a legacy. We are one of the few septets in Cuba that have maintained the original format of seven players. Let me explain. Around 15 years ago, Septeto Habanero had nine players. It ceased being a septet. A septet, as the name tells you, has seven players. Septeto Los Naranjos, for example, a very talented and important septet which was founded in ’26 in Cienfuegos, changed their name to Conjunto de Sones Los Naranjos because they increased in number. There are other groups as well, including son groups in Oriente, the septet that introduced the tumbadora, that maintain the same original format. For Septeto Nacional, the percussion instruments are maracas, clave, bongó, and campana. But, it is essentially the same as when it formed with seven on the stage. Even though we tour with nine people, there are only seven musicians on stage. That doesn’t change. Rafael: How did you start playing music? Frank: That was my brother’s fault, Ricardo Oropesa. He is the current representative for Septeto Nacional, and he’s the one you saw dancing (at the performance at Centennial Hall in Tucson, Arizona). He’s the presenter and the dancer. My brother used to play the tres, and he had a group in the mid-seventies, a nueva trova group that was a septet called Cuba Nueva. Ricardo is a doctor of Pedagogical Science, and at the time he was a professor. All the musicians were professors. I loved to play music since I was a little boy... I played in the street, in cars, on the corner, in the barrio. I’ve always lived in the barrio. I live in a very popular rumba barrio called Barrio Colón. But I was born in Cienfuegos and came to Havana when I was very young. So, how did I get involved in this? The guy who played bongos in my brother’s group lived far from Havana, and at that time transportation was an issue in Cuba. He had a hard time getting to practice, and sometimes he couldn’t make it. One day my brother said to me, “I see you playing in the street a lot, you like rumba, percussion.” I had also started on the guitar but never got to be a very strong player. So, my brother said, “Put down the guitar. I need you to play bongó.” And I said, “How do you expect me to play bongó if I’ve never played it before?” And my brother said, “I’m no expert either, but I’m going to teach you the basic rhythm, called martillo.” He showed me martillo, but he showed me incorrectly, playing the wrong part of the drum with the wrong fingers. But, he gave me a set of bongos and then, most importantly, two recordings to listen to. Believe it or not, those two records were Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro albums. It’s incredible. I still have those records in my home. I learned by listening to those records all day long, and I basically taught myself. Guys my age from my barrio would say, “Hey, let’s go to such and such barrio. Let’s go check out some girls.” I didn’t go anywhere, I would just stay there practicing the bongó. Hours and hours of practice. And I was into all kinds of rumba in Havana. I’d go to the solares in my barrio. In my barrio there’s a well known solar that Isaac Delgado wrote a song about called “El Solar de la California.” It’s in Barrio Colón, a solar where I practically was raised, and there I learned a lot of the Abakuá rumba, just like Ignacio Piñeiro. Today, I’m the only Abakuá in Septeto Nacional, and I basically learned the bongos from what my brother showed me, listening to the Septeto Nacional records, and going to the barrios to play rumba. That’s how I learned to play the bongos, I never had a teacher. Rafael: What has it meant to have music be such an important presence in your life? Frank: It was very important for me because, as I told you, my brother had the vision, he saw that I had what it took to play, and he was the main reason that I am playing the bongos now. That was very important for me because when I was young I was a little wild. I lived in kind of a rough barrio, and I was always getting into fights, you know, getting into trouble. I didn’t like school, I was never one for school. I did study a little later on, but I never really liked school. I was more into the street, and getting into music helped me a lot. I can die in peace because I achieved my dream – I never thought I would play with Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro. That’s who taught me how to play the bongos and it was my absolute favorite group. But, in my home I always listened to a lot of American music… I listened to a lot of things, jazz for example. Mostly I was into American music that was big back in my day in Havana like James Brown, George Benson, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Chicago. This was very popular music… Kool and the Gang, Aretha Franklin. Without going into too much detail, I was crazy about this music, and I still like American music. I have a collection of American music at my house that I think very few people have. A Dutchman gave it to me and it includes all the hits from 1966 to 2007. That’s almost 180 gigabytes of music on an MP3 player. But, as I said before, my favorite music is son, especially traditional son. When I heard it for the first time I felt it deep down in my heart. Rafael: How are things changing and evolving in Cuba, in terms of son, American, and contemporary music? Frank: Music is evolving and times are changing. For me, as the producer and manager of Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro, I’m entrusted with maintaining the style, the tradition, so that it doesn’t lose the stamp and style of Piñeiro’s rumba and son. I’ve been in charge of it since 2003, thanks to our singer Eugenio Rodriguez, “El Raspa,” who is the musical director of the group and the one who has been in it the longest. He’s been involved for 25 years, and I’ve been with the group for 17. Eugenio undertook the direction of the group on the condition that I remain the general director. Of course, we have new numbers that have some contemporary harmonies, because as much as you try to avoid it, some contemporary harmonies will get in. But we do it without losing the traditions and we maintain the essence and the style of Ignacio Piñeiro. For example, we play “Echale Salsita” which is a classic Piñeiro tune, and at the same time we have other sones such as “El Sabor de la Tradicion,” written by our tresero, Enrique Collazo. We have others like “Poetas del Son” which is the title cut from the album of the same name that was nominated for a Grammy in 2003. So, we try to play this music the same way that we received it, the way it was taught to us. The younger generations in Cuba are also playing son that they have learned in school. There are some great musicians that come out of the schools, but where you really learn how to play son is in the street. Rafael: What does that mean for the future of son? Frank: There are some younger people who are very interested in son, and they play it very well. But, there aren’t a lot of places in Cuba nowadays where son is played. If you go to Old Havana you will find it. There are some peñas, as we call them, like in the Patio de la EGREM located in EGREM studios in Havana. There’s a peña for rumba, a peña for son, and there’s a very good group that plays there called Rumbero de Cuba. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas plays son, and you could say that Septeto Habanero is the house band now. There are so many places to see music, and some of it has tried, in my opinion, to overtake son. But this is music that will eventually disappear. Son is alive and well. There are those who call us the inventors of salsa, the fathers of salsa, and at many venues they call us the fathers of Buena Vista Social Club. And there’s truth to that, because the Buena Vista Social Club was a phenomenon and for us there was this great sense of pride because it gave a boost to Cuban music. Those guys were all raised on Septeto Nacional from 1927. There were other septets before, but Septeto Nacional was the universal one, the most popular, and it’s the flagship septet of Cuba. Rafael: Is there a relationship between the persistent, durable, son music traditions and the political climate in Cuba? Frank: Well, let me tell you something, I’ve never been a person that has taken much interest in politics. I’m going to be completely honest with you. I live in Cuba and I want to die in Cuba, because I love my country and I’m very happy in Cuba, you know? Cuba has its problems, just like any country, but I’m happy there. I make my living from music, and I’m very proud of our group because it’s well respected by the Cuban government. We are privileged, because the group has a long history that goes back to 1927. It’s not a group that was formed during the revolution, it’s a group that has lived through all the systems since ’27, and it has triumphed precisely because we haven’t gotten into politics. We’ve made music and we have made ourselves known through Piñeiro’s son and rumba compositions. We don’t have anything to do with politics. And, let me add something that I always like to tell people, for example, when people want you to talk politics… We’re not afraid of talking politics. But, since I’m not a politician, I don’t talk politics, plain and simple. And I can tell that there are people who don’t like that. And to them I say, “Echale Salsita” (put some sauce on it). So they like it. (Laughs). Rafael: (Laughs). Excellent, that’s great. Can you tell me where you see things headed for Septeto Nacional?
Frank: Look, I said I won’t discuss politics, but I will talk about the politics of the group (laughs). It has been said that our politics involve continuing the work of Ignacio Piñeiro, following his roots. The truth is that Septeto Nacional has a lot of international acclaim, even though we hadn’t been to the U.S. for 76 years since the World’s Fair in Chicago. And truly every musician and every artist would say that even if you visit many countries and places, nothing really matters until you’ve gone to the U.S. and “made it.” That’s a saying among artists and musicians, including Cuban musicians. We’ve visited 38 countries around the world and we were given the opportunity to come to the U.S. in 2009. I think we’ve begun to open up a door, just a little, for an exchange. It’s still not completely open, but we’ve had the chance to represent. Playing in Europe is very important for Cuba. I tell you that they know music, and the work of Septeto Nacional is quite well known. When traveling to the U.S., however, we go to New York and other places where Cuban music was very important because there were Cuban musicians who lived in New York. Arsenio Rodríguez, for example, was one of the greatest musicians, a Cuban tresero who lived in the Bronx for a long time. In New York, we played very anthological songs, the most traditional. Currently, we have a repertoire of 40 to 45 songs, and we try to choose from those, the ones most listened to not only in the U.S., but also in Cuba. We chose songs like “Echale Salsita” and “Suavecito” that originated in New York, as well as “Esas No Son Cubanas,” which refers to Piñeiro’s observation of very pretty women who just didn’t walk like Cuban women, didn’t have the flavor of a Cuban woman. And so he simply said they are not Cuban.
Rafael: Tell me about how you compose new work.
Frank: Eugenio (Rodríguez) is a great songwriter and Dagoberto (Sacerio) is an excellent musician in charge of the arrangements for Septeto Nacional. He is someone who has dedicated himself to the music of Ignacio Piñeiro, studied his recordings, and really focused on what Piñeiro did in order to learn his style. But really there are six composers in the Septeto and we always agree to work out new arrangements collectively. There is tremendous harmony in the group. We treat each other like brothers, which I consider one of the best things, and we are all one. When working on new arrangements, I usually don’t want new ideas to be too contemporary, or depart too much from the traditional, so we plan it together and put in a lot of energy so that it can be successful.
When it comes time to do a show, we usually play two sets. The first set is purely traditional Piñeiro tunes, the well known ones, and then we change it up by using a Piñeiro tune, then one of my tunes, one of the tresero’s songs, etc… And we never start out aggressive, because, as we say, you run out of batteries. You can’t do that, so we start charging up until the batteries are completely charged.
Rafael: Do you think you will return to the U.S. after this tour?
Frank: Yes, we would like to because we’ve been very well received everywhere in the U.S. But let me tell you something about Arizona, I was very surprised when all of a sudden the audience started dancing. I hadn’t thought that they would start dancing, because we’re usually the ones to encourage the audience to dance. My goal was that, after the first half of the show, we would heat things up with lively songs, new songs like “Candela Mi Son,” one of my songs, or “Entre lo Mojado y Seco,” which was written by Enrique Collazo. These are songs that were written specifically to get the audience up and dancing. So, I was very surprised because the audience was good, wonderful, and they received us very well.
Rafael: One last question: what’s behind the nicknames “Raspa” and “El Matador?”
Frank: Eugenio Rodríguez Rodríguez, he’s got the same last names, known throughout the world as “Raspa.” Not for “raspa de arroz,” the food. No, he earned the name “Raspa” because when he was a boy they always shaved his head. So they would say to him, “Rapado, raspa tu eres un raspa. Y Ahí se le quedo eso de Raspa.” And, well, I wouldn’t even kill a cockroach, but they call me “El Matador.”
Rafael: Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to talk with me.
Frank: No problem, it was my pleasure.
Current band members for Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro de Cuba:
Ricardo Roberto Oropesa Fernández – Cultural Promoter Eugenio Rodríguez Rodríguez – Lead Singer/Artistic Director Francisco David Oropesa Fernández – Bongos & Percussion/Administrator Enrique Abdón Collazo Collazo – Guitar/Tres Raúl Acea Rivera – Double Bass Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva – Guitar/Vocals Crispín Díaz Hernández – Maracas/Vocals Agustín Someillán García – Trumpet Daniel Angel Daniel Pajare – Audio Technician
Rafael Otto is a writer, poet, and musician. He explores artistic voices and the creative process through in-depth interviews with an emphasis on perspective, place, identity, and intercultural communication. Rafael is an editor at Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, writes the blog at infiniteculture.wordpress.com, and is producing a theatrical and musical performance with the Portland Chamber Orchestra called “The Story of Rhythm” featuring a series of his original poetry. His nonfiction and creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Writer's Chronicle, Terrain.org, The Country Blues, Not Enough Night, The New Purlieu Review, and other publications. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his family.
Chris Parisoff has a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a Master's in Teaching English as a Second Language from Northern Arizona University. He is currently a language instructor at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona and is certified as a court interpreter in Arizona. Chris has lived and taught in both Spain and Mexico, and enjoys exploring nuances of language and culture.