For generations, Cuban musicians have blended nostalgia and hope into sensory experiences. Like the cerulean blooms of the bougainvillea and perfumed blossoms of gardenias, their musical revelations can lift listeners to another state, another world.
Rubalcaba himself represents at least three generations of music. His grandfather and father both led renowned bands in Cuba; his father’s band featured little Gonzalo happily banging away on congas, bongos, cowbells and even a homemade drum set. Then things changed.
“I had a passion for percussion,” Rubalcaba recalls, telling a story of typical Cuban scarcity and resourcefulness. “When I was 6, my parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I said drums! But times were very difficult then in Cuba, and there was no place you could buy a musical instrument. Then somebody said, ‘I know a guy who builds drums.’ You can imagine what kind of drums he built — very rustic. But I got my drums, and I played them in the band.”
His mother had other ideas for her prodigy. She steered him instead to a “real education” at a music school with an instrument that would help him understand musical composition. He switched to piano, he explains, “for my mom, to make her happy!”
Memories and stories such as these are the elements of “Trance,” a musical summoning of notable moments from the lives of Valdés and Rubalcaba. While their paths have run parallel, Rubalcaba says, they never come together like this until now. “It seemed to be the right time — who knows why, exactly. We haven’t really talked about that. But I believe it can be a good example for young people, for them to put together their thoughts and memories with love and respect for all the music and composers and professionals who have been parts of their lives, including their families. That is what ‘Trance’ is about, I believe … a shared vision to elevate us as spiritual beings.”
Rubalcaba’s spirit was tested in 1991 as the darkness of Cuba’s “Special Period” descended. That official euphemism signified the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its support of the island’s fragile economy as the U.S. embargo continued. Professional musicians, he explains, “had all kinds of time to rehearse but sometimes no place to play.”
The ministry of culture recognized Rubalcaba’s talent, so he was able to play in the important venues and record with Egrem, Cuba’s national label. But he also recorded three albums for a German label (Matador) and had offers to work with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Haden and to make records for Blue Note. “I had a lot of opportunities that were not practical to accept, for political and economic reasons, while I lived in Cuba,” Rubalcaba says.
“Leaving Cuba was a very difficult decision, especially at that time, when the government typically did not allow you to return. But then the Cuban political establishment decided to play to international public opinion and let some Cuban professionals live outside of Cuba,” he says. After enduring a time of bureaucratic deliberation, he received the approval to emigrate.
So, taking his wife, baby son, and his memories of home, he began a new life, first in the Dominican Republic, and finally in the United States. “The process was difficult at age 27 to learn to live in a difference place, a totally different structure. I was beginning life again, at zero. But I knew that if we want to do something, if we have the faith and the focus, then we will see results.”
His results have included international tours with the classic Afro-Cuban ensemble Orquesta Aragón and his own Afro-Cuban jazz rock fusion band, Grupo Proyecto. His recordings with Gillespie, Haden and others have earned him 16 Grammy nominations. And he’s no stranger to Symphony Center, having performed on its stage in 1999 and 2012.
However, “Trance,” his latest happy result, might not have happened were it not for the exodus of both Rubalcaba and Valdés, who now both live in south Florida.
“Chucho has been a big influence for many musicians, including me, for generations,” Rubalcaba says. “And now, finally having the opportunity to tour together, is beautiful. Not only in the moment of the concerts, but in all the time we spend traveling together. We talk about everything and confirm so many memories that we share. We find that we have a lot in common, as well as differences. All of those aspects, those moments, are present in the concert.”
The two jazz masters come from the same Afro-Cuban lineage, although they seem to represent different points. Rubalcaba naturally brings his more youthful passion for rhythm (piano, after all, is a percussion instrument) while Valdés adds his deep feeling for melody. So when their two pianos are paired onstage for “Trance,” audiences may hear different aspects of cha-cha, son and danzon mix with the amalgamation of American jazz — and maybe even some merengue from the Dominican Republic.
For his part, Valdés is a jazz icon, also born into a musical family and raised in Havana. He formed the band Irakere in Havana in 1973 to bring the musical traditions of Cuba to new generations worldwide (including his most recent appearance at Symphony Center in 2015).
Now Valdés and Rubalcaba are coming to Chicago together for the first time. It’s a pairing that’s only natural — even if it has been a long time in coming. “We worked on the arrangements collectively, uniting our individual ideas to achieve greater quality and variety,” Valdés explains.
The collaboration works, Valdés adds, “because we are artists of the same genre, from two different generations. We have many things in common, yet each of us brings our own ways of interpreting and communicating. We represent two different but compatible styles. Our friendship unites us.”
For Rubalcaba, the time he shares with Valdés is a continuous journey to new experiences. “Every concert, every rehearsal, every flight is a new experience, and we find new things along the way. Revelations. In the end, this collaboration is the culmination of everything that we do, and everything that is behind that.”
Joe Pixler, a longtime aficionado of Cuban culture and music, is a Chicago-based writer and editor.
TOP: Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba play as one for their “Trance” project. | Photo: International Music Network
In this short video, posted on YouTube, Valdés and Rubalcaba rehearse for their upcoming tour: