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“Toques del Rio”: Old rhythms in a modern musical context

When the music producer Ernesto Cisneros heard them at the Piña Colada Festival, he could not contain his desire to share his admiration for the alternative group that fired out eclectic sounds and fiery dances on stage.

 

Yelena Rodríguez Velázquez

Photos: Henry Rodríguez Ruiz

 

“You are disrespectful to Cuban music,” Cisneros jokingly said, in the purest Cuban style, to flatter and applaud the rhythmic beats and talent of this musical group, called Toques del Río.

On stage there is all delicacy, enjoyment and harmony, and in the audience all the euphoria. In one song you can find Caribbean rhythms, mambo mixed with polka, rock, timba, son and funk, without exaggerating. The group, founded in 2002 and coming from Vueltabajo, a region of tobacco merchants located in the western province of Pinar del Río, is one of the most important groups of the genre in the current musical field.

“We want to cover much more. We learn from Benny Moré, Ñico Saquito, Dámaso Pérez Prado, Bola de Nieve. We study their starting points because they are a valuable reference for Cuban music,” says Zeney Alonso, general director of the orchestra.

I talk with him hours before starting his concert at the Bertolt Brecht cultural centre, a site located in the capital of Buenos Aires that awaits him with a full house every night on the second and fourth Friday of the month.

There, the former sports student, recalls the times when the format was five musicians and they performed only on the stages of his homeland.

According to him, studying the motivation of these greats was the premise that marked the work of the band, formed initially with the idea of doing flamenco jondo and then, six years ago, opened up to the risks and experiments of the fusion genre.

“The goal is to bring the rhythms, which have sometimes been kept back, to the cultural consumption of these times by putting more current sounds on the basic structures of Cuban music,” he explains. Now there is more brass and percussion, and the troop is made up of two vocalists, four brass players, two trumpets, alto and tenor sax, baritone, guitar, electric bass, drums, conga, miscellaneous and piano.

“We are members of the Hermanos Saíz Association (AHS), an entity that gave us the opportunity to make our debut in Havana, specifically in the Cuba Pavilion.”

“That first time we had an auditorium equivalent to about ten people. That brought a dose of fear because it was an unknown venue, but if you want your music to transcend you must go to the capital,” says Alonso.

Then, the dream opportunity and emigration came along.

They arrived in Cuba to record their first album Pa que te sosiegues, licensed by the Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales (the company of recordings and musical editions, also known as EGREM), thanks to the arts grant “El Reino de este Mundo” awarded by the AHS.

Zeney remembers the sunrises on the benches of a park, at the bus terminal, the studio or the armchair of a friend’s house. Ups and downs with the budget and the little promotion on the phonogram, but also the beautiful creative process. The Cuban producer Luis Alberto Barbería, a member of Habana Abierta, did not hesitate in collaborating with the group, a fortuitous mix of individuals with musical disciplines and empirical training, whom the Goddess Euterpe touched by chance.

“It was an album that spanned alternative media, something demonstrated on the national tour that took the Toques from Santiago de Cuba to Pinar del Río,” he adds.

After this experience, how do you value your insertion into the Cuban cultural scene? Is there competition among the cultivators of the genre or is it a kind of fellowship?

“I think it has been positive. People first try to decode what we do, but then enjoy it.”

“Both terms are valid in the contemporary music scene. Competition is necessary because it makes you constantly compare yourself to know how well your ventures are going.”

Toques del Río has shared songs with David Blanco, Qva Libre, Adrián Berazaín and Barbería himself, and has taken from great defenders of the genre such as Interactivo, Habana Abierta, X Alfonso, Síntesis.

“I don’t think we are doing anything new. It is necessary to learn from others who do similar work, and, in that sense, there is link, good communication and exchange in the movement,” he says.

Zeney is not afraid to say so. Nor is he a disciple of the kind of media war that constantly appears against urban music, especially the bombarded and Satanized reggaeton.

“The more we focus on the subject, we stop giving visibility to other good styles. We have good and bad music, even in the same alternative movement.”

Alonso does not deny or affirm the possibility of venturing into these genres but prefers to be asked if he wants to make a mambo record or do big band in the style of Pérez Prado.

Now with better positioning in the Cuban music scene, is a second album coming?

“We plan to record the second album with the Abdala record label, and we will be lucky to have the multi-instrumentalist Alain Pérez as producer.”

“There will be 10 songs that will also pay tribute to great originators of Cuban music. One of the songs is Mambo Chípata, a title that plays with the language of percussion in homage to the “King of Mambo”.

Many of the songs come from the authorship of Gilberto Enrique Rodríguez (musical director), Jesús Puentes (leading vocalist) and from Zeney himself, although new composers such as singer Diama Correia and alto saxophonist Yennier Stoker already stand out.

Its repertoire is a reflection of doubts and desires, stories in the mould of a teenager or grandfather, the verve of youth and the wisdom of adulthood, visible in the acclaimed potpourri that covers classics such as Celebration (Kool and the Gang) or their own songs made to download.

The group of music lovers, in a uniform of white shirt, black trousers, bow tie and suspenders, in the purest style of the 50s, was and will continue at full speed in 2019, transporting the fine and rich music made in Cuba. (PL)

(Translated by Hannah Phelvin – Email: hphelvin@gmail.com)

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