Rhythm and melody: Interview with Manolito Simonet

Upon discussing the details of the concert, Manolito pointed out that the idea began with Ciro Benemelis, president and founder of the recording contest, whose wish was to unite classical music with popular music in this musical gala. "They thought of me for this project due to my experience in a charanga (a Cuban style brass band) orchestra and in the Trabuco, where I also perform today. I was not alone in the "Violinada", it was a collective work that I shared with Lázaro Dagoberto González and Joaquín Betancourt, both violinists".

Does this Project include a recording?

We utilized an immense quantity of musicians in the project and we decided to record a part of it at Abdala Studios, because it is very complicated to set up microphones for that many violins and such a big orchestra, of which the Trabuco was also an integral part. We only did a base recording and we put live music over it, in an effort to achieve a better sound.

Sin freno, your latest CD is now being heard on the radio. Could you give us some details?

It is now in production. It will not compete at Cubadisco 2013, since it will come out a few days after the event. We hope to present it in next year's edition. Perhaps when it comes time to compete it may be an "old" album, this often happens in this contest.

There are many titles that are popular now: La cuenta no da, Déjala que siga and Chiquita. I would add that Sin freno is made up of twelve tracks, from various authors. Guest artists include Germán Velasco (saxophone), Jorgito, singer from los Cuatro, who intervenes in a number and Yulién Oviedo, who appears together with Ricardo Amaray in a "bachata" (Dominican Republic rhythm) which we dedicated to our fans from the Dominican Republic.

On one occasion, you said that you do not make concessions in the texts that you write for the Trabuco, being that the dancer deserves, above of all, respect.

Without overlooking the double meaning and spice which have always been utilized in Cuban music, I don�t think it is necessary to attack women to please the public. Our music has transcended in the world due to its rhythm and melody. The proof is that it has earned a place in the hearts of people who do not speak Spanish and still identify with what they are listening to. You don�t have to stoop to writing unpleasant texts to connect with the public. They should have pleasing words, a good melody and a good rhythm concept. These things are what make people follow you and this has been demonstrated by composers like Juan Formell, whom I admire greatly. There is not one song from the leader of "los Van Van" (Juan Formell formed the group los Van Van and remains as the leader of the group) that is rejected by the public and that orchestra has been the number one preference of Cubans for over 40 years. The social chronicle or the everyday life experiences of different people have always been the themes of Formell�s texts, without any need to attack.

The same is true for comedians. I have attended many of their shows and I do not approve of them attacking a member of the audience in order to get a laugh. When you have good material, you don�t have to go after the guy who didn�t comb his hair or the one with the darkest skin to make people enjoy the show. This is the same thing as writing a negative text, in an effort to connect with the dancing public.

Do you think there has been a change in the Cuban dancing public in the last few years?

They have changed a lot and it is precisely because the dance festivals, those that are called "carnavales" (dance processions as in the Carnaval of Rio de Janeiro albeit smaller in scale), which have disappeared. I call them festivals because, for example in my native Camagüey, 50 orchestras would go play in an equal number of places and the people would dance until 6:00am the next morning. It makes no difference, with bands or with the organ, you learned to dance everything because Pancho Alonso� s act played the "pilón" (a popular song), the group Revé with their "changüí" (a style popularized by this group), Rumbavana with the "son montuno" (a classic Cuban rhythm) …

People were dancing all year long, since the "carnaval" began in January and ended in January, having travelled around the entire island. The dancers would travel from province to province and this made the world focus its attention on Cuba. This is the reason our music has always been tied to dancing. This has disappeared and has now been replaced by popular dance parties.

If any of these elements fails, the other is weakened because they are like a binary number. Once the "carnavals" became fewer the orchestras became weaker and as a result, the dancers. There are places where you can go to dance today, but not everyone can afford the cost of the "Casa de la Música" (a popular salsa club in Havana). The 300 or so people that attend these places are really not a significant sample of our following. All of the above has been like attempted murder against our melody.

Now that you mention your native Camagüey (a province and a city in eastern Cuba), you must tell us about your time in the Maravillas de Florida (Florida is a village in Camaguey province).

That was my school, I was there for nine years. It is an orchestra that was created in1948 and was first called "Armonía del 48" (Harmony of 48) which later in the decade of the 50s, adopted the name "Maravillas de Florida". I was in that group on three different occasions: the first two times as a substitute, then as part of the staff in the 80s, first as a pianist and later as its director.

When I got in, I couldn't believe it. I had just finished active military service. I had a way of playing the "tumbaos" (a series of notes used in Cuban music) from the "tres" (a traditional Cuban guitar) and on the piano that they all liked, although I didn�t consider myself a pianist then, and I still don't today.

You play the tres, bass, percussion and piano. Where did you learn so many instruments?

Well, I'm self taught. It�s been quite a while since I have played percussion, although I have continued to play the tres and the bass. Knowing how to play these instruments allows me to express what I wish to do in terms of the tonality of my orchestra. I am an empirical musician, however, I had good teachers like the pianist Eduardo Cana and my uncle, Ramón Hernández (Sonsito) the tres player. When I moved to Havana I learned a lot with Niño Rivera, Pancho Amat and Papi Oviedo. You see, I always like to broaden my knowledge.

There is something important that we have not pointed out, the fact that you are a musical producer, a role you carry out very successfully.

I began to participate in musical productions, but not as a producer. Germán Velasco and Joaquín Betancourt called me to do the orchestrations for some themes and I started to delve into it. When the Trabuco signed up with the record label Eurotropical, we had the opportunity to record in the Canary Islands. That was where I learned production, because the two recorders that were working with me were musicians and producers and they revealed the secrets of this labor in the seven years we were with that recording house.

I have done productions for international artists like Los Sabandeños (a Spanish group), the Symphony Orchestra of Barcelona and the septet Los troveros de a siete, all from Spain; the orchestra Camagüey de Perú, the Nicaraguan Luis Enrique and the Jamaican group, Bahamed.

Here I have worked with almost everyone: Waldo Mendoza, Rumbatá, Vania Borges, with whom I just finished a CD which I am sure will be a success; and Tania Pantoja, with whom I will be working shortly, among others. I also do that type of work in my records, in those that I like to call on many musicians, so that they can give me ideas and to perform with them.

The essential in producing is to have command of the studio, to know what effect, compressor or microphone set up you want to utilize and the tonality that you wish to achieve with each and every instrument. It is much more than musical knowledge.

Upon analyzing today's Cuban music, renowned soneros have come out saying that they do not see any serious replacements. Does Manolito Simonet subscribe to or refute such an assertion?

I add myself to the first opinion. I have already said it: as long as Cuba does not have the grand festival of popular dance music (the carnaval), the young people who are emerging will go down other paths, maybe easier from an economic viewpoint.

That is a grave danger for Cuban music, because there are many things that are done on the island that are not representative of our music. If I were to listen to someone from here who sings ballads, I think I could easily count them on one hand and have fingers to spare.

We have been bolero singers, not ballad singers. I guess if someone wishes to listen to them, you could choose from those that are made in many parts of the world, Lord knows there are some in our country who do a very good job and it is good to cultivate that.

But the real Cuban music, that which has transcended in the world, is the one that has its roots in the cha cha chá, the bolero, the danzón (a classic Cuban rhythm), the mambo, the son montuno (a classic Cuban rhythm) and the guaracha (popular Cuban rhythm). There is incalculable wealth in our musical heritage. Very good rock, ballads and reguetón (a popular Caribbean rhythm), nonetheless, we have to see that which truly represents us. The broadcast media has a lot to do with this. They have the responsibility to ensure that the Island (Cuba) can continue to remain in the hearts of dancers throughout the world.

I don't want my opinions to be misinterpreted as an attack on other genre. I am simply responding to your question. I would also like to take advantage of this opportunity to congratulate the most recent groups to embody this sound like Habana D' Primera, directed by the virtuoso trumpet player Alexander Abreu, and Salsa Mayor, directed by Maykel Blanco.

Original report in Cubarte http://www.cubarte-english.cult.cu/paginas/actualidad/caraAcara.detalle.php?id=5651