Before his death in December of 2003, Ruben Gonzalez was one of Cuba's most celebrated pianists. He had been a virtuoso player since his teens, but it wasn't until the late 1990s, when Gonzalez was well into his seventies, that he gained worldwide fame. In an obituary on Gonzalez in the London Daily Telegraph, American guitarist Ry Cooder was quoted as saying that Gonzalez was "the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard," describing his style of playing as a "Cuban cross between Thelonius Monk and Felix the Cat."
Born in the Santa Clara province of Cuba in April of 1919, Gonzalez took to the piano at a very young age. He grew up in Crucijada, a small village outside of Cienfuegos. At his mother's urging he began traveling into town every other week to take lessons at the Cienfuego Conservatoire. His teacher was astounded with Gonzalez's progress; he'd return twice monthly, having mastered some 20 pieces before each visit. By the young age of 15, Gonzalez had graduated from the music school. Although he was incredibly adept at playing classical music, he was more interested in playing Cuban son music—a guitar-driven sound that fused African rhythms and Latin harmonies. He pursued son music as well as popular jazz, playing locally in a number of bands.
A few years later Gonzalez enrolled in medical school, but his love of music drew him away from his studies and into the country's capital. He left school and moved to Havana in 1941 to play music on a full-time basis. It wasn't hard for Gonzalez to find work. His inventive style of merging Latin rhythms with the newly imported American jazz and swing sound was immensely popular. Gonzalez performed with many of the city's dance orchestras, the first of which was Orquestra de Los Hermanos, a group led by percussionist extraordinaire Mongo Santamaria. The band played primarily in Havana but also performed regularly in the nearby coastal town of Matanzas, a place credited with having originated the dance music called rhumba. Gonzalez then began playing with the multi-talented Arsenio Rodriguez. Along with Beny More, Rodriguez was inventing new rhythms, and he became especially known for his upbeat style, later to be named mambo. Gonzalez made some of his first recordings with Rodriguez and played with his band until 1946. When Gonzalez left, he nominated his friend Luis "Lili" Martinez as his replacement. Because of his association with Rodriguez, Martinez would go on to become the mambo world's best-known pianist.
In the 1950s Gonzalez found himself traveling all over the world. He settled briefly in Panama and Argentina, playing with Les Estrellas Negras in Panama before returning to Havana in the early 1960s. There he became a mainstay at the city's famed Tropicana Club, where he played for many years. He also began working with Enrique Jorrin, known to many as the king of the cha-cha-cha, a style of music that was named after the sound of dancers' feet pitter-pattering on the dance floor. Gonzalez performed with Jorrin until the bandleader's death in 1987, after which he took over the lead spot. It didn't suit him, however, as the group's administrative duties were more demanding than he had expected. The Daily Telegraph obituary recalled that Gonzalez's philosophy was, "I like to leave a gig as soon as it's over." Gonzalez soon left the band and decided to retire from professional music.
A number of years passed before Gonzalez was approached by Ry Cooder, an avid fan and virtuosic musician in his own right, who asked Gonzalez to record his first solo album. Some months before Gonzalez's death, Cooder told Rolling Stone, "There's tremendous talent in Cuba, like [compay] Segundo, like [Ibrahim] Ferrer, like [Manuel] Galban and like Gonzalez, and I think there always has been. Whether we'll see the likes of anything like this again, I doubt it…. This kind of expression, emotional expression, they just don't grow people like this anymore."
The idea of preserving Cuba's rich traditional musical history was implemented by Cooder, along with Nick Gold of the British World Circuit label, with the aim of giving the country's musicians wider recognition in the face of American sanctions and hegemonic popular culture. At first Gonzalez had reservations about the project, especially since his arthritis had begun taking a toll on his hands. He had also been out of practice as a pianist since his retirement.
He soon got back into the groove, however, and those working in the studio noted that each morning Gonzalez would be waiting outside for the doors to be opened. At the age of 78, Gonzalez completed his first recording, Introducing … Ruben Gonzalez. His band included musicians that spanned four generations, from 13-year-old timbales player Julienne Oviedo to Compay Segundo, one of the country's best-known singers—in his late eighties at the time. Under the moniker the Afro-Cuban All Stars, they recorded two albums in just over ten days. The albums, Introducing … Ruben Gonzalez and A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, sold more than 250,000 copies. The Daily Telegraph described Introducing … Ruben Gonzalez as "a magnificent education in the history and variety of traditional Cuban styles, executed with both dignity and a sophisticated sprightliness."
Despite the success of Introducing … Ruben Gonzalez and A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, these recordings paled in comparison to Gonzalez's next album with the group, released under the name Buena Vista Social Club. This landmark self-titled 1997 recording sold more than five million copies worldwide, and won the group a Grammy for Best Latin Album, despite the American embargo with Cuba. The group also performed at Carnegie Hall that year, breaking Louis Armstrong's record of the venue's fastest sell-out—three-and-a-half hours. All Music Guide's Steve McMullen called Gonzalez's playing on the record "amazing," and commented that Gonzalez "has a unique style that blends jazz, mambo, and a certain amount of playfulness."
The success of Buena Vista Social Club and the subsequently released documentary of the same name by director Wim Wenders gave the band enormous recognition, both in America and in the musicians' home country. According to the Daily Telegraph. Gonzalez remarked of the resurgence in his popularity, "I think people had forgotten about me in Cuba…. They knew I had finished working and then suddenly they find that I am more successful than at any time in my life. They are a little surprised. So am I."
For the Record …
Born in April of 1919 in Santa Clara, Cuba; died on December 8, 2003, in Havana, Cuba. Education: Graduated from Cienfuego Conservatoire.
Began performing at a young age; moved to Havana and played in numerous dance orchestras, including Orquestra de Los Hermanos with Mongo Santamaria and mambo creator Arsenio Rodriguez's band; moved to Panama and Argentina, where he played with Les Estrellas Negras, 1950s; returned to Havana, 1960s; played with Enrique Jorrin, king of the cha-cha-cha until late 1980s, retired from music, late 1980s; came out of retirement, 1996; recorded first solo album, Introducing … Ruben Gonzalez, 1997; with Buena Vista Social Club, recorded Buena Vista Social Club, 1997; with AfroCuban All Stars, released A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, 1997; released Indestructible, 1998; released Estrellas deAreito, 1999; with Afro-Cuban All Stars, released Distinto Diferente, 1999; released Chanchullo, 2000.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Latin Album for Buena Vista Social Club, 1998.
Addresses: Record company—Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Pl., New York, NY 10109, phone: (212) 275-4000, website: http://www.elektrarecords.com.
Gonzalez's success translated into more solo records, including 1998's Indestructible, 1999's Estrellas De Areito, and 2000's Chanchullo, all garnering wide critical acclaim. However, in mid-2003, Gonzalez's band-mate Compay Segundo died at the age of 86. Sadly, within a few months Gonzalez also died, at his home in Havana. The Daily Telegraph recalled that he once said, "If I can't take a piano with me to Heaven, then I don't want to go."
Introducing … Ruben Gonzalez, World Circuit, 1997.
(With Afro-Cuban All Stars) A Todo Cuba Le Gusta, World Circuit, 1997.
(With Buena Vista Social Club) Buena Vista Social Club, Elektra, 1997.
Indestructible, Egrem, 1998.
Estrellas de Areito, Eden Ways, 1999.
(With Afro-Cuban All Stars) Distinto Diferente, Elektra, 1999.
Chanchullo, Elekra, 2000.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), December 10, 2003.
"Buena Vista Social Club," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 29, 2004).
"Ruben Gonzalez," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 29, 2004).
"Ruben Gonzalez dies," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/ (March 29, 2004).
"Buena Vista Pianist Gonzalez Dies," BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3302471.stm (March 29, 2004).
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