Special for Infobae of The New York Times.
Adalberto Álvarez, one of Cuba’s most famous musicians, who was the leader of a band that helped revive and reform Cuban son, a fusion of European and African styles and instruments that was vital to Latin dance music, died on 1 September in a hospital in Havana. He was 72 years old.
The death was due to complications from COVID-19, according to the official Cuban newspaper Granma.
An award-winning composer and arranger, Álvarez was known as “El Caballero del Son” due to his passion for the genre and the infectious enthusiasm with which he popularized it. Son is the root of salsa, among other Latin dance genres, and is considered the basis of the Cuban sound.
“I don’t think there is a more important composer for Cuban popular music than Adalberto,” said Isaac Delgado, one of Cuba’s best-known salsa singers. “He created a sound that was very individual to him.” Delgado and Álvarez recorded an album together, “El Chévere de la Salsa-El Caballero del Son,” released in 1994.
Álvarez was one of the soneros, as son singers are known, of whom more versions have been made in the last 35 years. Salsa and merengue bands and interpreters such as Juan Luis Guerra, El Gran Combo and Oscar D ‘Leon have recorded his compositions. His style also influenced New York City salsa in the 1970s and 1980s.
With his two most famous groups, Son 14 and Adalberto Álvarez y Su Son, he won numerous honors, including a National Music Award in Cuba in 2018 and several Cubadisco Awards. His first hit, in 1979, was “To Bayamo by car”, followed by “El Regreso de María” and, later, “And what do you want them to give you?”, Among others.
On stage, he thrilled the audience by showing off his blinding smile. However, it was more than a show; influenced the evolution of Cuban music by returning to its musical roots.
“My main goal is always to make dancers dance,” he said in an interview in 2014. “This is our mission, to bring joy to people.”
After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the popularity of the son declined. However, in the 1970s, Álvarez saw an opportunity and began composing music that combined traditional elements of son with more modern Latin dance music, such as salsa and timba. He emphasized son instruments, such as tres, a typical Cuban guitar with three orders of double strings. Later, he added the vocal improvisations of son and his famous call-and-response pattern; in addition, it incorporated the double meaning lyrics found in the trova, a musical genre based on the troubadours.
This ajiaco, a mix of traditional and modern music, made Álvarez unique among Cuban band leaders of the time, said Marysol Quevedo, a Cuban music expert and assistant professor of Musicology at the University of Miami. “What he represents was the perfect hybrid of traditional and foreign influences,” he commented.
Unlike many Cuban artists of that time, the Cuban communist government allowed him to travel abroad and his first tour was to Venezuela in 1980. (The current Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, expressed his condolences on his death). That freedom of movement gave him access to Latin music outside of Cuba and kept him in touch with contemporary musical trends. In 1999, after he and his band performed in New York, Peter Watrous of The New York Times called their sound “modern and unstoppable.”
Álvarez was a pioneer in other areas. As a priest in the Yoruba religion La Regla de Ocha-Ifá, he was one of the first Cubans to bring songs focused on his beliefs to the stage and to the recording studio. Religions such as Ifá (a mixture of Roman Catholicism and West African spiritual beliefs) were banned and practiced clandestinely in atheist Cuba until 1992, when the government proclaimed itself secular and outlawed religious discrimination. Ifa and other Santeria religions are now common and openly practiced.
The prohibition did not prevent Álvarez from recording, in 1991, one of his greatest hits, “And what do you want them to give you?”, Which focuses on Ifá and asks listeners to think about what they want from the orishas, or deities. The song served as a tribute to the religion, but also as a public recognition of its popularity.
Adalberto Cecilio Álvarez Zayas was born on November 22, 1948 in Havana and grew up in Camagüey, a city in central Cuba. His father, Enrique Álvarez, was a musician and his mother, Rosa Zayas, was a musician and singer.
He attended the National School of Art in Cuba, where he studied Composition and Orchestration. Later, he was a teacher for a time until he got a job as a composer for the Conjunto Rumbavana group in 1972 after impressing the band’s leader, Joseíto González. It was González who suggested to Álvarez the idea of reviving the Cuban dance tradition.
Information on who survived him was not immediately available.
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