Conjunto Guantanamo

New York, New York

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Cuban musicians draw from a sonic landscape rich with varied influences, including folk and popular, religious and secular, and Spanish and African-derived sounds. New York City’s Conjunto Guantanamo weaves these diverse threads together. Mingling traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms, like son montuno, cha-cha-cha, mambo, and rumba, with the energy of New York City’s Latin music scene, Conjunto Guantanamo celebrates Cuban folklore as the spirit breathing life into its sound.

Afro-Cuban musical traditions marry African percussion to the melodies and instrumentation of the Spanish cancion. The rhythms at the heart of much of this music come from Santería, a religion that synthesizes elements of Yoruba religious practice from West Africa with Catholicism. The worship of orishas—Yoruba deities paired with Catholic saints—is accomplished through the rhythms of the batá drums. Each orisha has its own characteristic toque (drum pattern) and chants.

A foundational Cuban musical form, son was born out of the working-class rural/urban interchange as recently freed Cubans of African heritage moved from rural areas to the cities at the turn of the twentieth century. Although eclipsed in popularity by newer genres in the 1940s, it is a key inspiration for contemporary genres, such as salsa, which matured in the Spanish-speaking barrios of New York City. Son montuno is a variation of son known for call-and-response vocals and heightened dance rhythms; it is a precursor of salsa. In the mid-1990s, Buena Vista Social Club sparked a worldwide revival of interest in classic son. “When Buena Vista came out,” says Conjunto Guantanamo bandleader Ulises Beato, “it was such a stark contrast to the run of the mill commercial salsa music that was around then. The salsa world was alive and well and its roots in Afro-Cuban son were widely acknowledged but everyone was playing their own versions … taking the music further and further away from its original essence.”

Beato, who plays congas and sings, was born in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood in 1966, when salsa was developing in nearby Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. Beato’s family relocated to Miami, where he absorbed traditional Cuban music, culture, and Afro-Cuban religious practices like Santería. An aspiring percussionist, Beato internalized these complex Cuban rhythms—the first time he attended a sacred toque de santos (playing for the saints), he was transfixed by the instruments and music he heard and saw, shaping his musical inclinations from that point forward. Moving back to New York City in his 20s, Ulises unearthed popular Cuban music that had been drowned out in Miami by Americanized Cuban music. He set out to form a band to play traditional Afro-Cuban sounds that lent popular forms like salsa their essence. It is no surprise he named the group after a conjunto, or a small ensemble, along with Guantanamo, considered the birthplace of son montuno.

Ulises is joined in Conjunto Guantanamo by Pepito Gomez (lead vocals), Carlos Mena (bass and vocals), Oscar Oñoz (trumpet), Ittetsu Nasuda (piano), and Mauricia Herrera (bongo).