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Cuban musician José Luis Cortés:
Born to be a controversial figure in Cuban popular music, all of his ideas find arguments or essential points not discussed by other artists. His contentious and very much Cuban work has influenced the study of flute and song.

José Luis Cortés González (Santa Clara, October 5, 1951) of the timba group NG La Banda, thought of, created and made possible "since1988" a project that has materialized the expectations of a whole new generation of musicians.

He arrived at the National Arts School (ENA) to study flute, but found himself in the choir, in a typical orchestra and leading orchestras such as the Jazz Band. He completed his training by working with the groups Aliamén, Van Van and Irakere.

"El Tosco," as Cortés González is known, and NG La Banda have travelled a long way. In two decades, the group has moved the public with new approaches that fuse Cuban son music with jazz, pop and rock - and even with classical music, something that their two forthcoming albums will demonstrate.

"What did you get from your time with the Van Van and Irakere? And why did you leave these groups?

"In the first, I learned how to work with popular music so that people could dance it. In the second, I learned how to play popular and concert music, how to make the orchestra sound more, and to respect your creation. In both groups I made arrangements, come up with the chorus and composed songs.

"There was a time in which I wanted to do things of my own and I could not do them, out of respect for Formell and Chucho Valdés. But I have always thought that NG La Banda is like an orange cut in half, where there is both Van Van and Irakere.

"As a band director I have been more liberal. If you bring something I like, I accept it. If not, I tell you, 'Lets fix it. I never say no, if I think that it is really worthy. Currently, the work with the orchestra is more centered on what my experience can do for it. Miguelito Pan con salsa (Miguel Ángel de Armas Laferté); Feliciano Arango, who also plays the bass; and drummer Giraldo Piloto, are no longer by my side.

"My musicians are enthusiastic, and even more now that I pressure them with the twentieth anniversary of the band. I tell them 'This orchestra has to sound as it did before, if not, we have to find out why.

"To what extent has the group shown the work of the new generation of musicians that you proposed yourselves at the beginning?

"The idea dates back to the end of 1984. I was lucky to work a long time as a permanent musical producer at the EGREM recording company. We produced popular music albums from the perspective of people who were contemporary concert musicians to me and others sharing that perspective.

"This was the origin of Abriendo el ciclo and A través del ciclo, and Siglo I a.n.e. and Siglo II de n.e. We are missing Cerrando el ciclo and Siglo III después de n.e. I can wait to record them. I have already composed the music, although I have to change some things because time has passed.

"I made those recordings with members of Irakere. Chucho realized that people were tired because they came from recording at night. One day, he decided to take José Miguel Crego (El Greco), Carlos Averoff, Juan Mungía and me out of the group. Germán Velasco left too because he joined us. And what happened happened.

"Although Chucho was ahead of the events, thanks to him, Im still in the music game. The idea of forming NG La Banda was very simple, 'Lets play music the way we want, if it doesnt work in two years, each of us takes his way... But the group has turned 20 and has not split up."

"How was NG La Banda able to make Cuban salsa boom?

"There has always been a boom, such as that of Van Vans songo in the 1960s. I came to scene in the 1990s, when trova music was no longer present on the big stages, singer-song writers were no longer in concerts or singing their love songs.

"Popular music began taking their place little by little. NG La Banda took part in campaigns such as Píntate de Sol, El sol te da, among others. It was amazing how this music was received by the youth. People liked it because of the lyrics and the rhythm of its choruses. Although it was broadcast on TV and radio, recordings of live concerts were distributed. Everybody had a cassette with our music, with songs like Necesito una amiga, Que venga la fiera que la estoy esperando, La bruja..., which got us in the market like no other band.

"We created a movement: Timba, although I called it Cuban Contemporary Popular Music. It was just like NG, a name people came up with in a radio contests and means New Generation."

"In the 1990s, your group was accused of using vulgar lyrics in their songs. How do you assume musical composition without the ghost of vulgarity leaning out of the window?

"Ive said it many times; popular music has a code. And the one used by NG La Banda was so strong that avoiding it "just to use a phrase said by people in the street" is outrageous. I go out to the neighborhoods - Pogolotti, Buena Vista... I know how they speak, how they think. Popular music has always nourished been from there, from the roots, from the humblest. Thats why its called that.

"There hasnt been an elitist popular musician. Thats the case of Ñico Saquito, Miguel Matamoros, Manuel Corona, Teofilito (Rafael Gómez), Ignacio Piñeiro, Félix Chapotín, Miguelito Cuní or Arsenio Rodríguez. None of them went to school or were "intellectuals." There is a people instinct in 'Hay fuego en el 23, 'La yucca de Casimiro, or the Guayaberos 'A me me gusta que baile Marieta. Thats Cuba; it cant be changed.

"Todays Cuba is 'Qué venga la fiera que la estoy esperando or 'Buena Vista, tremenda pista. Thats what I had to do. I dont compare myself to Piñeiro or Matamoros. This time has been represented by Juan Formell in 'La Barbacoa, 'La habana no aguanta más; and Chucho Valdés with 'Antes de tiempo no, respeta or 'échale semilla a la malanga que yo tengo el uno.

"However, many of us have been called vulgar. Before, one of your songs was suspended and you couldnt say anything. You had no way to defend yourself in a fight between David and Goliath where David had his hands tied. Now, we have the right to reply."

"Are there any prejudices against your lyrics?

"I think its a matter of time, of guinea pigs... Many have perished in the struggle, but they havent been able to knock me down.

"I continue dealing with social problems, like graft and immorality, in my songs. They have to listen to them."

"What made you found the school of singing?

"The School was founded more than a year ago and has graduated 15 singers. It exists thanks to the Ministry of Culture. I have been given green light to look for new voices that nourish the mountain of popular music, which is huge.

"I have always been bothered by the fact that there is a gap between great Cuban signers "including Omara Portuondo, Moraima Secada, Elena Burke, Gina León, among others" and those who came later, almost none of whom live in the country. Then, there came the new stars, something that is a lie because there is not yet work to say that they are. They have all passed through my hands. Osdalgia Lesmes is like a daughter to me, as well as Vania Borges and Tania Pantoja.

"But even more dangerous than the gap between the old and new generation is that there is no one in the wings behind the current group; most of these women have entered their thirties. That worries me.

"The other worrisome issue is that there arent female bands in the top 40 lists "the most renowned is the legendary Anacaona.

"Why is this happening if they sing our same choruses? This is a mystery. I began to do some research and helped Lady Salsa, Son Damas and Chicas del Sol. We carried out a festival of women bands at the La Tropical music showcase, and Ive devoted a lot of myself to this work."

"What is Camerata Cortés?

"Before, the flute was a male instrument and all of the sudden it has become a female one. It has passed to a second level, with the synthesizer technology and the brass sections.

"Thats why, recalling my teachers, to dignify the instrument and thanks to the Cuban Institute of Music, we "master Antonio Pedroso and I"have been given the opportunity to make this a true orchestra. It is formed by 22 young women and a male, students of the flute speciality at the Higher Institute of Art and the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory. I think a similar group is being formed in Cienfuegos."

"Formell said in this paper that he does not see a serious replacement in popular music that assures its future. What are the problems that need to be solved in popular music to guarantee its continuity?

"If we do not think this over well, we wont be able to go beyond timba. There are many difficulties to forming a group: you dont have a company; you need to have a certain number of people on the staff; there is a certain law; you have to wait a year to go out of the country... millions of things that have been established by musical and cultural establishments.

"During the 'Special period, some left the country or didnt want to work. And popular music "which was so much criticized" entertained people and brought them pleasure. There are some people complaining now because reggaeton isnt the future of the Cuban music. I have nothing against that music genre; it must have something that makes it a music phenomenon, but I think that people here have studied a great deal and have too high a level artistic development to fall for a quality of aesthetic work that is so low.

"I think that we need to review the laws regulating the creation of new groups, find the way to opening instead of closing, because this is a country where people walk and talk dancing and signing. A people without music has no soul. This comes from Martís epoch, and no one can change it."


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