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Although the Bay Area-based Conjunto Cspedes is now being recognized as one of the most exciting Afro-Cuban ensembles in the country, Guillermo Cspedes, the groups musical director, recalls that until very recently there was no context for appreciating their distinctive sound.
"Today, with the great influx of Cuban bands, we belong somewhere," he explains. "But when we were starting out 17 years ago, we had difficulty getting jobs because we didnt play the commercial salsa sound and not many people were familiar with Afro-Cuban traditional music. So we played some colleges, some performing arts halls and La Pena [the Berkeley cultural center] became our home base."
Nearly two decades later, Conjunto Céspedes has had two albums, Una Sola Casa (Xenophile 1993) and Vivito Y Coleando (Xenophile 1995), honored as Latin Album Of The Year by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and become one of the top drawing bands in Latin and World music venues in the United States and Europe.
"I think people can see what we do is unique," says Guillermo, reflecting on the groups growing popularity. "Our styles are very diverse. Our sound is rooted in folkloric traditions, son, rumba, ancient African spiritual traditions, elements of jazz and funk. We are also a big group12 pieceswith a big sound. And Bobi, our singer, she can do it all. I believe she will be chronicled in history as one of the rare vocalists in Afro-Cuban music."
Since the founding of Conjunto Céspedes in 1981, the ensemble has evolved through several conceptual and personnel changes, the most significant being the departure of Luis Céspedes in 1986. With the absence of Luis, Gladys "Bobi" Céspedes inherited lead vocal duties and gradually moved to the center of the groups sound. Today she is regarded as an important "new" voice in Cuban music and is compared in review after review to the legendary salsa singer, Celia Cruz.
"When we first started recording, I was not as confident," remembers Bobi Céspedes. "My voice is now deeper and stronger, and I feel more comfortable on stage."
Guillermo is more effusive when describing the singing of his aunt: "Comparisons to the great Celia Cruz are very flattering, but they obscure what Bobi does. She has tremendous musical range. She is strong on folk ballads and dance tunes and deeply rooted in religious traditions. Her spiritual force is also incredibly strong. Few people have her command of the stage. And all that together makes her unique. Few vocalists have all that."
Attending an April concert at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, I witnessed the full power and grace of Bobi Céspedes in an exhilarating three-hour show celebrating the release of the new Conjunto Céspedes album Flores<D> (Xenophile). With intricate, joyous horn arrangements exploding on top of dense, driving polyrhythms, the big, clear soulful voice of Bobi Céspedes defined the heart and soul of this raw, passionate music linking ancient Africa with life in the Americas. Swaying casually and gracefully to steamy native grooves, she unfolded stories and emotions with an easy, relaxed delivery precisely attuned to the ensembles sparkling accents, shifting rhythms, and fluid call-and-response. And when the music slowed for something more intimate, she showed she can nurture the yearning of bittersweet ballads with delicate, telling nuances. A mesmerizing performer.
"Bobi came to the United States from Cuba in 1959 and I came in 1963," says Guillermo as he explains the roots of the Conjunto Céspedes sound. "We listened to peasant music growing up, the music of the hills. And that still is the foundation of what we do. We were not exposed to a lot of other music, Afro-Cuban jazz for example, until coming to the United States.
"As to son, its a very old musical idiom, some date it back as far the 15th century. But it became popular in Cuba in the 1920s. Basically, to keep it simple, because it is difficult to define, son is a mixture of the string music of Spain with the rhythms of Africa. In Cuba, because of the African population, son has a strong foothold in Africa. So you have a series of very strong rhythms combined, certain figures repeating, call and response, and so on. Its music with a dance groove; it makes people move.
"And thats our roots. Were a son band. The thing that makes us different or distinctive is that we blend other styles, bolero and rumba for instance, with these roots. And to all that, we add religious music. We are very interested in bringing spiritual traditions into the dance format."
The ability of Conjunto Céspedes to weave so many strands of African and Latin music so seamlessly is, indeed, what gives them an identity apart from the latest trends. And on Flores> listeners get to hear the most refined and "live" Céspedes sound yet translated to record. Produced by percussionist John Santos, Flores> is the groups most band-oriented album. With fiery solos and spirited, sophisticated blasts of brass rolling over a hot percussive bed of keyboards, tres guitar, electric bass, clave, timbales, bongos and congas, the 12-person ensemble has matured an expansive pan-Latin musical language with wide appeal that still sounds traditional and personal.
In concert, Conjunto Céspedes always make a striking entrance with band members coming on stage to the hypnotic pulse of chekere drums, and on Flores chekere beats open and close the album, framing the record in a rich roots ambience. In between these tracks, the bands broadening musical vision is reflected in a smoldering fusion of rhythms and textures from all over the Afro-Latin world. As always, vocalist Bobi Céspedes is the focal point, twisting melodies to the ensembles thick rhythmic surge while soulfully rendering lyrics evoking sorrows and ecstasies of ordinary everyday life.
"This album has very personal and spiritual songs," says Bobi. "We have many original songs (seven), an arrangement of a traditional prayer ("Aideu") and songs from my childhood. "Nosotros" is a bolero I learned when I was 9-years-old and "Flores Para Mi Altar" (Flowers For My Altar) is a song of the great Celina Gonzalez that I also heard when I was a child."
Guillermo adds: "More and more our music makes no separation between party and prayer. It gets people out on the dance floor, but it also offers a spiritual encounter."
Although many Conjunto Céspedes tunes make reference to various African deities, their spiritual messages preach mostly of pride in heritage, the healing powers of son and a sensual, loving embrace of life and humanity. Suffering and struggle are acknowledged, but like the blues and gospel music of African America, this music is about affirmation. The booklet accompanying the album supplies an English translation of the lyrics, but the exuberant, authentic sound of Conjunto Céspedes communicates this feeling across barriers of language and culture.
Discussing the current rising popularity of Afro-Cuban sounds, Guillermo explains: "Throughout the century you find periods where this music becomes popular and those periods are always influenced by waves of migration. So now, with a growing and very diverse population of Spanish speaking people in the United States, we have another very popular period for different kinds of Latin music. With the walls around Cuba breaking down, new relations forming, and more Cuban musicians getting a chance to play in the United States, North Americans are being exposed and opening up to a variety of Cuban sounds. How far it can go here, I dont know. Audiences in the U.S. are very fickle. I guess it will depend on how much music the record companies can sell.
"But the Bay Area is different, and weve been very lucky. In San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland, there is knowledge and awareness of what we do, and its a lasting awareness. Still, I must say, as we go around the country, Im often surprised at the appeal of our music. In the midwest and south, weve had some great audiences. I think there is just something very basic about traditional or folkloric music, be it Appalachian music or Cuban music, that relates to people of all kinds. I also feel, were getting better at what we do. Our blend of styles and concepts is stronger. We are now bringing this music to a new level."