Adalberto Alvarez - Biography
Cuban composer and bandleader Adalberto Alvarez sets the gold standard for a style of dance music known as casino. Based on the classic son from the ‘40s and ‘50s, casino refers both to a music that is made for the dancer and a dance style that is the Cuban equivalent of salsa. Alvarez has maintained a steady presence and remained popular since he emerged in the late ‘70s with the group Son 14. Known affectionately as “El Caballero del Son,” or the “Son Gentleman,” Alvarez is neither a lead singer nor an instrumental virtuoso, although he does sing chorus vocals and plays occasional keyboard. His stage presence is subtle, as he directs the band, and his popularity rests on well-crafted songs, integrity of sound, and a dignified presence. When one speaks of Adalberto Alvarez y su Son it is not about an individual but rather the collective and the dance scene they create.
Alvarez was raised in the provincial city of Camagüey, although he was actually born in Havana when his mother was visiting the capital in 1948. At the age of nine he began playing in a children’s group, Orquesta Avance Juvenil, directed by his father, Enrique Fortunato. In his adolescence he studied aeronautical engineering with dreams of being a pilot before returning to his musical ambitions. He formed an a cappella group in 1963 then began singing in an amateur group called Combo Caribe in 1964 before going off the National School of Arts (La E.N.A.) in Havana to study bassoon in 1966. In 1967 he began directing the school’s Orquesta Típica, drawing repertoire from the classic Cuban songbook and honing his skills as a singer, arranger, and composer. The workshop-like atmosphere and the awesome talent of his young colleagues allowed him to experiment and develop his craft removed from the pressures of the marketplace.
Returning to Camagüey in 1972 after his studies were completed, he began to teach music and literature at the Provincial School of Art and directed the same youth group he had played in. In 1978 he was invited to Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of Cuba’s traditional music, to form a group that became Son 14. They hit the road immediately and although unknown at the time they made quite an impression in Venezuela and Mexico and ultimately per chance made it to San Francisco, California in May of 1978. A funky looking group sporting Afros and wearing bell-bottoms, they performed in that city’s growing carnival and also had a series of gigs in the area, blowing everyone away. In 1979 they recorded their first record, simply titled Son 14 (Areito), and gave birth to the Alvarez tune “A Bayamo en Coche” which would become instantly popular and remain a classic. The album also contained another enduring hit, “El Son de al Madrugada.”
Son 14 used an expanded conjunto format, employing four trumpets and a trombone, a full rhythm and percussion section, the tres guitar, and four frontline singers including Tiburón Morales and Felix Baloy. With Alvarez playing electric keyboards as well as writing and arranging most songs, he put his stamp on the traditional son, creating catchy chorus vocals and laying out sophisticated harmony. Their second album, Son Como Son (1981 Areito), continued their popularity with “Son Para un Sonero” and “Será Porque Soy Candela.” Released the same year, Adalberto Alvarez presenta Son 14 (Areito) had another hit with “Agua que Cae del Cielo” (Water that falls from the sky).
Alvarez parted ways with Son 14 in 1983 and formed a new group in Havana, Adalberto Alvarez y su Son. Retaining the trumpets and adding a second trombone, the new band released Adalberto Alvarez y su Son (1985 Areito). Armed with new songs such as “Chivo quiere que le den candela” (The goat wants them to give him the fire), “El Mal de la Hipocresia” (The evil of hypocrisy), “Mi Negra se ha Vuelto Loca” (My woman had gone crazy), and “Esperando que Vuelva María” (Waiting for Maria to return), they traveled to Spain, participating in a salsa festival in Seville alongside numerous salsa luminaries. The following year saw El Regreso de María [The return of María] (1986 Areito) and the band traveled to Helsinki with “El Bongocero Mentiroso” (The lying bongo player) to heat up the Olympic atmosphere.
Two more excellent releases followed, Sueño con una gitana [Dream with a gypsy] (1987 Areito) and Fin de Semana [Weekend] (1988 Areito) and the band extended their European infiltration, performing at numerous festivals including the prestigious North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland. In addition to performing their dynamic original compositions, Alvarez recorded and performed classic Cuban songs, in particular those of Arsenio Rodriguez, infusing them with energetic, contemporary arrangements. His salsa contemporaries in New York City, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela had taken note of Alvarez and such heavyweights as Eddie Palmieri, La Sonora Ponceña, Andy Montañez, Juan Luis Guerra, Willie Rosario, Roberto Roena, Oscar D’León, and Juan Luis Guerra would record his songs.
Legendary tres guitar player Pancho Amat joined the crew in 1989 and Alvarez happily created space for his creative solos. In the early ‘90s a young singer named Rojitas joined the band and made his name singing the Santería themed song, “Y qué tú quieres que te den” (What do you want them to give you?), an enduring anthem from Dale como e (1993 Areito). An influence on the new generation of bands in Cuba playing a variant of Cuban salsa know as timba, Alvarez joined forces with popular singer Issac Delgado on El Chévere de la Salsa, El Caballero del Son (1995 Areito). That same year Alvarez set loose a dance frenzy with his Caribbean-pop influenced ditty “El toca toca.”
After signing a contract with the European label Milan he released Magistral (1997), a recording that suffered from poor production. Maintaining his connection to the youth, Alvarez debuted his two daughters on keyboards and chorus.
Alvarez’ music remained hard to obtain stateside until his first US release, Jugando con candela (1999 Havana Caliente/Pimienta), raised his profile considerably. A great set of songs, top-notch production, and a supremely talented band helped secure a Grammy nomination. Lead singer Aramis Galindo stands out on high-energy scorchers such as “Si no vas a cocinar” (If you’re not going to cook). The band also had an opportunity to play a few select gigs in the US (before the Bush administration entered and locked out Cuban artists), where an audience of movers and shakers greeted them like visiting dignitaries.
Alvarez began the new millennium with tours in Mexico and Japan and after bringing in three new singers he recorded the flawless Suena Cubano (2001 BIS) with the assistance of ace arranger Joaquín Betancourt. The contribution of younger musicians who were integral participants in the timba (Cuba’s funky, high energy form of salsa) movement altered Alvarez’s sound, giving it a more contemporary feel. Para Bailar Casino (2003 BIS) hit the market with more compelling dance groove and showed Alvarez was still a vital force. At the age of 55 he was enjoying his status as a de facto Cuban institution, performing at prestigious festivals in Cuba, Canada, and Europe. Mi Linda Habanera (2005 BIS) is a heart-felt tribute to his beloved Havana and features an excellent version of the Orquesta Aragón song “Pregúntame como estoy” as well as an updated version of his popular “Y qué tú quieres que te den?”
Since his arrival on the Cuban music scene in the late ‘70s, Alvarez has consistently satisfied a sophisticated audience of dance aficionados. Throughout his long career he has remained relevant and, along the way, crafted a songbook that is played by salsa musicians the world over. A paragon of Cuban music both new and old, he has achieved his dream of securing a place in the eternal soul of the dancer.