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Interview with Lázaro Valdés y Vannia Borges, leader and vocalist of the pulsating Cuban super-group Bamboleo

Bamboleo: Lo que se baila, lo que se usa

by Abel Delgado
At first glance Bamboleo may strike you as a gimmick band—two hot chicks with Ming the Merciless-style fades and a meneo that would break Britney Spears' clavicle should she be foolhardy enough to attempt it. But unlike the churned-out pop princesses dominating today's charts, who might as well have Mattel's logo stamped on the back of their skulls, these women, especially Vannia Borges, can sing. It doesn't matter whether she's dismissing an ex-boyfriend or declaring eternal love, in every tune Vannia demonstrates a jet-powered voice, well-honed interpretive skill and plain old cheqendeque. Yordamis Megret, the other female vocalist, is also more than a pretty face, a bald head and a smoking body. Whether live or on CD, she shows range and promise. And the two male singers, while not spectacular, are very solid, competent, new-school soneros.

As for the rest of the band, they quite simply rock the house. The conguero, timbalero and drummer attack the skins like the mid 80's edition of Mike Tyson attacked opponents. The horn section, which takes an unusual unison approach, huffs and puffs like the Big Bad Wolf and indeed does blow the house down. The anchor to this musical assault on the senses is Lázaro Valdés, pianist, arranger and leader of the band. As an arranger, he writes charts that shift from lyricism into hyper yet controlled hedonism. As a pianist, I haven't heard him solo enough to have an idea of his skills, but he is certainly excellent at executing those tricky, flowing piano tumbaos that characterize timba, the catchall name for the music Cuban bands are playing these days. Buena Vista Social Club notwithstanding, it's not your father's (or grandfather's) mambo or chachachá. This is timba, baby, what many Cubans are grooving to in roughneck clubs like La Tropical, where your chances of brawling or dancing up a storm are about the same. What's it about? Rhythm, fun and the slang of the streets, among other things. You won't hear socially relevant lyrics like those of Rubén Blades. But you also won't hear yet another tired love song with the same old arrangement: head, 3 or 4 montunos/guías, a mambo that opens with a trombone line followed by trumpets, 3 or 4 montunos/guías, moña and coda. The timba sound isn't homogenized and pasteurized, it's about the unexpected. Funky breakdowns with the piano and bass swinging. Horns that go from jazz licks to circus music. Singers that quote old rumbas, boleros and the latest street slang with equal ease. And Bamboleo is among the best of this timba charge.

Descarga's Abel Delgado recently sat down with bandleader Lázaro Valdés and singer Vannia Borges to find out more about the band and their approach to music. This interview is available in both English and Spanish. The English text follows below. Para leer las entrevistas con Lázaro Valdés y Vannia Borges en español, haga clic aquí.

Lázaro Valdés

Abel Delgado: You're apparently from a musical family. Could you tell me a little about it?

Lázaro Valdés: Well, my grandfather Oscar Valdés is the trunk of the family. He was the one who got his brothers—Vicentico Valdés, Alfredo Valdés, who was older than him and Marcelino Valdés—(in music). Vicentico Valdés was an excellent bolero singer who recorded a ton of records. Alfredo Valdés was one of the pioneers of son in Cuba. He was the singer for el Sexteto Habanero, the most famous sextet of the 1920s. He sang many songs that were hits in that era that today are classics. Marcelino Valdés, an excellent percussionist, was one of the first percussionists to play the conga with one hand and the paila with another, a tremendous use of polyrhythms. My grandfather (Oscar Valdés) was a percussionist, conga drummer and singer. When he was young and sang he used to cover for Barbarito Diez, an excellent Cuban singer, so Barbarito could do other gigs. In his time, he was one of the most-recorded conga drummers in Cuba. He recorded with everybody and appeared on all the shows. My father, Lázaro Valdés, was Beny Moré's pianist for a long time. Oscar Valdés Jr., my Uncle Oscar, is also en excellent percussionist. He played percussion with Beny Moré and up until recently was in Irakere; he was a singer and percussionist for Irakere. My cousin Diego Valdés is a great bass player. He lives in Colombia. My other cousin Oscarito Valdés Jr. is an excellent drummer, one of the first drummers in Cuba to sign with a foreign firm; he signed with Peer. And I play piano with Bamboleo. My son is 9 and is also going to be a musician.

Abel Delgado: You're not a relative of Chucho Valdés, right? He's from another branch of Valdeses, right?

Lázaro Valdés: He's from another branch of Valdeses but we're like relatives because we have very good communication between us. We get along really well and he was working with my grandfather in the Orquesta de Música Moderna. As a kid he studied piano with my father...we're almost like family. We've made the Valdés (name) one.

Abel Delgado: I know that Vicentico Valdés died New York and Marcelino Valdés spent a long time in New York working as Tito Rodríguez's percussionist. Did you ever have contact with your famous uncles?

Lázaro Valdés: Well, when I got to the U.S. they were already dead...I haven't yet had contact with my cousins from Vicentico but I have (had contact) with my cousins from Marcelino...and every time I go we see each other and talk.

Abel Delgado: Tell me about your career.

Lázaro Valdés: I started in the School of Art studying violin. But I wasn't happy with it so I studied piano. From the age of six they sat me down in front of a piano and I got some melody out it. From there (the School of Art) at age 17 I became the pianist of a famous Cuban singer named Héctor Téllez. Then I was involved in various projects done in Cuba for show companies. From there I left (to work with) Bobby Carcassés, an excellent Cuban jazz player (who) is a school of jazz in Cuba. I was with him for two years. (Then) another singer-songwriter named Amaury Pérez called me and we toured all of México. I came back and Pachito Alonso, the son of Pacho, y sus Kini Kini, called me. I was with Pachito for almost five years. I started on keyboards. I believe I was one of the first keyboard players in Cuba to do all the colors and stuff that you do on keyboards. I created a style that later more or less everybody followed and everybody started to include a keyboard (in their bands). And after Pachito the task of doing my current project, Bamboleo, presented itself. I took advantage of a project of a Spaniard who had a record label called Caribe Productions. (The Spaniard) wanted to create Las Mulatas del Fuego because many years ago that group was successful in was the idea of a Spaniard along with José Luis Cortés, the leader of NG la Banda, to have four women in a project and have a group of good musicians backing them up. But then they auditioned a bunch of women and none of them were good enough to be Las Mulatas del Fuego. That project didn't work out and I left it with some musicians that were already with me...and I created Bamboleo.

Abel Delgado: So Haila Mompié and Vannia Borges were part of those Mulatas del Fuego?

Lázaro Valdés: No, no. Haila worked in a cabaret as a dancer and you could see she had a good timbre. A bassplayer friend of mine named Céspedes...told me about her. He brought her to me, I listened to her, I realized she had a good voice and I started to develop her. Vannia was from the School of Art. I heard of her...(while she was) in a quartet called D'capo. Then I listened to her with Pachito Alonso. In fact, when I was leaving Pachito Alonso she was just joining him. And with her I wanted to do a ballad thing...and she interested me and they both joined Bamboleo.

Abel Delgado: And whose idea was it that the girls would come out with shaven heads?

Lázaro Valdés: They picked Vannia for the cover of a record and they shaved (the word) "Cuba" into her head and she got a short haircut (to remove it). And I liked the way the short haircut looked and so I shaved the head of the other one. This caused a sensation; internationally people liked it a lot because after we did that we went to Europe. It drew a lot of attention because both of them have very pretty faces and (this) brought out their beauty.

Abel Delgado: What record was it?

Lázaro Valdés: An AfroCuba record.

Abel Delgado: Now I remember...Rey Arco Iris. That's her?

Lázaro Valdés: Yeah, it's her. She had to shave her head to get the word out of the side of her head.

Abel Delgado: Could you tell me about the training of musicians in Cuba? I understand it's a rigorous process.

Lázaro Valdés: Well, in Cuba, like everybody knows, in the School of Art a Cuban musician has all the time in the world to study. A Cuban musician is not like other musicians that, for example, have to go to school or who work at a gas station during the day or in a bookstore or who work only on weekends. In Cuba you live and breathe music. So the (skill) levels are higher than those of other countries. The schools are free, you have all the time you want to be in a classroom studying piano. You also don't have to buy an instrument. If you play trumpet they give you a trumpet and you're with your trumpet all the time until you graduate.

Abel Delgado: They start real young, don't they?

Lázaro Valdés: From when they're kids. You start studying piano at age seven. From age seven all you're doing is making music. Of course they also teach you math, Spanish, literature...but you're seeing music from the age of 7 until you turn 18 and graduate.

Abel Delgado: There's also a certain amount of training from the street, right? Because they're surrounded by music...

Lázaro Valdés: Yes, what happens is that Cuba isn't like other places where there's only nightlife on the weekends. For instance, in Miami there is no place worthwhile that you can go listen to a good group. Because musicians don't have stability. They're chasing after money. Who called me? Gilberto Santarosa. So today I go with Gilberto Santarosa. Tomorrow DLG calls me and I play with DLG. In Cuba my musicians have been with me as long as the group itself has been around. Although there have been (personnel) changes, right? When you have that there's a strong connection (between the musicians). For example, by just looking at each other the bass player and I know what (musical) agreement we're going to come to, where we're going and what effects we're going to do. I think the same thing happens with the timbalero, the drummer and the conga player. The impact of the horns comes from the time they've spent working together. And that's very important for making good music. That's achieved in a country like this one that has a different system or in a country where there's a lot of money and you pay the musician to keep him happy so (he keeps playing)...with you.

Abel Delgado: With regard to timba, does anyone know who invented that style of playing? Some people say that is was José Luis Cortés of NG la Banda, others say it was Juanito y sus mulatos ...

Lázaro Valdés: No, timba is from art schools. The used to call it ferocious timba. For instance, you'd have five congas playing a guaguancó rhythm with a little more fills and choruses with jazzy phrasing and something a little more advanced than son and those kinds of things. That didn't have a name. That was Cuban music, okay? It was called Cuban music. Popular Cuban music. And then AfroCuba started with that same timba vibe. The music wasn't called timba but they used the word to mean flavor. In Cuba "timba" means flavor. "That guy has timba," "he has a good timba," it means a good flavor. The timba as a name (for the music) wasn't used, it was only a part of musical language...the name came out (to describe the music) when Formell called it timba. He said it in an interview, I don't know where. Now what's played in Cuba is called timba. And so timba started to spread around the world and they started saying that what's being played is timba. But as far as I know, timba has been around for a long time and comes from the schools of art.

Abel Delgado: And when did that style start to come out? Starting from the 80s, the 70s?

Lázaro Valdés: That was something that more or less...I think (it started) before 1980, around then. More or less when Irakere was started is when it took off, when Chucho started to mix (musical styles)...(in) numbers like "Bacalao con pan," etc. (Hear on Irakere recordings En Vivo or Grandes Momentos de Irakere.)

Abel Delgado: Was that style in some way influenced by salsa?

Lázaro Valdés: Salsa influenced it later to soften it because timba was very ferocious. It was very ferocious, very raw, with a lot of flavor but very violent because the horns had a lot of phrases and the polyrhythms were very strong, it was more of a jazz. When people started listening to salsa in Cuba, it softened that music up a bit. There were musicians who started playing the salsa style like Dan Den or Los Karachi who don't play timba, they play salsa. There were other bands that played both styles together. For instance, NG la Banda played that tune "Necesito una amiga" (On En la Calle) with Isaac Delgado, which has a little bit of salsa and some timba. It was a little bit of both. Puerto Rican salsa started to soften up the force that timba had.

Abel Delgado: And what groups did people listen to during the time that the Cuban musicians started to use that salsa influence?

Lázaro Valdés: During my time it was Eddie Santiago, Frankie Ruiz. That was the time in which I began to listen to salsa because I didn't listen to it. I wasn't interested in listening to salsa.

Abel Delgado: What did you think of that music when you heard it for the first time?

Lázaro Valdés: I started studying it a little because I wasn't used to it. It all seemed to be the same base with different harmonies. And it was all the same stuff, the same stuff, the same stuff...because timba can sound like it's the same stuff but there's always an effect, something that identifies the group that plays it. Understand? That doesn't happen in Puerto Rico. Since it's a market, in Puerto Rico everything is recorded with a similar sound. There are some people that stand out more than others, for instance, Sergio George, who has created his style with la India and Marc Anthony. He created his style with a little mix that's very good and also, personally, we're good friends. When Eddie Santiago, Frankie Ruiz, etc. started, I knew who it was because of the singer, not the band. Later on I started to dig it. I like Johnny Rivera a lot, I love the way that guy sings. And Gilberto Santa Rosa, forget about it. I started to connect with them and started to understand it. I realized that it had richness and flavor.

Abel Delgado: What exactly is timba? In other words, what are its musical characteristics that make it different from, say, salsa?

Lázaro Valdés: Salsa is smoother. Timba is a lot more wild, with a lot of force, with a lot more polyrhythms, with many more choruses. I don't know how to explain it...the rhythm patterns are different...the syncopation is totally different. What pretty much identifies timba is the tumbao of the piano, the syncopation of the piano tumbao, at least in my group. The piano tumbao, the's a kitchen. It's as if they put a pot full of meat, seasoning, whatever, over a fire, and it gets cooked. Making timba is like cooking the music.

Abel Delgado: I have a question about the arrangements and how they create the structure of the songs. When you're making up the choruses, do you first write the piano and bass riffs and then try out different choruses until you find one that fits or do you do it all at the same time?

Lázaro Valdés: No, it's the other way around. The tune comes with the chorus. The songwriters give you the lyrics with the chorus, which you study to see if it will be a hit with the people or not, if it's a social chorus, if it's political, if it's a chorus about what happens every day in Cuba, an international chorus, a chorus about love, whatever. You listen to the chorus and you put piano and bass riffs (tumbaos) to it that fit. Then after you create that tumbao for that chorus and you see that it works, you start doing the tune's introduction, later the body. You put the horns onto the body of the tune and then you start creating some effects so this tune doesn't get confused with other ones and there you have the complete structure of how the tune is arranged.

Abel Delgado: And every time you guys play do you play the same arrangement or do you vary it from time to time?

Lázaro Valdés: The numbers (follow) the same outline. Now, I don't have a fixed arrangement of a tune like...the Puerto Rican salseros do. They have the tune arranged from top to bottom with a fixed arrangement, how it goes, they don't have variety. Mine follows a fixed arrangement until the first or second mambo. From the second mambo on it depends on how the audience reacts. If it's an audience that likes the tune, I'll toss out another mambo that of course is already pre-rehearsed. Or we invert the order of the mambos, we do a break, we keep the piano riff playing by itself, some polyrhythmic stuff is done, some effects, all pre-rehearsed, are done.

Abel Delgado: So the variations themselves are all pre-rehearsed and you can tell the musicians to try this option or that option?

Lázaro Valdés: Exactly. Every tune has's a routine, okay? depends on how the public is reacting at that moment. When I realize a number is not working with an audience or that they want to hear jazz, I crack the whip (and signal the changes).

Abel Delgado: Do you find that the Cuban audience is more demanding than, let's say, the North American or the Latin American audiences?

Lázaro Valdés: They're different audiences. Look, the Cuban audience is a dancing audience, constantly dancing but inexpressive in terms of receiving your message as an artist. They may spend the whole time dancing and won't applaud you. You have to squeeze the applause out of them. The American audience might not dance but knows how to value every little silly thing you do with the music, from a break to a burst, they notice these things. The audiences over here, all you gotta do is toss'em a chorus and a mambo and they'll be dancing until tomorrow. (laughs)

Abel Delgado: Speaking of that, now that we were talking about romantic salsa earlier because it's smoother than timba. Do you think a romantic salsero could go to Cuba and be a hit with that demanding dancer audience?

Lázaro Valdés: Ooh, for sure! Here "Devórame otra vez" was like an anthem. Listen, that was an anthem here, they played it 24-7. Here (romantic salseros) have been big hits. (For example), people here in Cuba love Gilberto Santa Rosa a lot.

Abel Delgado: So for example, then Marc Anthony or Frankie Negrón...

Lázaro Valdés: Marc Anthony, too. If Marc Anthony came here he'd cause an uproar.

Abel Delgado: So people won't care that the music isn't as strong as timba?

Lázaro Valdés: No, no no.

Abel Delgado: They like to try different things?

Lázaro Valdés: Of course. Cubans get into any kind of good music. And Puerto Rico makes good music. It's different from what's happening over here. Of course, it's not the same as Marc Anthony playing at La Tropical, which is in and of itself the "thermometer" of Cuban artists. You can't move the audience at La Tropical...with romantic music. They listen to all of his songs, some of them will sing along with them, but they won't move that audience like a Cuban band. And maybe the same thing would happen to us in Puerto Rico. We would come in with that force that they're not used to, since their steps and turn combinations are all planned out, and they won't dance. It's a question of what you're used to, okay?

Abel Delgado: So in certain places Marc Anthony would be a hit but if he went to La Tropical...

Lázaro Valdés: La Tropical... many Puerto Rican musicians who've been in Cuba know it. It's a place that holds nearly 10,000 people and it fills up completely, you see head after head after head and you see how that mass moves from one side to another. Once you get to La Tropical and manage to move that mass and reach that audience, in Cuba you're known as a first-level band.

Abel Delgado: And it's hard to do that with romantic salsa because it doesn't have the power...

Lázaro Valdés: It doesn't have the power that audience expects. Just imagine the people there, drinking beer and standing there as hot as it is, to move them you need to bring a musical tank (laughing).

Abel Delgado: I was talking to the president of your label and he seemed to indicate that the popularity of timba in Cuba is falling in comparison to more traditional music like Buena Vista Social Club. Is this happening or is timba as hot as ever?

Lázaro Valdés: Over here Buena Vista Social Club also can't play in la Tropical (laughing). You understand? Neither Buena Vista Social Club nor Cubanismo, those people can't play in la Tropical. I don't know at what level he meant, but at the level of the people, of listeners, I don't think timba (is losing popularity). Timba may be gaining less ground over there in the United States because maybe the Cubanismo project or Buena Vista Social Club has better financinal backing than any other (timba) group that tours the United States. So they attract more people, older people go, they play in theaters, they receive more promotion. And so that's the music you show to Americans. And if you show that music to Americans who have gone 40 years without knowing what's going on in Cuba, they think that Cuba has stayed stuck in the 1950s and well...We went to play at a hotel near Boston and a lot of conservatory teachers went and before that the musicians from Buena Vista Social Club had been there. And they expected that kind of music from us. When we started to play, they saw our music as something from another planet. But they got into it with a lot of feeling, they left very happy and back in line. Because we did two sets, we played, took a 15 minute break, that audience left so another could come in, and the same people from the first audience got back in line (for the second show).

Abel Delgado: Speaking of traditional music and timba, I've noticed that in the Bamboleo performances I've seen, you play one timba tune after another. You don't change genres much, for instance, as does Eddie Palmieri, to play a son montuno, a guajira, a guarachita...

Lázaro Valdés: I have a tune that's almost a son montuno, "Ya no hace falta." (On the CD Ya No Hace Falta.) I also have..."Quimbara," which isn't a son montuno but a rumba. And if I have a record I promote what's on the record, I play the whole thing. And the other thing is that here the son montuno...not even Adalberto, who was the gentleman of son, plays son montuno anymore.

Abel Delgado: This means, then that the Cuban people, the youth, for instance, doesn't like...

Lázaro Valdés: People like it and dance to it but maybe just for one song. One song, one. Music changed over here and what happens is, if you go to see Compay Segundo, you already know you're going to dance with Compay Segundo. And you dance to the sones Compay Segundo plays. But if you go to see Bamboleo, don't expect a son montuno from Bamboleo. If you go to see Van Van, don't expect a son montuno from Van Van. If you go to see NG la Banda don't expect a son montuno from NG la Banda. If they have it in their repertoire, fine, you dance to it, but it's not as if you expect it. If you got to see Adalberto you expect a son montuno but I believe even he isn't...doing son montuno anymore. He's playing a modern son.

Abel Delgado: Well, one day Compay Segundo will pass on, since he's already 90-something, and other musicians of his generation will pass on. So do you believe that the fact that the people don't like it much means that traditional music will be lost at some point?

Lázaro Valdés: No no no. I'm not saying they don't like it, I'm telling you that the people who go to see Bamboleo don't go to hear a son montuno. Here there are a million people who play son montuno. Whoever wants to listen to son montuno can go see those people.

Abel Delgado: So you're saying there's enough diversity in terms of the genres...

Lázaro Valdés: Exactly. Whoever goes to see Bamboleo knows perfectly well that they're not going to listen to son montuno. They're going to listen to a new group that evolved the music, that you can expect jazz as well as timba, that there can be timba mixed with son, or there can be a ballad.

Abel Delgado: So what you're saying is that now in Cuba people have options. If they want to listen to that traditional music, they have places to go where they can listen to it.

Lázaro Valdés: Exactly. Here there are several sonora bands, there are like three or four. And I'll take you to a place where there's a sonora playing and you'll see the amount of people there.

Abel Delgado: Are they young and old?

Lázaro Valdés: There are young people and old people but hardly any young people because they're used to another kind...nowadays people dance differently here. Son montuno is danced close and stuff. Here people dance loose, the woman does one hell of a shake with her back, the man is behind her, it's another thing, understand? Music evolved.

Abel Delgado: But what strikes me as weird is that on one hand, you say a person can go check out a sonora, but there won't be many young people there because they don't like it. Does this imply that, since young people don't like that music, that over time it could die? Or doesn't that danger exist?

Lázaro Valdés: I don't think so. One, because we're going to try and save it. And the other thing is that it has its own audience. Young people are into something else. And if I play four or five sones for them they won't dance.

Abel Delgado: So do you think that over time, when young people mature, that they'll come back to listening to traditional Cuban music?

Lázaro Valdés: Well, there are people who want to keep it alive. For instance, Cubanismo plays that kind of music. Buena Vista Social Club plays that kind of music. I think that when those gentlemen pass on—I hope they never do— that they'll have someone behind them who can replace them and continue with their work. But music has always evolved and people get into other things.

Abel Delgado: I have a question about timba at the social level. My cousins have recently arrived from Cuba and I've spoken to other people who have arrived recently. They give me the impression that there's a racial division in Cuba when it comes to timba. In other words, that many people see timba as belonging solely to Afro-Cubans and that white people don't listen much to that music.

Lázaro Valdés: Racial? That only black people listen to timba?

Abel Delgado: They give that impression, so I'm curious to see if it's just them saying that or if it's something that truly exists.

Lázaro Valdés: No no. Here there are different tastes like there are around the world. And I'll take you to La Tropical so you see people of all colors. I don't know how to explain this to you but there is no racial division. What happens is that since this is an intense music, people, always say "Blacks like that music" because the black man is a comparsero, the black man is a rumbero, understand? It probably is an impression that somebody has because here you go to a dance and you find a white guy dancing casino the same way you'll find a black man doing it. And maybe you'll find a black man who doesn't like that music because he says it's too violent. I don't know how to explain that to you. But I've never noticed a racial division here when it comes to music.

Abel Delgado: I was curious about something else. A friend of mine who's a pianist and who goes back and forth to Cuba has told me that there's a lot of competition between the younger soneros in that they often try to cut each other. Does this happen frequently?

Lázaro Valdés: That happens a little bit so you can have fun and goof around but those are superficial many bands that play a lot people try to distinguish themselves so people know that while they're not the best, they are also good. And they can start saying things to each other...the first time that happened was between Son 14 and Irakere on a TV show.

Abel Delgado: So it isn't so common in the clubs?

Lázaro Valdés: No. For instance, it can be that my group is playing and the people from NG la Banda show up and they're called up on stage and they sing a little and improvise. That could happen sometimes. It happens, but not much and not with hostile intentions. They say things to each other...with the goal of excelling, of standing out.

Abel Delgado: But they do it with a spirit of brotherhood...

Lázaro Valdés: Yes, exactly.

Abel Delgado: I was curious about this because someone had commented to me that some years ago, Paulito challenged Cándido Fabré and Fabré cut him and whatnot. So I was curious about this.

Lázaro Valdés: No, that was on a TV show on which they...Paulito got there late and he's one of the Cuban singers who has a big following with young people and maybe Cándido thinks he wasn't so lucky (as Paulito was to have that following). He has different physical characteristics...Paulito is thin, he's not an ugly guy, he has a lot of female fans, so Cándido started telling him he was a pretty boy. And Paulito told him he was a pretty boy but he also had feelings and heart and I don't know what else, and that he was a man, anyway, things like that, right? It was (two guys) joking around.

Abel Delgado: But it wasn't that he didn't like Paulito but rather that he was doing it because...

Lázaro Valdés: No no, those are things that happen. They're not rehearsed. Listen, Cándido did say something about him getting there late because he was a pretty boy, something like that, right? Because he was acting like a pretty boy. It's a complex that Cándido Fabré has. And then Paulito answered him another way, but he sings the same, improvises the same and something was created that people got into, right? But later they end up hugging each other because they know all that is just for show just like what happened with el Médico de la Salsa and Pablo. They said things to each other in concerts. When Pablo played he said el Médico couldn't sing and when el Médico played he said that Pablo (did or said or was) I don't know what, things like that. So they packed houses...these are strategies used to pack houses.

Abel Delgado: Ah, well I heard a cassette of a friend of mine after el Médico had come out with the song "La bola" ("The Ball" -- on the CD Para Mi Gente) and Paulito came out with an answer record that said, "I'll..."

Lázaro Valdés: Hit it into the street, yeah.

Abel Delgado: But they didn't do that because they're bitter rivals or anything?

Lázaro Valdés: No. They're rivals because they're the most popular singers. If they see each other in the street they hug and kiss but onstage they take digs at each other because those are strategies used to pack houses. (People say) "I'm going to see Pablo to see what he says to el Médico" or "I'm going to see el Médico to see what he says to Pablo" because they know last Saturday el Médico told him I don't know what and the next Saturday people go to see Pablo and that's how you create an air of anticipation but not with animosity.

Abel Delgado: Do you guys have a similar kind of rival?

Lázaro Valdés: No, we don't get involved in that, people respect us a bit because they know that our stuff isn't done with choruses, it's done with music. (laughing)

Abel Delgado: I have another question about romantic salsa. Here there seems to be an emphasis on the pretty boy that sings...

Lázaro Valdés: In the United States, in the Puerto Rican market, if you don't have a pretty face, you're not successful. But it doesn't matter how you sing. It doesn't matter. Here it's not like that. Here if you're ugly but can sing, you're successful. What happened with el Médico was a...I don't know what happened with el Médico. He started to hit with cute little choruses and stuff and people started liking him's something inexplicable. After that a million people started singing in Cuba.

Abel Delgado: But he's an exception in that regard. He's one of the few guys...

Lázaro Valdés: Not one of the few, the only one. Because what happened? He struck a big chord with the Cuban people, Cuban young people, because he has very good lyrics. And at the time that he started singing, in Cuba the song lyrics were pretty bad, with a very superficial meaning, they didn't say anything, it was a chorus and that's it. He started to create his pretty little lyrics and stuff and come out with choruses that people liked that caught on with people very easily. And his style stayed one time he was the most popular guy here, more than Van Van and everybody.

Abel Delgado: So his success isn't due to the fact that he's a good-looking guy...

Lázaro Valdés: If you've seen him, el Médico is ugly. (laughing).

Abel Delgado: No, but he's not that ugly of a guy...

Lázaro Valdés: No, no, of course not.

Abel Delgado: So you think it's because of his lyrics...

Lázaro Valdés: Yes. Not how he sings, let's even talk about that, okay? But he's a guy that came out with an incredible message, people understood his choruses, his things.

Abel Delgado: Well, I've listened to el Médico's songs, and they certainly are catchy, with things like "te mantengo en el dato, te mantengo en el detalle, no soy adivino, lo que pasa es que tengo calle", but it's not like they have a deep message.

Lázaro Valdés: No, he has no international message. I'm talking about the message within Cuba, about what's happening in Cuba, about the way Cubans talk, of how you communicate with the young chicks in show business, "pelo suelto y carretera" (hitting the highway with your hair down) . Women here like that. That communication with show business people, who were the ones who followed him, caused an incredible sensation.

Abel Delgado: I had another question about romantic salsa. I noticed that Isaac Delgado, for instance, tried to commercialize himself a bit. He recorded a record with RMM pretty much in the style of romantic salsa. Dan Den did the same thing with an album called "Mi cuerpo". Have you all felt pressure to change your music in that regard?

Lázaro Valdés: No, no no. I've never felt pressured to change my music...we played the same bill as DLG in New York and it was a big success. An audience that was expecting DLG and not Bamboleo, an audience that knew nothing about Bamboleo...and it was incredible the way they applauded and dug the tunes. With that I realized I have no reason to feel pressure to change, to imitate DLG or anybody else. With my music this year the record sold a lot more. A few months ago, in Tower Records we sold 80 more records than Elvis Crespo, who's one of the more highly promoted artists right now. This is information from my record label. And we sold 10 records less than Marc Anthony. Isaac is more commercial and that's his style, of romantic salsa with timba, it's very nice.

Abel Delgado: You have the song "Flor perdida" on the first album and "La tremenda" on this new album. I was curious, I wanted to ask you to explain about the kind of social reality you're addressing in those songs.

Lázaro Valdés: "Flor perdida" (on the CD Te Gusto O Te Caigo Bien) is a song I wrote a long time ago without it being inspired by any Cuban woman. I swear. It was a song that came to me about a woman who leaves her husband to go with a foreigner in a car with strange license plates, no one knows if he's an ambassador... And "La tremenda" (on the CD Ya No Hace Falta) talks about a girl is called "la tremenda" (the knockout) because of the body she has, the kind of woman she is.

Abel Delgado: But in the song you get the impression that she goes with other men and whatnot and the guy can't leave her because she has him hooked.

Lázaro Valdés: Of course, because la tremenda is a woman that's a knockout. She's fine. I've never spoken with the songwriter. I liked the song and I came out with it but I've never spoken with him about the song's lyrics. She has me hooked means that he's in love with her and can't leave her.

Abel Delgado: But it's interesting because it implies that she's cheating on him. And it doesn't seem to matter to him. Because of that, I wanted to know if that reflected something of the Cuban social reality today in terms of the relationships between men and women.

Lázaro Valdés: No, no. Here a man will tear a woman's head off. (laughing).

Abel Delgado: So the song has nothing to do with any social reality like that.

Lázaro Valdés: No, no.

Abel Delgado: Can you tell me about the new projects that you have going on in the future, recordings, etc.?

Lázaro Valdés: I'm preparing the fourth record and have several tunes. I still haven't picked any in particular. This record turned out well, it was very well-received, and I have to make a record better than that one and I have to do that patiently.

Vannia Borges

Abel Delgado: First of all, I'd like to know how you got your start in music, where you were born, etc.

Vannia Borges: Well, I was born here in Cuba in the city of Havana in 1970. I studied music from the age of five. I started with piano, then when I got to middle school I changed instruments. I started studying oboe, which was the instrument I graduated in from the High Institute of Art. After I finished at the Institute, I did my social service in Matanzas as a solfeggio, oboe and theory professor. From there I returned to Havana and I was placed in the National Chorus to work. I was in the National Chorus for awhile. From there I went to work in a quartet of women called D'Capo, which was led by Elina Torres. While I was working in that quartet Pachito Alonso saw me working and offered me a job with him. I was working there around two years and that's where Haila, who was the group's (Bamboleo's) singer and is now with Azúcar Negra, saw me sing with Pachito many times. When the other singer had left, they (Bamboleo) came to look for me here at home. And I went to the rehearsal, I liked the group and that was that. I started in Bamboleo until now.

Abel Delgado: With regard to the Chorus, what kind of music was it?

Vannia Borges: Classical music.

Abel Delgado: And what kind of music was played in the D'Capo quartet?

Vannia Borges: We played Cuban music, salsa and whatnot but...(it was) vocal work.

Abel Delgado: Like Vocal Sampling, then?

Vannia Borges: It wasn't exactly imitating instruments with voices or anything like that but rather Cuban music done with vocals, something similar (to Vocal Sampling) but it was accompanied by musical instruments, it wasn't a capella.

Abel Delgado: Who influenced you when you were developing as a singer?

Vannia Borges: Well, I have a lot of models as a singer. Here in Cuba there's Aymeé Nuviola, for instance, Jacqueline Castellanos, Moraima Secada, Elena Burke. All of the great female singers of Cuba have been models for me.

Abel Delgado: It seems like you listen to a lot of boleros in your free time because I hear you quoting them in songs.

Vannia Borges: Yes, I listen to them a lot because my mom likes them a lot and here at home there are lots of bolero records, one by Pacho, by José Antonio Méndez, by Portillo de la luz...

Abel Delgado: Why do you like to stick bolero lyrics in songs? Not everybody does that.

Vannia Borges: I like that's like a way to communicate to the people of my generation that that was a kind of music that existed, that exists, that will exist forever...(and) will never go out of style. And to encourage people to listen to school we listened to a lot of that kind of music. We had a lot of information about everything. Because it was the base. We didn't just listen to classical music but rather all kinds of music. We had a class in school called "Popular Cuban Music Workshop" in which they taught all the genres of Cuban music. They taught everything...they taught us songs and we listened to a lot of music from the 30s, 40s and 50s: Sindo Garay, Matamoros, all those people. They would do an overview of all Cuban music until today.

Abel Delgado: What struck me as interesting in the tune "Ya no hace falta" (on the CD Ya No Hace Falta) is that in that song you quote a spiritist chorus there, that whole "come on good spirit, because the chorus is calling you and tells you to come" thing. (Vannia laughs). And how did that occur to you, just by improvising?

Vannia Borges: Improvising (laughing). Because Cubans are very religious but also very happy and clever. So they're always quoting things from the religion. They're street things, understand? Cubans are very witty and will come up with an expression for everything.

Abel Delgado: Do you think it's difficult for women to make it in music? Because there are relatively few women playing Cuban dance music, both within and outside Cuba.

Vannia Borges: Yes, there really is a bit of a taboo with those things. People think women are the weaker sex and incapable of moving the crowds. We Cuban women, above all, are proving not only to Cuba but to the rest of the world that we can make a stadium full of people move, that we can make 10,000 and even 20,000 people dance. Because you have the music in you and we've dedicated ourselves to communicate a lot and have the same amount of or maybe more (artistic) strength than the men because we have to establish ourselves in spite of the sexist taboos of all these years.

Abel Delgado: I see that you (Vannia and Yordamis, the other female singer) do that tembleque onstage and when you were in New York, even my friends were dumbfounded and half in love with you. (Vannia laughs.) So I wanted to ask you if you have a boyfriend or are married and if performing sometimes causes conflicts with your boyfriend or husband?

Vannia Borges: No, right now I'm single, so I have no problem (like that). But the relationships I've had have always been with very understanding people...They know it's my job, it's what I like to do and that I'll never stop (singing) for anybody or anything. Because it's what I studied, it's what I was raised with, what interests me, my future, my career. From the moment I begin a relationship I put this to him. "This is my career, my life, my job. If you accept it as is, fine. If not, you can leave the way you came in." Because I'm not quitting my career for anybody. But right now I'm single, I'm looking for a boyfriend (laughing), a good boyfriend, a great boyfriend...

Abel Delgado: A leading man?

Vannia Borges: I'm looking for a leading man. I ended my last relationship about three or four months ago and I've been single ever since.

Abel Delgado: In terms of the songs, when I saw you in New York, I noticed that you repeated the same soneos (improvisations) that were on the record. Do you vary them up sometimes or do you always repeat them because people want to listen to what's on the record?

Vannia Borges: We sing the tune the same way it is on the record because if you record a tune one way, it really makes no sense to sing another way later on, because people won't learn it. We sing the tune the same way it's recorded, the first guías, and after we sing the tune as it is we start to improvise and interact with the audience. But we always try to respect the guías that are on the record, the "improvisations," the mambos. It's about respecting them as much as possible so that it sticks with the people.

Abel Delgado: But I'm talking about the soneos, the inspiraciones. You used the same ones as on the record.

Vannia Borges: Yes, it's what I was explaining to you. We use the same ones because it makes no sense to change them if they're already on the record one way. If we change them people will never learn the tune.

Abel Delgado: But it also depends on the audience, right? Aren't there instances when you start to improvise just to improvise?

Vannia Borges: Of course. That happens, but not a lot.

Abel Delgado: And when you go to record, one supposes that the inspirations are just that, things that come to mind at a given moment. Do you prepare ahead of time during the rehearsals before going into the studio or do they come to you while you're recording?

Vannia Borges: Before we record a record we know all the tunes, and as Cubans say, we work it out. Sometimes during a recording they'll start to encourage you and you change a guía or Lázaro or the guys will say, "Look, change this guía, we'll sing it together." Or sometimes you arrive (at the studio) with the muse going and you come out with a guía and suddenly you come up with other ones and those are the ones that stay (on the recording.) What's always done is preparation. We bring a piece of paper (with the soneos ready.) For example, if there are five guías (required), we'll (bring) ten. We sing that ten to see which ones are good for us, which ones aren't which could be better.

Abel Delgado: Now, to understand the terminology well, the "guías" are the inspiraciones that are sung during the chorus, right?

Vannia Borges: Yes. Guías are called what's between choruses.

Abel Delgado: That's a new term for me, this is the first time I've heard it. Normally I've heard people say "soneo" or "inspiración" or "improvisation".

Vannia Borges: No, we call it "improvisation" when you start to interact with the audience. You start saying things to the people. A "guía" is what's already preestablished for a recording, so much so, that for example, let's say there are three guías and three choruses (in a given song). And for the last guía, you always have to say the same one because if there's a mambo, that way the hornplayers will know that's the guía that will come before the mambo that's about to come in. That's worked out beforehand. For instance, I can sing 15 guías and the last one will be "little red riding hood." The hornplayers already know that when they hear "little red riding hood" at that instant they have to come in with the mambo.

Abel Delgado: I asked Lázaro about "La tremenda" (on the CD Ya No Hace Falta) because that song struck me as unusual. He said that it was about a woman that was a knockout, a very pretty woman, and the guy who narrates the song is in love with her. But the chorus says "la tremenda tiene venta ("the knockout has a sale.") And I don't know, it seemed that they were implying something else about her that went beyond being pretty, ok?

Vannia Borges: Well, really, when a woman here is very pretty they say: "Julia tiene tremenda venta" ("Julia has a sale") because wherever she goes she gets people's attention. To say "tiene venta" ("has a sale") is a very Cuban phrase. So-and-so has a sale, so-and-so sells herself. To say she has a sale means that she gets people's attention, that she's very well dressed. You know that mannequins are put in store windows, they're the ones that have a sale, they're the ones wearing the clothes on sale. It's as if (the woman) were a mannequin.

Abel Delgado: Ah, okay, because I thought that you were saying that the woman was selling herself in the street or something like that.

Vannia Borges: No, no. It just means that she gets people's attention a lot.

Abel Delgado: I have a question about the ballad "Candil de nieve" (On Ya No Hace Falta.) I've listened to it several times, looked over the lyrics and maybe I'm a dummy, because I still don't understand Silvio Rodríguez's blue unicorn. Can you tell me what that song is about?

Vannia Borges: Well, "Candil de nieve" is a song by a composer named Raúl Torres, a Cuban trova singer who creates very pretty lyrics. And it talks about a girl who suffered a very big romantic disappointment. And he is a very good friend of that girl and what he's explaining to her is that she can't let herself die, that she has to keep on searching for other hopes, other emotions. "Sal a buscar candil de nieve" ("Go out to search snow lamp") , (he's telling her) to stay lit like a lamp, to never go out, that there's just one life, that there's only one man in the world. (Raúl Torres) wrote that song for a friend we have in common, Pablo Milanés' daughter, who broke up with her boyfriend. It's a very poetic way to describe those things.

Abel Delgado: At some point in the future do you plan to include more boleros and ballads in the band's repertoire?

Vannia Borges: Yes, of course. In fact, this year I may record a bolero and ballad record with the group with just me singing. It was Lázaro's and the record company's idea.

Abel Delgado: I understand that American rap is one of your favorite kinds of music?

Vannia Borges: Yes. Who told you that? (laughing). I like black American music a lot, and rap most of all.

Abel Delgado: And who among the rappers do you like?

Vannia Borges: Tupac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dog, Method Man, Wu Tan Klan, Notorious B.I.G.

Abel Delgado: Besides rappers, who else do you like?

Vannia Borges: Brian McKnight, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, Mary J. Blige, Blackstreet.

Abel Delgado: And do you integrate the influence of those musicians in your music? How does it appear?

Vannia Borges: In the phrasing, the harmony, because Lázaro likes that kind of music, too, and we agree on those things and try to do it more or less like that because I like that music.

Abel Delgado: Often singers in a group that distinguish themselves like you have feel the need to be soloists or have offers to go solo. Has this happened? Do you plan on staying with Bamboleo?

Vannia Borges: Yes, of course. I've received a lot of offers but none compares to Bamboleo. This is the band with which I established myself, it's the band I know, the band that knows me. We're a team but also one big family. We're like siblings, we share the good things, the bad things. Almost all of us know each other from when we were kids, we studied in school together. It's like one big family.

photos: Brian Cross / Ahí-NaMá Music.
performance photos: Bruce Polin /

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