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Interview with popluar Cuban salsa star Carlos Manuel

Hanging with Cuba's Bad Boy:
John Child chats with Carlos Manuel

by John Child (

The day after witnessing the relentless fury of Carlos Manuel y su Clan's UK debut performance at Ronnie Scott's in February, John Child spent four hours battling through London traffic, reduced to a snail's pace by an Underground (subway) strike, to hook-up with Cuba's Bad Boy before he flew out of the country. John's ordeal was well worth it, as Carlos provided an interesting insight into the youthful melange of salsa, timba, soca, calypso, ragga and rap featured in his current Palm Pictures CD Malo Cantidad

John I. Child (JIC): Let's start at the beginning: When and where in Cuba were you born?

Carlos Manuel (CM): 8th of February 1973 in Havana, Cuba.

JIC: Tell me about your musical training?

CM: Well I studied guitar and piano a little. I've tried my hand at many different instruments. I also studied flute and percussion, but mostly piano. Now I don't study it as such. I wanted to understand all the instruments, so musicians couldn't "pull the wool over my eyes." Otherwise musicians might tell you that technically something isn't possible when, in fact, it is. It's better to know each instrument yourself then nobody can deceive you. I wanted to study arranging, but that's something I didn't do. I did study singing.

JIC: Did you study formally?

CM: Yes. I formally studied classical piano for two years, and then guitar less formally in a Casa de Cultura.

JIC: Was music a main subject at school?

CM: No, no. In Cuba I started at 12 years old, after school, it wasn't part of my usual school education. Some people start studying music at six years old. I started late!

JIC: Following school, did you go on to study at a conservatory?

CM: I studied at the Ignacio Cervantes Institute, which is a training centre for musicians who are already performing but who have not yet graduated or finished their training.

JIC: How did you get into performing music?

CM: In 1993 I joined Grupo Mayohuacán, which mixed son and nueva trova.

JIC: How long were you with Grupo Mayohuacán?

CM: It was one year, but it seemed like much much more, because so much happened. We recorded an album called Buscando Un Buen Color . We had huge hits with almost every track from that album: "Carapacho Para La Jicotea," "Caballero De Color," "Serenata Y Tambor," "Por Una Melodia," "Buscando Un Buen Color."

JIC: Then there was a bit of gap before you joined Irakere. What did you do in the intervening period?

CM: I was working with my group called Carlos Manuel y su Carapacho (named after the hit song "Carapacho Para La Jicotea"), which was along the same lines as my present band. I could not record with them because Cuba was in a bad economic situation. All the offers we had to record were really awful, so I decided not to sign a five year album deal with a company that would limit my career. Then the Colombian group Guayacán came to Cuba looking for three singers, and I was chosen to be one of them. I did an audition and they chose me, and I was about to go off to Colombia. At that point Chucho Valdés noticed that I was about to go and work with Guayacán, and invited me to join Irakere. So I decided to stay in Cuba with them. Chucho had not approached me before when I had my own group. But when he saw I was on the point of leaving, he got in touch.

JIC: Did you perform with Guayacán?

CM: No no. I just did an audition, but in the end I never went with them.

JIC: So it's thanks to the leader of Guayacán, Alexis Lozano, that you came to Chucho Valdés' attention?

CM: Yes.

JIC: So when you started to work with Irakere, what happened to your group?

CM: The group carried on a for around a year without me, working under the name Banda Carapacho, my father led that band, but it then dissolved.

JIC: Tell me about your time with Irakere?

CM: At that time Irakere toured a lot. They had just recorded an album when I joined. I don't remember the name. It featured the song "Feliz Cumpleaños" (available on Babalú Ayé '98 on Bembé). So I missed being on that recording, but I worked with them on tours throughout Europe. We played at Ronnie Scott's in London, Europe, Los Angeles (the big Playboy jazz festival in Hollywood), toured the US, Mexico, Brazil. I even went to South Africa. That year was good, but I would have preferred to have been able to record with them. I earned a lot of money, but that didn't mean anything to me as I would have preferred to have recorded with them.

JIC: But presumably you had something to show for it terms of it having been a learning experience?

CM: Yes, absolutely. Irakere showed me what it is like at the top. I learnt a lot from the masters.

JIC: Then what happened?

CM: Well at that time Irakere had a kind of crisis. Chucho had problems with the band. He formed a jazz quartet, but he was not happy at all as his long time musician Carlos del Puerto and others had split off. So I waited, I had a break, because Irakere had not officially split up. After 7-8 months I said enough is enough and took whatever money I had left, bought the instruments, formed the band. I had the advantage of having made many contacts, and being well known because of my work with Irakere. I worked very hard and intelligently to position my band. I had a lot of support from the radio and TV in Cuba.

JIC: During that initial period I understand you recorded another album before the current Palm Pictures release Malo Cantidad .

CM: I worked for about a year before making a record. I had many offers but I wasn't interested as they were very long contracts of 5-6 years for little money. Then a company from Martinique called Ruby y Color approached me with an offer which was a one year contract. So I went for it and recorded Por La Vena Del Gusto. In 1998 I had a huge hit with "Agua Fria" and "Tremenda Parejita." By 1999 our band was at the top of the music scene, which was incredible, as in Cuba there are so many bands, so many great musicians. So it was very hard to break into, but we did it.

JIC: How did the Palm Pictures deal happen?

CM: Well Alex Masucci saw our concert at Café Cantante in Havana and came and talked to me about Palm and Chris Blackwell. So it's thanks to Alex that I came to Palm and I'm very happy with the label. That was around a year and a half ago.

JIC: I know Malo Cantidad was recorded at Silvio Rodríguez' Ojalá Studios in Havana. When was the album recorded?

CM: I don't remember exactly, it was maybe June 2000.

JIC: Thinking about your performance at Ronnie Scott's last night, I was lucky enough to be in the company of three Caribbean women. One was my wife, a Trinidadian steeped in salsa, a friend fresh from Trinidad studying over here, and the other friend is UK Black into the black music scene. The consensus was that the Caribbean is obviously at the heart of your music. However, the styles that seem to come across to us most were soca and ragga, rather than salsa. Do you agree or not?

CM: I don't think there is more soca than salsa on the record - I think on the record the rhythms are balanced, there are many rhythms in there. I am a musician, I do what I like. The band's format is salsa, but I can do anything with it. I don't like to be put in a box. Tomorrow I could add two guitarists and play rock 'n' roll. I am a singer. I sing what I can, what I like. I can sing in any style that inspires me.

JIC: The non-Cuban styles are very evident. I'd be interested to know how you encountered them?

CM: In Cuba everybody listens to music. We listen to a lot of calypso and reggae, which I like a lot. We play it out in the street. You hear it on the radio, too. Bob Marley and everyone. Those are very catchy rhythms, and when I add it to salsa I think it works great.

JIC: Are there any particular soca or reggae artists that have had an impact on you?

CM: Yes, but I just listen to music. I just hear songs and rhythms, and sometimes I don't know who the artist is. In Cuba we listen to music from the Caribbean, the US, Jamaica, Haiti, Brazil, Mexico, Europe. Many different styles. I just pick it up, I absorb it all.

JIC: As far as Malo Cantidad is concerned, the most obvious calypso connection is your version of the 1939 King Radio calypso "Matilda." What inspired you to use that as a melody?

CM: I love that song, my mother always sang it. My family grew up with Caribbean people. People from Haiti, Jamaica, many immigrants that came to Cuba; and so that music was always around. (Carlos sings "Banana Boat Song.")

JIC: The Harry Belafonte of Cuba!

CM: Harry Belafonte is huge in Cuba, very popular. I also loved a concert I saw of Cyndi Lauper in Paris. (Carlos sings a medley of "Malo Cantidad" and "Matilda".)

JIC: When you play live the songs run into each other.

CM: Yes I don't like to stop!

JIC: Another tune you played last night, which is not on the album, was basically the riff from the calypso "Big Bamboo."

CM: Well, maybe, I don't know.

JIC: When you and the Clan started coming on stage at Ronnie's, I thought to myself: "Shit! This is like Machel Montano and Xtatic coming on stage." They are a hip and funky band, really popular with young people in Trinidad. They just don't stop. They come on stage, and it's wham, wham, wham all the you and your band!

CM: Yes, you can't stop or the audience will cool down. You can't stop the dancing.

JIC: There seems to be a parallel thing going on with the soca bands in Trinidad: lots of dancers, the intimate connection between the music and choreography. What inspired the presentation of your band?

CM: I think it is so that the public don't cool down. Well we have a lot of influence from Earth, Wind and Fire. We do that so that the people get into it. When people go to a classical concert, they go to see the virtuosity of the musician. Popular music is about having fun, dancing, seeing and feeling the energy. It's about quality as well of course, but it's about transmitting the energy from the band to the public.

JIC: Let's move away from the soca and ragga elements in your work. For me, the track that most sounds like mainstream salsa is "Tu Hombre Soy Yo," which reminds me of a Sergio George/ Victor Manuelle production.

CM: Sergio George is my favourite arranger. He does fantastic things. With two notes he creates exactly what he wants. He has been a big influence, as has Victor Manuelle, Marc Anthony, La India and Michael Stuart, also from Puerto Rico. We did "Tu Hombre Soy Yo" like that on purpose. People do not write in that style in Cuba. We wanted to show that in Cuba we can do that, too, and also to identify with New York and Puerto Rico.

JIC: It's definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album.

CM: It's my favourite track too.

JIC: Do you want to do more in that vein?

CM: No. I like to do everything. For example, Gloria Estefan does whatever she likes. I like soul, rap. Of course, I can't be all over the place in my career, it confuses the public, but I like many different styles. In the same way I like all different instruments: I like percussion, I like bass, I like piano!

JIC: Did you arrange "Tu Hombre Soy Yo" yourself?

CM: I did it with Pedro Camacho. He's our pianist. Very very talented. He started with me when he was 16, he's 18 now. He was very talented, many ideas, but without direction. It was me that guided him to listen to Sergio George and other styles. He was into a kind of jazzy Cuban sound, which is so complicated, and not commercial. I said: "No, no. Listen to this. Try this." We did the arrangements on a PC.

JIC: Do you and Pedro work closely together on arrangements?

CM: Yes. The ideas are mine, but now Pedro has started to understand. He knows what I want, he can do it himself now. I would also like to point out that the musicians: the bassist, the percussionists, the horns, we work together. We discuss the songs as we play. We're working on the third album now, and we work together very well, taking suggestions from all the musicians. We inspire each other. And we try songs out on the public. Sometimes musicians get too complicated and so we try out songs on the public before recording, which brings the music back to being more simple.

JIC: I've obviously got to ask about the title track "Malo Cantidad," which has been a massive hit in Cuba.

CM: We did the arrangements for that song on stage. I have an idea in mind, but we created that song on stage and I think that's why it became so popular. The bass started one rhythm, the public's reactions told us which way to go. It's a very simple song, one mambo for the whole song. The mambo is the coda, is the introduction to the whole song. (Carlos sings "Malo Cantidad.")

The big hits are very very simple. (Sings "Macarena.") I have many songs which are like poems, but people don't want to hear it. The public for that is much smaller. We play for people to have fun and dance. I can't play my poetic songs. Maybe one day I'll record those songs, but it's not popular dance music.

JIC: The image of you that Palm Pictures is promoting with the packaging of the CD is comparable to the mainstream US Latin music industry promotion of salsa romántica artists. What's your view on this?

CM: Yes, I look like a ballad singer. I think it's a bit serious, like a romantic guy. It doesn't look like me, but it's very good as well, because it contrasts to the typical salsa "fiesta" cover. I think it's good because it is serious and that can attract people.

JIC: In terms of a market for your album, whose eye do you want to catch?

CM: Well I'm getting to know my public. In Cuba I recorded a danzón which the older generation absolutely loved. The old people would say, "Wow, that young guy may be a little crazy, but he sings really well." I could make a slow record for them. That type of thing sells really well. But right now, my public is also very young. The little kids sing "Malo Cantidad." And then the female public, as there is a "heart-throb" element, and a lot of young men, the youth, like my music. I don't know what will happen here, but in Cuba we have fans who are women, men, children, older generation. That's why its been so big, because we get to everyone.

JIC: Does your ambition reach beyond the Cuban and Latin markets?

CM: Latin music is very rich, but possibly as my career launches internationally, it's possible that the direction of my will work shift. Maybe what they like in the UK is one thing and in France another, and I can mix with what they like in France. In Germany, I can mix with Latin music as I think it's fusions which are really successful.

JIC: Do you see yourself singing in any other languages than Spanish?

CM: Yes, I think so, I don't know when that will be, but it is important to sing in other languages. So I have to learn English very fast.

JIC: Thank you very much, and good luck for the future.

CM: Thanks very much.

Many thanks to Jody Gillett for translating.

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