JUANITO, sencillamente: Juanito Márquez
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September 29, 2008

JUANITO, sencillamente
By Raul Fernández


Juanito Márquez
When you meet and talk with Juanito Márquez you are impressed by his humility, his gentle demeanor, his sencillez. Most people would not guess that they are in the presence of a true musical giant. His significant contributions to the development of Cuban popular music have been largely unnoticed by music fans, even Cuban music writers, though not so by his fellow professional musicians. Juanito Márquez represents an exception among Cuban popular musicians of the 20th century in that he excelled in three separate branches of Cuban music. He composed some Latin jazz tunes that became standards of the style; wrote the music and lyrics of several notable boleros including one of the classics, “Alma con Alma”; and contributed significantly to the evolution of Cuban dance rhythms (pilón, Mozambique, pa’ cá) in the 1960s. The story of Cuban music from 1950 to 2008 is inseparable from the musical labors of Juanito Márquez.



The life tale of this revered musician among musicians began in the old Oriente province of Cuba where he was born Juan Rafael Márquez Urbino in Holguín on July 4th, 1929. His father Juan Márquez Gómez was a consummate classical guitarist and orchestra leader. Márquez senior had been born in nearby Mayarí and studied music with Spanish musician Caynet Iluibigildo and others. The older Márquez taught music to numerous students in the region, eventually founding municipal music bands first in Puerto Padre and later in Holguín. Juanito’s mother, Carola Urbino was a teacher before dedicating herself to the tasks of the home and raising her children. Juanito’s uncle Captain José Urbino was a veteran of the Cuban War of Independence which began in 1895, and fought alongside General Antonio Maceo in the latter’s famed campaign that took rebel troops in a march across the entire length of the island. Juanito’s aunt, Teresita Urbino, was a gifted teacher who taught 6th and 7th grade in the public schools and ran her own private school, the Grave de Peralta Academy, in Holguín.

Juanito grew up in a very musical ambiance. One older brother played guitar, another played trumpet, and a sister played piano. Juanito began playing guitar on his own around age seven, and began formal studies with his father at age twelve. As a teenager he played in several trios that performed the repertoire of the popular ensembles of the moment like the Trio Los Panchos. The trios also engaged in “serenading” around Holguín sometimes accompanying a famed local sonero Faustino “El Guayabero” Oramas (composer of many saucy and double-entendre tunes one of which, !Ay candela!, was popularized world-wide by Buena Vista Social Club).

After taking arranging and orchestration classes with his father, Juanito began to try out his own arrangements of what we now call Latin jazz with the Orquesta de los Hermanos Avilés, a time-honored institution in Holguín. His first professional success as a composer/arranger came in the early fifties. Juanito mailed his Latin jazz composition and arrangement “La Feria de los Siglos,” as the carnival in Holguín was named, to bandleader Bebo Valdés who at that time was busy trying out his ‘ritmo batanga’ over the radio in Havana. Bebo promptly replied thanking Juanito for the work, and soon enough Bebo’s orchestra was playing it. A few years later Bebo was to record the tune with his Orquesta Sabor de Cuba; at the piano for that tune making his first professional recording was a young Chucho Valdés.

Juanito also started to send dance music arrangements to Havana orchestras. He prepared “Pituka la bella” and the cha-cha-chà “Naricita fría” for the Orquesta Riverside. “Pituka” became part of the standard repertoire of the Orquesta Aragón as well. Venturing into the romantic song field in 1956, he sent a bolero in the hopes that popular singer María Luisa Chorens would record it with Orquesta Riverside. Chorens did sing the tune although she never recorded it. Instead, Riverside’s director Pedro Vila asked Juanito to prepare an arrangement for a male voice: in the subsequent interpretation sung by Tito Gómez “Alma con Alma” became one of the classic boleros of the Cuban repertoire. (Many years later “Alma con Alma” would become part of the soundtrack of the 1993 Hollywood film “Carlito’s Way.”)

In 1956 Juanito traveled to Venezuela for the Caracas Carnivals with the Hermanos Avilés Orchestra in which his brother played trumpet. He was brought in at the last minute to play timbales, the orchestra’s timbalero having fallen seriouslsdy ill. Juanito had never played percussion but had the advantage of knowing all of the arrangements well (after all many of them were his own) and especially the timing of the key “cierres” (pauses) which characterize much Cuban music. After a 2-week crash course he was the timbalero of the orchestra during its Venezuelan sojourn. During the trip Juanito listened to joropos, and became fascinated by the sound of the Venezuelan merengue (which has nothing to do with the Dominican merengue) in particular the lilt obtained by rhythmically juxtaposing 3 against 2. Upon his return to Holguín he composed a dance tune inspired by the Venezuelan merenguemthat he called “Arrímate pa’ cá” (on this tune more below). Juanito also began to send arrangements to Venezuela for Orquesta Casablanca and to Puerto Rico for César Concepción’s Orchestra.

Sometime before 1959, Juanito traveled to Havana where he orchestrated some music for the Enrique González Mantici Orchestra which played on the CMQ radio station in a show named "Cabalgata." During this trip he made his debut as a jazz guitarist in Cuba’s capital, playing in a guitar duo with Pablo Cano at a jam session at the Tropicana nightclub sponsored by the Club Cubano de Jazz. Back in Holguín, Juanito continued to send arrangements to Havana orchestras while playing Latin jazz at the Club Ochenta in Holguín with a small group that included the superb, if famously eccentric, pianist Luis Mariano Avilés “Cancañón.” In 1961 during a trip to Havana, Juanito recorded the core of his Holguín group's repertory of Latin jazz in an album entitled Juanito Márquez y su Combo. Rafael Somavilla, Jr., played the piano on two of the tunes, Lecuonas “La Comparsa,” and “Llavimaso,” (which is Somavilla backwards) written and arranged by Juanito. “Llavimaso” became a classic of Havana jazz. More than 30 years later Paquito D’Rivera would record it under the name “Fifty-fifty” on his CD Forty Years of Cuban Jam Sessions. Cancañón played piano in the other cuts which included another classic descarga, “Tumbao No. 1.” The others in the recording groups were Nilo Argudín (trumpet), Papito Hernández (bass), Guillermo Barretto (drums and pailas), Oscar Valdés (conga), Roberto García (bongo), and Gustavo Tamayo (guiro).

Just before that trip Juanito participated, in 1960, in Omara Portuondo’s recording debut LP Magia Negra in which he and Julio Gutiérrez did the arrangements and Juanito played guitar in “Andalucía.” In the same year Juanito released his first LP Cuba Sax Cha Cha which got its title from a tune by that name that he composed. The recording featured an alto saxophone solo by Jesús Caunedo; other soloists on the album were trombone player “Quillo” Caturla and lead trumpet Leonardo Timor.

Although he still traveled back and forth to Holguín, by the early 1960s Juanito Márquez had settled in Havana where he worked 24-7. He arranged dance tunes for Enrique Bonne and Pacho Alonso; canciones for several women’s quartets that were popular at that time, such as Voces Latinas and the Hermanas Valdivia; prepared numerous arrangements for composer and bandleader Julio Gutiérrez; arranged for vocalists Luis García and Blanca Rosa Gil; arranged most of the tunes for Felipe Dulzaides’s jazz album As Time Goes By; accompanied classical music diva Marta Pérez in a concert for television; joined Cachao for a jam session that was recorded but has not been widely available; played occasional jazz and Latin jazz descargas with Frank Emilio Flynn and other jazz musicians…

A musician’s musician, Juanito’s work at the arranging craft was largely hidden from public view. But his name became better known amongst music lovers because of events which helped define the musical character of 1960s Havana. First there was the development of his “pa ‘cá” dance rhythm as part of his “pa’ cá” show at the Salón Caribe in the Havana Libre (formerly Hilton), for which a bit of background is necessary.

Between 1964-1966 three new dance rhythms appeared more or less simultaneously in Cuba: the mozambique, the pilón and the pa’ cá. Curiously, the name of Juanito Márquez is associated with all three of them. Pello “el Afrokán” Izquierdo launched his mozambique dance rhythm in 1963, although he had experimented with the mozambique’s drum orchestra format already in the 1962 Havana carnivals. Even earlier, Santiago de Cuba’s Enrique Bonne had brought a large drum orchestra ( the “tambores orientales”) to the Havana carnivals, which may have encouraged Pello’s drum orchestra ideas. In the midst of the mozambique boom the Orquesta Aragón visited Holguín for the 1964 carnival season where they alternated with the Hermanos Avilés Orchestra. Rafael Lay, the Aragón arranger, became excited over two of the tunes played by the Hermanos Avilés: the danzón-chá “Dulce de Guayaba” and the Venezuelan-rhythm inspired “Arrímate Pa’ cá,” both composed by Juanito Márquez. Soon Aragón recorded both tunes and “Arrímate Pa’ Cá” became a big hit played by other groups such as Roberto Faz, Neno González, and Pello el Afrokán. Pello’s mozambique-styled version became dominant in the air waves, first using Juanito’s original lyrics and later changing them, while keeping the melody, and re-titling it “Mozambique de la caña.”

Also in 1964, Enrique Bonne recorded the ritmo pilón dance style which became identified with the pilon’s main interpreter Pacho Alonso. Juanito Márquez was present in this new development as he was the arranger of the first two pilón ever recorded, “Baila José Ramón,” and “El bajo cun cun,” the success of which led Pacho Alonso to record his own “Rico Pilón.”

It was in this context that in 1965, Juanito officially launched his “pa’ cá” rhythm on a television music program and in the cabaret show “Ven pa’ cá” which was featured for several years at the Salón Caribe of the Habana Libre hotel. The show included dance choreographies of the “pa’ ca’” rhythms, instrumental music, and Juanito’s guitar playing prowess; he was featured as a guitar soloist in the intermission between the two parts of the show delighting the audience with his interpreations of “Tabú,” “Mi Delirio” and other Cuban bolero and canción classics. The “pa’ cá” tunes showcased included “Pituka la Bella,” “Dulce Guayaba,” “Ya llegó mi comay,” and “Cuidado con la Vela.”(This last tune would become part of the soundtrack of the 1994 Hollywood film The Specialist.)

One young member of the orchestra who was busy composing his own tunes for dancing received much advice from Juanito. Years later this musician, Juan Formell, became the renowned leader of Los Van Van. Said Formell in 2003: “A mí me enseñó mucho un señor que ya no vive en Cuba que se llama Juanito Márquez, quien inventó el ritmo pa’ ca’, y era el director de la orquesta del Habana Libre en los años sesenta. Y aprendí mucho de orquestación con él...”

In 1966 in Radio Progreso stations Juanito brought together some of Havana’s best musicians for another edition of instrumental descargas. The result Descarga Latina by Combo Siboney featured Orlando López “Cachaíto,” Orestes López “Macho,” (whose piano can be heard in several of the tunes), Enemilio Jiménez, Generoso Jiménez, Armando Armenteros, Roberto García, Guillermo Barreto, Tata Güines, Rolito García and Orlando Reyes. Juanito’s guitar playing was featured in “La Clave del Futuro,” and in “Ecué, Ecué,” an Afro-rumba by Tata Güines where Juanito comps with his electric guitar a brilliant conga solo by Tata. While the LP Descarga Latina did not get much circulation, Juanito’s and Tata’s mano a mano was included by the French label Chant du Monde a few years later in an album celebrating the Santiago Carnival.

By the late 1960s Juanito’s tunes had become staples of Cuban music. He was widely regarded as a progressive musician who utilized techniques from jazz and symphonic music and applied them to popular tunes. In 1967 at the Sopot International Popular Song Festival in Poland, Omara Portuondo featured Juanito’s “Como un milagro,” a song widely regarded as an outstanding example of the jazz-influenced “filin…” style. Three decades later, in 1997, Omara would record “Como un milagro” accompanied by Chucho Valdés on piano. Before leaving Cuba for Spain in 1969, Juanito was, in the words of Leonard Acosta “the country’s top arranger.” Juanito moved to Spain in 1969 where he began to work with help from Ernesto Duarte. For the first two years he performed as a studio musician playing both guitar and bass for a variety of recordings, which included some by vocalists Raphael and Julio Iglesias. He also arranged music for singers Lucho Gatica and Antonio Machín. At the same time he managed to engage in brief tours playing jazz sometimes alternating with the genial Catalan pianist Tete Montoliu.

In 1971 Juanito obtained a contract as an arranger for the Spanish label Hispavox, a company for which he would work for the next five years. He became the arranger for all of Hispavox's productions. In addition, he directed the recording orchestras, managed the recording sessions, and often played the guitar and bass lines in some of the recordings. From the top Latin jazz and Cuban music arranger in Havana, Juanito had moved to the center of the pop ballad and pop rock wave which took over the music world (Cuba included) in the late sixties and the seventies. Between 1971-76 Juanito arranged several hundred tunes for a wide variety of artists in the pop and pop-rock styles including the highly successful José Luis Perales, Paloma San Basilio, Tony Landa, Mari Trini and Massiel.

Juanito was always interested in the new sounds of popular music. He released an album of his own music in 1973 entitled simply Márquez in which he revisited his “pa’ cá” and included some Arsenio Rodríguez’s inspired Cuban themes, all updated with the electronic instrumentation that characterized the decade of the 1970s. Simultaneously, in Cuba, Chucho Valdés was bringing the sound of electric instruments, i.e. electric bass, synthesizer, etc, into the early Irakere. Márquez followed closely the development of rock-and-roll as well. In 1973 Hispavox released a unique recording by Juanito Márquez entitled Juan Márquez, El hombre de la guitarra. The album featured emblematic hits of the great rock groups of the 1960s, i.e. "Bad Moon Rising," by Creedence Clearwater Revival; “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones; “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat and Tears, and so on. Juanito was featured on guitar in every tune, actually seven different guitars: three electric (Les Paul recording, 12-string Fender, and Gibson stereo); two acoustic (12-string Gibson, and 6-string acoustic); a classical guitar; and a Fender bass. Hispavox followed up in 1974 with another rock-and-roll music release with arrangements and guitar solos by Juanito entitled Instrumental “Sonido Torrelaguna” (Torrelaguna is the name of the street where the Hispavox studios were located.)

Although economically the situation in Spain was very attractive, Juanito moved to Miami in 1976 because otherwise he might lose the opportunity to migrate to the United States with resident status. In his first years in the U.S. he worked in a studio that had been set up in Miami by Pablo Cano and Papito Hernández, arranged for R& B groups, composed commercial jingles, and did arrangements for CBS records. As earlier in his life when he arranged for orchestras in Havana while living in far away Holguín, now he occasionally arranged for New York orchestras –including an arrangement of Julio Gutiérrez ‘s "Inolvidablemente," for Tito Puente—while residing in Miami.

Soon the musical art of Juanito Márquez would become key to the Latin music sounds emerging from Miami in the 1980s and 1990s. He participated as composer, arranger and guitarist in dozens of significant recordings which established a characteristic Miami-sound in Latin music. He contributed tunes, arrangements and his own guitar playing for successful recordings by emblematic Miami-based artists: Gloria Estefan, Willy Chirino, Israel López "Cachao," Jon Secada and Albita Rodríguez, among others. Of his many labors we wish to highlight only those that gathered the most public attention.

Central to his contributions to the Miami-sound have been his collaborations with Gloria Estefan. In 1985, Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and their Miami Sound Machine, were finishing what was going to be their third and last album contracted with CBS Records, the first two having met with limited success only. Márquez was tasked with arranging a basic ‘conguita’ for which he devised the piano tumbao by Paquito Hechavarría, and he himself played a 12-string guitar modified to imitate the sound of a típico Cuban tres. The result of Juanito’s work was “Conga” which became an international hit and catapulted Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine to immediate fame.

In 1986 Juanito contributed music, guitar, lyrics, arrangements, and his own tune “Dulce Guayaba” to Willy Chirino’s Zarabanda album. Later he became thoroughly involved in the production of Gloria Estefan’s 1993 Grammy Award-winning Mi Tierra. He arranged 8 tunes, which included the ‘Cubanization’ of Estefan’s songs, and the music and lyrics of three tunes of his own: “Ayer,” “Sí señor,” and “Montuno.”

Juanito’s collaborations with the late Israel López "Cachao" also left a mark on Cuban music in Miami and beyond. Márquez participated in Cachao”s Grammy-Award winning 1993-1994 Master Sessions Vol I and Master Sessions Vol II, contributing arrangements and the sound of his guitar to both releases. Of special note was his composition and arrangement of “Mi Guajira,” for Master Session Vol II in which he was featured with a guitar solo.

1995 was also a productive year for Juanito. He arranged several tunes for Jon Secada’s recording Amor, which included two of his own, classic, compositions, "Como un Milagro," and "Alma con Alma." With this recording Secada obtained his second Grammy as Best Latin Pop Artist. Márquez also produced Albita Rodríguez' CD No se parece a nada, in the same year, a recording for which contributed arrangements and his guitar and bass playing.

In conclusion it must be said that few, if any, Cuban musicians, can claim such varied success in separate musical styles, to have excelled in composing for the “mind” (Latin jazz), the “heart” (boleros), and the “body” (dance rhythms). Juanito is also the only Cuban musician who over the course of 40 years became the most renowned professional orchestral arranger in three major “global” cities (Havana, Madrid, Miami) covering the gamut of popular music expression: boleros and ballads, pop-rock, jazz and Latin jazz, son montuno, R&B, danzón, mambo. Juanito’s Latin jazz tunes and his romantic boleros are performed and recorded on both sides of the Florida Straits. His contributions have had a significant impact on Cuban music and Latin jazz everywhere and have been long recognized by musicians. It is time that his creativity receives the broad recognition it richly deserves.


Professor Raul Fernández teaches at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of several books and articles on Cuban music, salsa and Latin jazz including Latin jazz: the perfect combination. His most recent book, entitled HABLANDO DE MÚSICA CUBANA,is composed of 10 biographical essays of Cuban musicians based for the most part on one-on-one interviews conducted by the author in Havana, New York, Miami, Stockholm and other cities over the last 15 years. Musicians featured include Tata Güines, Cachao, Richard Egües, Bebo and Chucho Valdés, Celina González, Celia Cruz, Chocolate Armenteros, Mongo Santamaría, and a special essay on Cuban legendary sonero Ignacio Piñeiro.



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