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POP BEAT

Treasure From the Island

October 31, 1998|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some musicians wait what seems like a lifetime for the chance to record their own album.

Ruben Gonzalez did. Literally.

It took the 82-year-old Cuban pianist more than 50 years, from the day he started playing with the legendary orchestra of Arsenio Rodriguez, to 1996, when Ry Cooder arrived in Havana and started recording an album with the Afro-Cuban All Stars.

Gonzalez played the piano on that record. And then he played on another one, the Grammy-winning "Buena Vista Social Club."

Everyone was so impressed with his talent that he was asked to stay for a third album. His own.

The record, "Introducing . . . Ruben Gonzalez," is a nostalgic look at Cuba's musical past, a collection of warm, smoky dance tunes performed at a leisurely, assured pace in the best tradition of the old Cuban son orchestras. It is all the more remarkable because Gonzalez was semi-retired and no longer even had a piano of his own. His had been damaged in a tropical storm several years prior. The album's liner notes describe how Gonzalez would be the first to arrive at the studio for each day's recording session, excited just to have the opportunity to play.

Meeting Gonzalez on a typically hazy Los Angeles morning at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel on the eve of his two performances at the Conga Room, one notices immediately that the pianist's memory isn't what it used to be. He has been in the United States before, twice maybe, but he doesn't quite recall the names of the orchestras he accompanied.

"My mind is fading away," he says matter-of-factly, without a trace of self-pity in his voice. "Luckily," he continues, "I haven't lost my music." He holds up his wrinkled brown hands and smiles mischievously. "If it was the other way around, then I'd be in some real trouble."

Gonzalez's memory is still strong enough to remember some of the musicians he played with. He talks of legendary figures in the history of Cuban music with the ease of a family member who grew up with them.

"Arsenio [Rodriguez] was blind, but he had a tremendous sense of what son was," he says of the bandleader who hired him in the early '40s. "Although he couldn't see, he had an almost psychic ability where music was concerned. He could hear everything. And I learned a lot from him."

The pianist also has fond memories of Peruchin, one of the era's most influential pianists, who replaced Gonzalez after he left Rodriguez's orchestra. "He was a good boy, a good musician," he says. "But he liked American jazz too much. And that's no good, because there's already other people playing that music. We need performers to continue playing our music."

Still, the pianist has good memories about his few trips to the United States. "Whenever I came to this country," he adds sweetly, "I never had any problems, and nobody had a beef with me because I'm Cuban. Now we're living in different times, and I hope the relationship between both countries will become a smoother one."

After such a wait, one would expect Gonzalez to burn with anticipation at he idea of presenting his debut album on a stage.

Nothing, however, could have prepared the audience for the boundless energy he had in store Thursday, on the first of two sold-out performances at the Conga Room.

Accompanied by a seasoned band composed mostly of fellow veteran musicians, Gonzalez beamed with pride and satisfaction as he tirelessly presented two one-hour sets of Cuban dances garnished with his wonderful improvisational style.

The event had almost historical proportions, since it provided a rare chance to witness a moment of Cuban musical tradition that is bound to fade away sooner or later.

The pianist seemed to breathe the roots of son with every note he played. His improvisations (such as the velvety piano interlude on the glorious guaracha/son "Mandinga") tell elegant stories, culled from all the years of experience.

Although the program included a variety of styles, from sophisticated danzones to a few jazz-tinged descargas, the bolero was the real star. Singer Manuel "Puntillita" Licea (scheduled lead singer Ibrahim Ferrer chose not to perform because of problems with his voice) carried his emotions on his sleeve, and his potent voice put to shame those youngsters in today's pop world who attempt the futile task of reinventing the classic boleros.

But the biggest pleasure was seeing Gonzalez throw himself into the ritual of live music with such hungry eyes. Every time his fingers would play a particularly successful or spicy bit, his tiny head would sway in utter contentment as he stared at the audience knowingly, enjoying every ounce of approval and admiration. When his fellow musicians timbalero Amadito Valdes and trumpet player Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal would solo, he would stop his playing and demand applause.

He got everything he asked for.

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