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Cuban Rebirth

Little-noticed Sierra Maestra plays traditional music with touch of modernism.

March 02, 2001|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask Alejandro Suarez how he feels about the incredible success of the Buena Vista Social Club, and the Cuban musician will disarm you with his honesty.

"I feel happy . . . and a bit frustrated too," he said.

Suarez has plenty of reasons to feel frustrated.

As the musical director with seminal group Sierra Maestra, he has been playing traditional Cuban music since 1976, 20 years before American guitarist Ry Cooder started rolling tape on the first Buena Vista project.

That first record alone has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, unleashing an avalanche of Buena Vista-related albums and even a high-profile movie.

In the meantime, Sierra Maestra continues to create excellent music in relative obscurity.

The group, which is highly respected among tropical music connoisseurs, will offer a rare Los Angeles concert tonight at Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City.

"Unfortunately, those are the laws of marketing," Suarez said. "In life, some people are destined to win and some are destined to lose."

Still, the bandleader is quick to underscore the importance of the Buena Vista Social Club for the music of his country.

"Their success is, in fact, a reward for all of us," he said.

"Our work has been vindicated, since our goal was always the rebirth of traditional Cuban music and its recognition in the entire world."

Listening to Sierra Maestra's latest album, the infectious "Tibiri Tabara," it is easy to understand why people of all countries have fallen in love with these old standards.

Sierra Maestra's repertoire is made up mostly of sones, the rustic songs originally performed with only string instruments and percussion. Later, a piano and a brass section came into the picture, and the son became the basis for the music we know today as salsa.

Unlike the Buena Vista, which adds little innovation to the original style, Suarez's bandmates enhance the arrangements with a touch of modernism.

"We add a few jazzy variations here and there to make the music sound a little younger," he said. "We can't escape the implicit influence of everything that's happened in popular music for the last 30 years."

Because Sierra Maestra was originally formed by a group of friends with fiercely democratic principles, its members alternate the role of musical director. Suarez's term will come to an end in a few months.

"There's always the possibility that I'll be reelected, but I hope that won't be the case," he said with a laugh. "Directing the group is too much work. I'd rather be a regular member."

BE THERE

Sierra Maestra performs tonight at 10 at Sportsmen's Lodge, 4234 Coldwater Canyon Blvd., Studio City. Tickets: $15-$20. Call (310) 450 8770.

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