Adalberto Álvarez, one of Cuba’s most famous musicians, who as a conductor has helped revive and reshape Cuban sound, a fusion of European and African styles and instruments essential to the Latin dance music, died on September 1 in a Havana hospital. He was 72 years old.
The cause was complications from Covid-19, Cuban official newspaper Granma said.
Award-winning composer and arranger, Mr. lvarez was nicknamed “El Caballero del Son” (the “Gentleman of Son”) because of his passion for the genre and the infectious enthusiasm with which he repopulated it. Son is the origin of salsa, among other genres of Latin dance, and is considered the foundation of Cuban sound.
“I don’t think there is a more important composer for Cuban popular music than Adalberto,” Isaac Delgado, one of Cuba’s best-known salsa singers, said in a telephone interview. “He created a sound that was very personal to him. Mr. Delgado and Mr. lvarez recorded an album together, “El Chevere de la Salsa-El Caballero del Son”, released in 1994.
Mr. Álvarez was one of the most covered soneros, as son singers are called, of the past 35 years. Salsa and merengue groups and performers like Juan Luis Guerra, El Gran Combo and Oscar De Leon have all recorded his compositions. His style also influenced the New York salsa scene in the 1970s and 1980s.
With his two most famous ensembles, Son 14 and Adalberto Álvarez y Su Son, Mr. Álvarez has won numerous accolades, including a National Music Award in Cuba in 2018 and several Cubadisco awards. His first hit, in 1979, was “A Bayamo En Coche” (“To Bayamo in a carriage”), followed by “El Regreso de Maria” (“The return of Maria”) and, later, “Y Qué Tú Quieres Que Te Den? ”(“ And what do you want them to give you? ”), Among others.
On stage, he appealed to the crowd, displaying a blinding smile. But he was more than an entertainer; he influenced the evolution of Cuban music by returning to his musical roots.
“My main goal is always to make the dancers dance,” he said in a 2014 maintenance. “This is our mission, to bring joy to people.”
Son had lost its popularity after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. But in the 1970s, Mr. lvarez saw an overture and began composing music that combined traditional elements of sound with more modern Latin dance music, like salsa and timba. He emphasized sound instruments, such as the very, a signature Cuban guitar with three sets of double strings. He then added the vocal improvisations to his sound and his famous call-and-response pattern and incorporated the two-way lyrics found in the trova, a musical genre based on troubadours.
This ajiaco, or stew, traditionally and modernly made Mr. lvarez unique among Cuban conductors at the time, said Marysol Quevedo, Cuban music expert and assistant professor of musicology at the University of Miami. “What he represents is this perfect hybrid between the traditional and influences from abroad,” she said.
Unlike many Cuban artists of the time, Mr. Álvarez received permission from the Communist government of Cuba to travel abroad, beginning with a trip to Venezuela in 1980. (President Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba expressed his condolences on the occasion of his death.) This freedom of movement gives him access to Latin music outside Cuba and keeps him in touch with contemporary musical trends. In 1999, after he and his band performed in New York, Peter Watrous of the New York Times called their sound “modern and unstoppable.”
Mr. lvarez pioneered in other ways. A priest of the Yoruba religion La Regla de Ocha-Ifá, he was one of the first Cubans to present on stage and in the recording studio songs centered on his beliefs. Religions like Ifá – a mixture of Roman Catholicism and West African spiritual beliefs – were banned and secretly practiced in Atheist Cuba until 1992, when the government declared itself secular and outlawed religious discrimination. The Ifá and the other Santería religions are now commonplace and openly practiced.
The ban did not prevent Mr. lvarez from recording, in 1991, one of his greatest successes, “Y Qué Tu Quieres Que Te Den?” “ which focuses on Ifá and asks listeners to think about what they want from orishas, or deities. The song served as a tribute to his religion, but also as a public recognition of his popularity.
Adalberto Cecilio Álvarez Zayas was born on November 22, 1948 in Havana and grew up in Camagüey, a city in central Cuba. Her father, Enrique Álvarez, was a musician and her mother, Rosa Zayas, was both musician and singer.
He attended the National School of the Arts of Cuba, where he studied composition and orchestration. He then taught students for a while until he landed a job writing songs for the band Conjunto Rumbavana in 1972, after impressing the band’s frontman, Joseíto González. It was Mr. González who introduced Mr. Álvarez to the idea of reviving the tradition of Cuban dance.
Mr. Álvarez wrote one of his first songs for Rumbavana, “Con Un Besito, Mi Amor” (“With a kiss, my love”); another of his compositions for the group was the famous “El Son de Adalberto”.
As his dedication to his son intensified, Mr. Álvarez moved to Santiago de Cuba, in the easternmost province of Oriente, where he was originally from. He formed Son 14 in 1978 and Adalberto y Su Son in 1984.
Information on the survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Álvarez shrewdly understood that his son could not survive on his own; it had to be associated with modern life for it to be rejuvenated – an achievement that led to its fresh and original sound.
“I see myself as the bridge between contemporary music and the establishment,” he said in 2001. “All my musicians are very young. So I definitely represent the new generation.