Orlando “Maraca” Valle Sounds like Cuban Jazz
Orlando “Maraca” Valle Sounds like Cuban Jazz
A flutist, songwriter and director, Orlando “Maraca” Valle has successfully toured nearly 60 countries and developed a versatile musical career, focused on jazz, but characterized by the combination of other popular and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Likewise, he’s defined as an artist with the potential to represent Cuban music and go beyond, and he has made it by performing on international stages, mastering the key elements of contemporary and universal music; always standing out as a Cuban musician.
Nominated to the Grammy Awards in 2003, in the category of “Best Salsa Album of the Year”, and winner of several CUBADISCO and EGREM awards in Cuba, among other recognitions to his artistic career, “Maraca” has developed a singular expressiveness by means of the flute, with an avant-garde style within fusion-jazz, and he has recently aimed his work at instrumental music. Following this line, he has recently recorded the album entitled Latin For Two, in Holland, a duet with pianist Ramon Valle, who is linked to “Maraca” by family bonds and the passion for music.
We practically grew up together, we started to improvise and play jazz, and after so many years of jam-sessions we decided to do something together, as a duet, with a quartet and quintet. In fact, we went to Martinique last year with a quintet that included percussion, so we have a quite-open project. However, the album is made up of a duet, with songs that were exclusively written for it, since the duet was first an experiment, we later went on tours and everything was great in the concerts. We realized that there was way more than quartets or quintets, because the chemistry was excellent. Duets are complex, since it’s not only about two musicians playing, but there has to be two interweaved stories; it’s pointless otherwise, and that was our achievement. We worked on a song entitled “El Guanajo Relleno”, a version by Ignacio Piñeiro, we produced a video, posted it on YouTube and it was watched by thousands of people, musicians from around the world love it. Then we decided to record the album and I told Ramon to listen to Marta Valdes’ songs, because that was the style we wanted, but it would be completely instrumental, no voices at all.
So there was no relation with your usual style of combining jazz with other genres of popular dance music.
No relation at all. It’s all about piano and flute. It’s a soft album, with deeper elements, produced in a way that tries to leave behind what we had done so far. Latin For Two is an album to sit down and peacefully listen to love ballads, although it has nothing to do Luis Miguel’s romantic ballads or something like that. We’re talking about more jazz and contemporary music, somewhere between classic music and jazz.
How was the recording process of Latin For Two?
Two days earlier I was still on a tour of Barcelona with Latin Jazz All Stars project, I went to Paris and then to the south of Nice in order to record with another pianist. I spent all that time writing. The same happened to Ramon Valle, in the same way, but with different itineraries; so we were exhausted, but we couldn’t wait to record the album. We recorded 20-30 takes in 11 hours and the best ones were handpicked, the most original ones. It was funny because he didn’t know the songs and they were mine but I wasn’t familiarized with them either because it was an uninterrupted creative process. I wrote them, but I had never played them and it was even harder with a flute in G –flutes are usually in C – since you feel like you’re out of key. We recorded with our heart and it was perfect.
What do think about jazz at international level?
This genre has grown up, it’s been developed, but it’s been so enhanced that people sometimes get confused and brand anything as “jazz”, and sometimes the heart of jazz is not there. Jazz was originally played by the Afro-Americans as a result of certain situation in the United States, social matters, racial segregation and prohibitions, so jazz was a way for them to freely express. Afterwards, the most revolutionary figure of Jazz, Louis Armstrong, took it to theaters and stages: he made it popular. Those jazzmen didn’t study in art schools, they were private teachers, but there is great technical development with the presence of jazz in art schools, although they sometimes lose contact with reality. That’s when you find technically complex music, but it turns out to be expressively cold. Jazz has its essence, swing or taste, as we say, otherwise you have nothing. You have to seriously know it in the first place, so you can contribute with something. Especially because jazz is a culture and an expression of freedom. Jazz helps you share, free yourself, express a thousand things by means of music. That’s why people love jazz and there is so much history around it. The things is that there are wrong ways and right ways. There are too many schools around the world, lots of technical elements, but the true jazz fortunately still stands out, and those who know it and feel it cannot be deceived.
Is there any difference in terms of Latin American, Cuban and North American jazz?
The Latin American jazz was first described as deformed or wrong, but after some years it was even recognized in the Grammy Awards due to its contributions and the genres it mixed with jazz, as well as the remarkable instrumentalists that have jumped from the Latin American stage to international circuits. The case of Cuban jazz is different, even different from the jazz that comes out of Latin America, because we have other characteristics since we’re a musical power, with rhythms that can only be heard here and typical Cuban instruments. For instance, you study Emiliano Salvador’s work and you can see how he made Cuban music through a profound knowledge of jazz, so it sounds like jazz and sounds Cuban. That’s a significant achievement.
How is to “sound Cuban” like?
Piano sounds, cadences, rhythms, figurations, playing styles, you listen to them and identify chachacha, danzon, rhythms that weren’t created for jazz but they can be combined with it.
Why do you find the flute so interesting?
This instrument is strongly linked to the Cuban music. Such flutists as Richard Egües were excellent songwriters, directors and creators. They used to play with old French five-key flutes, and they were great. But there was Afro-Cuban rhythm in that flute. The US flutists’ harmony was more complex than the Cuban one and they played with swing, but they weren’t able to do it in the Cuban way, and vice versa. In my case, I wanted to do something different with the flute and it was destined to be something I didn’t want: to eternally play with a charanga or concert band. I didn’t want any of those choices. So I tried to free myself and play along with trumpets, saxophones, so the flute could be respected and played like a trumpet, trombone or any other instrument.
Flutist, songwriter… why do they call you “Maraca”?
Because I was skinny and, since Cuban musicians have pen names, we used to name each other. I was also called Microphone, Quixote, but Maracas has accompanied me to date. Besides, I can’t put it aside because it already identifies me. I worked with Irakere for 6 years and Maracas was easier than Orlando Valle, so the people already knew who I was and how I played. I had had to play the double otherwise in order to let them know it was me.
Back in December you brought a special concert to Jazz Plaza 2015 Festival, entitled “Jazz Plaza All Stars”.
“Jazz Plaza All Stars” is a Cuban version, let’s say, of Latin Jazz All Stars, a project that was conceived in California. Since it was very successful, we took it on a tour of Colombia. That was when we realized that there was no record of the success, so we decided to record it. We came to Havana, performed at Havana’s Grand Theater and filmed it. So we had the DVD and kept on performing our Latin Jazz All Stars. As for Jazz Plaza 2015 I thought that, since all of the members of the project wouldn’t be here, we could pay tribute to the 31st anniversary of this festival with the concert I named Jazz Plaza All Stars, because I’ve attended this festival since its very first edition, so we introduced our first song as “Latin Jazz Plaza”.
What does Jazz Plaza mean to you?
I’ve been into the Jazz Plaza Festival since the 1980s. I was taken there when I was 13 years old and I still could play. But Jazz Plaza had great influence on me since I listened to the original Irakere band, with Paquito Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Gonzalo Rubalcaba. A significant part of my musical history is connected to the Jazz Plaza, I played there with Bobby Carcases, Emiliano Salvador, Frank Emilio. I performed Leo Brower’s songs with Irakere, incredible experiences. I witnessed the birth of Jazz Plaza, when Mella Theater became its venue, and the whole evolution of the event. I was very young, but I used to be all year long waiting for this week, paying attention to every movement, every activity, which was less than what we presently do. I learned a lot, it encouraged me to move forward and devise what I wanted to do with my life.
What do you make of the Jazz Plaza Festival’s edition held in 2015?
This edition was very good, except for the rain that stopped some concerts. The event was attended by outstanding musicians from around the world, jam-sessions were held throughout Havana, even out of schedule, and the performances were excellent. Nobody comes to Cuba without the proper level because the music level here is very high.
Beyond fostering the exchange among musicians, do you think that the Jazz Plaza brings this genre closer to the public?
Jazz was very popular in Cuba back in the 1980s. Irakere band, with Chucho Valdes, had won a Grammy Award, the music was played everywhere, there were other successful bands like AfroCuba, and there was a trend aimed at popular dance music, specifically jazz. The jazz concerts were attended by university students and people knew the electronic jazz, the popular jazz. That situation changed and I felt it in several tours throughout Cuba, especially in Sancti Spiritus where people came to me and told me: “The concert was great, now I do understand jazz, because I didn’t understand it nor like it.” When I asked them why, they answered: “A todo jazz”. And A todo jazz is a TV show that sheds light on sonorous experimentation, but it doesn’t provide further details. If you broadcast a jazz TV show and the people don’t understand it, they logically put it aside, they are not attracted. There was no defined purpose targeting the audience, there was no process of formation or information, and that situation –among other elements – made people think that jazz was an elitist music, far from popular preferences. Moreover, several spaces were lost, such as the Culture House in Plaza municipality, where Formell and Los Van Van used to go as a project focused on jazz, they used to improvise, play instrumental music, make arrangements for Jazz Plaza. Nobody puts an initiative on the table, nobody explains where it comes from and what it is. That’s the reason why people say “I don’t like it”, “I don’t understand it”. I believe that one of the best things in this edition was the connection established between popular dance music and jazz, especially because jazz has never been an elitist music, quite on the contrary. We had excellent performances this year, with Jovenes Clasicos del Son, for example, there is great talent and many youngsters with the potential to create a new bond between jazz and the public.
What do you like the most in your artistic career?
To tell you the truth, my thoughts are always focused on what I have to do, instead of what I did. Perhaps the most important achievement is the fact that the flute has finally gained momentum, I’m not saying that it wasn’t important before, but there is a huge difference in terms of what musicians used to do with it. I appreciate having touched the heart of so many people and having made so many friends by means of my music. The communication and message I air with my instrument is what actually matters the most. I’ve performed in places where different conflicts are lived on a daily basis, just like when I played in Serbia. Both Serbians and Croats were mistreating each other, they were yelling at each other, and the conflict was over as soon as we began to play, everybody was dancing, applauding. That’s the magic of music.
Plans for 2016?
Many. I’m presently organizing a tour of the Unites States with Latin Jazz All Stars project, as well as several performances in Cuba through the Jazz Plaza Festival 2016. I kind of have migrated to the instrumental music, but I just recorded some songs with Mayito Rivera, from Los Van Van, Elito Reve y su Charangon, and I’m going to keep on collaborating with those musicians. I want to rollout the album I recorded with Ramon Valle, and play my music. You find a new reason every day to make music.
By Beatriz Rosales / PanamericanWorld, Havana