Adalberto Álvarez, Latin dance music maestro, is dead at 72

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Adalberto Álvarez, Latin dance music maestro, is dead at 72
An award-winning composer and arranger, Álvarez was known as “El Caballero del Son” (the “Gentleman of Son”) because of his passion for the genre and the infectious enthusiasm with which he repopularized it.

by Lizette Alvarez

NEW YORK, NY.- Adalberto Álvarez, one of Cuba’s most celebrated musicians, who as a bandleader helped revive and refashion Cuban son, a fusion of European and African styles and instruments that was vital to Latin dance music, died Sept. 1 in a hospital in Havana. He was 72.

The cause was complications of COVID-19, the official Cuban newspaper Granma said.

An award-winning composer and arranger, Álvarez was known as “El Caballero del Son” (the “Gentleman of Son”) because of his passion for the genre and the infectious enthusiasm with which he repopularized it. Son is at the root of salsa, among other Latin dance genres, and is considered the bedrock of the Cuban sound.

“I don’t think there is a composer more important for Cuban popular music than Adalberto,” said Isaac Delgado, one of Cuba’s best-known salsa singers. “He created a sound that was very individual to him.” Delgado and Álvarez recorded an album together, “El Chévere de la Salsa-El Caballero del Son,” released in 1994.

Álvarez was one of the most covered of the soneros, as singers of son are known, of the past 35 years. Salsa and merengue bands and performers like Juan Luis Guerra, El Gran Combo and Oscar De Leon have all recorded his compositions. His style influenced New York City’s salsa scene in the 1970s and ’80s as well.

With his two most famous ensembles, Son 14 and Adalberto Álvarez y Su Son, Álvarez garnered numerous honors, among them 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” (“Maria’s Return”) and, later, “Y Qué Tú Quieres Que Te Den?” (“And What Do You Want Them to Give You?”), among others.

Onstage he was a crowd-pleaser, flashing a blinding smile. But he was more than an entertainer; he influenced the evolution of Cuban music by returning to its musical roots.

“My main objective always is to get dancers dancing,” he said in a 2014 interview. “This is our mission, to give people joy.”

Son had waned in popularity after the 1959 Cuban revolution. But in the 1970s Álvarez saw an opening and began to compose music that combined traditional elements of son with more modern Latin dance music, like salsa and timba. He emphasized son instruments, like the tres, a signature Cuban guitar with three sets of double strings. He then threw in son’s vocal improvisations and its famous call-and-response pattern and incorporated the double-entendre lyrics found in the trova, a troubadour-based musical genre.

This ajiaco, or stew, of traditional and modern made Álvarez unique among Cuban bandleaders at the time, said Marysol Quevedo, an expert in Cuban music and an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Miami. “What he represents was this perfect hybrid of the traditional and influences from abroad,” she said.

Unlike many Cuban artists of the era, Álvarez received permission from Cuba’s Communist government to travel abroad, starting with a trip to Venezuela in 1980. (President Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba expressed condolences on his death.) This freedom of movement gave him access to Latin music outside Cuba and kept him in touch with contemporary musical trends. In 1999, after he and his band performed in New York City, Peter Watrous of The New York Times called their sound “modern and unstoppable.”

Álvarez served as a groundbreaker in other ways. A priest in the Yoruba religion La Regla de Ocha-Ifá, he was one of the first Cubans to bring songs focused on his beliefs to the stage and into the recording studio. Religions like Ifá — a blend of Roman Catholicism and West African spiritual beliefs — were banned and practiced covertly in atheistic Cuba until 1992, when the government declared itself secular and barred religious discrimination. Ifá and other Santería religions are now commonplace and openly practiced.

The ban did not stop Álvarez from recording, in 1991, one of his greatest hits, “Y Qué Tu Quieres Que Te Den?,” which focuses on Ifá and asks listeners to think about what they desire from the orishas, or deities. The song served as a tribute to his religion, but also as a public acknowledgment of its popularity.

Adalberto Cecilio Álvarez Zayas was born Nov. 22, 1948, in Havana and grew up in Camagüey, a city in central Cuba. His father, Enrique Álvarez, was a musician, and his mother, Rosa Zayas, was both a musician and a singer.

He attended the National School of Arts in Cuba, where he studied composition and orchestration. He later taught students for a spell until landing a job writing songs for the group Conjunto Rumbavana in 1972, having impressed the band’s leader, Joseíto González. It was González who introduced Álvarez to the idea of reviving Cuba’s dance tradition.

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 celebrated “El Son de Adalberto.”

With his dedication to son intensifying, Álvarez moved to Santiago de Cuba, in the easternmost Oriente province, where it had originated. He formed Son 14 in 1978 and Adalberto y Su Son in 1984.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Álvarez astutely understood that son could not survive on its own; it needed to be coupled with modern life for it to be rejuvenated — a realization that led to his fresh, original sound.

“I consider myself to be the bridge between contemporary music and the establishment,” he said in 2001. “All my musicians are very young. So definitely I represent the new generation.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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