Born into a family of exceptional dancers, and despite the fact that none of them were musicians, from an early age Maykel Blanco enjoyed hearing music played on the radio or television. At 15 years of age he started his first amateur band, and by 18 was already directing his first professional group, La Suprema Ley. Since then Maykel has been working with this, and his most recent group, Maykel Blanco y su Salsa Mayor.
Granma International spoke with the young musician, whose novel approach to Cuban music has seen him dubbed “a musical machine.”
As a self-taught musician, how have you been able to develop your work?
With a lot of dedication. It was quite difficult at the start, but now I’m studying a lot, something I didn’t do as a child. I get up early everyday and study piano for an hour. I’m a percussionist and I know how to play instruments. I keep up-to-date with everything that’s going on in regards to piano music and when it’s time to compose I also know what I want, where I’m going to go, how to keep things fresh. I think that my dedication, effort, and desire have helped me a lot.
What do you think has been the most important factor for Maykel Blanco y su Salsa Mayor over the years?
How to grow year by year, a little today, a bit more tomorrow. But the most important thing has been the track “Recoge y vete,” a song I wrote and composed and was released in Cuba and worldwide. This led the way to other numbers, let people both in and outside of the country get a feel for the music, start to like and enjoy it.
People say that today all popular Cuban music groups are the same and can only be distinguished by their lead singers. This wasn’t the case in the past. Is this also true of your particular case?
I’ve been compared to Los Van Van, Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco, Pupy y los que Son Son, and even La Revé. These groups undoubtedly have a great influence on my work. However, I try not to copy or imitate them, because that’s not the way I work, nor is it my intention. I don’t deny that there’s some influence, which is inevitable; I mean, I grew up listening to those groups.
Today, you also have to bear in mind the number of students graduating from music schools. Cuba has always had excellent musicians, but in the past there were far fewer orchestras and bands, which is why it’s difficult to quickly find your own identity. I think that my arrangements are different, unlike anyone else’s.
Today, my compositions are better than the ones I wrote five years ago; they are more original and autonomous. I want to make one thing clear: I am defending son. However you want to call it son, songo, timba, all have a lot in common.
I see them as the colors of the rainbow which ultimately all move toward the same direction, which is why I think that some of my compositions have a little more son, others more timba or songo, but at the end of the day they all represent Cuban dance music, and the only thing more enriching to the work of a sonero of these times.
I create fusions in my music, not to would mean poor quality productions, lacking in richness. Nowadays, audiences demand it of you, which is why I don’t believe I have sacrificed my way in the slightest. I am doing the work that I decided to do and defend from the very beginning. I use elements of jazz, but without diverging from son.
Do you think you have your own trademark, if so what is it?
I think it lies in the way I arrange the bass, for example, the way I separate the trombones from the trumpets, there are some songo formats that I can’t change. If you go to Old Havana you hear everyone playing traditional songs, and they all share a likeness. The chords of all the sextets and septets always feature the same Cuban music that I am defending, which forms part of the sound of the songo, and there’s always going to be something similar on some corner. If you stop and listen to my arrangements, and the way many other orchestras play, you’ll realize that mine have a unique style.
People also say that directors like you, who also often write the band’s music, only like to perform your own songs. Is this true?
Not really. When a composer gives me one of his arrangements, if it doesn’t fit with my style, that is to say, the band’s style, I don’t accept it. For example, I wouldn’t think of giving one of my songs to Formell if it didn’t fit with his style. I have included songs written by musicians from the band: there’s one on my first album Ya llegaron los cubanos, called“No juegues con la candela,” which featured for several weeks as one of the top tracks on radio station playlists in Los Angeles. I have also incorporated songs by other musicians, like Pablo Milanés, of which I made and recorded my own version. It’s called “Años,” and ended up being a fantastic track. It’s one of the songs on Recoge y vete¸ the firstalbum I recorded with Envidia Records.
It’s true that the most popular songs are all mine, but not because I neglected others. If a number fits our style, great; if not, although it pains me greatly, I don’t accept it, but I do suggest someone else that might be interested.
Do you think that any of your tracks will stand the test of time and be played by groups of this era?
I don’t know because times are different now. Today, in Peru, there are groups that play my songs. I have a track called “Tú estás,” which has been well received. We’ll have to wait and see what happens to music in the next 50, 100 years, or more.
How do you go about composing a song?
I have various ways of composing songs. Sometimes they come to me when I’m walking down the street, or when I see something that would be great to write a song about, an event, a story someone told me. I start with the verses, the chorus and then flesh it out.
What is the most important thing for you when writing a song?
There are several things, I try to make sure not to repeat the themes of my songs; something I also do on my albums. My songs are dedicated to women, praising them, recognizing them, to love, life, and against violence. I write to make people dance and enjoy themselves.
At what point in your career are you?
At the beginning, because I have so many ideas I want to make a reality, which come to about 15% of all the things I want to do and still haven’t done.
Of all the audiences you’ve played for, which is the most demanding?
The Cuban. Cuban audiences are very difficult and even more so recently given the popularity of other varieties of music, although Cuban music continues to be strong, to survive, like it did in the 1970s and 80s.
When we go abroad, audiences already know our songs, or have danced or listened to them.
Who gave you the name “the musical machine”?
Manolito Simonet, the same year we debuted, in 2004. He listened to the track “Recoge y vete” and seemed to really like it, and one day, when we were playing at the Casa de la Música, Miramar, he got up on stage with me. When we finished performing he gave me a hug and said, “You’re a machine, yeah that’s right, a musical machine.”
I told the story to the press and then that’s what they started to call me. But in truth, I’m not the one to say whether Manolito is right or not. I just do my job and do you know what one of my dreams is? I’d like to sit and watch the band from the audience, face on to see how it sounds.
To what extent do you direct your own music videos?
As much as I can. I directed my first one for the track “Debajo de la balacera.” Using some footage I already had and with the help of some friends, we did it. They were kind of informal recordings that I didn’t think would be any good, but they all worked in the end. My record label didn’t like it, but now they’re saying that they’re thinking of getting it aired on Italian television, which is great news because until recently we had only been played on the radio, in clubs and by DJs in Europe. The song features on my third album Anda y pégate, produced by Francesco Caliza and Planet Records.
But with the amount of work I currently have, I’ve had to take a break from directing my own music videos.
How do you deal with a waning album market?
I can tell you that both the album I produced withEnvidia Records and the one I did with Planet Records have sold well. I also released a fourth with Planet Records called Pa cualquiera, which was licensed byBis Music.
Today, my albums are sold in Latin music stores in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Planet Records, my label, signed a contract with a company called Corta Records which distributes my music in Peru, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico.
In 2010, the band was in Peru, and we also did a tour of Europe, where we’re going back again this year. Where have we been? Mainly in Italy, Denmark, France, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, and other places.
Do your albums feature other musicians?
Of course. I can name Coco Freeman, Waldo Mendoza, Dagoberto González, Sexto Sentido, Alexander Abreu.
Are you satisfied with your work?
I’m never satisfied, I’m never happy with what I do. I’m upset in 90% of my concerts; if one of my musicians plays a single note wrong, that’s it, I get upset. It doesn’t matter whether the audience notices the error or not, the fact is you work hard to write well, to make it count. When that happens, I feel like we’ve failed to achieve our goal. I’m just starting out in the field of audiovisuals and in regards to my discography I always think, maybe I could have done something better.
I have lots of expectations, ideas I want to put into practice, I’m not scared of anything. When I decide to do something, I do it.
How would you describe yourself?
As a musician and band director who is clear and sure of what he wants -always struggling, and of course, as a sonero of these times.