SANTIAGO DE CUBA.– With a fruitful, 30-year career under its belt, the Cobre Steel Band has won a spot in the musical tastes of Cubans, and particularly among the country’s most outstanding performers, who recognize the uniqueness of the finely tuned timbre its members extract from their instruments created from metal barrels.
The band has had many high points, including their performance of Schubert’s Ave Maria for Pope Benedict XVI on a visit to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity in their hometown; the mini concert offered by the professionals with the children’s group for President Miguel Díaz-Canel, during his visit to the area.
Also noteworthy are its numerous presentations at festivals, carnivals, and other popular celebrations where audiences traditionally acclaim and cheer their shows.With their performance at the Jazz Plaza festival in Havana just behind them, and after recording music for “Cuba te quiere” and “Ula ula” with Cándido Fabré at EGREM’s Siboney Studios, the band led by maestro Hermes Ramírez Silva is heating up the drums for a video with the international group Somos el mundo, at Gran Piedra; several tracks by Erik Iglesias (Cimafunk); and the Caribbean Festival, this coming July.Reflecting the tenacity that characterizes the people of Cobre, the road they have taken has not been easy.
They owe a great deal to the enterprising spirit of Joel James Figarola, founder of the Casa del Caribe, whose experience on a trip to Trinidad and Tobago, Martinique, Barbados, and other islands of the region was decisive to the emergence of the group in this mining town.
Over the years, the group’s founding members, workers who were steel band fans and amateur musicians, and the first drums fashioned in the mining company’s foundry, gave way to this group of professionals with excellent quality instruments that have allowed them to develop a first class repertory, performed inside the country and beyond.
"Given the characteristics of the sound we produce by striking the metal," Hermes explains, "you always need to have new music that gets people dancing and singing. We have achieved that by listening and studying a lot of music, in love with the steel drum, as if it were the best grand piano, and taking care of the instruments’ tuning."We have assembled more than 50 songs that range from popular and classical music to danzón, mambo, chachachá, guarachas, conga, boleros, ballads, rock, calypso, reggae, samba, jazz and others that require a lot of skill," adds Ramírez who is a conservatory graduate in bass guitar and played with Chepín Choven’s popular band for 12 years.
Popular numbers in their repertory include “Popurrí de Los Van Van,” “Bésame mucho,” “El necio,” “Bodas de oro,” “Girl from Ipanema,” “El negro está cocinando,” “Marilú,” “Calculadora,” “No woman no cry,” “El cafetal,””Bacalao con pan,” “Hotel California,””Patacón pisao,””Mambo No. 5,” “Che Comandante,” “Guantanamera” and of course the “Ave María.”
"Nothing is easy," says the composer and arranger, "because as the name indicates, a Steel Band is a band of steel, composed of metal drums hollowed from oil barrels, metallic drums, which in English is known as steel band, with pan or steel drums, which, according to many is perhaps the only musical instrument invented in the twentieth century.
“Our 12 musicians have 23 instruments of this type, each with a different thickness. So for the treble a pan provides the melodic line for the piece, and to give you a better idea, let's say these drums play the role of the piano, the guitars, the cello, and the basses that maintain the harmonic and rhythmic stability of the music.
“As a complement, to carry the rhythmic base, we added a complete drum set with two tumbadoras, a guayo and a chequeré. In all of these the tuning is decisive, and especially in the case of the drums, that are transported to other provinces in the baggage compartments of buses.
Any blow can leave them out of tune.”With two recorded CDs and a video clip, among the group's best memories are sharing the stage with Bomba de Emeterio in Brazil, and in Cuba, with Adalberto Álvarez y su Son; Original de Manzanillo; Pancho Amat and the Cabildo del Son; Cándido Fabré and his band; Pedrito Calvo and la Justicia; William Vivanco; and Ivette Cepeda.In addition, their presentations have been very popular at the Fiesta de la Cultura Iberoamericana in Holguín; tourism conventions; the Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana; at Varadero’s Mambo Club; and carnivals in Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santa Clara, Bayamo, and other cities, as well as the quintessential Caribbean Festival of Santiago.
A valuable reference is Trinidad and Tobago, which has offered the band musical advice and technical assistance, including the instruments currently used and the expected donation of drums with chrome, silver, and nickel treatments, through Merlin Gill and John Sorrillo, which will raise the quality of the band’s music substantially.
As a guarantee of continuity, a children's band was formed last year, including elementary and secondary students, directed by Alfredo Vaillant Torres.
They have at their disposal the Steel Band’s spacious headquarters for rehearsals and presentations, among the social contributions made by the group to beautify the town of Cobre.Given their accomplishments, Hermes Ramírez and his musicians are only waiting for their inclusion in the Musical Album of Cuba. They have won the honor with their musical ascent and community work.
The Cobre Steel Band, although not of Cuban origin, has enriched our rhythms and brought joy to the people, making a laudable contribution to national culture.