Name: Alejandro Valdés
Occupation: Guitarist, composer, producer
Current release: If playing the flamenco were about ego, then Alejandro Valdés could have turned Calles del Olvido into a formidable demonstration of his solo skills. On the album's nine tracks, Valdés's guitar work is equally passionate and sensitive, his picking quicksilvery virtuoso, his grooves replete with sensual finesse. However, nothing could be further from his mind. Quite on the contrary, the release feeeds from the communal spirit of Palo de Agua, the band that Alejandro assembled in 2016 and which has continued to grow into a tightly woven unit of distinctly individual voices. Luis Armando Pérez Basterrechea's bittersweet violin lines take on a prominent melodic role, Jaleos Dayan Reyes Carreras's voice equally tastes of love and tears and the rest of the band support the leads with their mesmerising clapping and a unique sonic tapestry composed of bagpipes, electric bass and darbuka drums. Switching between fiery songwriting and almost hypnotic instrumental passages, the overall effect is akin to a dream: Everything can be expressed here, everything is possible. Upon waking, what remains is a sense of longing, a smile on your face and the sensation that you have just experienced something magical.
If this interview with Alejandro Valdés piqued your interest, follow him on Facebook to stay up to date with his work. Or head over to the website and bandcamp of his record label, Clásicos Latinos.
Can you please tell us a bit about your own sense of identity and how it motivated you to take an artistic path?
Let start from nationality, which is the first thing that shapes or defines us. I am Cuban. To speak of Cuba is to speak of a great mixture of traditions, mainly African and Spanish, starting from race, religion, culture, customs. On this Caribbean island everything is mixed, nothing is pure, our entire identity stems from the influences that the different stages of our history exerted.
Now, Cuba is a very musical country, anywhere here you can find an artist and we have very good schools of music and art in general. My direct influence on music comes from my parents, they took care of my artistic training, so I have studied music from a very young age.
In which way do you feel your identity concretely influences your creativity?
My identity directly influences the creation process, since, apart from the flamenco formation or alignment that I may have, my starting point is the experience acquired day by day in my traditions.
In my work you can see a mix that goes through the harmony, the instruments I use, the genres I mix and all the elements that I have at my disposal to create.
You've mentioned that Cuba is a very musical country. More specifically, what role does music play for the people of Cuba, in terms of their sense of identity?
Music for Cubans, within the different manifestations of art, plays a very important and distinctive role.
In it, all universal feelings are transmitted. You can fall in love and enjoy, there is practically a genre for each emotion. In our art there is a place for every one of them, from the most classic to the most danceable. Our music identifies us in the whole world. Whatever genre we develop, it does not escape our Cuban identity.
How did you discover the flamenco? What role does it still play for the people and musicians in Cuba?
Flamenco came to me from a very young age, through a company called Andarte, of which I was practically a founder. This company dedicated itself to spreading and representing part of our roots in the province of Camagüey, there I got to know flamenco and took my first steps in this genre.
I was a percussionist, bassist, until I got to the guitar, so I was able to experience flamenco from different points of view and prepare to direct and create for this genre. Spanish roots play a very important role for the Cuban people, we are united by family and cultural ties. Here we have Spanish societies that keep those traditions in force on the Island, transmitting them to the new generations, ensuring its transcendence and exchange.
What defines the flamenco for you personally?
In my particular case it is a musical style, for the natives of the genre it is a philosophy, ideology, feeling, way of life, although it is impossible to interpret it and stop feeling everything it transmits.
The more you delve into the etymology and exchange experiences with native exponents, the more you can identify the history behind this culture. The common points that unite us cannot be denied.
You're calling your style "New Cuban Flamenco". In which way is it new?
The New Flamenco is already universally recognized as a genre that emerged from the evolution of the more conservative and traditional Flamenco. The passage of time has not been able to stop it from mixing with other cultures, not only in Cuba, but in many parts of the world it is present. There are very important exponents who promoted this new flamenco, we can mention Lole and Manuel, Paco de Lucia and Camarón de la Isla, and many other artists who ventured beyond what they knew.
From all this movement arose many record and audiovisual productions that were marking this path, one of the most important is La Leyenda del Tiempo, by Camarón de la Isla in collaboration with representative artists of the genre such as Tomatito, Raimundo Amador, Kiko Veneno among others, contributing compositions, new instruments such as the sitar, electric bass, drums, experimenting with what is known today as New Flamenco.
This is the mirror that I use as a reference, from here I nurture myself. I do not seek to be traditional flamenco, I want to make my roots felt from the perspective of a Cuban, who carries in his DNA that mixture which I call Cuban New Flamenco. It’s not a job that I call my property, every exponent who has worked on the genre in Cuba has not ceased to permeate it whit the feeling of our land, I just wanted to call it that to make a difference, and so that people would not expect pure flamenco from me.
The “New” comes from the harmony of a Son, from a Guaracha, the syncopation of our music, from the energy of the Cubans, from our identity, from the Batá Drums mixed with a Bulería, from a Bagpipe playing with a Flamenco Rumba or present in a Bulería, all of them part of an original creation where these words are demonstrated with art. Here exists that freedom to experiment, to take risks, to create from your personal experience.
How does playing the flamenco help you communicate your own sense of identity?
Having flamenco as a base, it helps me to express my roots more clearly, that's what it's all about, expressing your true identity, with all or almost all the elements that make it up. It is a long way to go. Much remains to be learned to continue creating.
What can you express through this music?
Everything. This is a very large genre that blends very well with almost any genre in the world, here I found a new musical language to express my artistic concerns, I have been able to experience an unexplored sound universe on our island. There is still much to show from our perspective.
Can you talk a little bit about how you assembled the musicians for your current group Palo de Agua and what makes you such a strong unit?
The group was put together little by little. We started as a duo, then I started searching for musicians who were eager for challenges. Flamenco is a challenge for any musician, it is not something that is studied in an academy or on the street, I have spent many years accumulating knowledge and learning from each experience to be able to transmit to my group the idea of what I wanted to achieve. It was a difficult road to conceive the first compositions, a lot of perseverance and patience was needed to carry out this project, but nothing stopped us and less the lack of resources.
We use talent and creativity to overcome any obstacle, as well as the vital contribution of some members of the band in sound engineering, design, photography and many other virtues necessary to carry out a project of this nature. It unites us and makes us strong to have matured together, step by step, to obtain achievements and recognitions, the acceptance of the public, the unconditional support of our family. Not all of them remain in the group at the moment, but their passage has contributed to its evolution.
What were the first reactions to your music?
Since the first day we performed, the public accepted us warmly. Seeing a bagpipe in flamenco drew a lot of attention, it was something new. The original compositions were well received, the formula that we achieved worked very well and from there we have not stopped doing concerts and little by little the stages have grown, taking us to international domains and being very well received.
Connoisseurs always approach with recommendations, to whom we listen, but we do not lose focus of our work.
What were some of your goals for your debut album Calles del Olvido?
Calles del Olvido is the opportunity to commit this New Cuban Flamenco to a record. The main objective is to share our work, it’s to create a trace of our passage, it’s to make a reference that inspires new talents. It’s to speak to the world with our art.
What do you still remember about the recording sessions?
The first thing … that was not easy to capture the interpretive energy of this genre. They were intense sessions of recording by instrument strings. Due to the physical conditions of the studio, we couldn't record all the members simultaneously, so we had to, between the engineers and ourselves, find a way to capture this very important essence. What we did was record demos of each song, playing all at the same time with a general reference click for everyone, but also following our own natural rhythm, and then, we were capturing, with this demo as a reference, the different instruments with independent recordings.
A recording studio represents a lot of tension for an artist, because what you play is captured and that’s what will last once the recording is finished. So it requires a lot of study and concentration, but at the same time you must enjoy what you do in order to convey emotions. I think that together we achieve what is essential: live music, energetic, with nuances, and above all, natural.
Art can be an expression or celebration of identity, but it can also be an effort to establish new ones or break free from them. How would you describe your own approach in this regard?
Being born in a certain place does not fully define your identity. The environment in which you develop, the influences you receive, that constant information you acquire from the world, and more today, could modify your identity, your aesthetics, and that can lead you to appreciate other cultures, other traditions, but even so, your identity, by nature, will be latent. In my case it is a celebration of my identity, an artistic wealth present in our roots.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think originality is the key. You do not have to stop being yourself to approach a specific culture or tradition, the naturalness with which you approach a subject is very important. In my work it is not very difficult because Spain and Cuba are very close. Our album does not seek to pretend an accent that we do not have, in the visual information that we project we do not look for flamenco elements or symbols, on the contrary, we seek our identity to be very present, our customs, our idiosyncrasy, always respecting what flamenco represents for its people and taking our work very seriously to transmit an enriching experience for the public.
How, do you feel, can music contribute to a society capable of dealing with different identities in a more positive way?
I think that music is capable of uniting different identities.
In my personal experience music has no race, it does not discriminate, it does not segregate, but it is adaptable as long as it comes with good will and talent. Art in general can create bridges of friendship and exchange, accept what is different. The human being has found in art a unique language that we can all speak, which is why I consider it a means of communication where sensitivity predominates.
For interested readers, what are books, websites, articles or other sources of information you recommend for them to educate themselves on the topic?
To delve more deeply into this topic, first of all I recommend the documentary about the life and work of Paco de Lucia “La Búsqueda (The Search)”, here it shows Paco's personal experience, as a reference of the contributions that were modifying Flamenco, and their interaction and influence with other great exponents such as Camarón de la Isla.
I also recommend the discography of Vicente Amigo, Ketama, Lole y Manuel, Raimundo Amador, Ojo de brujo, El Bicho, El Barrio, Diego el Cigala, José Mercé, Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucia.
The documentary directed by Carlos Saura, “Flamenco Hoy (Flamenco Today)”, where he shows flamenco today.
As well as some articles that address the theme of New Flamenco: