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Contrary to what its name implies, Miami's 2005 Grammy-nominated Cuban son ensemble Conjunto Progreso is anything but forward-thinking. Not that the band members mind: They proudly claim to be the only local Latin act not trying to create experimental fusion. "We're strictly a roots-oriented band. We haven't gotten past the Sixties," boasts the group's founder and percussionist, Johnny Aguiló.
Their latest album, Master Sessions: Descarga and Son, is an attempt to immortalize not only the music but also the members. Thus Aguiló contracted local Cuban artist David "LEBO" Le Batard to create the album's artwork, including a cover depicting each player's face. Taking his cues from Cuban album art of the Fifties, LEBO depicted bandmates on a boat watched over by the Virgin of El Cobre in order to play up the group's folkloric sound, which he describes as "soulful and organic."
He's right on key. Although Aguiló started out playing with popular freestyle and rock outfits like Exposé, Erotic Exotic, and Young Turk, Conjunto Progreso echoes three generations of Aguiló's Cuban family. The album is also an homage to his father, trumpeter Rolando "El Ruso" Aguiló, who passed away earlier this year after recording several tracks for it. In fact Aguiló named the ensemble after Havana's Radio Progreso, where El Ruso spent years as the house bandleader before seeking exile in the United States. Aguiló's grandfather, bassist Mario "El Chicho" Aguiló, backed up Nat King Cole at Havana's Tropicana nightclub, and his great-grandfather, Arturo Aguiló, pioneered the danzonete, a kind of Cuban country music. "Music's the only thing I've ever known," says Aguiló.
The other bandmates can trace similar rich lineages. Lead vocalist Rolando Perez got his cords from his Cuban mother, Sextet Colon singer Amanda Milian, and his inspiration from family friend Pio Leyva. He would later sing for Estrellas Juveniles, Los Dandys de Cuba, Roberto Faz, and Lady Castro y la Llave in the United States. "He's one of the few soneros left — just ask Albita," says Aguiló, recounting how the Cuban diva begged to sing with Perez during a Conjunto Progreso show at Hoy Como Ayer.
Meanwhile José Elias, the group's guitarist and trés player, is also a veteran member of the Spam Allstars. He produces the annual local Afro Roots World Music and Women and Culture festivals as well. Trumpet player Juan Marquez, nephew of legendary Cuban guitar player and composer Juanito Marquez, played with numerous sextets back on the island. Bassist Miguel Gomez studied under Cachao's renowned nephew, Orlando "Cachaito" López. Pianist/organist Michel Fragoso's strict music education in Castro's music schools landed him gigs with Arturo Sandoval. Also keeping time are bongo player Edel Perez and his congo counterpart, Angelito Cardero, who share the stage on América TV's El Show de Fernando Hidalgo. Finally there is guiro player Pepe Cabral, a mainstay from an earlier local legend, Conjunto Universal.
Still, it's Aguiló who is credited with putting the con in the junto. He left Cuba at the age of seven, but the island's music played on through his childhood in Harlem, where his father directed the music at Los Violines nightclub and sometimes opened for members of the Fania All-Stars. Aguiló often fell asleep waiting backstage for artists like Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón, but their rhythms easily made their way into his subconscious. He was soon singing and banging on everything from drums to timbales and congas. "Even though I played in rock bands, I was always a Latin percussionist," he says.
In 1998, just as Buena Vista Social Club's Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer were shuffling their way back into the limelight, Aguiló had his own musical epiphany. He and Elias decided to drop their Santana-esque rock band Red Road to delve into the kinds of long-winded descargas, or raw, son-inspired jam sessions typical of Cuban music in the late Fifties and Sixties. "There was a necessity for this kind of band," Aguiló says.
"This has been a way for me to channel tradition," confirms Elias, who was born to Cuban parents in the Dominican Republic. "The young guys bring some kind of a fire to the group, and the old man is like the aged wine."
In 2004, after years of low-paying bar gigs, Conjunto Progreso released its first album, Masters of Cuban Son, on Universal. A year later, the album was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album category. World-renowned pianist Bebo Valdés ultimately took the honors, but Conjunto Progreso, now signed to Warner Elektra Atlantic, remains tickled by the experience.
"We were very humbled by it, but it was more the experience of taking me and José and eight Cubans who've hardly been out of Miami to the Grammys," says Aguiló.
"Most of these musicians are living off their day jobs, so for them it's like a dream come true," seconds Elias.
Conjunto Progreso still hasn't made it huge, but the band members have moved on to music festivals and other high-profile concerts; they'll be headlining the New Year's Eve Celebration at Bayfront Park. They've also been performing at fancy gringo weddings and corporate shows like this year's Revlon party at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago in West Palm Beach, where they opened for Alicia Keys. Meanwhile they're getting airplay on public radio stations from Tampa to Denver, whose serious music connoisseurs stay tuned for 13-minute jam versions of classics like "Suavecito."
A December 7 Travel Channel filming of their show at Transit Lounge didn't offer many economic perks, but Aguiló is confident this accumulated slow and steady recognition is enough to keep the bandmates committed to the cause. "What keeps us going is our love for music. It's caused relationship and work problems, but I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do. This is what my dad, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather did, and they all had two jobs," he says. "No other band is as traditional as we are. We pay respect to the people who did it before us."