For Marcelino Valdes, the Cuban singer who hopes to release his debut disc on the troubled label RMM, destiny has followed two signs: patience and the musical patrimony carried in the blood of the Valdes family. His Vicentico Valdes, the unforgettable bolero singer whose music was still heard on Havana radio four decades after he moved to New York City, and the best known Marcelino Valdes, who accompanied the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, are just two on the long list of musicians in his family.
Miami resident Marcelino Valdes has waited many years to answer his family's calling. For much of that time he was an entertainment journalist in Cuba and a producer for shows at the Tropicana. He resigned himself to his role as a spectator at that famous nightclub among the palms. "It wasn't easy," he remembers. "What I wanted was to sing." He went from one cabaret to another without fulfilling his vocation and made do by joining a group of amateur musicians, fellow students from the Ignacio Cervantes music school, with no greater ambition than to find an outlet for his voice singing traditional Cuban songs, nueva trova, and contemporary Latin pop.
But destiny is a strange thing. Valdes ended up singing for his fellow Cuban soldiers in Angola. In that atmosphere thick with nostalgia, he adopted the melancholy ballad, full of desire for what is always just out of reach. In Africa, amid what he remembers as "the most intense green on Earth and a sky so full of stars that it seemed unreal," he found himself as a man and a musician. He never knew why, but the children of the Angolan village followed him. Perhaps because his tall black frame made him look like a Goliath or a king. Or maybe it was because of his deep sweet voice. The children would ask him to sing and surround him, taking up the chorus. Their fascination made him believe in himself and helped him overcome his stage fright.
He returned from Africa with a feeling of liberty and renewal. It was as if he had brought back the spirit of the giant baobab trees and of the mud huts where he discovered he had an impressive voice. At the Tropicana he scheduled a rehearsal with an assurance he had never before known. "Who is the rehearsal for?" the Tropicana staff asked. "For me," he replied.
His debut was a success, but when the cultural bureaucrats heard of his performance, they informed him he could sing no more. "You are a producer, and you cannot perform a function that does not fit you," the communists decreed. Valdes requested they send a commission to hear him. "If I'm a better producer than a singer, I will give up my voice," he proposed. "But if I'm a better singer, then let me do it." He continued to sing.
An Austrian impresario saw him onstage and took him on tour to Vienna with the group Dada. He traveled extensively outside Cuba, arrived in Miami, and began a long struggle. He sang at Club Tropigala, Café Nostalgia, Yuca, Café Radical, and Hoy Como Ayer, where, along with other musicians, he was let go two months ago without any notice. Today he performs at the coffeehouse Café Demetrio. The work has been unsteady; sometimes two months will pass without a show, and he will have to work other jobs. Despite the hardship he has never lost faith. He closes every show with "I Believe I Can Fly," a song he considers his personal hymn.
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Five years ago Ralph Mercado, head of RMM, heard Valdes accompany his uncle Vicentico Valdes in a blues version of "Añorado Encuentro" and proposed making a record.
The disc is a collection of twelve boleros made famous by his uncle. As a child in Cuba, he knew Vicentico only through photos and recordings of his classics from the Fifties and Sixties. When Marcelino arrived in the United States as an adult, he spoke to his uncle once on the phone before the elder Valdes passed away. This recording pays homage to his uncle's memory by reworking the bolero in versions influenced by jazz, rock, and pop. The traditional ballads are updated with strings in an arrangement reminiscent of a chamber orchestra. "In Añorado Encuentro,'" Valdes explains, "we add the Argentine bandoneon. The finished production, which we did with Raul Rodriguez and Chayanne's pianist, Jorge Luis Sosa, who played keyboards here, is very interesting." Valdes admits that in spite of these instrumental innovations, the guitar remains, as always in this music of love and heartbreak, the instrument closest to the voice.
The song that approaches the style to which he aspires is "Today Is Not Yesterday," a ballad influenced by African-American gospel and Latin-American filin'. The Cuban filin' greats -- Angelito Diaz, Martha Valdes, José Antonio Mendez, and Elena Burke -- not only influenced Vicentico, they also shaped the generation that followed him with such intensity that Marcelino Valdes says, "That is my pattern when I sing."
"I know that one day I'll be seated at the Latin Grammys," says the ever-hopeful Valdes, even though the CD release has been delayed by RMM's legal woes. He's certain he will not repeat the mistake he made on his contribution to a 1995 compilation, where he forced his voice into salsa, spurred by the success of Marc Anthony. "Not even I can stand to listen to that disc," he laughs.