One of the leading purveyors of the rich musical heritage of Cuba will lead his 14-piece orchestra in concert Saturday at the Germantown Performing Arts Center. And he expects to get people moving.
"I like to see people dancing, and I like to see people listening," says Jesus Alemany, trumpeter and leader for more than 20 years of the band Cubanismo. "Don't even think we are gonna play in Memphis and people aren't gonna jump up and dance. I like people to be part of the show."
Alemany is an ambassador for the music of his home country and the influence it has left around the world.
"The essence of the band is just to give the audience the very wide history of the Cuban music," he says. "Going back to different periods with the music. Playing some original compositions and also some traditional standards of the Cuban music, we try to show a variety of rhythms — rhumba, cha cha cha, mambo, descarga. Also going to the most recent style of the Cuban popular music, which is called timba — what people internationally call 'salsa.' But always focusing on the Cuban music."
Alemany spoke by phone from Merida, capital city of the Mexican state of Yucatan, where he has lived for four years after 23 years based mostly in London. Living away from Cuba allows him and his band members to travel more easily to the United States, which still restricts travel and trade with the island nation.
"In 2004, we had a huge series of concerts throughout the United States, 40 concerts, but it was canceled because the State Department didn't give permission to go to the U.S.," Alemany says. "That was in a period when we were all living in Cuba. That was a really bad experience, and we had to make the hard decision to change some of the musicians and work with people who live outside of Cuba."
Despite such obstacles, Alemany is committed to maintaining a cultural exchange between the United States and Cuba. He recalls Cubanismo being booked in the late 1990s for a series of concerts in New Orleans that culminated in the 2000 album project Mardi Gras Mambo, as well as American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis traveling to Havana to teach and perform for students there.
"Then that stopped for a while," he says, "and we have to reopen this musical bridge."
Alemany, 55, began his professional career at age 15 with Sierra Maestra, a band that sought to revive the classic Cuban musical style from the 1920s called son, considered the foundation of modern Latin American music. As a Cuban music revival was sweeping the English-speaking world, they recorded the 1994 album Dundundanza in London. with producer Nick Gold for his World Circuit label.
American producer Joe Boyd then approached Alemany about putting together a new band in Havana to record for his own label, Hannibal Records. This was the beginning of Cubanismo, and the sessions yielded two well-received live albums, Cubanismo (1995) and Malembe (1996). Meanwhile, Gold was putting together his own Havana sessions, featuring aging musicians from the pre-revolution period along with American guitarist Ry Cooder. The resulting album, Buena Vista Social Club (1997), sold more than 5 million copies, won a Grammy Award, and became an international phenomenon.
Two decades after Cubanismo and Buena Vista Social Club, Alemany and his band continue to perform around the world, but he admits that interesting a new generation of Cubans in this music has been a challenge.
"We are all struggling in a way with how there might be a new generation of people that consume this kind of music," he says. "Because it is the original music, the most typical music that represents our culture, but now there is a different thing happening with reggaetón and timba and all that. The new generation of people are more into reggaetón. That's just the way it is."
Jesus Alemany and Cubanismo perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, February 17th, at the Germantown Performing Arts Center.