Sunday, December 28, 2014

Juan Blanco: A Cultural Counterpoint

Juan Blanco: A Cultural Counterpoint
by Neil Leonard
[author's draft - published by]

This article discusses my encounters with Cuban composer Juan Blanco, the context in which I met him and how we formed a working relationship despite a parade of obstacles. For biographical surveys of Blanco’s life including discussion of his major works, see my features in Computer Music Journal [1], MusicTexte [2] and notes to “Nuestro Tiemo” the first CD of his work that I co-produced for Innova Recordings [3].

The closest neighbor

I picked up the thread that led me to Juan Blanco as a teen playing in Philadelphia bands in the late 1970s. Ensembles that I followed were transforming the sound of jazz by hiring Brazilian percussionists. The first Brazilian musician that I noticed was Airto Moreira who toured with Miles Davis, Weather Report and Chick Corea. Dom Um Romao and Alyrio Lima followed in Weather Report. Guilherme Franco came later and played with the acoustic ensembles of McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett.

To members of my band it was clear that we needed percussionist who could play something like these masters. My bandmate, trombonist Robin Eubanks, brought an incredible young Afro American percussionist Frank Williams to join us. Inspired largely by Bill Summers who played with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and local percussionist Leonard “Doc” Gibbs and Robert Crowder, Williams was investigating music of the African diaspora, including music of Brazil, Haiti and Cuba. As Frank began to mentor me he made it clear that his musical compass pointed to the music of Cuban immigrants, Mongo Santamaria, Chano Pozo and Armando Peraza.

The past twenty five years of development in Cuba including, emerging generations of musicians, the states' entire LP catalog and what they knew about us remained a mystery. At that time there was no internet. No market for 'world music.' No articles on Cuban music in DownBeat or any music journal. There was no curriculum in conservatories dedicated to any form of Caribbean culture that I was aware of. The US trade embargo and travel restrictions had separated us and Cuba could not have seemed more distant. Williams insisted that there were masters of Yoruba music in Cuba who spent all day playing folkloric music, supported by some unspecified source, but that unconfirmed factoid was where our knowledge of musical life in Cuban ended.

All of this changed when I heard the LP recording of Cuban jazz band Irakere published by Columbia/CBS Records in 1979. The LP "Irakere" was the only recording of Cuban musicians released in the US since the beginning of the trade embargo. Parts of the LP were recorded during their electrifying debut performance at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. With this LP, the vacuum between Cuba and the US was obliterated in one fell swoop. I dreamt of playing with Irakere. When the opportunity to travel to the Soviet sponsored island arose, I jumped at the opportunity to hear more.

I first traveled to Cuba in 1986. In a week long, 600-mile bus tour with fellow US musicians and musicologists and I visited Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, Camaguey, Matanzas and finally Havana. I played with founding member of Irakere, Carlos Emilo Morales and Carlos Averhoff, heard Afrocuba de Matanzas, spoke with musicologist Danilo Orozco and visited arts schools. The first night we heard the regional folkloric troupe of Santiago de Cuba in the city plaza with a chorus of women emerging from backstage dancing in wooden sandals and a band member playing the “Trompeta China” or suona introduced by Chinese immigrants and adapted to Afrocuban carnival music.

By this time I had graduated from New England Conservatory and was beginning to experiment with digital instruments. As we toured the island I got word that there was a Cuban electronic music composer named Juan Blanco living in Havana. I asked the tour organizers if we could meet him. On our last day in Cuba musicologist Maria Elena Vinueza and Juan Blanco received us at Instituto Cubana de Amistad con el Pueblo (ICAP). Blanco described the work his studio and gave us his long-playing record Música Electroacústica.

Back in the US when I finally could listen to Blanco's LP I was stunned by Cirkus-Toccata for Afro-Cuban percussionists and tape. The percussionists, Guillermo Barreto (timbales) and Tata Güines (congas), were two of the most celebrated masters of their instruments, virtuosos in many Afro-Cuban genres who had accompanied countless luminaries who visited the island. Barreto famously sat in with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, replacing top US drummer Buddy Rich and sight reading the parts. Barreto and Güines performed with Weather Report in Havana during the Havana Jam festival in 1979. For Cirkus-Toccata Blanco used the note sequencer and arpeggiator on the studio's Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizer. Using an eight-track tape recorder, Blanco created a dense tapestry of polyrhythmic patterns. To complement the tape composition, he wrote parts to guide the percussionists though changes in styles, meters and tempos, which Güines and Barreto studied and then rejected in favor of improvising along with the tape in the spirit of Blanco's score. The coalescence of electronically generated sound, experimental composition, Afro-Cuban folkloric music and jazz improvisation sounded unlike anything we had heard in the US. Somehow, working in the modest studio in the Caribbean, Blanco had stayed current with global developments created a remarkable body of work rooted in Cuban culture.

Primavera in Varadero

I returned to Cuba in 1987, after which I considered my investigation with Cuban music complete. There was much more to learn about the connections between the US and Cuba, but as a Yankee I was set on exploring musical growth within my own culture. In 1988 I met Cuban based artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons while she was studying in Boston and things changed again. I eventually followed her back to Cuba. Blanco, along with Chucho Valdes, Oriente Lopez, Emiliano Salvador and Gonzalo Rubalcaba were the first musicians I sought out.

Blanco quickly supported my presence and programed a concert of my early electroacousic pieces in 1989 at the Casa de la Música Alejandro Garcia Caturla.  He later invited me to the biannual Festival Internacional de Música Electroacústica "Primavera en Varadero." One of the composers I met there was Ricardo Dal Farra from Argentina. Regarding the festival Dal Farra recalls, "I was there in 87 and 89. Juan was bringing together many composers (and also some researchers) from around the world who were not coming to Latin America. There were almost no festivals like that in the region, especially considering the festival's continuity through many years. I met Ahmed Malek from Algeria, Carlos Vázquez from Puerto Rico, Alvise Vidolin and "Pepino" Di Giugno from Italy, Lejaren Hiller and Vivian Adelberg Rudow from the US, Frits Weiland from The Netherlands, Leo Kupper from Belgium and, of course, Cuban composers Edesio Alejandro, Jesús Ortega, Juan Piñera, Juan Marcos Blanco, and Julio Roloff among others.

"Another unique component of the festival was the large multimedia performance that closed the festival, always done with certain austerity due to serious budget limitations but with enough creativity to make of those moments unforgettable. In Varadero we were surrounded by miles of white sandy beach. Concerts or lectures were delivered in an open-air tennis court or in a cabaret. The time was flowing differently in those events. They could be starting up to an hour and a half later than announced, but nobody was in a rush and we had time to talk and exchange ideas and to start projects [4]."

At the festival I had the opportunity to meet Armando Hart, Minister of Culture, Argeliers León, a composer and musicologist who studied with Fernando Ortiz and Maria Teresa Linares, director of the Museo Nacional de la Musica.

I also met Blanco’s sons, Enmanuel Blanco who later directed the festival and composer Juan Marcos Blanco. Juan Marcos recalls, “The Festival de Musica Electroacustrica Primavera en Varadero opened a possibility for composers from all cultures and ideologies to meet and create art. It was unique. In my view, the most important aspect of the festival was cultural exchange and the freedom of expression that filled the festival for the duration. My father was a man with an open mind, a revolutionary of musical creation and this is what we breathed in the festival: creative Freedom [5].”

One of Juan Marco’s capstone works featured by the festival was OSHUN (1991), involving the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional, dance students from Instituto Superior de Arte, actors, pyrotechnics, lighting design, live electronics and a sound track. Juan Marcos explains, “I made a work with light and sand. In preparation the dancers were buried in the beach in Varadero. We put lights level with the sand. When the public arrived they did not see people buried. When the music began and the lights light up, little by little, the dancers began to bring parts of their bodies out of the sand. It seemed like something supernatural … like the beginning of life on earth [5].”

The festival was just one of Blanco's initiatives many to help Cuban musical culture. In the late 1940's Blanco formed the Sociedad Amadeo Roldan to promote the study and presentation of contemporary works drawing on all of Cuba’s musical traditions. Blanco later expanded Sociedad Amadeo Roldan to include artists and writers and changed its name to Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo (Our Time). Much like the group of artists who gathered at Black Mountain College in the U.S. at the same time (John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham and David Tutor), Nuestro Tiempo attracted the participation and attention of the finest artists in the country. Nuestro Tiempo was not sponsored by any college or institution so in the tradition of North American innovator Charles Ives, Blanco often paid for concerts out of his own salary. With his help the group became the most important collective voice of the pre-revolution Cuban renaissance.


As documented in the Lester Hamlet's film Juan, (2010) [6] Blanco was tolerant of diversity in life styles and ideological thinking. The ICAP studio was open to gays, suspect rock musicians and a number of international guests. We jokingly said that Blanco had been around for so long that the officials already thought that there was no hope to change him.

I witnessed Juan’s independent attitude and un-wavering support for non-mainstream artists when I moved to the island for a year in July, 1989. A week before I arrived, four high ranking officials were convicted of treason and executed by firing squad. I later read in the international press that they were suspected of plotting a coup d' état. In the wake of their trial, dozens of other officials were fired from their jobs (put in “plan pijama”) for connections to the accused. Their trial was broadcast on television and widely viewed. Discussions about the situation were filled with code words and body language. My presence during these conversations only made Cubans more nervous. I listened, without saying a word, unable to fully understanding the depth of the crisis.

Months earlier, I had been invited to lecture at the Escuela de Diseño by its director, Raul Castro's brother-in-law. By the time I arrived even my contact had been let go. I was back to square one as far as having a host for lectures was concerned.

Of all the Cubans I knew outside of my fiancé's family, Blanco was among the most welcoming during this time of high-alert. It was clear that he was in no position to arrange lectures at his studio, but he told me that he was waiting for things to change so he could work with me. He trusted that having an international lecturer in his studio was simply in everyone’s best interest.


On the lighter side, Juan did find a way to help when I was married. In August, 1989, the day before our civil marriage Magdalena and I stopped by Juan's office to invite him to the wedding reception. Juan was only too happy to help us round up provisions for the party. The day of the wedding he showed up at our home in his Soviet made Lada at 6:00 AM to drive us to the food market for foreign diplomats and Cuban elite. Driving from our rustic neighborhood of Luyano to Miramar, Juan proudly recounted the highlights of his marriage ceremonies, all six of them. Blanco had six sons, one by each wife and lost six houses in divorce settlements. The crowning achievement was a grandiose wedding reception to celebrate his marriage to the niece of the president of the Republic. They invited family from far and wide and were showered with silverware. Shortly after, Blanco sold all of the silverware, bought a grand piano and retreated to Varadero by the beach for the better part of a year.

Laboratorio Nacional de Musica Electroacustica

In 1989 personal computers were becoming affordable as were samplers, synthesizers and numerous signal processing instruments. MIDI was relatively new and could be heard in productions worldwide. Cuban musicians who could save their modest Cuban government per diem while touring abroad were beginning to assemble modest digital music studios.

The Ministry of Culture was becoming aware of the need for musicians to begin to work with these new technologies. I helped band leaders Oriente Lopez (Afrocuba) and Miguel Nuñez (Pablo Milanes) get started using the Atari computer and samplers that they purchased in London. Pablo Milanes met with me to start a discussion regarding how I might be able to advise him as he built a private studio. Many other musicians asked me to teach them privately.

This same year, Oriente Lopez wrote a petition to the Ministry of Culture requesting that it host a series of lectures so I could share the information on music technology. Brouwer asked me to meet him in front of the Ministry of Culture so he could sign the petition and invite other Ministry advisors to support the petition. With Leo's signature Chucho Valdes (Director of Irakere), Juan Formell (Director Los Van Van), Adalberto Alvarez, Roberto Valera (composition professor at Instituto Superior de Arte) signed as well. Of course, Juan was only too happy to support the campaign.

The Ministry responded positively to the petition. They recognized that Blanco's studio was the best place to offer my lectures. Around this time, the ministry also assumed control of the ICAP studio renaming it the Laboratorio Nacional de Musica Electroacustica (LNME). At LNME my students included Roberto Valera, Donato Poveda, Ileana Perez-Velazquez, Fernando Rodriguez, Jesus Ortega, Juan Piñera and Julio Roloff, a group that spanned three generations.

As a guest lecturer I frequented the LNME studio several times a week. Speaking with Juan, I learned how he mentored Cuban jazz star Paquito D'Rivera, frequented Bembes in Guanabacoa with novelist Alejo Carpentier, was hired and fired by Che Guevara, composed the score for Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's film Las doce sillas. I saw Blanco, in his 70’s, acquire a NeXT computer and was generating pieces with computer programs of his design. The information that Juan shared in these discussions became the basis of the biographical articles mentioned earlier.

I left Cuba in 1990 and stayed in touch with Juan. I returned to his festival in 1993, during the "special period," an era following the withdrawal of Russian sponsorship and a dire time for all Cubans. At the festival composer Roberto Valera announced that his work, “Periodo Espacial,” a play on this new crisis was composed during endless wait times for public transportation.

I returned to his festival again in 2000 for Blanco’s 80th birthday celebration. I had collected recordings by Blanco and asked for permission to produce a CD of his work. Juan gladly endorsed the project but said that he would be listening "from another galaxy." Philip Blackburn from the Innova Recordings agreed to co-produce the CD with me.

Nuestro Tiempo includes Cuba’s first work of electroacustic music Musica para Danza, completed in 1961 and presented on CD for the first time. Unable to leave Cuba to work in studios where the more advanced electronic instruments were available, Blanco acquired three modest Sears Silvertone tape decks and created ths futuristic and distinctly Cuban work that marks the beginning of his remarkably journey in working with electronic sound.

Also included on the CD are, Cirkus-Toccata (1983), Ella (1983) and Galaxia M-50 (1979) all realized in the ICAP studio. Blanco’s work for the direct digital synthesis capabilities of Stephen Job’s NeXT machine is represented by Loops (1991). The lastest work on this CD is Espacios V (1993) dedicated to me and premiered on a tour of the U.S. the same year. The piece in one in a series that also features Leo Brower and Paquito D'Rivera using an electronic score created in the ICAP studio.

From Boston, rounding up photos was no easy chore. At the point when I was almost resigned to go to print with out photos, a disk of photos suddenly arrived from Enmanuel Blanco, carried out of Cuba though a mutual friend. He sent photos of Blanco with Cuban revolutionaries, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, Cuban national poet Nicolás Guillén, celebrated African-American contralto Marion Anderson, pre-eminent cellist/conductor Pablo Casals, and compute music innovators Max Matthews and Jean-Claude Risset. Even in his passing, Blanco could still surprise me and reveal a part of Cuban culture that I could only learn from him.

1. Leonard, N., 2003, Juan Blanco: Kubas Pionier der Elektroakustischen Musik, MusicTexte, Dec. pp. 25-32.
2. Leonard, N., 1997, Juan Blanco: Cuba's Pioneer of Electro-Acoustic Music, Computer Music Journal, Vol. 21, Num. 2, Summer, pp. 10-20.
3. Juan Blanco: Nuestro Tiempo, 2013. [CD], Produced by Neil Leonard and Philip Blackburn, United States: Innova Recording
4. Dal Farra, R., personal communication, April 14, 2014
5. Blanco, J.M., personal communication, April 21, 2014
6. Juan, 2010 [DVD], produced by Lester Hamlet, Cuba: Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos

Figure #1 Juan Blanco with Pablo Casals
Figure #2 Juan Blanco with Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Figure #3 Juan Blanco with Nicolás Guillén
Figure #4 Juan Blanco with Neil Leonard, Juan’s home in Alamar, circa 2001
Figure #5 Juan Blanco: Nuestro Tiempo, 2013. [CD], Produced by Neil Leonard and Philip Blackburn, United States: Innova Recording

Neil Leonard is the Artistic Director of Berklee College of Music's Interdisciplinary Arts Institute. He is currently on the Fulbright Specialist Roster and is a Research Affiliate at MIT's program in Art, Culture and Technology.