Like practically everybody who has lived in Cuba for the past 30 years, I know of Edesio Alejandro by his performances on TV. He is the musician with blonde hair, always wearing white with several beaded necklaces around his neck in the style of the priests of the Santeria religion. So I was pretty much convinced that Edesio Alejandro was no stranger to me–or at least I thought.
It was not until I started preparing this article that I really grasped the true proportions of the artistic achievements of Edesio Alejandro who is, in his own right, one of the great figures of Cuban culture. What strikes me most about him is his versatility. From classical music to electro-acoustic experimentation, he connects perfectly with the audience. Perhaps the secret to this chameleon-like ability lies in his childhood days. While he lived in the working-class neighborhood of San Leopoldo, his mother took him to the theater, concerts and movies, sowing the seeds of love for art.
“I believe that the important thing in life is becoming aware of the signs that it gives you along the way,” says Edesio in his small, yet very well-equipped recording studio in his home in Alamar on the outskirts of Havana. When he was 13 years old, he was accepted at the Alejandro García Caturla Conservatory and chose the guitar because this instrument offered him greater possibilities for composing and arranging.
Clarita Nicola, his first teacher and head of the Guitar Department of the Conservatory, told us that he was a teenager with a talent for music, but under a lot of tension and seemed very uncomfortable with a guitar in his hands. So, at his teacher’s suggestion, he began to study trumpet, but was quite unsuccessful. “So one day,” Edesio tells us, “Professor Luaces, who had a great deal of patience and a love for his students said to me: “You don’t like the trumpet, let’s talk with Clarita.’” They ended up convincing her to accept the boy back with the instrument that he had chosen, but given that the school term was well advanced, he had to learn in four months what the other students had accomplished in a whole school year.
Graduating from the mid-level Amadeo Roldán Conservatory after majoring in guitar and studying musical theory, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and piano, he was sent to Pinar del Rio where teachers were needed–a job which he was qualified for, but which put his training in concert music on hold.
After that, he enrolled in the Higher Institute of the Arts, but a difference of opinion with a teacher made him drop out of college. “I put my guitar away,” reveals Edesio, “and decided to give my life a change of direction and seek other roads in music.” Searching for a new path to follow, he approached the theater, which he had worked professionally for since 1976, and was taken on as musical advisor to the Rita Montaner Theater Company. During this time, he won the Music Award at the 2nd Havana Theater Festival for the play “Love is not a Summer’s Dream.”
In 1985, still making music for the theater, he composed a piece of electronic music in collaboration with Juan Piñera for a play directed by Berta Martinez. This caught the attention of the pioneer of electronic music in Cuba, Juan Blanco, who invited him to participate in the Multimedia Workshop of the National Electroacoustic Music Laboratory. In just two weeks, Edesio Alejandro and Juan Piñera composed the piece that won First Prize Ex Aequo in analog electronic music at the 21st International Electroacoustic Music Competition in France, which was the world’s most important festival of its kind at the time.
That year–1985–marked the entry of Edesio Alejandro into the world of television. He composed, again with Juan Piñera, the music for the children’s series “El Mago del Cachumbambé” as well as many other TV series, like “Hoy es siempre todavía” a tune which became Edesio’s first hit song.
He also composed what is considered the first rock opera in Latin America, “Violente”, and wrote the soundtrack for the documentary “El desastre del Barcástegui” but it was the 1987 film “Clandestinos” that marked Edesio’s grand entrance in cinema. “Entering the film world is almost impossible because directors have their own crews, which are almost like family. So when someone suggests they use a new musician for a movie, the answer is usually a succinct “I have my own composer, thanks.” says Edesio. It was Fernando Pérez–who was then making his debut with what would become one of the most memorable movies in Cuba cinema, “Clandestinos,”–who chose Edesio to compose the film’s soundtrack.
It’s a long list of feature films, documentaries and short films he has composed music for. He has won numerous awards for his film work in Cuba and abroad, such as the Havana Latin American Film Festival, and the Latin American and Brazilian Film Festival in Gramado, Brazil.
In late 1988, he founded his band, which toured extensively in Cuba, Canada, South America and Europe. Edesio Alejandro tells us about the band’s first gig. “We went to this tiny place expecting it would not fill up, but we played to a packed theater. This unexpected outcome made us look for increasingly larger venues, and in less than six months, we were playing at the Karl Marx Theater, which sits 8,000 people. There were years when we played 200 gigs from one end of the country to the other. That was a super fantastic, super cool time for the band and me.”
Given some vocal chords problems, Edesio decided to change the band’s style to a type of music closer to hip hop, which allowed him to speak rather sing the lyrics of his songs. He changed the band’s name to Makina. From there, Edesio began mixing Cuban traditional music, like son, rumba and conga with rap, funky, soul and hip hop, resulting in an Afro-Cuban hip hop, or as one critic put it, an Afro-cu-hop. In 1999 he released the album Black Angel in Europe, and the song “Blen Blen” was number one for several weeks in the MTV Europe Dance Floor Charts. Two of his albums, Black Angel and Orisha Dreams, were among the top 100 albums of World Music in Europe that same year.
Today, Edesio is absorbed in a new facet in his life: that of filmmaker. Produced and directed by Edesio Alejandro, “Buscándote. El concierto” tells a love story through songs alone.
Edesio considers himself a very lucky man, not only for what he has achieved with his music, but because he has a family that has always supported him. “I think the best song I’ve composed in my life is my son. He came out pretty good,” he says full of paternal pride.
We could go on about the many projects and collaborations that we have left out, but in the end it is certain that Edesio will continue to travel the road of success thanks to his talent, determination and hard work.