- Roberto El Cubano.
Describe the context in which you grew up ?
I was born in Havana. My father was an intellectual who worked as an engineer, and also was a professor at the University, but he also loved to dance. When I was seven, I started a school for athletics, and we did everything : soccer, karate, baseball, I even learned classical dance. My stepfather also loved to dance, he was the one who motivated me to dance, and took me out to parties. I’ve always loved dancing, ever since I was a little boy ; we used to breakdance on a granite floor in the neighborhood, and my grandmother was always yelling at me because my clothes would get dirty from dancing in the streets. The tres player Pacho Amor, who is one of the best in the world, lived next door. Members of the Charanga Habanera were in the same neighborhood. Omara Portuondo, who is my godmother, lived near as well. I grew up in an intellectual milieu, surrounded by popular music - my dad wasn’t someone who listened to classical music, he liked the music that was playing in the streets. In Cuba, you have to know how to do everything. I studied Chemical engineering because my parents wanted to have a son who wasn’t just an athlete, because I come from a generation where everyone wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. My mother was 15 years old when she had me, I’m her first son - she’s 47 now, and we get along really well, like brother and sister.
I came to France in 1995. I came for the French women - and one French woman in particular. I wanted to keep up my studies here, which was difficult because I didn’t speak french. I had to do an equivalency course at the University to validate my diploma.
How did you fall into salsa in France ?
I used to go every Thursday night to the Java, because I was homesick. There was a great ambiance, no matter what kind of music was playing, Marc Antony, the Charanga Habanera, or Colombian music. There wasn’t the same sense of ’clans’ that there is now ; I’m past the age of joining clans, but I do defend my taste, especially my taste in music. Nostalgia for Cuba brought me to salsa, and after that, people who saw me dance, asked me to teach them to dance. For my parents, it was unthinkable that I would work in a nightclub teaching salsa, because in Cuba dance is something that you learn spontaneously, in the street, with your friends. I’ve always loved to teach, and I love watching people dance. Sometimes I look out and see people here who dance better than Cubans, and that makes me happy, especially when they’re my own students.
What do you listen to ?
I love Keith Jarrett. I listen to an Indian percussionist, and rap - R. Kelly. I listen to less classical music now. In salsa, my tastes are also varied, I love everything from Marc Antony to the Sonora Poncena. I’m not a fan of old mambo, because my ear isn’t used to it. For me, it’s the music that my grandmother’s generation listened to, I prefer more modern sounds. I love reggaeton. There is one old song that I like, Idilio, because the harmony of the voices and the words are magnificent. In my CD player right now, though, is a double-cd of Pablo Milanes.
How is salsa, which is a music/culture that is foreign to France, able to adapt and proliferate here ?
Salsa isn’t an expatriate, it is at home all over the world. It’s a sauce. Tito Puente said that he didn’t know salsa, he only knew mambo - salsa is the commercial name that was given to the music. I think that it works here, and I’ve said this before, because in France and especially in Paris, people are distanced from one another, and salsa brings them closer. In a techno disco, you don’t ask someone to danse with you, you danse by yourself. Salsa makes human relationships easier. People meet up, they danse in couples, and the music is so rich. It’s not just a summertime fling or a one-hit wonder. I see the French as a people who like to explore other cultures. I don’t think salsa will ever go away - because it brings people closer, it brings the sunshine, and the music is so dense and varied.
- Music : El Reve.
What is your relationship to your home country ?
I go back home when I have money, so I prefer to bring my family here to visit. I’m fairly politically active, but I don’t often talk about it, but I’m left-leaning. I don’t like to make empty criticism, for example I will never say, Fidel Castro is a son of a bitch. He is a man whom I admire, but there are frequently times when I’d like to be able to tell him, you screwed up there, my friend. The relationship that I have with my country is rather painful, because of the repression of my people. Democracy and the freedom of speech are very important rights. On the other hand, living here in France, and having come from Cuba, I’ve realized that one can often always think the grass is greener elsewhere, and that there is no perfect society. I am nostalgic for Cuba, I love my country. Even though I feel very Cuban, I prefer to bring my family here so that they can benefit from another culture, and whenever I’m able to, I go back. It’s expensive though, and my family is very large, so I’m destitute when I come back (He smiles). I don’t think that I could live there. If the political situation continues as it is today, I would have to live like a regular Cuban, I would never permit myself to live a life of luxury, I could not do that. The country is also too small for me, even if it’s the largest of the Caribbean islands, it’s still an island. For me, Europe is a much bigger island, you can go everywhere, and you’re not always running into people who know you.
Where will you be in 20 years ?
France, Spain, Barcelona… I miss the ocean. It’s not the heat, but I miss the smell of the sea air. Maybe Barcelona, maybe Denmark (he laughs, indicating his girlfriend Rikke, who’s playing with their six-month old daughter Carla). Or like now, between Cuba and France.
Tell me about your first steps in the Parisian salsa scene ?
At first, I was incapable of teaching someone how to dance, I never thought about which foot went where, or on which beat I danced. I started out as a dancer at the Montecristo, and people liked to watch me dance. I started teaching in 1996. Back then, Odalys, my best cuban friend Josefina, Caruca, and later, Carlos and Yvan started to innovate by teaching rueda. I didn’t danse rueda at all, I learned it in France, it wasn’t my thing at all. There wasn’t a lot of competition at that time, so a lot of dancers who have now gone on to teach started out taking classes with me, some don’t mention it, others are proud of it. Jack el Calvo didn’t like me at first, because I was a bit of a playboy in the milieu. He surprised my by his passion for the music, he has a huge collection of music. I don’t know if I can talk about his private life, but at home, he has over 4,000 cds. The song that made him love salsa is "Que te quieres que te den" by Adalberto Alvarez, discovered on one of his trips to Cuba. We became friends. Then there was Willy and Agnès, and Mariano. I worked at the Montecristo from 1996 until it closed, and today, it’s all about the WAGG.
What are your future projects in terms of salsa ?
I’ve got a lot of ambition - I started a production company, Tumbao, and I’m currently producing a reggaeton artist, Clark-man. I’ve got a project in line to start a school to teach dance, and another project to record a song with Raul Paz. I will always work in salsa, production and event coordination. Even though I’ve danced on stage, with Isabelle who’s now Felipe Polanco’s partner, (Felipo Polanco is a great friend, he says, proof that Cubans and Portoricans can get along) - I don’t really like choreographies, social dancing is my favorite. I also truly enjoy teaching, and as long as people have passion to learn, I’ll continue to teach.
- With Carla.
Do you feel at home here in France ?
I feel very French, this is a culture that is very pleasing to me. I’m the most French Cuban you’ll meet (he laughs) just like Jack el Calvo is the most Cuban Frenchman I know. I love this country, I would fight for it. I’ve very nationalist, but I feel as much loyalty to France as I do for Cuba. I know the history of this country, and I think that if you know the history of a place, you grow to love it. I’ve never had any problems here, and after all, it’s the French who have helped me create the reputation that I have today.
How has salsa evolved in the time that you’ve been involved with it ?
Everyone always says it’s changed because it’s now all about business. Some people do things because it’s their passion, some people, to make money. I’m no one to give lessons, but it does seem that there are more ’clans’ these days, when before people would just go out and dance together. Now, the Colombians go out to the Colombian parties, the mamberos go out to clubs where they only listen to mambo. With Jack el Calvo at the WAGG, we’re trying to create an ambiance where you can just come to dance, and don’t worry about the rest. There are a lot of people who love portorican music, who come to my parties. Felipe Polanco, for example, loves Cuban music, and comes to the WAGG every now and again. I’d like people to relax a bit, to realize that we’re all here for the salsa, not to fight a war. How do we get things to change ? I think that the principal actors in Parisian salsa should all try to do the same thing, to put on a song of a different style once in awhile. What people hear, they’ll absorb. Before there was more live music, but these days the venues are becoming more and more expensive, someone should write to Delanoe to change this. (He laughs). One of my projects is to start bringing more artists for concerts. With great live music you get an incredible heat generated between the artists and the public, but to have this, you have to pay. The problem is to make people get used to paying to see live music. It’s not only here in Paris - as soon as people know how to dance two steps in salsa, they don’t want to pay to get into the club, they think they’re a star. I have to pay the WAGG to put on a salsa party there. People shouldn’t have to get used to run-down clubs, with bad sound systems. They should appreciate the places they go to dance salsa, and they’ll appreciate themselves as well, to spend time in a beautiful place. We should work together to break the clichés about salsa, so that people don’t just say, oh, it’s Black music, or that it always smells like old sweat in the clubs.
Can you describe the difference in the way that salsa ’is’ in France, and in Cuba ?
In Cuba, reggaeton is rapidly gaining ground. The difference is that in France, salsa is exotic, but for us, it’s always been there. The French dancer will be more exacting and try and learn six million different passes, while the Cuban will do the same three passes all night long. In Cuba, also, rhythm is essential, it’s everywhere.
Why is there less live ?
As soon as a concert is announced, I start getting calls from people asking me to get them in for free. I’d never do that - if we want more concerts, the money has to come from somewhere. The muscians have to be paid, and the good clubs, have to be rented. It’s like the bus, if no one wants to pay, after awhile there won’t be any more bus service. The artist who I’d love to bring : Pupy. Los Van Van, La Charanga Habanera. I also dream of organising a concert with Felipe Polanco, and Jack el Calvo (he’s always present in my words, because he’s like a brother to me), and to put on a big concert PortoRico-Cuba, with Los Van Van and El Gran Combo. I think we can do it…
Where will salsa be in France in the future ?
Salsa will always be here. For the past ten years, people have been saying that it’s only a passing fad. But salsa is so rich, and there is the culture behind it : someone will always bring something new to the sauce.
- Dancing with Rikke.
Who are your students, and have you seen an evolution in the types of people who take your classes ?
My students are the best. (he laughs). No, my students are Parisians, there is no specific age, or social class, everyone comes to salsa. The evolution that I’ve seen is that everyone is coming to salsa, every year I have more students. I’m proud of that, things are going well for me, and I hope that God looks after the small world of Parisian salsa.