Manuel 'Guajiro' Mirabal: Songs in the key of my life

Manuel 'Guajiro' Mirabal, the quiet man of the Cuban musical phenomenon, talks to Phil Meadley about his solo album
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The Independent Culture

Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal is sitting in his dining room in the genteel district of Mariano, in Havana. Although now in his 71st year, the celebrated Buena Vista trumpeter is chatting animatedly about his first solo album. After a lifetime of playing Havana's best clubs, he shows no signs of letting up. The producer Nick Gold confides that Mirabal, a self-confessed workaholic, will go to the shop of his pharmacist friend and count pills into bottles just to pass the time when he has nothing else to do.

Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal is sitting in his dining room in the genteel district of Mariano, in Havana. Although now in his 71st year, the celebrated Buena Vista trumpeter is chatting animatedly about his first solo album. After a lifetime of playing Havana's best clubs, he shows no signs of letting up. The producer Nick Gold confides that Mirabal, a self-confessed workaholic, will go to the shop of his pharmacist friend and count pills into bottles just to pass the time when he has nothing else to do.

But he should be gainfully employed for the time being, as the Buena Vista phenomenon shows little sign of letting up. Although Gold admits that nothing will match the success of the first Buena Vista album, there is enough interest to keep producing albums from various members of this celebrated Cuban collective.

Such is the love and respect for Mirabal that the likes of the conga player Miguel Anga Diaz, keyboardist Roberto Fonseca, acoustic guitarist Manuel Galban, singer Ibrahim Ferrer and bass player Cachaito Lopez jumped at the chance of playing on his debut solo album. "He has a sound," explains Gold. "He couldn't be from anywhere else than Cuba. His playing is loud and powerful but not flash. It's what I first fell in love with when I heard him on the Afro-Cuban All Stars album A Toda Cuba Le Gusta."

Married to a "beautiful woman" called Merida Valdes since the tender age of 45, Mirabal has a son and daughter, five grandchildren, and two dogs. "My granddaughter loved the music from my record, and also one of my grandsons who's studying trumpet at a conservatoire in Havana." Mariano, where he lives, is a quiet neighbourhood, about 20 mintues from Havana's bustling centre. It has a close-knit community and Mirabel says he wouldn't want to live anywhere else. The musicians Bararito Torres and Toni Jimenez (the sax player from Ibrahim Ferrer's band), live nearby.

As for many of the semi-retired musicians, the success of Buena Vista Social Club marked a turning point for Mirabal. "Buena Vista gave me the opportunity of travelling, meeting a lot of people, and playing in very nice venues, cities and countries. So, for me, it was a fantastic thing to be part of this project. My life is more comfortable now as I can give my family all they need, and for me this is the most important thing."

Things weren't quite so good when he was a young, struggling musician in early Fifties Havana. "Life was hard before the revolution for a musician," he explains. "In Havana, there were lots of clubs but it was hard to be only a musician. I was lucky since I always had a lot of work in places like Campana, Night and Day and the Reloj Club."

"Manuel was playing at the Tropicana until very recently," states Gold. "He wouldn't know what to do if he wasn't playing music. He's very professional. He was always the first to arrive at any sessions, and he still practises every day. For him, the first take is always the one. He's always improvising."

The main focus of the album is the work of the famed Cuban arranger Arsenio Rodriguez, who orchestrated some of Cuba's top trumpet-led conjuntos of the Forties and Fifties. A typical conjunto consisted of 11 people, including three trumpet players, a pianist, double bass, congas, bongos, guitar or tres (a double-course, three-string guitar) and two or three singers.

"Nick Gold suggested to me some time ago to base my record on Arsenio's music," Mirabal points out. "For me, Arsenio was a master, a huge composer, and his music is some of the best ever made here. There were many good trumpet players who played with him like Alfredo 'Chocolate' Armenteros and Felix Chappottin, and this made it easy to make something related. I respect Arsenio so much because even though he was blind he managed to teach a lot of people about Cuban music."

Gold admits to being an avid Rodriguez collector. "When I first started World Circuit [his record label] I wanted to license one of his albums but we couldn't get it through the system. He was one of Cuba's greatest arrangers and rated as one of the top tres players. His peak was between 1946 and 1949 before he left for the States to get his eyes fixed. He'd been kicked in the head by a mule when he was very young which is why he was nicknamed 'El Ciego Maravilloso' (The Blind Marvel). When he got to America he made a couple of albums but never really got the acclaim he deserved and died almost penniless. It was such a shame because many people believe his music was the genesis of salsa."

Convincing Mirabal to cover Rodriguez arrangements was not a problem. "Ruben Gonzalez played with Arsenio in the Forties and Manuel was already a big fan by the time I brought it up. He was familiar with the repertoire. Manuel's like an encyclopaedia of Cuban music and was inspired to play trumpet by one of Arsenio's players."

"The music started with my father who played sax and clarinet," Mirabal explains of his early influences. "I started at the age of 13 and professionally when I was 18. I was inspired first by my father, but also by Chappottin. But I never went to music school. I learnt by listening to the radio and trying to replicate the music coming from there."

"I think the type of sonority we managed to get, together with the arrangements and the musicians playing, made this record sound like a lot of the old-style recordings, which for me were the greatest recordings ever. The songs we chose represent some of Arsenio's best compositions on one album."

Mirabal was one of the first musicians whom Gold sought out for the Buena Vista sessions. Originally, Gold intended to make an album with African and Cuban musicians, but the Africans didn't turn up and the rest is history. "I met Nick when I was asked by Juan de Marcos to make the recordings at the Egrem studio for the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Ruben Gonzalez's first record. Our relationship started there."

"We get on very well although it's difficult to communicate directly as I don't speak English and he doesn't speak Spanish. I think as a producer he is very patient. He understands what we want to give and knows exactly what he wants in return. This makes our work much easier."

This is certainly the case on Mirabel's new album. The urgency and immediacy of the performances are infectious and Gold explains that the sessions were riotous affairs. As more albums are lined up by the likes of Ibrahim Ferrer, and younger members such as Roberta Fonseca and Miguel "Angá" Diaz, the Buena Vista party looks to continue for some time to come.

"I think we are all very happy with our work," Mirabal says. "We are very proud that people love our music and we can make such beautiful shows, so I see Buena Vista as something that will last. I think it is not only about the recordings. It is also a big family that gives work to many musicians and has opened doors to many others. I think a musician without music is just no one, and I could not live without playing. So I think it is a great achievement."

'Buena Vista Social Club Presents Manuel Guajiro Mirabal' is out now on the World Circuit label

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