There is a tremendous amount of Cuban artists who have had to fight against economic adversity there is in their country, but this has not prevented them from getting ahead and fulfilling their dream of making a living from their art. One of them is the bandleader of Sabor De Mi Cuba Band, Carlos Medrano, with whom we had the pleasure to talk for this report.
Carlos Medrano was born in the city of Havana, Cuba, and became interested in music when he was very young. The first instruments with which he began experimenting were the bongo and the conga, which had a huge importance in the training the artist would follow until he became the professional musician he is today. Here are some of the topics we cover in a long but pleasant conversation via Zoom.
Topics covered with Carlos Medrano
When talking about his first experiences with music, Carlos told us he has always been surrounded by musical sounds since his childhood, which was spent in the neighborhoods of El Vedado and Old Havana.
When he lived in El Vedado, his grandfather used to make poetry and do recitations, while he accompanied him with the drum, but he was in more direct contact with the musical world in Old Havana, a place where there were many rumberos and renowned musicians who were always playing in those parts.
A very young Carlos always saw comparsas and street concerts from her home window and people always joined them making sounds with bells, pans or anything they had.
During the decade of the 90’s, Cuba saw a big boom in tourism, resulting in the appearance of numerous traditional Cuban music groups and the cafes and clubs in the area were filled with sextets with professional musicians. They were looking to play in these places to get tips from tourists and have travel and employment opportunities,” said Carlos.
I always looked at the work these artists were doing, especially tres players and bongos players. That’s how I learned to play the bongo: by watching and listening to what others were doing. I tried to imitate the sounds they made with a metal bucket or whatever I had at home to learn”, he continued.
Professional training of Carlos Md¡edrano and and limitations found
After junior high school, he met a friend of his father who would be key in his training as an artist and his name is José Antonio Oviedo. Although his father saw no problem in this fascination of Carlos with music, he always told him not to drop out of school and to pursue a university career.
When he began taking lessons with José Antonio, the level of demand was such that he felt he was in a formal school. He taught him to read music in a way that had nothing to envy to an art institute, which Medrano will always be very grateful for.
In addition to that, near his home, there is a sector called ”Cueva De Humo” where there are excellent musicians and rumberos. It was there that Carlos got to meet Juan Ernesto Santana, Ernesto Gatel Coto from Rumberos de Cuba and many more. ”I was lucky that most people liked me and they always explained to me everything I needed to play as it should be” he added.
With all these insights, there came a point when he decided to devote himself to the world of music and put aside other ambitions he had such as studying law, which was a shock to his family at the time.
That is when his mentor José Antonio did the necessary procedure for him to present the Escuela de Superación Profesional de Arte “Felix Varela y Morales” admission exam, which he passed without major setbacks thanks to his training up to that point.
Although his admission to the institution was relatively simple, it was not long before Carlos faced another equally difficult challenge: getting the necessary resources and instruments to receive a good training.
”I didn’t have my own instruments until I started playing professionally with maestro Orlando Sánchez. I had my first bongo thanks to my father’s friends, who helped me to have my own things, but that never limited me” said the percussionist on this topic.
In a time of so many shortages, it was clearly not easy to study, but Carlos was always looking for ways to fulfill his activities, whether it was raising money, borrowing instruments, practicing with other similar implements, sharing school instruments with his classmates, among other things.
Great inspirations and mentors
One of his biggest inspirations was his cousin Stanley, who was a professional percussionist. He always advised Carlos to never classify himself in one instrument, but to always learn to play a little bit of everything to become a needed man, so that bands would always consider him for their tours and projects.
Another of the great mentors he had has been Ignacio Jarabe, who has taught him many of the best ”tricks” a percussionist may need when playing one of these instruments. ”I still have solo sheet music that he wrote and some of his book manuscripts, which I don’t know if they were ever published, but they are still important reference sources for me”, said Carlos about Jarabe.
We cannot forget to mention percussionist Eliel Lazo, with whom Carlos had amazing chemistry from the beginning. Lazo had contact with the best AfroCuban jazz musicians of the time and came to travel to many places thanks to his training in percussion instruments, which inspired Medrano to follow in his footsteps. After about one year of studying with this great musician, he was able to perform at La Fiesta Del Tambor and went on to be a finalist in several categories.
Once he started plating professionally, the first person to call him was the maestro Orlando Sanchez, who in addition to offering him his first formal opportunity in this field, taught Carlos many other things which he had not learned so far. He has him up on a pedestal and thanks him for everything he has learned.
Another person to whom the artist is very grateful is José Luis Quintana, better known as Changuito, who told him that ”the good conga player has to listen to the orchestra. You have to be able to hear the piano, the bass and the other instruments. You have to look for your space between the rest of the musicians”.
Another important figure who cannot be left out is Yaroldy Abreu, a mmusician who spent hours rehearsing with Carlos at his house. They focused a lot on technical and creative resources during these classes. Medrano considers him one of the best percussionists and musicians in the world due to his extensive knowledge in every field of music.
Sabor De Mi Cuba
It all started with a contest called ”Joyas” which specializes in promoting young Cuban talents who present their art to a qualifying jury and seek to carve a name for themselves in the industry.
Carlos was fortunate that one of the judges told him and drummer Pablo Calzado ”you two shall go along with me”. The artist spent some time working with this person, who took him to play in other orchestras so that he could learn from the best until developing his own style.
This happened after he moved to the United States and was still acquiring experience with other musical groups. That is when he realized he wanted to do things in a different way and get involved in other genres and rhythms that he had not tried before.
There came a day when a bass player friend of his told him that if he wanted to come up with his original ideas, he had to embody them himself and not wait for others to do it. Carlos never saw himself creating his own band, but he decided to began composing his own music and he succeeded.
Then, he started writing usic, contacting great arranger friends of his who helped him reassemble the idea of what he wanted to do. Once he had a repertoire, they advised him to record an album and give life to everything he had done, which gave birth to his first album ”Sabor De Mi Cuba”.
The first song he wrote in his life was called ”La Habana” and was basically inspired by everything Carlos lived in his country and the longing he feels for not being able to be in his country, walk its streets, party with his friends, visit its special places, among other things. What he relates there is his life in the city where he was born and his desire to be able to go back there.
His main motivation to make the album was the possibility of doing something different from anything he saw in the music scene around him at the time.
Carlos does not think of himself as a professional composer, far from it, as he feels he still has a lot to learn in that field, but he hopes to reach the level of the artists who inspired him in his youth.
Read also: Héctor “Rudy” Regalado and his great career