By Irina Echarry, Photos: Caridad
HAVANA TIMES, July 20 – A few years ago I met David Diaz (guitar), Wismer Torres (drums) and Alain Michel (bass and keyboard) at my friend Felix’s house. They were there to cut some underground recordings of music they had composed independently. From this, I only knew that they were some nice guys who were beginning their careers.
Much later somebody told me that a group had come out with a different kind of sound and an attractive name: Quantum. Although they rehearse in the Alamar housing projects where I live, I was unable to go see them live.
I was happy when I learned who was in the group.
Time has passed and those “nice guys” have become a great band marking a difference in Cuban rock. I had the opportunity to listen to them recently at the Maxim Rock, playing on the same bill with Anima Mundi for a small and somewhat distracted audience.
It was an unforgettable experience of melodious bursts that clawed while at the same time caressing my senses, reminding me of the echoes of the Liquid Tension Experiment I y II CDs, which I guard mistrustfully. I arranged an interview so that the readers of Havana Times could learn more about the multiple battles that this group wages against adversity. Alain Michel, who dons his music as if it were a coat of arms against darkness, spoke for the group.
You guys have known each other for a long time, each one on their own, but how did you create the group?
ALAIN MICHEL: It took its time; it had been a larger group, with people coming and going. We were experimenting, maturing ideas, until we got tired of waiting and decided to form a trio in the summer of 2006. We were trying to replace the functions of instruments that we dreamed about with those that we in fact had. We debuted at the Endless Poetry festival (Poesía sin Fin), which was held in Alamar in December that same year.
Alain, I understand that you named it, but why “Quantum”?
Quantum is a word from the world of science and physics that’s related to energy. Quantum is a fixed quantity of energy that’s absorbed and emitted by any particle, by anything at any given time. Something like that is what we do with music, we take what is at the center, at the atomic level in music, and we arm ourselves with that, without caring from where it comes from. Sure, there are things that we haven’t explored, and I don’t think we will. I don’t believe that we’re going to add anything to Cuban reggaeton or timba – that’s not our world. The objective is not to achieve a superficial mixture, but to mix the musicians that interest us at a more elemental level, almost imaginarily atomic.
Who writes the compositions?
Generally I do, but no song is complete without the others making their contributions. I try to develop the ideas and then they’re tried out. I don’t know where the group’s sound comes from. We’ve arranged a lot of music from 19th and 20th century composers, Europeans and Americans. The original music, however, is mine, except a song that we made together. It’s a very small group. We all contribute.
I noticed that you don’t have lyrics. Are you afraid of words or just don’t like them?
What’s happening is that we’re upholding pure music. We identify with the designation concert music. A musical piece doesn’t necessarily have to illustrate itself through text; it can transmit many things without having to reinforce a guiding idea. That’s what we stand for: instrumental music. I don’t rule out that at some moment one can sing something, but I believe that the bulk of what we’re going to do is without lyrics.
Have you recorded anything?
Well, we have a demo, which was re-mixed, meaning that when the demo came out again it was not another demo, but the same one that we did (laughter). But we’re unsatisfied with that result. We are looking for…not perfection…but improving the sound, the clarity of the expression of ideas. This is a cerebral music where if you’re concentrating on something else, it escapes you. If you don’t pay attention you cannot understand, and sometimes – even when paying attention – it’s the same thing, you don’t understand. It has more to do with expressionism, with the music of the early 20th century, than with the romanticism that has stuck here in Cuba.
Here there’s a tradition more rooted in Italian music, the opera, and the music of the Spanish salon. What we’re doing is something more acidic, more difficult. It doesn’t follow logic. It’s like painting, somebody sees a portrait and says, “Ah that’s nice, that’s so-and-so,” but if you show them something more abstract, more surrealist, then you’d see a logic in parts. When you look at the whole you notice that reality is expressed otherwise, but not everyone is accustomed to that.
Very few people know about Quantum and we can never find out when you’re going to play. What do you think of your exposure? Are you satisfied?
Look, to get exposure you have to have the means. The only thing we’ve been able to do is telephone radio stations. There are people who have helped us – like Juan Camacho, Humberto Manduley, Carlos Fornet, and Toni Gonzalez – who have programs. But it’s hard. We don’t have contacts; we play in a place because somebody invites us. We don’t have resources to print flyers or get on television. Places that invite are supposedly in charge of publicity. For example, we would like to play at universities or in art schools, where we think there is enough intelligence to listen to us. We still haven’t achieved that, they only invite us to the Maxim, where people will indulge us but not understand us. That’s why they get tired. It’s not the same thing to read a book by Carpentier as one by Pablo Cohello, they’re different.
Does Quantum belong to the Cuban Rock Agency?
No, the group is still non-professional.
We’ve been told that the agency has to grow in many ways in order to welcome initiatives that are different from the principal direction of rock in Cuba. I imagine that with time, when they start making more money, when they acquire more experience about how to do things, they’ll be able to devote attention to projects that are for smaller publics. Maxim is full of people from 18 to 25, but people over 30 or 40 are thinking about other things, they don’t go to a place without caring what will happen the next day.
That was the other question: For what public do you compose?
I compose for me.
You’re very categorical. So what don’t you like, what bugs you?
No, it’s not like that either, if I did only what I wanted, we’d already be screwed, because hardly two or three people would come to hear us.
What happens is that one is in the music, you know beforehand what’s popular and we understand that what’s in vogue has nothing to do with that we play. The urban tribes aren’t going to immediately identify with what we give them. There is neither similarity in the physical projection or in the lyrics, because we don’t have any. The identification will have to be with the music.
Of course I didn’t invent this music, it’s an evolution of something that comes from decades ago, generally accepted as that of 70s, though at the end of the 60s experimental disks were made that announced what might come. In general it’s music of maturity, not of juvenile inclinations. It’s not protest music, nor a celebration of sex, dancing, social criticism, or mockery. It’s music for thinking. It’s difficult for the youth who cram into these places, who want is to disconnect, to appropriate the elements that identify with us.
How do you see the health of Cuban rock? What does it lack?
We haven’t gone into the interior of the country to play. I see shows that they have on television. I’m a spectator too, I depend on the media. I come to the Maxim to listen to other groups that have nothing to do with what I’m doing, but to find out how the Cuban rock scene is. Something that would be great is a rock academy where people were trained.
In timba, jazz, and Afro-Cuban music, knowledge is transmitted by tradition. In rock, you’re bold if you try to decipher the enemy’s music, but that means you’re always behind.
The instruments are more expensive, the technology that’s needed is expensive. With electronic instruments, to be at the level of how they should sound, you have to save for years and make tremendous investments. Let me to tell you, if they didn’t invite us here we couldn’t play; we don’t have sound equipment or drums.
What Cuban rock is missing is seriousness on the part of the musicians. There are many external factors, non-musical ones. Sure, those theatrical elements are characteristic of another type of music – they put on makeup, get dressed up extravagantly, and have a certain stage projection. But what I always say is that, instead of investing in all that, if they used their time to prepare themselves, the music would be better.
When I talk with musicians of other genres and mention the letters R-O-C-K, they seem to hear only the K multiplied by two: K K (caca in Spanish, or shit). They belittle rock, they don’t feel any respect for it, for them rock is a loud grating music that lacks nuance.
Are there any advantages to being a rocker?
Yeah, you can vent your disagreements with your family or the country. I’m speaking of rock in general. In other genres there is no opposition, they don’t lend themself to protest. In rock you can get into almost anything, you make a racket and channel in on what bothers you. We’re not specifically a pure rock group; we work with classical music, with contemporary music, with elements that are not conventional in the mainstream. Although several bands like these exist around the world, we’re the only one in Cuba. But I’m speaking in general, about rock, as movement it’s anti-establishment.
When do you think you guys will be able to become professionals?
Allow me to clarify that what we’re doing in Quantum is with a professional attitude, but in Cuba things have to do more with institutional approval than with the attitude that you have. We know that anywhere else in the world that from the instant somebody values what you’re doing and pays for it, you’re a professional… To be a professional in Cuba you have to proceed along the institutional track, meeting a series of requirements…
They make you audition, but it can be years waiting for that audition. There’s a category system for amateurs that breaks down by municipality, province, the national level…
The Rock Agency offers another route: it makes a recommendation, the Cuban Music Institute approves it, you audition and that’s it.
There’s a special route for certain groups that are outstanding for whatever reason. We still haven’t found a way in. Were waiting patiently and trust that we’ll make it. Sooner or later the catalog of the Agency will have to get richer. Most of the Cuban rock scene is heavy metal; to the extent that much of the population believes that rock is only metal.
There’s a reason for that, it’s what’s sold to them. The public takes what they’re given.
Sure, it’s like the image of the rocker; on TV they’re shown as somebody taking drugs and listening to heavy metal. Imagine! On the street, those who don’t know better only have that image.
Do you have a future plan?
The most important thing is that we now have enough material to record a CD. We’ll have to do it ourselves because I don’t think that any record label wants to go bankrupt.
How are you proposing to do the recording on your own?
We plan to do it in concert. This music is interactive. There are certain places that they are freer than others, when you play in a studio it sounds colder. The result depends partly on the interaction you establish while you play. The money we have isn’t enough to rent a big studio where all the musicians play at the same time. The best option would be to play in concert in an appropriate place: the Spanish American Center, the Fine Arts Theater, a small place.
We would spend two or three days there fine tuning the audio system. We’d then rehearse and give two or three concerts. Then we could choose the best take. With digital technology you can do almost anything, if they see us playing live they can better appreciate what we’re capable of doing. That’s our dream. I don’t know when we’ll be able to do it. We don’t have audio equipment, or transportation, or even the instruments that we really need.
We now have better instruments than we did. The musician is like a warrior that has to obtain the best sword, if it’s not made of good steel the sword can break in battle. We have to succeed at getting professional-quality equipment. I have plastic things that are put on the market for youth; they’re expected to hold up for two or three years, though they’ve lasted me ten. It’s complex, if we don’t obtain earnings from our work, we can’ invest in improving the quality of the equipment.
In addition to the talent, you have friends, tell me about them.
We have friends that help us. I mentioned that some of them radio shows and they play our music, Edesio Alejandro and his son support us. Likewise, if the group Anima Mundi didn’t exist, we could never play. At the beginning many groups invited us, but they stopped when they saw we had nothing in common with them. Anima Mundi is the only one that has kept on. It’s logical that in a concert the backup band should follow the same line as the top bill. With Anima Mundi there’s more similarity in the music, although it’s not the same. We’re two aspects of a more general line. It’s a problem for the public: It’s like if there were a concert with the [Brazilian rock band] Sepultura and the backup was singer Omara Portuondo.
Hey, aren’t you exaggerating a little?
Yeah, but it’s pretty much like that. I hope to be able to record with the help of friends because I don’t have the means, and with a certain commitment from the location.
What is it that the group needs most?
Cuba is a country where donations are not the same as in other places, where somebody gives you a gift; here a donation can save your life. What we need most is audio equipment… well – no – we need a lot of things…
People notice your image before listening to you. Human beings are superficial, they don’t pay you attention if they don’t believe you’re successful, they don’t take you seriously… the first thing is the instruments and the equipment to process the music from the instruments, then the audio.
Audio equipment is not only an amplifier, so that the music is louder. There are brands devoted to manufacturing for each type of instrument and for almost every type of music. It’s like everything… the shoes for a grandma can’t be the same as those for a ballerina, or those for somebody who’s going to the beach. But here you can’t choose. You go to the store and you have to buy what there is, though you know it’s not the best, in fact it’s probable the worst…. but you have to buy it because you want to play…
So what do you go through on a daily basis in order to make music?
Look, to buy a cable you spend your life saving up money. When you go to the store they’re already out of what you needed… because they supply the country for two or three years; then they take a long time to pay, so the company that supplied the product doesn’t want to sell it again if they don’t get paid, so it’s necessary to wait for them to sign another contract… Five years can go by like that… You have to keep splicing together cords that you’d otherwise throw away, and in the end you wind up with a little taped together piece. If you want I’ll show you the cord for my keyboard so you can see I’m not lying.
That’s not necessary, I believe you. You guys aren’t the only musicians who suffer those stumbling blocks.
We need everything because the little we have is of poor quality. It’s a shame that we cannot show you what we want to do and know we can do. There are people who tell us that we should do something else, but this is what we love. And we’re not bad at it; we’ve received certain critical acclaim: in the group’s second year we were nominated as the best new group and best alternative music group.
That’s another problem; it’s a music that they don’t know how to categorize. Some say it’s jazz-rock, others say it’s progressive metal, others say that it’s chamber rock… brain music… yeah, we get all that. So the public is divided… when you look for a common factor in all those forms of music you find yourself left in a tiny group. If you don’t have exposure and ways to compete with other musicians, you don’t exist. You don’t exist because nobody knows you. Up until now the country’s important institutions have ignored us. We’re waiting, and trying.
But with talent and making quality music, don’t you have hopes?
I believe that a time is going to come when the Rock Agency will need international prominence. It will have its own record label and will then look for quality, originality. That could be our salvation – when they think in terms of quality and not packing a club playing what everybody knows and what works. It’s not yet the moment; if they had a music festival today there would only be two groups.
Tell us something about your repertoire.
“We have original pieces and other arranged ones. Up until now nobody had adapted pieces by Leo Brower in another format or interpreted them with a different style. They are studies for guitar that we play as a trio, with electronic instruments. We’ve taken the music of Bach, we always make arrangements from his work; a piece can be more or less distant from the original…
We’ve also worked with the music of Bela Bartok, Lizt, Shumann… and now we’re thinking of Eduardo Ramos, a Cuban. We’re the only grouping with a hard sound that has integrally arranged pieces of contemporary music. That’s why they’re difficult to listen to; they’re pieces that were already outside the mainstream in their time. We recapture them in our style, in what seems to be musical heresy, people feel tortured.
It’s understood that at the moment music tends to be very simple. You don’t see a complex fabric of musical ideas, you aren’t made to concentrate on an idea to understand it; the music’s elements are very simplified. People get used to that and the intrinsic musical values are ignored.
It’s curious that each member of Quantum works professionally with another group. David, with a group that plays Caribbean music that has a metal sound; Wismer and Alain Michel share time with the band of Eduardo Ramos, a former musician with Pablo Milanés and director of the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC). But they’re not satisfied. They want to be recognized for their own sound, that of Quantum.
We live in hard times. David comments jokingly that his guitar is Chinese and is almost 40 years old, while Wismer says with pride that he bought a Yamaha drum set, though it was cheap. Alain Michel moans about the cord on his keyboard. But they won’t stop fighting.
The battles will be pretty intense, the enemy pretty strong, the bureaucracy pretty rigorous, the public fairly understanding, but even with all this they refuse to fall on their swords. The guys of Quantum love what they’re doing, their music is good, and as they affirm: they are graduates of the university of perseverance. They are, without a doubt, brave warriors of sound.