Singing with Moncada and Pavarotti

Helson Hernandez

Augusto with Juan Manuel Serrat
Augusto with Juan Manuel Serrat

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 8 — Augusto Enriquez, who was the lead singer with the popular Cuban group Moncada for many years, has gone on to success with his own group: Mambo Band. Moreover, Enriquez was the sole Cuban artist invited to sing with the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti in his memorable benefit concerts.

HT:  What can you tell us about your latest recording, “Eclectico,” in comparison with other works that you have done as a singer?

Augusto Enriquez:  Well, I think that it was a fairly daring production.  We were always faced with the dilemma of what we would name it, but I finally decided to name it that because that’s what it is, an eclectic CD.  It doesn’t embrace any particular philosophy; it uses all the best.  It has Cuban music as its center, but with discretion we used Latin jazz and rock, timba, and even one of the genres of Cuban music bordering on the classics.  It’s a very nice disk, kind of entertaining… Given the fact that it’s an easy listening CD, it has as its objective to make people have a good time, but it’s by no means motley.  While it approaches some of the songs in a tongue in cheek manner, at the same time it’s a very serious recording with high quality music.

Did other well-known Cuban musicians participate in the CD “Eclectico”?

Clearly I didn’t do it on my own, though I sang.  This was a work shared with maestro Pucho Lopez, who did a wonderful job with the general concept…with the arrangements.  I only explained to him what I wanted to do and explained my general concept for the project, although I admit that this wasn’t initially a project of the CD.  I was contacted by my friend Pino Danielli, an Italian singer-songwriter, to do a concert in a stadium in Isquia, an island near Naples, but this time not with my jazz band but in a small format – at most a quintet.

That’s when I ran into Pucho Lopez and he asked me how I wanted that ensemble to sound.  I responded, “How do you think the Yellow Jackets would sound if they were Cuban and played saxophones and guitars?”  The maestro immediately said to me: “Augusto, you’ve given me an idea now.  Tell me the songs you’re interested in singing.”  In the end that concert never took place, because when things aren’t going to happen they just don’t, but since the arrangements were excellent, I couldn’t let that opportunity slip by to propose the production of my CD under the Colibri label.  They quickly showed their interest in the proposal, and I was already recording a CD that was nothing more than the repertoire for the supposed concert.

Have you ever been able to escape the memory of Moncada, the recognized Cuban band with which you became known as a singer?

I’ve never really been able to get it out of me (laughing).  I’ll go walking down the street and run into people who after 18 years of my having left that group will ask me: “Tell me about Moncada.” But it doesn’t matter; I’ll always carry it with me in my heart as a very important stage.

Logically, as a singer with the vocal range and abilities that you possess, do you think you’ll ever feel the need to undertake a solo career to express more of your great potential and to better respond to your artistic interests.

What happens is that the life goes by very quickly, which is no secret, especially when it becomes a need for you to do so many things.  I’m a very curious person in the sense that there’s always something outstanding that I still have to do…when I find something interesting.  There’s an old saying that comes from I don’t know where, and please forgive my uncultured language, but it goes “curiosity kills the cat.”  In fact I’m always a dead cat (laughter).  Keeping in mind my characteristics and adding to this the fact that life is short, a moment came in which — in the flowering of my success within that wonderful group Moncada — I decided that one day I had to make my own path.

It was a period in which I didn’t know about that potential that you’re praising me for — and that really makes me proud to hear, you flattering me — but I didn’t know if I had that good a voice.  That decision came like a leap into the void.  I did it out of a need, because I couldn’t wait one moment more without undertaking what I always dreamed of doing and that was being limited within the group.  It wasn’t because they limited me, but because Moncada had a line that it had to follow, but I wanted to sing different things.

That happens to many singers in groups, and they try to pursue a solo career.  Some fail and others triumph.  I feel particularly privileged.  I believe I’ve had the chance to relish success within a group that took me to the summit.  I don’t want to sound arrogant by saying it, but I was really good.  There were concerts with more than five thousand people in attendance, and all that was achieved by Moncada with me as the singer.  I felt like I could have stayed there all my life, but we know that this isn’t true, because audiences of five thousand people don’t last a lifetime.  Sources become depleted.

Tell us, how you got the chance to sing along with a figure that was so important in lyrical music— Luciano Pavarotti— in addition to so many other renowned figures who accompanied him in his world concerts of “Pavarotti and friends?”

That’s a question that’s easy and difficult to answer.  The first disk of the trilogy by the jazz band I did with RCA Victor.  Every year this label would present Pavarotti with the highest selling records, and incredibly, without expecting it, one of my CDs was included among the highest selling recordings that previous summer.  It sold I don’t know how many thousands of copies.  When Luciano heard about that work, he said, “I want him.”  Even the record label said that a recording with me was a sure success in terms of sales, but I still wasn’t very well known.  In Italy I was only heard in very alternative circles.

The maestro made it clear that in the interests of his event (the big concerts that we all know about), he didn’t care about whether I was well known or not.  And that’s how it turned out.  It seems easy, but the work came about based on the mere chance of RCA selling it that way and it making its way into the hands of Pavarotti.  All of that was a series of lucky breaks that came from the idea or from the fact that he suddenly picked my CD from among God knows how many other disks and the fact that he liked it of course.  After that there was nothing to it; they called me and it materialized.  Everything that followed was easier than going to sing in any province in Cuba with a local figure (laughter).

Who choose the song “Guitarra Romana,” the work you and Pavarotti finally sung together?

That was determined by Luciano Pavarotti himself.  He wanted to do something “cubanoide,” taking advantage of the orchestra and the percussion… But despite being the great lyrical singer that he was, he didn’t have the mastery or knowledge of the Cuban clef. It’s very difficult for singers or musicians from other countries to have it, much less a lyrical interpreter such as himself.  In other words, to syncopate in the Cuban style is really difficult for an Italian lyrical singer.

Luciano commented to me: “I can’t do any of that music that you’ve done on that CD because I’ll mess it up.”  With those words he gave a demonstration of his tremendous humility.  So with that I asked him what he might propose, and he suggested “Guitarra Romana” to try to Cubanize his singing a little.  We brought that piece for Cuba.  Demetrio Muñiz did the arrangement, that’s to say the arrangement for the jazz band and the symphonic orchestra.  It was a beautiful piece of work by the way.

We showed them the final results and they agreed.  With all of this, Pavarotti had a maestro or director count the beat for him, which had never been seen in one of his performances, but that’s the way it was.  I’m telling you this because we often underestimate our Cuban music.  However it’s very difficult and rich.  A person as great and as generous as that artist — because for me he was one of the greatest human beings  I’ve ever met — he recognized that he didn’t understand Cuban syncopation.  So he looked for a person to count the beat for him the whole time so as not to lose the best.

I can only imagine what that experience represents to you, to be the only Cuban artist who was able to sing along with the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti in his benefit concerts.

It was a beautiful experience that I’ll always carry in my heart, in my mind and in my memory.  Yes, the town where I’m from, the people who stop me in the street and my compatriots all ask me this same thing… I stop and I reflect: “I don’t know if this will be good for something, if it will be recorded in history.”  I’m not interested in finding out; that has to be in the interest of society, because to define what patrimony is depends on the intellectuals, on those who think about what must or mustn’t constitute it.  But for me and also for my family it is indeed part of our patrimony.  I’ve always said that any one of our singers could have been there.  I’ll even tell you that there are Cuban artists who deserved it much more than me and that they were in better condition than me to do it.  It’s not a question of false modesty; that’s what I truly believe.  But he picked me and I did it with dignity.  That’s enough.

Augusto with Pavarotti
Augusto with Pavarotti

Do you still remember some matters related to medicine, or with gyneco-obstetrics to be more specific?

Well, I’ve become a “referralologist,” which becomes the specialty of people who get out of practice (laughter).  That’s to say, some people come to me asking for my help, and I tell them that they’re suffering could be from a cold or diabetes, and I then refer them to see some doctor friend of mine from my years pursuing a medical career.  That’s the specialty of someone in “referralology.”  What I do is refer people.

But yes, I still remember a lot of things, and I still study, though it’s more like a hobby and even if people don’t believe me.  I do a little to kill the bit of nostalgia that has always remained from when I practiced my profession.  I went through the whole ordeal of studying medicine, my first professional career, because it truly excited me.  I still consider myself a doctor; I’m an artist by vocation but not by avocation (laughter).  You can end up developing a certain number of abilities depending on what they awaken in you, on the curiosities they rouse, on how coherent they become to you.  That’s what happened to me.  But it’s not my career, I’m a doctor.

What made you leave your medical career and opt for the adventure of music?

It was by chance.  Imagine that moment when they told me go and sing for Moncada, such a popular group at that time and that I admired so much… I told myself then I would go there and I would do both things — medical and music — at least until life showed me 20,000 or 30,000 people sitting at the entrance to the university looking at me as spectators.  By the way, many of them would come for a doctor’s visit with me the following day.  Music wasn’t compatible with medicine.

Music requires a great deal time to learn.  To face that public I had to develop tools I didn’t have because I lacked formal training in music.  I had to devote time to the study how to become a communicator, because it’s one thing to have charisma and another thing to know how to communicate to people.  For this I was lacking a certain understanding.

So I had to learn on the fly, as they say.  More than needing to know how to sing, I had to learn to communicate with the audience.  That took me an immense amount of time, in addition to the number of concerts I appeared in.  When I wasn’t on the east side of the island I was in Europe.  Keeping all this in mind, how would I be able to practice a profession like medicine and pursue my work as a singer at the same time?  That’s why I told you that they were incompatible and that it was necessary to choose.

Right now you’re immersed in a very interesting initiative with the work of Silvio Rodriguez.  Can you give us a sneak preview?

I believe that Silvio Rodriguez is unquestionably the most important composer that Cuba has had in a long time.  Particularly for my generation, Silvio’s lyrics and songs made us change our lives and think differently.  For me he has been a teacher.  He’s why I have a guitar in my hands today.  His songs motivated me to pick up that instrument for the first time.  That’s why I consider him a teacher but also a spiritual leader, which what he could also be considered.

So I spent a long time thinking what I could do with his work and it occurred to me — jointly with Abel Acosta, the president of the Cuban Institute of Music, who’s also a “Silviophile” — to create this project of making the trilogy.  The work is going along very well.  We’ve now finished the equivalent of two of the CDs, and we have one more left to do.  We’ve been involved with this for one year and three months.  It’s going to be something’s that pretty big, a work that attracts people to it.  In its entirety the trilogy will contain 36 songs.

And when will Augusto Enriquez reappear before the Cuban public?

I’ve planned a national tour across all of Cuba but I haven’t yet decided the exact dates.  I’m sure I’ll do it this year though.  It won’t be with the band.  It’s going to be something more personal, Augusto with the guitar and a video: “Augusto Sings His Story.”  Those will be videos synchronized with the music…where I’ll be able to sing with Pavarotti for example.  That’s to say, there will be several attractions, like a kind of interactive monologue with the public, a show thought of for the big theaters.  What I can tell them by way of conclusions is that I’ll always be there.

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