Voices Of Live: X Alfonso Discusses His Return To Recorded Music, Cuba And Fusion
X Alfonso has walked a unique path in the music industry. Son of Carlos Alfonso and Ele Valdés – founders of the influential Cuban band Síntesis – he grew up to front that band and has since established himself as a unique artist in his own right.
He recorded eight solo albums after working with Síntesis but eventually took a break from recorded music, choosing to found and direct the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) in Havana, the former abandoned oil factory that has been converted into an art gallery/performing arts center/ cultural hub. FAC was named as Time magazine’s 100 greatest places in the world in 2019.
After a nearly 10-year respite from recording, X Alfonso returned with two projects in 2020, Inside Vols. I & II. The songs were released as singles monthly starting in September 2019 and eventually culminated in a full double album. Inside was named No. 43 on NPR’s Top 50 Albums of 2020 and Felix Contreras wrote the album was “a flawless statement about contemporary music in Cuba, equal parts electronic and Afro-Cuban influences.”
X Alfonso spoke to Pollstar from Portugal, where he is currently staying due to the pandemic, about what inspired his return to the studio, the effects of COVID-19 on the industry in Cuba, and what it’s like to operate a venue in a country that has seemed so distant from the U.S. for so long.
So Inside I & II doesn’t really have one style, there are many different things happening. What inspired such an eclectic project?
Yes, the project doesn’t really have one style. If you limit yourself to just one style you don’t have as much freedom. Each track needed to be a different story. So that was how we did it, we worked on about one song a month. We started this project around September 2019 and kept going at that pace until it was done. We were able to really take the time to rework the theme and get it right, to mix it well without limits on time.
Why did you decide to return after a 10-year break?
The last project I did was Reverse (around 2009). Around 2012 the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) came into being and I got really busy with that work. I would still do music for cinema or for dance, but my recorded music basically stopped. After a few years I wanted to do another album, but something more relaxed, not rushed. So I started working on it little by little and now, in 2020, we finished it. I really did want to make new music and something to share messages with the people.
In the past you have said you would record with amateur musicians or artists off the street. Did you do that for this project?
No, in the past I have done that to show that music is a part of the fabric of Cuba. Without music there are no movies, theaters. And everyone who plays on the street or in small venues is a part of that. So that was a project I did to educate the people about the music that is everywhere in Cuba.
But for this project, Inside I and II, it really was a lot of work and a lot of time. So I composed the music by myself and we mostly moved at our own pace. I didn’t think anyone would have two years to accompany on this.
I have been very connected to the music of the streets and the underground and I have been influenced by many different sounds. My previous projects were all very different, we did them all in different styles, and fusion meant something different in each of them.
But this project, Inside, breaks more of the limits or boundaries of what defines fusion.
You know, I started out with Síntesis and that group fused Afro-Cuban music with rock and jazz. And I was 17 years when I started with that group, and I really learned how to incorporate that music, to absorb it inside of me.
Isn’t the diversity of different influences, races and cultures also a key part of Cuba?
Yes, the history of Cuban music, going all the way back to the 18th century, people have learned classical music but they have also been learning how to incorporate Cuban elements.
So, Cuban culture and music, in all its stages, it’s all within me.
But I think there has been a level of blending with European music as well. You might hear a Beatles song, but Cuban or African influences might suddenly come up in a guitar line.
I think this is all part of this process of fusion, creating a kind of music that incorporates English music with Indian music, African music, now hip-hop from the U.S. But hip-hop was strongly influenced by the blues, which traces its roots back to Africa! So you see how all music today really is a fusion of many different influences.
Do you own FAC?
I am the director of the project. FAC hosts shows in a building owned by the government. But many years before this building I was working on the FAC project. It started in mostly an empty park but with time we grew stronger and we needed a physical space where we could have shows. So I’m the director of the project but I don’t own the building.
So the government owns buildings in the U.S. too, but most events it hosts are meant to make money. Is it the same in Cuba?
It’s very different because every group has their beginning somewhere. So at FAC we provide a space where artists can play for a large, very diverse, really great audience. And many artists are very interested in playing here.
Many artists have played here, but nobody is charged extra for these performances. They come to do collaborations, to perform, maybe do a workshop or jam session, to create some things and they take a lot away from the experience.
FAC is a laboratory to change ideas, for artists to come and learn about us and for us to learn about them.
That is very different. In the U.S. the business has to first and foremost be about money.
Yes, I know, it’s a different world. And things are changing dramatically in Cuba. But of all of the concerts I’ve done in Cuba in my life, maybe I’ve charged for 10%? The rest I’ve done for free. For me the most important thing is to share my art, and that the person shows up. This has been changing a little bit, but this has been a huge part of my life. And that spirit I had, with so much love for the art, I see that in the next generation as well.
Times have changed, and these questions about payment are coming up more, but when we do a big project, normally, we aren’t asking for any extra money. You know these projects I recorded, Inside, they are free in Cuba. In other countries you have to buy them, but in Cuba they are free.
It seems it would really affect the way you create music if you didn’t have to worry about whether it made money.
Yes, it’s not always the best music that people hear or [what’s] picked up by media and this might be because of influences of money or power.
But there are many festivals, independent and underground, all around the world that you can hear and see great music at.
And that’s the way it is. This kind of music, I would call it “musica inteligente,” is not made for everyone. It’s made for maybe 10% or 15% of the population. And that’s fine, they may be small, but they are an important part and for them to hear it is good. But in reality really thoughtful music is always created for a minority. In Europe there are a lot of rock festivals and there are many different opportunities to collaborate between different cultures. And this is really important, because culture is the main point of a society.
So since FAC doesn’t need to make lots of money to keep going you probably aren’t worried about making it through the pandemic?
FAC doesn’t need to make lots of money to pay the biggest performers as we discussed but it of course needs money for maintenance, cleaning, security, equipment, productions … so we are very worried about being closed through the pandemic; we have several families that their work depends on FAC. FAC is a project directed by me but also managed by a group of highly specialized artists. But in Cuba, many of these highly skilled artists still have their own professions. For example, one is movie producer, one is a theater director, one is an art curator, others manage an NGO or is the manager of a dance company, but everyone works with FAC and they have their own job. But of course the pandemic affects everybody.
So to maintain FAC we have created private businesses inside, bars, cafeterias and restaurants that work around the hours of FAC to give people a place to eat and drink, and meanwhile enjoy the art performances. So these businesses support the existence of FAC.
It’s been closed for nearly a year due to the pandemic, and in parallel in Cuba there are huge changes to the economy, so, when things finally do calm down, we will need to look at what is the best option for the public and we will open the doors. We don’t know when, it really depends on how the situation develops.
What is something you wish people in the U.S. understood about Cuba?
Sometimes what is said about a place is not the reality. Communications media have a huge influence on people. You could have some idea about what Mexico is like, but when you go there, you will realize it is nothing like what you imagined. I’ve been to the U.S. many times, with friends and colleagues, and to Mexico and Spain. If all of your ideas about Mexico were formed by the media, you might think Mexico was only full of mariachis, but when you go there you will see the biggest city in the world and all kinds of different people. Thousands of rock groups, reggae groups all these things you didn’t know existed.
Cuba is the same way. If you don’t go and see it with your own eyes, you will not be able to understand what it is. I can’t explain what it is.
You might think Cuba is beaches, rum, salsa – and yes, those definitely are a part of it – but there are many things, and the best thing you can do to learn more about it is to visit and see what it is to form your own understanding of what it is.
If you go to Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York and just walk around, you will see it really is a different world, but those cities are all in the same country! Imagine the difference between that and being in a different country. When I went to New York for the first time, I did a performance and afterwards, I ended up staying for about a month, and I didn’t speak any English, I was speaking Spanish the whole time. I encountered so many people who spoke my language. And this was what I had to do, I had to go and get my own experience.
I would love to end the [negative] history between the U.S. and Cuba. It should be a country we can visit and they can visit us, and we can collaborate and share our respective cultures to make a better world. I think the more we are able to share culture the more we will realize we have much more in common than we thought.