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Changüí Majadero is a 5-piece band preserving the beautiful music & culture of Changüí deep from the island of Cuba. With its traditional Caribbean folk rhythms and melodies from the Guantanamo region, Changüí Majadero attracts people to dance and celebrate life by delivering stunning vocals, fiery bongo de monte beats, marimbula-bass thump, driving guayo and ...

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Ron Kadish

Raw Cuban Roots, East LA Grit: Changüí Majadero Brings Cuba’s Country Blues to New Ears

Changüí, the granddaddy of salsa, the music of bucolic Caribbean-steeped Eastern Cuba, has a raw intensity and grace that lovers of folk music, jazz, and blues listeners will appreciate. It got into the ear of an LA-born guitarist and grew into Changüí Majadero, a five-piece group devoted to spreading the joys of changüí .

The group’s eponymous debut album, El Changüí Majadero (release: September 16, 2016) adds urban grit to this rural music, the songs played at local parties and festivals, many of which have never been recorded before. Changüí Majadero will celebrate the release September 16th 2016 at the Grand Annex in Los Angeles California. (Grand Annex, 434 W 6th St, San Pedro, CA 90731)

“The beautiful thing about Changüí is the way the rhythm and melodic elements work together,” reflects Gabriel Garcia, guitarist, tresero, and founder of Changüí Majadero. “There are these wonderful African elements in the music, the syncopation of the rhythms, the call and response, but a lot of decimas and quartetos are sung and improvised like in other Latin folk traditions. You can talk about almost any subject, from love to politics, just like the blues.”

Tres arpeggios dance around rock-solid bongos, while the bass plays the role of the marimbula (a large thumb piano-like instrument), adding both drive and harmony to the sound. Soulful vocal harmony, shimmying percussion, and general jubilance make for addictive songs, bringing a youthful energy to this often overlooked, century-old Cuban style.

{full story below}

Garcia Born in Los Angeles, the son of Mexican emigres with music in their bones. (His grandmother was a prominent opera singer and his father composes Mexican corridos with a political/social conscious twist) He and his brothers, however, spent more time in the boxing gym--Garcia was on the Mexican junior olympic team--than playing music. At least, until Garcia’s senior year in high school, when he saw a friend playing guitar and thought, “hey, I can do that.” “I started to apply the same discipline I used in boxing to practicing guitar,” Garcia says. “The same seriousness.”

That dedication took him to a Masters Degree-level exploration of Afro-Latin music, in particular jazz. Then, one day, he got a hold of an album by Grupo Changüí Guantanamo, (the prominent established changüí ensemble of Guantanamo) an established ensemble playing Eastern Cuba’s characteristic traditional music. “I fell for it instantly,” recalls Garcia. “I was in love.”

Changüí runs parallel to the blues and jazz. “It’s the roots of Cuban music, just like the blues and jazz is the roots of American music,” Garcia says. Lyrics are often improvised, based on whatever’s going on around the singer. The music’s emphasis on syncopation and dynamic rhythm speaks to its African roots, while its harmony and improvisation will intrigue jazz listeners. “The only thing that’s playing on the beat are the guayo [metal scraper] and maracas,” explains Garcia. “There is a lot of over-the-bar and syncopated phrasing happening in the bongos de monte, bass, and tres part. The guayo and the maracas are the glue that keeps everything in place. The tres is the instrument that directs the band; it’s responsible for the harmony.”

Garcia got his hands on a tres, the three-stringed guitar cousin, and tried learning the parts as best he could. “It was challenging, like anything new, but it was so fun to play it didn’t seem like work,” Garcia laughs. “The tres you treat more as a percussive instrument. It’s between percussive and melodic. Even when you solo, it’s all about rhythm.”

He wanted to dive deeper, so he got a few numbers from a professor and headed to Havana. From there, he finally reached one of the founding members of GCG over the phone. This lead him to his journey to the beautiful suburbs of Guantanamo. The elder master changüí  musician and his colleagues took Garcia under their wing. He got a feel for the powerful connection between Guantanamo and its region’s lush fields and crystal-clear springs, and the rough, yet artful music that obsessed him.

“I fell in love with the culture, the people, the music,” Garcia recounts. “ I’ve always loved cuban music, but Guantanamo has something about it that I haven’t found it anywhere else in Cuba. There’s a real humbleness and sincerity. They are very inviting and welcoming to outsiders who want to learn.”

Many of the songs that appear on the album Garcia learned directly from his “maestros” in Guantanamo, folk tunes that are often performed at local gatherings and celebrations. Some, like “Vamos Pal Guaso,” were written by GCG players, in this case, the venerable vocalist of the group, José Antonio Moreaux Jardines.

Yet Changüí Majadero doesn’t merely replicate the music. They add their own spin, giving a nod to their LA backgrounds and changüí ’s status as salsa predecessor. Garcia noticed that the corridos his father composes fit perfectly in the changüí form. This led to “Changüí  Pa Ayotzinapa,” a song calling for justice for the 43 murdered Mexican students.

The band was born when Garcia came back from Cuba, and decided he had to share what he learned. He began to make simple videos he posted online, in which he played all the instruments in a changüí  track. They caught on among certain circles of Latin music fans, and soon he got a call from Alfred Ortiz.

“I knew him from his work in Son Mayor,” a favorite LA-area salsa band. “He said he loved the changüí  songs and suggested we start a band. I was so stoked. Of course, I said yes!” Garcia remembers. Soon, Alfred brought his bongo-master brother, George, who plays the bigger, fire-tuned bongos de monte characteristic of changüí. Alfred also tapped Son Mayor’s lead singer Norrell Thompson from Puerto Rico. Garcia found the remanding members to fill out the group. On tracks like “La Rumba Esta Buena,” which is featured in two arrangements on the album, listeners can get the changüí-salsa connection: One version is straight-up traditional, the other salsified with horns and a cosmopolitan Latin vibe perfect for the dancefloor.

Garcia is part of the East LA music scene, where he often collaborated with alt-Latin musicians like Grammy-winner Martha Gonzalez (who has a cameo on “Amor de Madre”). “I come out of the East LA music scene, and we have a lot of great sounding bands,” says Garcia. “It’s very urban and hood, the majority being Latinos. I feel like we’ve gotten that raw East LA sound,” without straying too far from changüí  ’s rough-edged beauty.

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Release Title:
El Changüí Majadero
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