Juan De Marcos Gonzalez arrives with his Afro-Cuban All Stars in tow. Johnston Farrow finds the guitarist in Mexico City.

Starry guys The Afro-Cuban All Stars bring their upbeat, highly danceable music back to Halifax.

Acclaimed guitarist Juan De Marcos Gonzalez brings his Cuban music renaissance to the Maritimes this week. In 1996, he helped introduce himself and some of his fellow Cubans musicians to the world. His collective, the Buena Vista Social Club, sold 12 million copies worldwide, featuring the best and most well known Cuban artists, playing traditional Cuban music along with American songwriter Ry Cooder. After that band dissolved, Gonzalez kept the spirit of the group alive with his other project, the Afro-Cuban All Stars. The 20-piece act hits the new Cunard Centre this Friday, touring behind its latest disc, aptly titled Step Forward: The Next Generation.

“I kept my Afro-Cuban All Stars, but I kept developing the period from the original times, working with people of the old generation,” Gonzalez says in a thick Latin accent from his second home in Mexico City. “Now we have the cream of the younger generation of Cuban musicians. This is the goal: to present the younger generation of Cuban musicians on stage so people can know that the music keeps developing.”

At one time, Cuban music dominated the US market, used extensively in Hollywood films and TV soundtracks. Desi Arnaz was perhaps the most popular face of Cuban music, for his showmanship and his role on I Love Lucy. That all changed in 1959 when the Fidel Castro-led revolution took over the country, effectively cutting homegrown Cuban music from mainstream North American audiences due to the politics of the Cold War.

Living in this climate, the son of sonero Marcos Gonzalez Mauriz, Gonzalez studied to be an engineer, but found himself drawn to his musical ties when he formed Sierra Maestra in 1978, a precursor to the Afro- Cuban All Stars. It wasn’t until Cooder visited Cuba in the mid-’90s and recorded with the most renowned and legendary Cuban jazz artists as the Buena Vista Social Club that Gonzalez became the de facto leader of a new era in Latin and world music. The disc garnered a Grammy Award and the documentary about the recording sessions won an Oscar.

Gonzalez went on to direct sold-out shows in New York and Amsterdam, a rare occurrence for a predominantly Cuban-based band. His All-Stars, formed around the same time, followed the Social Club template and went on to play over 100 gigs a year globally.

The success of his bands made Gonzalez a famous player on the world music scene, but he decided to risk his career and walk away from his record label that wanted to continue recording the older generation of Cuban talent.

“Of course, they wanted to keep on doing the same thing and continue making a lot of money,” he says. “But there’s something that’s called art. There’s something called nationality. I see myself as a kind of ambassador of the culture of my country. So, I broke away from my company and started working with people of the younger generation.”

The songs on Step Forward: The Next Generation, the fourth release from the All-Stars on Gonzalez’s own GlobesStar Recordings, incorporate elements of modern day Latin jazz with the traditional, featuring sounds of mambo, cha cha, salsa, timba and bolero. The record does more than justify Gonzalez’s move to incorporate younger players—it serves to further his vision of bringing the sounds of Cuban heritage to new audiences, pushing genre barriers in the process.

“I was looking for high-quality musicians with a high level of musicianship,” Gonzalez says about the young players. “But they had to be great persons. I wanted to bring in people that really had feelings, people that I can trust. It’s not easy to find good people, but I have done it.”

With a lineup that’s been together for one-and-a-half years, the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ live performance promises to be a hit for anyone who is a fan of world music, Latin rhythms and jazz. Danceable, upbeat, driven by a revolving cast of musicians, the show might prove to be the best show of its kind to hit Halifax until the next Atlantic Jazz Festival.

“We make serious music,” Gonzalez says. “The young guys are on the road and maybe in three or four years I can retire and the guys are going to keep the music alive. This is the most important thing.”

Afro-Cuban All Stars, October 27 at Cunard Events Centre, Halifax Waterfront, 7pm, $35/$40, 492-2225.

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