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Then he takes a break. He ends the interview and while we wait for his agent to bring us some material we’ll need for the video, he barely says a word. It’s like the spring has run dry. He intently watches a young English girl singing on the computer monitor in his studio. He scrutinizes her, much like a teacher. For some time now he’s been teaching the flute and singing. Then he turns to us with a sign of approval. He liked it. He asks for soft drinks and beer to be brought in. That’s when we meet “Veneno” (Poison), a sort of assistant who always gets his errands mixed up. “Once I asked him for pizza and beer and he came back with hamburgers and rum. Oh, yeah, and a pound of malanga (a root vegetable). Where did he find the malanga?” He slowly sips his beer with Kermato, while “El Negro,” a very bright young man who looks after the technical aspects of the studio, makes copies of everything we need.
El Tosco (literally roughhewn or uncouth), a nickname José Luis Cortés wears like a second skin, was born in the center of Cuba, in the city of Santa Clara’s Condado neighborhood, one of the roughest parts of town. He still has the attitude of someone who has had to fight hard to get ahead, a kind of rebelliousness that comes out in the way he openly criticizes persons and institutions that have put up the obstacles he has run into. Black. That’s what he calls himself and with that single word he paints a picture of the teenage sense of challenge and pride that got him into the National Arts School all on his own and without pulling strings (“palanca” is the Cuban expression he uses in referring to how influential people exert pressure in order to help someone). In a short time he became a virtuoso flutist. They called him El Tosco because once when he arrived late for the school’s morning exercises, he came dressed in the clothes students wore for daily physical labor (in those days, as at other times during the Revolution, students were assigned part of each day to work in the fields). The clothes he had for that work were far too large for him, especially the too-big boots. They started calling him “the man with the clumsy-looking boots (botas toscas)” and soon it got abbreviated to “El Tosco.” Somewhat defensively, he explains that even through the nickname seems to refer to someone who is rough around the edges or unmannered, it is far from being applicable to him because of his surname Cortés (meaning “courteous” in English). Just before he graduated, he became embroiled in a fist fight with the then-school principal, becoming a student body hero, thereby costing him his graduation diploma. Cortés’ first love had been boxing and he flattened the fragile academic with one single punch. Immediately he became what he had been born to be—a musician. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a graduation diploma. He ended up in the Van Van Band, directed by Juan Formell, and he immersed himself into the ups and downs and the pleasures of professional life, which he has never even thought of abandoning.
In the midst of his euphoria at having “discovered” show business, he got called up for mandatory military service. He managed to avoid going for some time. Finally, he was pressured into answering the call to duty, partially responding to his mother’s advice. He says that his mother, even though her origins are very humble, is endowed with incredible wisdom. And so the successful flutist became a not-so-successful army recruit. The stories he tells are both sad and funny, such as the one when he saw a rat fall into a pot where beans were being cooled (he makes sure to tell us that the pot was boiling and so the rat ended up being as clean and hygienic as any other piece of cooked meat). But for many days following that episode, he hardly ate anything, which gave him an attack of gastritis sending him to hospital. Later an allergy put him under medical care again until someone finally realized that he would be doing better playing in the military band and so he spent the next three years in much better shape. “Military service is a good teacher,” he says in spite of it all. “You have to go through with it.”
Once he took off the uniform, he returned to the Van Van Band and later joined Irakere, “the best band in Cuba” according to him. “You really had to know how to play to be in that band.” He improved his instrumental jazz skills with Irakere without totally abandoning popular music. In 1988 he formed his own group: N.G. La Banda (New Generation, The Band), the leading timba group in Cuba that set the tone for popular Cuban music in the 1990s. N.G. La Banda became so popular that it had 25 numbers on the music chart, a number unequalled even by the Van Van. The group was loved for how it interacted with the audiences, especially in a series of concerts they gave in Havana neighborhoods. N.G. La Banda led the way for a new Cuban salsa that was later adopted by groups like the Charanga Habanera, Isaac Delgado and his group, Paulito FG and others that rose to popularity. The band’s brass wind section was baptized as “The Brass Terror” and is one of the group’s most remarkable characteristics. Cortés tells us that unlike reggaeton, a genre that has been under a lot of discussion lately, N.G. tries to reach people with simple language and grass-roots lyrics but always underpinned by good music.
In terms of his talents as an instrumentalist, Cortés has been acknowledged to be an exceptionally talented flutist, with a great gift for improvisation. Had he followed the road of so-called classical music, he could have become a first flutist with the national symphony orchestra. But then we wouldn’t have had N.G. La Banda, “la que manda” (a slogan roughly translated as “the band that rules”). And I certainly would not have enjoyed these two couple of hours with El Tosco, who didn’t let me ask him anything and yet told me everything.
July 2014 This article formed part of the july 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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