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Imagining Cuba apart from the history of its own music is impossible. In our nation, the origin and development of music has been, at all times, in intimate contact with the life of its people. Of all the music that comes out of the Cuban people, Son reigns supreme. And within Son and in the musical culture of Cuba as a whole, the Tres holds a position of great importance.
The Cuban Tres is a guitar-like instrument with three courses (groups) of two strings each for a total of six strings. It most probably was born in the area of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, in the eastern part of Cuba, around the mid to late 18th Century, and had its ancestry in the Spanish Guitar. It is sometimes referred to as “Cuban Tres Guitar,” “Tres Cubano” or “Tres Guitar.” Some might think that the tres is just another guitar, but the major difference between the two is in playing the instrument. Unlike the guitar, in the tres, chords are seldom strummed.
Several famous musicians have preferred the tres for their music, notably, Nené Manfugás, Faustino Oramas, Alfredo Boloña, Arsenio Rodríguez and Compay Segundo. In recent decades, one “tresero,” or “tresista” as he prefers to be called, has placed his very singular imprint on his interpretation of the tres, that is, Francisco Leonel Amat Rodríguez, better known as Pancho Amat or “El Tresero Mayor de Cuba” [The Top Cuban Tresero].
Pancho Amat was born in the rural town of Güira de Melena, south of Havana, on April 22, 1950. Since his childhood days, he had a vocation for music and consequently joined the school band in grammar school. In secondary school, he divided his free time between baseball and music, although music always outweighed sports in his preference. He became associated with amateur music groups at the town’s Culture Center. There he learned to play the tres, guitar, congas and bongos. His dream, obviously, was to go to music school in Havana, but he would have to make daily trips from his hometown to the capital and that was beyond the means of his family. Also, he needed something that would eventually help the family’s finances and he entered the Pedagogical Institute, also in Havana, but where he lived at the institute’s dormitories.
During his senior year in college, the Ministry of Culture along with the Chilean music group Quilapayún launched a project to create a Cuban group which would play South American music. Countless musicians all over the country auditioned to become a member of this unique band. Although Pancho had never received formal training in music, he nevertheless won a place in this new band that would be called Manguaré.
Inserted within the Nueva Trova Movement, Manguaré became the musician’s breeding ground as a performer and allowed him to enrich his musical conceptions and knowledge thanks to important Cuban musicians who became advisors to the band. During this 15-year period, he also studied classical guitar at the Ignacio Cervantes Conservatory and attended several postgraduate courses on Harmony, Counterpoint, Orchestration, Morphology and others.
Those of us who have followed his music career are convinced that Pancho Amat is the musician who has most contributed to universalize the tres through recordings or live performances with musicians from Cuba and other countries, such as Joaquin Sabina, Oscar D’Leon, Pablo Milanés, Rosana, Ry Cooder, Silvio Rodríguez, Victor Victor, Yomo Toro and Victor Jara.
In terms of modernizing Son, of finding new ways and fusions within the universe of music, Amat’s work, which constantly takes him to new innovative projects, has to be taken into account. He has played with trios, quartets and typical Cuban popular music orchestras making arrangements for these bands as well as for symphony orchestras.
Talking with Pancho is like talking to a guajiro natural—a totally spontaneous and unaffected man from a Cuban rural town who is able to convey a load of wisdom in an open, frank manner. His great love is the instrument he plays, one which has given him both joy and worries. He tells us that on several occasions, a string has broken in the middle of a concert, but “the show must go on.”
Once on a trip to Qatar, they sought the services of a luthier for the violinist of the band, and while in the shop, he discovered, tucked away in a corner, an ‘ud, or Arab lute. He asked the owner permission to play it and, to the surprise of the man, he played it with certain skill. Thus, Amat assumes that the tres has to be a not to distant relative of the ‘ud.
One of the most successful chapters in this musician’s career is his work as leader of El Cabildo del son, the band he created in the 1990s and which has traveled widely both in Cuba and abroad. His work has been very well received by critics everywhere he has performed, not only for his mastery of the tres, but for the significant work of this band in rediscovering Cuban music.
One of his most recent incursions in the international arena was his participation in the 41st Country Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee in 2012. Late that year, he recorded a new album with his son Daniel: “Haciendo son en otro jazz,” which somehow is a tribute to the memory of Emiliano Salvador, an extraordinary pianist who was a pioneer of introducing Cuban Son in jazz. This is the first time he plays with a quintet, which here is made up of percussion, bass, piano and tres. The ten tracks in the album combine classical music, Latin jazz, rumba and even contradanza with Son, which is used as the “cementing material” of Cuban music. This album is certainly an example of Pancho Amat’s faith in the destiny of the fusion of genres.
The musician, who, among numerous prizes, received the National Award for Music in 2010, has taken the Tres to new heights as a concert instrument through techniques and concepts from classical music, son, peasant tunes, jazz and trova. Through his music, Pancho Amat shows the world that the Tres is more than the symbol of a musical genre and period. It is an instrument that is very much alive, an emblem of Cuban identity.