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"For a while I was nearly forgotten," Licea continues. "You know what they say: Sometimes a pretty face is worth more than the quality of an artist. But I've always loved baseball, and in an orchestra, the singer is the pitcher. The pitcher is the one who must have good control and strength, and to always give his best, the singer has to take care of himself. That's even more important than study and practice. I've always tried to take care of myself so that I can continue to perform well, until I can't perform anymore."
For six decades Licea has continued to sing: It's all he's ever done. Although the version of the Afro-Cuban All Stars coming to St. Louis will not feature some of the better-known Cubans -- Ruben González, Ibrahim Ferrer and Barbarito Torres will all be absent -- Licea will be one of the featured soneros. He'll be joined by Felix Valoy (probably the best singer from the generation of the '70s) and Teresita Garcí a Caturla (the most distinctive singer of the Estrellas de Arieto and a member of Las d'Aida). The All Stars appearing here will also include Yanko Pisaco, Daniel Ramos and Yaure Muñiz on trumpets; Alberto Martënez on trombone; Polo Tamayo on flute; Ricardo Muñoz on bass; Amadito Valdés and Miguel Angá Dí az on percussion; Alfaro on piano; and Juan de Marcos González on tres.
As a result of the merging of traditional and contemporary Cuban dance music, the Afro-Cuban All Stars have no single identifiable sound: From song to song they sound like different Cuban bands altogether, although the rhythmic drive is an irresistible constant, as are the voices of Licea, Ferrer and Caturla. "For me a record is like a novel," Juan de Marcos says. "It has chapters, and each chapter has to be distinct but there also has to be an overall unity." Although recordings by the All-Stars and the rest of the Buena Vista cadre are yet not available for sale in Cuba, González believes they have influenced Cuban culture. "The records are played on the radio, and so everyone knows them. There's been a change in the language of the young music. Too much American influence in Cuban music is not a good thing, just as it would be a bad thing if Cuban music overly influenced American music." The success of the All-Stars albums has allowed González to found his own record label and production company, Ahora, which will be releasing solo projects from Valoy and Licea.
Midway through the All Stars' most recent recording, González makes the band's only direct political gesture. The song "Reconciliation" includes an opening verse that will ring true for any Cuban, or for anyone who has tasted exile and separation:
You went to find another life
Dreaming of a triumphant return
But incomprehension threw down her veil
And we couldn't understand
"This song has no specific political objective," González emphasizes. "Politics don't interest me. But in the case of Elian González, for instance, I think like any intelligent person: If the mother has died, the father then must have the rights to the child. It's all become a political game, and the child has suffered for it. This song 'Reconciliation' is really just a call to conscience for the Cubans in Havana and in Miami. We've passed through more than 40 years of political problems, and what good has it done any of us?"
The music of the Afro-Cuban All Stars -- their guajiras, sones, son montunos, danzones and mambos -- is music made for dancing and for experiencing live, in the flesh and blood, in the full presence of the personalities and histories of its greatest practitioners. For one night in St. Louis, the Afro-Cuban All Stars will provide that opportunity. It's the chance of a lifetime, for audience and musicians alike. "I don't have words for these feelings in my heart," Licea says, his voice flooding with the love he has for performing, "or the way I feel about coming to this country and singing for the people here. Because we sing and play collectively and always from the heart, the music will reach the public; if you sing mechanically, it will never work."
The Afro-Cuban All Stars play Wednesday, April 5, at Powell Symphony Hall.