Richmond Folk Festival Artist Profile: Ulises Beato of Conjunto Guantanamo
Ulises Beato is like a musical detective. He can spot Afro-Cuban patterns in popular songs. One basic pattern is called the ‘tumbao.’”
“Which sounds like this (example) that’s called ‘tumbao.”
If you detected a hint of the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil,” you’re right.
“Whenever you hear these sounds and the bongo those are instruments that they originated not in Africa, not in Peru or Santo Domingo or Puerto Rico, they originated in Cuba.”
Beato began his studies of Afro-Cuban music at a young age. He was born in New York in the mid-60s, but moved with his family to Miami in the 1970s when he says there was a heavy Cuban population.
“Miami was wall-to-wall-Cubans, that had come over to Miami. In fact, there were very few Americans.”
The heavy presence of Cubans drew him closer to the history of Afro-Cuban music and to his future life as a percussionist.
“In a sense I think percussion is something that lives inside every Latin, certainly every Latin boy. I remember being in in elementary school, all the Cuban boys would always be tapping their hands on their desks and stuff like that, and making rhythms. It was just something that was normal for us. And the teachers would always say like ‘shh be quiet.’”
As he got older, his interests in Afro-Cuban music and history grew. However, what he heard growing up, never matched what he was hearing on the radio.
“I remember thinking that I didn’t like it back then, what I thought was Cuban music--but it really wasn’t. It’s just that they weren’t really playing Cuban music around on the radio station and stuff like that when I was a kid.”
His family took a trip to Cuba. Being surrounded by the sounds, religious folklore and people of that country inspired him to dig deeper into the history and percussion traditions.
“So, I’m very happy to say that I think I have, I’ve been able to tap into a very good fountain of knowledge.”
When Beato moved back to New York at age 26, he landed in an area in Brooklyn called Dumbo. It’s a community filled with painters, actors and musicians.
“Being based in Dumbo gave me the inspiration to start the band. But living in New York, gave me a place to develop my band.”
Another factor that helped him learn and grow as a musician was the release of the first album by the Cuban band The Buena Vista Social Club. He recognized in their music the “sound” that he was exposed to growing up.
“And that really opened the door for me to start learning about this music thoroughly.”
Conjunto Guantanamo began playing around Dumbo and New York in 2003. Beato says they sometimes played three times a day and up to six days a week.
“We got tight fast.”
That amount playing helped them gell as a band, he says.
“We learned each others in-and-outs and we learned the music as well. Because as simple as son Cubano, you know Afro-Cuban son, is, it’s also very complex in its own simplicity.”
He says when his sextet is playing, they’re creating rhythms and then breaking them.
Another aspect of the music is its humor, says Beato, more specifically the self-deprecating kind that’s found in Cuban music.
“For the person that understands Spanish, you know, some of the lyrics are hilarious, or sexy or double entendre and hilarious in that way. And that’s another huge aspect of all of this Afro-Cuban music.”
A song that features a double entendre that his band plays is called “Cuchillo Para la Piña Cubana” a song written in 1926 and covered many times since.
“‘Cuchillo Para la Piña Cubana’ I urge any non-Spanish speakers to look up the lyrics and translate them for yourself into English. Find somebody to tell you what it means. It’s a beautiful song, it’s very unique.”
He says they’ll be playing this song at the Richmond Folk Festival. But when asked what else people can people expect?
“Well, the guys in the band aren’t that good looking, so it might scare some small children and elderly folk.”
Conjunto Guantanamo is playing on all three days at the Folk Festival. To see when, go to RichmondFolkFestival.org
Ian Stewart/VPM Music
Find out more about Conjunto Guantanamo and sign up to get their upcoming single "El Son Convidando,"