The same passion and energy that Fernando Dewar exudes during his performances are also there offstage. He talks enthusiastically about his music and the Septeto Santiaguero in the same way that he performs; he fascinates you with a kaleidoscope of ideas, vivid images and intriguing anecdotes. His approach to music and life is shared by all members of the Septeto. With cheerful smiles, the band creates a close relationship with their audience through its music and dance. Its members are true ambassadors of their genre – a warm and exuberant blend of traditional Cuban music and its inseparable dances.
On stage, as in their records, the band gives a most authentic rendition of Cuban music. It starts with a son or a bolero, followed by cascade of Latin styles, which range from guaracha, to trova passing through changüí, descarga and danzón. After a charming performance on the Open Air Stage at WOMAD, we were able to interview Fernando Dewar and explore with him the secret of the spell that the band casts on its audience. Our discussion led to a true CliffsNotes of Cuban music and gave rise to a strong desire to follow the Septeto’s progress on its return to its captivating island.
RhythmPassport: Our congratulations on the concert that you have just given here at WOMAD. The audience was crazy about you.
Fernando Dewar: It has been a really important concert for us, because what we like the most is to have a good interaction with the audience, to communicate with them. It is really important for us that the audience can understand our music, and that there is an interaction between the audience and us, because we reckon that this is what sets alive and fosters a show. When we achieve that, we think that we have reached our goal: if people can feel good during our gigs, if people can enjoy them and can pay attention to our music, then we have hit the mark!
It is also because behind our music there is a more elaborated meaning. On one side, we want to preserve and transmit the soul of the Cuban son and the traditional Cuban music, on the other we want to do it with a party mood, in a happy spirit and that’s independent of what we are playing at that particular moment: irrespective if it’s a bolero, which is more for love-song fans, or another style. First of all, our music is happy music, and we are really glad we have been able to interact with the audience: we are happy that the audience enjoyed and followed the choreography and that they danced and moved with us. That’s really important for us!
RhythmPassport: Have you found any differences between the Cuban and the British audience?
Fernando Dewar: A lot of differences! First of all, here at WOMAD, even if not everyone knew Cuban music before, even if not everyone knew the history behind it, or its different styles, they have been open and ready to embrace it anyway. In this way, it has been possible and easier for us to boost the knowledge of the people, to teach them about Cuban tradition. I’m especially thinking about dance, because our music is mainly for dancing: it is contagious and encourages movement. There are a lot of dancers in Cuba, a lot of dancing schools with really good teachers and I think that this can help our music to spread abroad: dance is an easy way to let our music become more and more popular. There are some countries where Cuban music is more popular than the dance; countries where it is more common to listen to our music than to dance to it. So we always try to understand what people look for, what Cuban textures stimulate the audience: what the percussions create, what the strings create. But, what we care about most is to catch the audience with the Cuban rhythms, with, as we called it, the ‘cocina’.
RhythmPassport: In addition to your extraordinary live shows, you have also released 7 studio albums. How do you manage to incorporate all the live elements in the studio recording?
Fernando Dewar: We really enjoy the time we spend recording, because we do it for our audience. We think that our fans can listen and dance to our music through our records; so we try to put this feeling into the record. But, at the same time, we know that there’s nothing like the live performance. You can add all the technology you want to a studio recording, but nothing can catch the spirit of a live performance. Even if our albums are usually cheerful and creative, we can’t extrapolate and insert in them all the sensations of a live performance.
RhythmPassport: Can we say that your preferred medium is the live performance? If we are not wrong, you began as a live band…
Fernando Dewar: Yes, we started in Santiago de Cuba playing at La Casa de la Trova. That is an historical place in Santiago, where you play live and the audience has also a well-developed taste: there are a lot of bands playing there, and they play the most different styles. In addition, Santiago is the cradle of son and bolero: it is a music factory, where a lot of Cuban music styles have merged together; that has allowed the audience to grow really well educated. Today, Cuban people are used to listen to good music, to good acts and they have become really selective. We come from that scene: from La Casa de la Trova, from la Calle Heredia, so we must have been rigorous in the way we play. Then, since there are a lot of bands that play there, there is also a lot of competition: you have to sound charming, attractive and different from the others if you want to get ahead.
RhythmPassport: Septeto Santiaguero has not only got ahead in Santiago de Cuba, but also internationally. So, we wonder what is the secret of your band’s success? What are the elements that differentiate the Septeto from other ensembles?
Fernando Dewar: The main reason is related to our formation: the septet is something which has historically gone out of fashion. People think that the septets are not suited to play the kind music we play; they also think that septets usually play an old style of music: a music that is out of time. Even if they reckon that septets can play son in their own styles, they can’t realize that they could play like us. I think that it is all about our sound: about the fact that we respect the traditional elements, but at the same time, we sound more contemporary, with a different expressivity. We are more related to the scenic movements, which allow the audience not only to listen to our music, but also to watch and engage with our show and to identify themselves in our moves. In addition, another difference, is that we are tireless: we always want to do new things, we always want to play more, to record more and, in the end, time is never enough for us to do all the things we’d like to do.
RhythmPassport: How easy is it to hold Septeto Santiaguero together? As you are 7 remarkable musicians, each with his own tastes and history, we imagine that there must be times when the members want to do pursue different interests.
Fernando Dewar: That’s right, it is difficult, but since the goal is the same for everyone, we always try to keep things working fine, to keep the band together and to keep people enjoying our music. In this way, when we join our ideas, we always find a way to let them work together in the end.
RhythmPassport: You are a prolific band and you produced your latest album in 2012. Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
Fernando Dewar: Actually there’s another album on its way, which has already been recorded in the studio and will be released soon. We are really happy with “Vamos Pa’ La Fiesta”, our latest record, because we have received a lot of prizes as well as a nomination in the Latin Grammy Award. But “No Quiero Llanto”, our next album and 8th one, is even more important for our trajectory and for our career. It is a direct homage to the Cuban duo Los Compadres, which was initially formed by Lorenzo Hierrezuelo and Compay Segundo and then by Lorenzo Hierrezuelo and his brother Reinaldo.
In this album, which will be a double one, we have included 18 songs written by the duo and, also some others that they popularised. While we were recording, we invited a lot of famous Cuban artists to play with us, like the Orquesta Sinfónica de Oriente and La Conga de Los Hoyos, which is a fundamental part of the Santiago folklore; but also international ones like Oscar D’Leon, Andy Montañez and José Alberto “El Canario”. “No quiero llanto” is a record that has taken us a long time and a lot of work: we have spent more than a year working on it. But its release is a great success for us, because it is really important for our music and our tradition. It is a prize for us!
Contemporary Cuban music is currently enjoying a high profile with exciting, forward-looking releases from Dayme Arocena and Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura project – twisting and morphing Cuban rhythms and songwriting into new shapes and sounds. With this in mind, El Septeto Santiaguero’s seventh album – Raiz represents the flipside –…