Interview: Ariel Brínguez – Jazz-infused Reflections of Cuban Life (October 2023)

Words by Marco Canepari

We all know that Cuba is an inexhaustible treasure trove of musical talent. Standing out and becoming globally recognised is no easy feat, but Ariel Brínguez has not only achieved this but has gone even further. The saxophonist, composer, teacher, and key member of influential bands like Irakere, alongside Chucho Valdés, and Orlando Valle’s Maraca Orchestra y Otra Visión, has evolved into one of the most dynamic and eloquent exponents of Cuban jazz and Afro-Cuban music at large. More than just a virtuoso saxophonist, he leaves an unforgettable impression on audiences worldwide through his distinctive tone, innovative compositions, and captivating stage presence.

We had the honour to meet him on a stormy morning in Setúbal in early October, a few hours before his set at EXIB Música. During our conversation, Ariel provided us with a unique window into the multifaceted layers of his musical journey. It was a chance to delve into the intricate tapestry of experiences, influences, and reflections that have woven together to shape his distinctive trajectory in the world of music.

Born into a family steeped in the harmonies of central Cuba, Ariel’s roots are deeply intertwined with a grandfather celebrated as a saxophonist and conductor and a great-grandmother who left her melodic legacy as a pianist in Holguín. Reflecting on his early connection to music, Ariel shared, “We have a long lineage of musicians in my family, and this naturally steered me towards a career in music. Growing up in an environment filled with Cuban rhythms, boleros, and art, it was inevitable that I would be drawn to this path.”

For Ariel, music has always transcended mere notes—it’s a dynamic mirror reflecting the nuances of life. “Music has a way of calling to you and reflecting aspects of yourself that you might not even be aware of,” he mused. “It’s like a mirror to life, and I found that deeply seductive.” His passion for music, he emphasised, isn’t merely a profession but an exploration of the self and a profound connection with the essence of life itself. “I come from a musical family, so I was surrounded by music from a very young age. I’ve always loved having something that allows me to explore myself internally and connect with life on a profound level. As I grow as a human being and gain a deeper understanding of life, I can express it more clearly through my music. Music has the capacity to cover all states of mind, from neurosis to joy. It’s a journey of self-discovery and connection with others, and that’s why I’m so passionate about it.”

A pivotal influence on Ariel’s musical journey was his grandfather, Juan José Brínguez Ochoa, whose musical ensemble, Los Fakires, dared to inject the saxophone into the heart of Cuban danceable music. “My grandfather’s unique approach to playing Cuban danceable music with the saxophone inspired me,” Ariel revealed. “His band played Cuban music with the saxophone, which was a bit unusual at the time. Historically, the trumpet and flute were more common in Cuban music, but my grandfather’s unique approach to playing Cuban danceable music with the saxophone inspired me. The saxophone has always been the instrument of my choice, along with the piano. In Cuba, it’s also mandatory to have some proficiency in percussion, so I picked up congas as well”.

Sixteen years ago, Ariel embarked on a new chapter when love beckoned him to Madrid. The story unfolded during his university days in Cuba, where a chance encounter with a Spanish woman blossomed into a profound connection. “I moved to Madrid for a beautiful reason: love. While studying at the university in Cuba, I met a Spanish woman who was an international student, and we fell in love. Eventually, we decided to get married, and that’s what brought me to Spain. At that moment, I didn’t leave Cuba permanently, but it opened the door to a broader perspective”, he shared.

This cross-continental journey wasn’t just a shift in geographical coordinates; it marked a profound expansion of his musical horizons, exposing him to a kaleidoscope of influences beyond the shores of Cuba. “Cuba is an island, and living on an island can have its limitations in terms of exposure to different musical influences and experiences. Moving to Spain allowed me to expand my horizons and connect with diverse musical traditions. I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with musicians from different regions.

For me, the essence of music is to be authentic, rooted in one’s identity, and open to influences from all over the world. The key is to approach music without prejudice, and if you do it with honesty and respect, you can create something that’s deeply rooted in your identity while embracing the diversity of musical traditions from around the world”.

So much so, his music is now a blend of various and very diverse influences mirrored in his music listening, “While I’ve been deeply influenced by the jazzists from the United States like  John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, Ben Wester, the great icons of the tenor saxophone, at the same time, I also received classical training in the French school of the saxophone. Additionally, Cuba’s historical connection to the Soviet Union introduced me to Russian influences.

I’ve explored various musical genres, including rock and pop, and I’ve even paid tribute to artists like The Beatles, Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, and Camarón de la Isla through my music. But I am also deeply passionate about Brazilian music. I think that’s wow, especially the music from the area of Salvador de Bahia, and its connection with African music.

More recently, I was listening a lot to the music of the Colombian Pacific, I think that’s great and super interesting, it brings a fresh perspective. Also, I can’t get enough of Afro-Cuban rumba, especially the latest from Osain del Monte, led by Adonis Panter Calderón. It’s the new wave of rumba in Cuba.

I’ve also been vibing to the tunes of my fellow musicians, especially some great Cuban artists. I’ve got a tight friendship with a Cuban pianist named Iván Melón Lewis. His latest album, Bembe, packs a punch with a killer band, blending Cuban dance vibes with sophisticated arrangements. Angela Cervantes is a fantastic singer. She’s part of a duo with pianist Pepe Rivero. They dropped an album paying homage to Puerto Rican singer Silvia Rezach. It’s called ‘Olas y Arenas‘ a journey through folklore and progressive sounds.

Balancing life between two countries, Ariel stressed the importance of maintaining ties with his Cuban roots. “I try to visit Cuba regularly, especially for musical reasons. I have family in both Cuba and Spain, including my wife and two children. Cuba is where I find my roots, and it’s crucial for me to maintain that connection, especially for my music. The more I can connect with my Cuban identity and heritage, the more authentic and genuine my music becomes. Music is about connecting with who we are and where we come from, and it’s essential for me to carry that with me as I play around the world,” he affirmed. For Ariel, these visits serve as a pilgrimage to the wellspring of his musical inspiration, reinforcing the importance of staying rooted in his Cuban identity to infuse authenticity into his art.

Discussing the openness of Cuban musicians to various genres, Ariel noted, “In Cuba, you are preparing yourself and you are absorbing music in a way that is powerful. But maybe, I would say that the point of mental openness, emotional, with respect to music, makes people be able to get rid of all prejudices and tell us that I can’t play rock.

Speaking about his musical journey, Ariel passionately shared, “Somehow, I always try to bring the music of Cuba, always with that perspective of a universal music.” He asserted, “I call it, which has that point of letting itself be mixed by life, by other places, by other environments.

The music you hear when I play is a sonic reflection of Cuba, viewed through the lens of someone living in Europe. The distance has allowed me to see and experience things differently. My sound is a blend of my Cuban roots and the influences I’ve absorbed from the cosmopolitan vibe of places like Madrid, London, and Paris.

Being in Europe has expanded my musical horizons. Europe is a place where there’s immense respect for music, offering various opportunities to play and explore. The exposure to different regions, like Germany, Austria, and Portugal, has been a gift.”.

At the heart of Ariel’s music is a strong belief that goes beyond just playing tunes. He says, “In this music, there’s a kind of faith, a strong belief in what it can do,” emphasising the ability of music to transcend technical understanding: “90% of the people who come to listen don’t understand what we’re doing technically, but they don’t need to. What really determines is the ability of communication that we have.

When I reflect on my journey, I feel fulfilled. I’ve played with incredible artists, won awards, and explored diverse genres. My main focus has always been music, and it’s through this art form that I can best express myself”.

As our conversation concluded, we asked how to introduce his music to someone who never listened to it…

My music is introspective, intimate, and trance-like. I aim for transparency, sincerity, linking the mind with the heart and the soul with the mind. If I have to prioritise, I prioritise the soul over the mind.

Tonight we will be playing a project called Cuban Nostalgia, but our latest album, ‘Latidos’, is possibly the most relevant. It consists of original compositions dedicated to birth, motherhood, and childhood—a reflection of the divine through my experience with my children. Having two 4 and 5-year-olds has deepened my perception of life. It has made me feel life more deeply, and I create music from that profound experience.”