Caribbean Beat Magazine

Calling Rubén González

In Riddem and Rhymes, Garry Steckles puts out a call for Cuban pianist Reubén Gonzáles

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  • Photograph courtesy Telarc/ Donald Christie
  • Simon Lee

For someone with no performing talent whatsoever (the only instrument I play is the typewriter), I’ve devoted a massive portion of my life to music, mainly of the Caribbean variety, as a concert promoter, concertgoer, radio host, writer, and hopelessly addicted collector. But, until now, I’ve never acted in the capacity of messenger. Oh, I’ve passed the odd message back and forth, but that was about it.

Now that’s about to change, largely because the message I’ve been asked to forward is from one Caribbean musical giant to another, two men for whom I couldn’t have more admiration or respect. So, hear goes: Rubén González, wherever you are, can you please get in touch with Ernest Ranglin. He wants the two of you to get together. He’ll bring his guitar. He’ll make sure there’s a piano to your liking. And, he suspects, the result will be some of the most memorable Caribbean music that’s ever been made.

I suspect he’s right.

Before going any further, a little background on Messrs González and Ranglin. Rubén González, now 82, is one of the greatest pianists in the history of Cuban music, and also one of the greatest stories in the history of popular music. González, whose career dates back to the 30s, was living in obscurity for many years until being rescued from the musical scrap heap, along with a handful of his contemporaries, to win a Grammy for the Buena Vista Social Club. Today, the man who for many years couldn’t even afford a piano is touring constantly and performing for adoring audiences at venues like the Vienna Opera House and Carnegie Hall. He’s also making money hand-over-fist, and no one deserves it more.

Ernest Ranglin is one of the world’s most accomplished and popular jazz musicians, and also one of the most legendary figures in the history of Jamaican music. In fact, he’s widely credited with creating the ska beat that was the precursor of reggae. You name it, Ernest Ranglin’s done it.

anglin’s let’s-get-together-and-make-some-music message to González came during a conversation he and I  were having about his career in general, and his superb new CD, Gotcha, in particular. Near the end of the conversation, I told him I was an admirer of the Cuban pianist, and that I thought their styles would complement each other.

“You know, I’ve never met Rubén, but he was supposed to play on Gotcha,” was Ranglin’s reply. “There was some mix-up in the arrangements and it didn’t happen. But I’d love to meet this man and play with him. Why not?”

For a long-time follower of Jamaican music, talking to Ranglin was an education as well as a pleasure. An education because he goes further back than any living musician of his stature; a pleasure because he belongs to one of my favourite categories of people: an old-school Caribbean gentleman. When Ernest Ranglin talks, in that deep, rich, distinctly Jamaican dialect, you hang on to every word, you’re enthralled by every story. And what stories.

Born in 1932, Ranglin can take you back to the pre-ska, big-band era, when as an up-and-coming young guitarist he played with Val Bennett, Eric Dean and Count Boysie. He was instrumental in changing the big-band rhythm to put more emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beat, thereby  creating ska. Ranglin was there, arranging, organising and playing, when the legendary Skatalites was formed. He arranged for and played with the Wailers when the young Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were just starting out. He did the same for Jimmy Cliff. He arranged My Boy Lollipop, the first international ska hit, for Millie Small.

In the early 1960s, Ranglin went to live in England, where he led the house trio at Ronnie Scott’s, Britain’s most famous jazz venue, and was voted Europe’s jazz guitarist of 1964. Since leaving England, Ranglin has lived and worked in The Bahamas and the United States, as well as in Jamaica. Unlike many musicians, he never seems to have anything but kind words for the people he’s worked with and the places he’s lived.

Ranglin’s new CD, Gotcha, first came to my attention a few weeks ago in the giant Virgin Megastore on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. I had just wandered into the store’s blues-jazz-Latin-Caribbean-African section when I heard an elegant, tasteful guitar soaring over a jazzy but solid reggae beat. I was sure it was Ernest Ranglin, and rushed up to the counter to check, when I was virtually elbowed out of the way by two other customers on similar missions.

If Ernest Ranglin does have one grouch in the music world, it’s that despite being a major international jazz star and a genuine reggae legend, he is rarely asked to perform anywhere in the English-speaking Caribbean except Jamaica. “I’ve been to Barbados a couple of times, but that’s about it,” he told me, with real regret in his voice. “I hear about all these big festivals, but they don’t seem to have heard of me.”

So, perhaps a second message is in order to wind up this column: Anybody out there from the St Lucia Jazz Festival?