12/10/03

Ruben Gonzalez Dies

Ruben Gonzalez, a Cuban pianist who gained fame as a member of the Buena Vista Social Club, died Monday in Havana of an undisclosed cause. He was 84.

Despite possessing piano chops that could light a fire under any band he played in, Gonzalez, like many of his Cuban musician contemporaries, didn’t find fame—or even record as a leader—until old age. After performing in Cuba for most of his life, trouble with arthritis had in fact seen Gonzalez retire from music in the mid-1980s, when he was about 65. But Gonzalez came out of retirement in 1996 in order to play on the Afro-Cuban All-Stars album A Todo Cuba Le Gusta, and that album helped spark a worldwide interest in Cuban music that would give he and his fellow Cuban musicians the recognition they deserved. The music received further widespread attention in 1997 as a result of the hugely successful, Ry Cooder-produced album Buena Vista Social Club, which featured a crack band of Afro-Cuban musicians that included Gonzalez. Shortly after the success of the Social Club album and its corresponding documentary film, Gonzalez, then 78, signed to Cooder’s World Circuit label and recorded his debut leader album, Introducing Ruben Gonzalez. Gonzalez recorded a few more leader albums and played on records by Social Club pals like vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuonda, but he wasn’t very active in the studio after 2001.

Gonzalez was born in Cuba’s Santa Clara province in 1919 and, after flirting with a career in medicine, moved to the eastern city of Cienfuegos at 15 in order to study piano at a conservatory. He moved to Havana in 1941 and recorded with multi-instrumentalist Arsenio Rodriquez and later joined the Orquestra de Los Hermanos, a band that included future star conguero Mongo Santamaria. He eventually left Cuba to play in Panama and Argentina for a time, but he returned to Havana in the 1960s and joined the band of violinist Enrique Jorrín, who is known as the creator of the cha-cha. Gonzalez remained with Jorrin for 25 years and became the leader of the group when Jorrin died, but eventually arthritis had him retire.

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