Afro-Cuban Roots Alive in San Diego: A Ritmo Bello Interview with Artistic Director Juan Carlos Blanco

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

People tend to identify salsa dancing with Cuba when they first begin to learn the genre.  It is no surprise that this is so because much of what we consider modern day salsa is based on many of the sounds and rhythms brought to life by Cuban culture.  No one else in San Diego better exemplifies this than Juan Carlos Blanco, an artistic director and choreographer who brings Cuban culture to life in many different ways here locally.  I had a great opportunity to learn about Juan Carlos and how his groups spread traditional Cuban music here in San Diego.

Special thanks to Roman Castro Photography for providing the fine photos you see throughout the interview of Juan Carlos and his groups.

I hope you enjoy the interview!

John ;-)



Ritmo Bello:  Juan Carlos, thanks for agreeing to sit down for an interview. Let’s begin. I understand that your group works to preserve Afro-Cuban music, dance and culture here in San Diego.  How did Omo Aché start and who are the members of your group today?

Juan Carlos Blanco: I founded Omo Aché in 1999, two years after coming to the U.S. Omo Aché is a Cuban folkloric company that preserves the traditional dances, songs, music and stories of Cuba. We offer audiences a journey through the evolution of Cuban culture, from its African roots to today’s most popular urban expressions. Members of Omo Aché include Cuban and local artists dedicated to the study under my guidance. Company dancers are: Angelica Cardona, Roxanne Rojas de Blanco, Kadjiah White & Sacara Northard. Percussionists & singers are: Eduardo Sagarra, Emilio Camacho, Menelike Turner & Angelica Cardona. I take pride in cultivating a deep understanding in my company members by emphasizing historical context, technique, precision, spirit and character. As a group, Omo Aché strives to embody the wisdom of this rich culture with passion, unity, respect and integrity.

Omo Aché performs regularly in universities, community colleges, parades, theatres and community festivals throughout California. Most recently Omo Aché performed at the Cuba Caribe Festival in San Francisco; at the Afro-Latino Festival at the Museum of Latin American Art in Los Angeles; and at the Nations International Dance Festival in San Diego. Our next performance will be at “San Diego Dances”, produced by the PGK Project on March 25 & 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the Infinity Dance Sports Center.

Ritmo Bello: Omo Ache is a unique name what does it mean?

Juan Carlos Blanco: The name of the company comes from Lucumi, the Yoruba language as it has been preserved in Cuba. It means “blessed children”. Omo means children and Aché is positive spiritual energy that brings good fortune. I chose this name to recognize the importance of the youth in the preservation and development of culture.

Ritmo Bello: I understand that you maintain a second dance group called Saoaco Son.  How did Saoco Son start and who are the members of that group?

Juan Carlos Blanco:  Saoco Son is a Cuban music band that I created to bring a greater understanding of Cuban music to San Diego. I started it in 2005 in collaboration with the talented Cuban musician Ignacio Arango. We have worked together to prepare a selection the best of classic and contemporary Cuban popular music to present. We have focused on the three main styles of popular music that have transcended in Cuba: Son, Timba & Bolero. Our group also is working on composing our own original Cuban music to contribute to the genre.

Saoco Son band members are a mix of Cubans and Latinos who love Cuban music: Emilio Camacho, tumbador; Eduardo Sagarra, timbales; Julio Valdes, piano; Ignacio Arango, bass guitar; Joel Esteban, saxophone; Yuri Mendiola, trombone; Luisa Corredor, Angelica Cardona & Juan Carlos Blanco, vocals.

Ritmo Bello: Saoco Son is also a unique group name, what does it mean?

Juan Carlos Blanco:  The name Saoco Son was chosen because it highlights our group’s flavor & authenticity. Saoco is a typical Cuban drink made of aguardiente (moonshine) and agua de coco (coco juice), two strong flavors that mix together to create a potent drink. Son gives reference to the genre that is the foundation of Cuban popular music.

Ritmo Bello:  You mentioned earlier that Yoruban and other African cultures are important to the identity of Cuban music today.  Can you tell me a little about Cuba’s three most influential African cultures and how each has affected the development of music in Cuba?

Juan Carlos Blanco: The three most influential groups have been the Yoruba, Arará and Congo. Each of these groups hail from a different region of Africa and bring their own language, music, dance, philosophy, religion, food, custom, etc… There’s a lot to say about each of these groups it’s hard to fit all of it in a short interview. Each of these African cultures mixed with the Spanish culture to create Cuba’s unique expression called Rumba. Rumba influenced many other Cuban styles of music and dance which evolved later including Son. Son is known as the “mother” of all Cuban contemporary popular music and dance including salsa, timba and casino. All these genres are alive continue to exist in Cuba today. On any day you can find Arara, Congo, Yoruba, Rumba, Son, Timba, Mambo, Cha Cha Cha music being played and danced to in neighborhoods through out my country.

Ritmo Bello: Many people may not realize that Afro-Cuban music is distinct from salsa music in general. What are some of the differences and similarities you like to point out between the two genre’s of music?

Juan Carlos Blanco: The term “Afro-Cuban” is synonymous with Cuban culture in general since we are a product of African and Spanish influences. That is why our “folkloric” companies represent all genres of Cuba’s music and dance. It is hard to compare this larger genre with “salsa” which is actually a subcomponent of our contemporary popular music and dance. All Cuban music and dances have African roots and ultimately all genres of Cuban music and dance are connected. Imagine a tree. The roots are African & Spanish cultures. The trunk represents the powerful base that grew out of the mix (rumba & son). The branches represent the modern expressions of salsa, casino, mambo, timba, etc… It’s a lineage that has grown over time and remains connected to stay alive.

Ritmo Bello: What is the current state of Afro-Cuban music in Cuba today?

Juan Carlos Blanco: Thriving! We Cubans are very connected to our culture and our roots that is why our music and dance is so powerful. Today in Cuba you will find all the genres performed by groups of all ages both professional and aficionados. You cannot separate music from dance since they give each other life and meaning. Excellent folkloric groups that continue to preserve all genres of our culture include: Raices Profundas, Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba, Ballet Folklorico Cutumba, Ban Rra Rrá, Afro-Cuba de Matanzas, etc… Famous Rumba groups include: Yoruba Andabo, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, etc.. Within the genre of Son and Popular we have groups like: Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro, Sierra Maestra and Buena Vista Social Club. Bands that play timba abound and are always extremely popular among Cubans of all ages. Some of my favorites are: Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco, La Charanga Habanera, Los Van Van, Bamboleo, Adalberto Alvarez y su Son, Alexander Abreu y Habana de Primera, Maikel Blanco y Su Salsa Mayor, etc… All these bands and companies enjoy fame both in Cuba and abroad as they often tour internationally.

Ritmo Bello: How do you see Afro-Cuban music’s current development in San Diego?

Juan Carlos Blanco:  I think that there is interest in Cuban music but very little understanding of it in San Diego. Unfortunately, we have had few Cuban groups come and play here. Most go to the East coast and stop only in San Francisco. We recently did have the fortune of having the Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro, a famous son group, come to San Diego. In Los Angeles, several popular timba groups have also visited recently including: Manolito Simotet y Su Trabuco and Pupy Pedroso (founder of los Van Van). San Diego based Cuban music groups are very few. Besides Saoco Son, I only know of two that play Cuban music. One is Combo Libertad, which I haven’t heard personally but I understand Ignacio and Yuri have played with them. Also, Emilio Alvarez y su Tres Cubano was playing at the Miami Grille for a while. Emilio Alvarez is a legendary player of the tres, that is used in son montuno. I think we have a long way to go in educating the public in this city about Cuban music and dance. Saoco Son represents a union of the most respected Cuban musicians in San Diego/Baja area in effort to offer San Diegans an authentic Cuban music experience. We are proud to have Emilio Camacho, conguero, with Eduardo Sagarra, timbalero, coming together to create a solid percussion section. Ignacio Arango, our musical director, arranger and bassist, also brings wisdom and experience. Cuban music is not easy to play! Our rhythms are complex, syncopated and grounded in the clave. My experience has been that many musicians try to play our music but few succeed at embodying the essence. It’s a learning process that takes time.

Ritmo Bello: I know that you host a number of classes and shows through out Southern California including San Diego. Can you describe to my readers what they might encounter if they attend either?

Juan Carlos Blanco: I dedicate my life to creating experiences that celebrate the richness of Cuban culture by honoring all of its manifestations from our African roots to today’s current expressions. I do this by teaching dance and music classes, producing performances, organizing cultural events and workshops.

Currently I teach a weekly Afro-Cuban dance class on Saturdays from 3:15-4:45 p.m. at Stage 7 School of Dance, 3980 30th Street in North Park. This class focuses on the traditions of the: Yoruba, Arará, Congo & Franco- Haitian. All levels are welcome to participate. This class is always accompanied by live traditional percussion and song. Dancers can expect to get a work out since dances are vigorous, rhythmic and expressive. Afro-Cuban dances is very grounded and connected to the earth. Dancers harness the energy that undulates through their bodies with isolations of shoulders, head and hips.

I also plan to teach a special workshop on the “Evolution of Cuban Dance: Past to Present (Congo, Rumba, Son & Casino)” on Sunday in late March. This workshop will begin with the African roots beginning with Congo dances and trace the evolution of Cuban dance: to rumba, then son and ending with today’s most popular dance style casino (Cuban Salsa).

I host a monthly celebration of Cuban music & dance called “Noche Cubana”, were all styles are brought together under the same roof for the evening. At the Noche Cubanas, Cubans and lovers of Cuban culture come together to laugh, sing, dance and enjoy life. There are performances by Omo Aché, Saoco Son and guest Cuban artists & groups. Most recently Noche Cubana hosted the following Cuban master artists: Kati Hernandez, Silfredo La O Vigo, Roberto Borrel, Miguel Bernal, and Felix “Pupy” Pedroso. Our past guest performers have included rueda de casino groups: AfriKasineras (Los Angeles); Los Guayaberos de Tijuana and EnRuedaMe Mas! (San Diego). Cuban cooks prepare authentic Cuban cuisine for the event, adding flavor to the experience.

Ritmo Bello: What is your best memory from your music and dance experiences?

Juan Carlos Blanco: I have had many wonderful and interesting moments both in Cuba and during my travels but I believe my best moment is yet to come.

Ritmo Bello: What advice can you give to people that are new to Afro-Cuban music and dance?

Juan Carlos Blanco: Afro-Cuban dance heals the body. The music heals the soul. The song fills you with sensibility. I invite everyone to come experience it for yourself.

Ritmo Bello: Do you have any contact information in case anyone from Ritmo Bello audience wants to contact you?

Juan Carlos Blanco: Yes both of my groups are online our websites are:

My email is:

We are also on youtube:

Ritmo Bello: Juan Carlos thanks for taking some time to educate the San Diego community about your music.

Juan Carlos Blanco: Thank you John for this opportunity to share this information with you and your audience.

John F. Bello

Meet John ;-)

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