Paul D’Alessio talks about son music genre

Paul D’Alessio Submitted photo

It’s not often that I get to go with a new-to-me genre, so it was with a little trepidation that I approached today’s band: Primo Cubano, which performs son music, the primary contributor to the blend of Latin styles known as salsa. I set up an interview with Paul D’Alessio of the Portland-based group to find out more about this style of music. I began by bingeing on YouTube videos to become a little more familiar with what his band does in a concert setting.

When reached at home, I asked him if I was pronouncing the genre’s name correctly son (sown).
D’Alessio: Yes, it’s son cubano.

Q: To be honest, not knowing Spanish didn’t have any impact on my enjoyment of your band’s music.
D’Alessio: Yeah (chuckle), there’s a lot of life in the music that we play. It’s classic son cubano music and is a body of work that’s really great, and it’s a niche, a specialized genre music, that even in Cuba young people aren’t learning it that much nowadays. So, when I first heard it, I felt like it was such great stuff that people should know about it and be able to hear it. And like you said, you don’t even have to understand Spanish to appreciate the vibrancy of the music.

Q: One of the videos I watched really caught my attention when you guys broke into one of my favorite Sandpipers’ songs: “Guantanamera.” When you started that one I went, “Hey, wait a minute, I know this one!”
D’Alessio: (Laughter)

Q: So you’re coming to One Longfellow, is it?
D’Alessio: Yup.

Q: You have performed there in the past, correct?
D’Alessio: Yeah, I think we’ve done at least three or four New Year’s there.

Q: Do you go right through to the new year?
D’Alessio: Yeah, we go right up past midnight.

Q: I would imagine they remove the chairs and just let everyone there move and groove to their hearts content.
D’Alessio: Oh, yeah, the dance floor is pretty well opened, but there’s seating too, and they have a balcony. We like the place a lot.

Q: On your website there is a listing of five players: you, Marc Chillemi, Lenny Hatch, Eric Winter and Duane Edwards.
D’Alessio: Yeah, all of us are still here except for Eric, and we have some new players playing with us.

Q: How long have you been doing this, and are you the founder of the group?
D’Alessio: I am, yeah, and the band started in 2007. So it’s been about 15 years.

Q: That’s a good, long run. Are you busy when it comes to performing?
D’Alessio: Yeah, but mostly in the summer and it drops off after October.

Q: How far from Maine do you get when you tour?
D’Alessio: Well, we’ve played down in Massachusetts and New Hampshire a little bit, but that is as far as we’ve gone so far.

Q: Having watched the video performances, I was wondering if you give a little history into the genre or do you just play the music?
D’Alessio: It depends on the show. At a concert or a school, sometimes we even do schools, we go into (the history) a lot more, but if the particular show is more of a dance or a party or a wedding or something like that, then we don’t.

Q: Do you write new songs or are you just drawing from the cultural material?
D’Alessio: We are drawing on the classics, and it’s tough for us all to get together for rehearsals. But we are working on new material to us. It’s actually a lot of old songs.

Q: How do you go about choosing which songs to cover?
D’Alessio: Well, we just choose songs that really appeal to us.

Q: What is the start time for your One Longfellow Square show if you’re to go until midnight?
D’Alessio: As I recall it’s like 9 to 12:30, or so.

Q: That’s a good work out for your band, I would think.
D’Alessio: (Laughter) Yeah, it is.

Q: How much of an audience for this music is here in Maine? We’re not in the heart of Cuban music around here.
D’Alessio: Yup, that’s a fair assessment, but we have a small, but dedicated audience. I would say there are certainly places that you would guess to be better.

Q: Like where, just out of curiosity?
D’Alessio: Southern coastal area, coastal areas are better for us in general.

Q: Do you go down to Cuba often?
D’Alessio: No, I’ve only been twice myself, and the last time was 2013. The first time I went was in 2004, and we didn’t know what to expect.

Q: And you learned the music while you were down there, I take it?
D’Alessio: Yes, I started taking lessons on my first trip learning the tres cubano, which is the three double-string guitar that is the traditional Cuban instrument. Also, I started collecting songs and lyrics, and then when I got home I made a tres for myself out of a ¾-sized guitar. I strung and tuned it like a tres and started learning the songs I had collected.

Q: Well, Paul is there anything more that you’d like to pass on to the folks reading this article about your upcoming New Year’s Eve show at One Longfellow Square?
D’Alessio: Well, let’s see — it’s a standard New Year’s celebration; we’re just going to welcome in the new year with some energetic and exciting classic Cuban music. There will be dancing and some libations, and it’s always a good time at One Longfellow.

Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.