Voices: Maraca’s Other Vision

Meet Maraca, the talented young Cuban musician who's taking his "spirit" flute to the world

Maraca: “I like to hear the flute in different contexts; it can fit everywhere”. Photograph by Simon Lee

“You can’t play music just by making sounds,” says Orlando “Maraca” Valle, Cuba’s fabulously talented young flautist and composer/arranger. “So when you’re a Cuban musician and you don’t live in Cuba you lose the typical Cuban way of thinking, you stagnate. The evolution of Cuban music is in Cuba.”

If the consensus of jazz critics from New York to London is reliable, it seems that Maraca is playing a central role in the evolution of Cuban music. His latest album, iSonando!, inspired a glittering array of rave reviews, not only for his technical virtuosity, but for his innovative treatment of traditional Cuban forms: guajira, guaracha, guaguanco, chachacha, bolero, rumba and mambo.

Hailed as “The future of Afro-Cuban jazz” and “Cuba’s latest bright star”, Maraca is entirely unfazed by the accolades. “My two previous albums were more Latin jazz. ¡Sonando! is more traditional.” It’s a measure of the esteem felt for him by established musicians that the 31-year-old Maraca is joined on the album by revered elders of Cuban music: 92-year-old Grammy-award-winning trova singer Compay Segundo, Pancho Amat, Cuba’s greatest tres (three-stringed guitar) player, legendary rumba group Los Munequitos de Matanzas, son singers Pio Leyva and Rolo Martinez, bolero singer Lino Borges, and Puerto Rican jazz saxophonist Dave Sanchez.

According to his wife Celine, also a gifted flautist, Maraca acquired his percussive nickname “in the ’70s when he was very thin and had an Afro. He looked like Michael Jackson – or a maraca.” Probably even before he grew the Afro he was studying flute and classical music, starting, aged 10, at a Havana conservatory. At the same time, he says, “I used to listen to a lot of traditional musicians like Tara Guines (the great conga player), as well as jazz musicians like Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk and a lot of classical flute- Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi. I like to hear the flute in different contexts; it can fit everywhere. ” True to his nickname, he was heavily influenced by Cuba’s rich percussion tradition. “I combine the experience of percussion with flute technique.”

By 19, he had joined Irakere, Chucho Valdes’s seminal AfroCuban jazz band, and was catapulted onto the world stage of international jazz festivals. With Irakere he honed his flute and keyboard playing and “contributed composition and arrangement.” In 1994, after six years with “the world’s best Latin jazz band”, Maraca felt he needed as a composer to make his own music, develop his own sound. Since then he has liberated the flute from its prescribed delicate role in charanga, the dance style the instrument is most associated with in Cuba, in which it is used in harmony with violins, guitar and piano. With his power-playing and extraordinary ability, he’s shown the flute more than capable of holding its own in the robust horn sections of rumba or son.

Maraca maintains that “to make the music change, a musician can’t forget his roots. The roots are part of fusion, you can’t play modern music and then play roots.” So while he believes “fusion is the future of music”, he’s still very much in touch with the folk music he grew up with and the sacred rhythms of santerIa, Cuba’s syncretic, African-derived religion, “which are all part of Cuba’s heritage.”

Significantly, Maraca calls his band Otra Vision (“Other Vision”), because, as he says, “My vision of the world and life is the vision of the spirit. Some people see very well but they don’t have spirit vision.”