CONJUNTO CÉSPEDES played its first performance billed as Trio Céspedes on July 26, 1981 at Previews, a nightclub on Polk Street in San Francisco. The founders of the Conjunto Luis, Gladys, and Guillermo Céspedes began playing original and traditional "Son Cubano" relying on the instrumentation of guitar, small percussion and vocals.
By 1982 the Conjunto had expanded to a "septeto format", and was consistently playing 4 set dance gigs three or four nights a week in clubs and cultural centers throughout the Bay Area. In 1984 CONJUNTO CÉSPEDES released its first self produced LP titled GUIRA CON SON, comprised of 8 original compositions. While the LP received limited national distribution, it helped to establish the ensemble as a legitimate force in the Latin Music scene, leading to the band's first East Coast Tour as well shared local billings with such artists as Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, El Gran Combo, Ruben Blades.
Following the departure of Luis Céspedes from the group in 1986, the CONJUNTO CÉSPEDES began re-defining its sound by digging deeper into the Afro Cuban secular and religious folklore while simultaneously developing more of a big band sound incorporating brass, timbales, violins, and added background vocals. The notion of incorporating the folkloric secular and religious idioms into a dance music format not only made the Conjunto's sound unique in the context of the "commercial salsa" scene, but also opened the door to playing for a wider and more diverse audience as part of the "world music movement". In 1987 CONJUNTO CÉSPEDES was chosen to participate in Bill Graham's First World Music Festival at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, followed by a West Coast Tour opening for the British Rocker Bryan Ferry.
In 1989 CONJUNTO CÉSPEDES was commissioned by the Rockerfeller Foundation through the now defunct Redwood Records to set the poetry of the prolific Afro Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen to music. This commission allowed the Conjunto some breathing space from the hectic club schedule in order to focus on more musically challenging arrangements incorporating elements of jazz, and the use of more modern harmonic structures. By adding piano along with the traditional Cuban tres guitar and boasting a horn section of two trumpets, two trombones, along with three percussionists, the Conjunto had honed its sound into a fiery, big band format capable of ranging from the most folkloric roots of Afro Cuban Music to the most contemporary.
In 1992 CONJUNTO CÉSPEDES signed a record deal with Green Linnet/Xenophile Records, and its first release for the label titled UNA SOLA CASA was voted NAIRD 1993 Latin Album of the Year. The success of UNA SOLA CASA moved the ensemble to tours and raving performance reviews in every major city in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In 1995 the Conjunto released VIVITO Y COLEANDO for Xenophile Records, again garnering the coveted NAIRD 1995 Latin Album of the Year Award, and again gathering an impressive amount of favorable press for it's fiery performaces and teaching residencies in major cities throughout the United Staes, Canada and Europe.
During 1997 CONJUNTO CÉSPEDES has toured throughout the Midwest, and the Eastern part of the United States, as well as a tour of major jazz festivals throughout Western Canada, as well as the Monterrey World Music Festival, the Live Oak Music Festival in Santa Barbara. In addition they have just completed their third CD for Xenophile Records entitled FLORES.
The current ensemble includes:
1)Gladys "Bobi" Céspedes- composition, arranging, lead vocals, percussion, co-direction.
2)Guillermo Céspedes-composition, arranging, piano, chekere, Cuban tres guitar, musical direction.
3) Jesus Diaz- composition, arranging, congas, background vocals, percussion section leader.
4) Julius Melendez- arranging, lead trumpet, section leader.
5) Lichi Fuentes- composition, arranging, percussion, chekere, 6 string guitar, background vocals.
6) Jeff Lewis- second trumpet, chekere.
7) Raul Navarrete- trombone.
8) Mara Fox- trombone, chekere.
9) Rahsaan Federicks- bass, background vocals, percussion.
10) Eric Rangel- timbales, background vocals.
11) Oscar Soltero- bongoes, chekere.
12) Oscar Autie- Sound Engineer.
Conjunto Céspedes is a San Francisco-based band, but its heart is set firmly in Cuba, a Cuba that wears its African heritage in rich, nuanced colors. Formed in 1981 as an acoustic trio of la familia Céspedes, with Gladys "Bobi' Céspedes singing, and husband Luis and nephew Guillermo taking turns on guitar and tres. Over the years, they've added pieces, expanded their repertoire, started recording (1993), and enjoyed extraordinary success. One of the biggest reasons why is Gladys' voice, strong and rich as molasses and capable of leading the band through, on this album, both the hypnotic call-and-responses of the santeria prayer song "Aideu" and the melodrama of the classic bolero "Nosotros." Flores, produced by famed perccussionist John Santos, is their deepest exploration to date of the "Afro" part of Afro-Cuban music. Examples include "El Tambor tiene su magia," an all-percussion song with hypnotic bata drums and congas that could have been recorded in West Africa, and "Aideu," a chanted "santeria" prayer hypnotically banged out by bells and the chekere. Others are straight-ahead salsa numbers with bright horn work and emphasis on clave, such as "Flores para tu altar," one of the best tracks on the album, "Umelina," and "Defiende el Amor," one of two composed by nueva trova star Pablo Milanes. The other by Milanes is "Canto a la Abuela," an affecting song about what a grandmother had to teach a boy. Lyrics are always poetic and often political, unusual in world of popular Latin music. The liner notes are a joy, with all songs translated, and all musicians and instruments listed. About half the songs were composed and arranged by band members. - Elisa S. Murray
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