When Andy William landed in Nebraska a few years ago, the Cuban conga player had a mission — put together a band and bring the music of his homeland to the Heartland.
“It’s really important to present traditional Cuban music here,” William said. “I don’t think many people are familiar with it. I’m very pleased and appreciative that I have been able to start this band in Nebraska. It fills me with joy to present this music with so much positive energy.”
The band, which William initially assembled in 2018, is the Nebraska All Stars, a 14- member ensemble made up of Cuban, Latin and American musicians that will kick off Jazz in June 2022 Tuesday.
Originally from the small town of Cienfuegos in southern Cuba, Andy William Gomez went to music school in Havana, learning guitar and all the percussion instruments. But he’d fallen in love with congas as a boy watching the conga players during street performances in Cienfuegos.
In Havana, William played with Giraldo Piloto y Klimax, one of Cuba’s most famous groups, known for adding a jazzy accent to traditional son. “That was kind of a graduate school for him, learning how bands of this size run at a high level,” said Justin Jones, Nebraska All Stars drummer who translated for William during a Tuesday interview.
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William came to the U.S. for work, first in Miami, then in Alabama, where he moved because he had family there. In Alabama, William put together a group, the Alabama All Stars and made a record.
But he ran out of work, but heard from a friend that there were jobs in Nebraska. So he moved to Columbus where he works at the Cargill plant.
Shortly after he settled in Columbus, William began his quest to bring Cuban music to Nebraska.
“He was trying to figure out where he could play his music here,” Jones said. “He was looking at places that host Latin music around here. He was at a show of a salsa band in Omaha, that’s where I met him. Several others met him there as well.”
The real breakthrough in the creation of the Nebraska band came via a tip from Florida.
“Some friends in Miami told me about a couple singers who lived in Omaha,” William said. ”They’re legends in Cuba, Onelio Perez and Lester Hojas. I was amazed. Here I am in Nebraska and I find these well-known Cuban singers living in Nebraska.”
The trio of Perez, Hojas and Williams formed the core of the group, which got started four years ago, but was put on hold for all of 2020 and half of 2021 by COVID-19. The band has been playing regularly for about a year and keeps getting bigger and bigger.
“It keeps growing,” Jones said. “Andy is constantly discovering new talent and bringing them into the group…Imagine trying to get all of us on the Zoo Bar stage. It’s tight, really tight..”
Of the 14 people in the group, seven are Cubans, some traveling from St. Joseph, Missouri, and Des Moines to rehearse and play in the band.
“It’s become a regional group as far as the musicians go,” Jones said. ”But they speak the same language. We American musicians don’t always speak that language as well as they do. But Andy’s teaching us.”
What William is teaching is a more modern style of Cuban music that adds some American influences into the Afro-Cuban genres of rumba, son, bolero, and danzon.
Those traditional styles were popularized in the U.S. by the Buena Vista Social Club, a group of veteran Cuban musicians assembled in 1996 to record an album and be the subjects of a Wim Wenders documentary
“They’re the most well known around the world,” William said. “My idea is take some of the classical repertoire from the Buena Vista Social Club and put it together with a little bit more modern styles and instrumentation.”
That means that there are synthesizers in the band and Jones, widely regarded as the region’s top roots music drummer, on a drum kit.
“He really looks to the American musicians and what we bring to the table,” Jones said. ”He’s trying to get me to play more funky at times. He wants that fatter sound. It’s an interesting combination. But It’s nothing that isn’t going on in Cuba. Cuban music has always been influenced by American music, and vice versa.”
William said he tailors the group’s performances tor each audience and venue. If, for example, they’re playing the Omaha club The Jewell, they’ll play more jazz. If the show is in a club where people want to dance, more traditional sounds will come from the bandstand.
Among the traditional-leaning audiences are Cubans, who live in Nebraska, who flock to the Nebraska All Stars shows.
“There’s a surprising number of Cubans in Nebraska, in Columbus, Hastings, in Crete where I live,” Jones said. “When they find out, they come out to hear this stuff, their music. They miss their home, their country. To hear this music that is so much a part of the lives here, the Cuban expats get real excited about it.”
For the thousands who will gather in the Sheldon Museum of Art sculpture garden for the free concert Tuesday, many who know little or nothing about Cuban music, William will hit on all the elements in the All Stars repertoire
“I’m planning on playing four Latin jazz arrangements, instrumentals,” he said. “The rest will be songs made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club and some other traditional Cuban songs, some of them associated with Emilio, who really is a famous singer in Cuba.”
Speaking of famous singers, Tuesday the All Stars will be joined by a special guest, Max Carl, the Norfolk-area native who led Jack Mack and the Heart Attack and has been the singer for .38 Special and Grand Funk Railroad.
“He loves Cuban music,” Jones said. “His dad used to go to Cuba for agricultural work and that’s how he learned about it even though he grew up in Nebraska.”
Over the last year, as the All Stars have played clubs, the Iowa State Fair, and festivals, like ZooFest where they’ll return in July, the Cuban music group has connected with audiences.
“I think people really love it,” William said. “I love playing places where people are into listening to music, like the Jewel and the Zoo Bar. Cuban music in our band has a ton of energy on stage. That’s appealing to people whether they understand the music or not. I am grateful and happy that people like it. “
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or [email protected]. On Twitter @KentWolgamott