This ajiaco, or stew, traditionally and modernly made Mr. lvarez unique among Cuban conductors at the time, said Marysol Quevedo, Cuban music expert and assistant professor of musicology at the University of Miami. “What he represents is this perfect hybrid of the traditional and influences from abroad,” she said.
Unlike many Cuban artists of the time, Mr. Álvarez received permission from the Communist government of Cuba to travel abroad, beginning with a trip to Venezuela in 1980. (President Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba expressed his condolences on the occasion of his death.) This freedom of movement gives him access to Latin music outside Cuba and keeps him in contact with contemporary musical trends. In 1999, after he and his band performed in New York, Peter Watrous of the New York Times called their sound “modern and unstoppable.”
Mr. lvarez pioneered in other ways. A priest of the Yoruba religion La Regla de Ocha-Ifá, he was one of the first Cubans to present on stage and in the recording studio songs centered on his beliefs. Religions like Ifá – a mixture of Roman Catholicism and West African spiritual beliefs – were banned and secretly practiced in Atheist Cuba until 1992, when the government declared itself secular and banned the religious discrimination. The Ifá and the other Santería religions are now commonplace and openly practiced.
The ban did not prevent Mr. lvarez from recording, in 1991, one of his greatest successes, “Y Qué Tu Quieres Que Te Den?” “ which focuses on Ifá and asks listeners to think about what they want from orishas, or deities. The song served as a tribute to his religion, but also as a public recognition of his popularity.
Adalberto Cecilio Álvarez Zayas was born on November 22, 1948 in Havana and grew up in Camagüey, a city in central Cuba. Her father, Enrique Álvarez, was a musician and her mother, Rosa Zayas, was both musician and singer.
He attended the National School of the Arts of Cuba, where he studied composition and orchestration. He then taught students for a while until he landed a job writing songs for the band Conjunto Rumbavana in 1972, after impressing the band’s frontman, Joseíto González. It was Mr. González who introduced Mr. Álvarez to the idea of reviving the tradition of Cuban dance.