Francis Del Rio is one of the pillars of the Cuban fusion scene, but “confusion” might be a better term to describe what he does. He’s a singer who dances, a poet who paints, a dandy who dresses like “a clown” (his own words). His parents named him Francisco, everyone has always called him Francis, and he seems to have been predestined to make people wonder what he’s all about.
Del Rio has sung on some of the best albums to come out of Cuba over the last decade. He has worked with Bobby Carcassés, X Alfonso, Roberto Carcassés, Carlos Alberto Cartaya, Descemer Bueno, Pavel Urquiza and Telmary Diaz, and he has been an integral part of Interactivo, the landmark Cuban music collective. Del Rio’s first and only solo album, “Sentimiento,” came out in 2004 and is described on one online store as “hot Latin dance songs fused with jazz, son, salsa, and Afro-Cuban rhythms.”
“I’ve done a lot of different types of music,” he explains. “Some I didn’t like or didn’t understand at first, but now I like and understand them, and it all ends up being called ‘fusion.’
Del Rio was born in 1965 in Granma, Cuba’s most southwestern province, but he grew up in Havana, where he lived with his grandmother. His parents had taken part in Fidel Castro’s nascent guerrilla movement in the Sierra Maestra mountains, the historic launching pad for the Cuban Revolution. His father had been a soldier and his mother, a literacy campaigner.
“I started out painting – I had exhibitions, sold my work,” he recalls. “At 27, I got into music.” In 1991 Del Rio (at 36) started singing with a group called Sonoridad Latina. The following year he appeared in a cabaret called “Timba Suicida,” under the direction of Santiago Alfonso. He sang in the show’s chorus for a year.
“I owe a lot to the phenomenon called Cuban timba,” he explains. He also owes a lot to Calle 42, the group he joined in 1994 at the behest of percussionist Raimundo Martinez. “It’s a real pity Calle 42 split up, because it was a great group. It helped me to find out who I am. I don’t think you can call me a ‘refined timbero’, but I think I managed to put some of the brutality of timba behind me and dedicate myself to seeing the seriousness and beauty in timba.”
Although difficult to define with perfect accuracy, Cuban timba can safely be called dance music, and dancing is a crucial part of Francis Del Rio’s approach: “The first thing I do when I’m making up a song is I dance to it. I dance for hours, until dawn, and I imagine myself like that, grooving and dancing, with a chorus of people shouting, ‘He’s crazy!’, repeating it like a mantra, and that puts me in a kind of ecstatic trance. I get off on it, and if other people get off on it, too, that’s fine.”
Del Rio has a particular interest in guaguancó, the dance style rooted in Afro-Cuban rituals and which you’ll see performed at just about any rumba party on the island. The defining musical component of guaguancó is a slowed-down mambo beat, and its dance movements are said to mimic the mating rituals of rooster and hen, with the male dancer making a pelvic thrust called a ‘vacunao’ and with his female partner fending him off with repeated twirls of her skirt.
The problem Del Rio faces is how to reconcile these two obsessions of his, dancing and singing: “When you’re standing up singing, you’re also dancing. To do these two things at the same time and to do them well – I just don’t know if that’s possible.”
He admits that his stage presence can be baffling for some audiences, but he says there’s just nothing he can do about that: “I try to sing as calmly, as normally as possible while dressing and dancing as strangely as I can. I’m a clown, I like to dress up, to disguise myself, make people laugh at me. Some people take it completely the wrong way and criticise me for the way I dress, but I do it for fun, because it’s entertainment. After the show I turn back into the most normal person in the world, as insignificant as it’s possible to be.”
More confusion, more contradiction: Francis Del Rio describes himself as a vagabond, constantly moving from place to place, but he seems to have limited his movements to travel between various Havana neighbourhoods. He has performed, at various times, in Mexico, Columbia, Brazil and Italy but he says “I don’t really attach much importance to travelling. In any case the whole world is on the Internet. I care about making music, that’s all.”
At the same time, he likes the idea of enlightening foreign audiences about Cuban music. “The first time I travelled outside of Cuba I played at a festival in Brazil,” he says, “and I realised that people really don’t know what’s happening in Cuban music today. They want to hear really old Cuban songs, as if they want to preserve the image of Cuba they have in their minds, an image that has nothing to do with reality. I mean, if I have to sing ‘Guantanamera’ I’ll sing it with all the love in the world, but why ask me sing to ‘Guantanamera’ now, today? There’s so much more going on.”