His interest in the drums led him to an early education at a music conservatory in Cuba at age 9 where he was faced with a life-changing decision.
"My idea was always to become a drummer," he says. "But I had to take a test to see where I’d land and I didn’t pass; they said I didn’t have the rhythmic skills. So I retook the test and they accepted me but the conflict was that I didn’t have the age to become part of the percussion department and they offered me piano or violin. It was the saddest news that I received in my life."
It was his mom who convinced him to take up piano and later move up to percussion when he was of age. "The problem was that after learning to play the piano, I couldn't stop anymore."
Now, the virtuoso and acclaimed jazz pianist is up for a Grammy thanks to his Viento Y Tiempo album, live from the Blue Note Tokyo, with fellow Cuban artist and lifelong friend Aymée Nuviola. It's an homage to their respective mothers and the music that soundtracked their youth in Havana.
"When we listened to those pieces again after many years, we had similar feelings to the feelings we had when we were little kids," Rubalcaba says. "But the most important thing is that the music we included provided happiness to us back then and now, and happiness is what we want those songs to transmit again."
Below, a Q&A with Rubalcaba on his childhood, Viento Y Tiempo and how Afro-Cuban culture became the structure of his music.
This album is a tribute to yours and Aymée's youth. What was so special about your childhood that made you want to revisit it with Viento Y Tiempo?
We grew up in Havana, Cuba and that is where we received our entire music education. What I know about the Cuban music, about the culture, I learned it there. I remember living in a home where music was really important. My father was a musician too and came from a family that has a deep relationship with not only with music but art in general. I remember seeing a lot of great musicians that defined Cuban music in the 60s and 70s, even in the 80s, come to our house. I lived in a barrio called Cayo Hueso and I don't know why but many musicians came out of that neighborhood, which is very dynamic and where you live with windows and doors open. So, you can listen to everything, the good and the bad, that comes out of people's houses.
I remember our piano was right next to the front window and when I sat there to study, people would stop at the window and ask me to play specific songs for them. My mom didn't like that very much and she'd tell them to not distract me and let me study. Aymée had a similar upbringing. We lived parallel lives. We wanted to bring our neighborhood's vibrancy to this album and feature songs that really marked the people of Cuba during our childhood. But most importantly, we wanted to pay homage to our mothers because they were instrumental in our musical upbringing. They taught us discipline, rigor and everything that you're supposed to know in life.
That sounds like a beautiful childhood ...
It was. And it was also a very humble childhood with limitations. But my family was very good at not letting us children become aware of our limitations, instead they made us understand the importance of developing our skills in order to become a professional musician. When I turned 6 years old, my parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I said I wanted a set of drums and their eyes opened wide. They said, 'well where are we going to find that here in Cuba.' Back then, we didn't have a store you could just drive to and buy instruments. But they didn't say no to my request. They eventually found a man who lived outside of Havana that made instruments. They asked him to make my drums and he did. It was the first instrument I ever played, even before the piano.
So, if the drums was the first instrument you learned to play, when did you fall in love with the piano?
At that time, like in the 70s, the music conservatory I went to had a policy that stated that you had to be at least 8 or 9 years old to be accepted as a student to become a piano player. But to study percussion, you had to be older because they waited until your hands grew a little more. My idea was always to become a drummer, I was in love with the drums and I’m still in love. My parents took me to the school and I had to take a test to see where I’d land and I didn’t pass, they said I didn’t have the rhythmic skills. My parents were very upset. It was a tragedy for the family. So, I retook the test and they accepted me but the conflict was that I didn’t have the age to become part of the percussion department and they offered me piano or violin.
It was the saddest news that I received in my life. I didn't want anything to do with the piano or the violin but my mom was key. She sat down with me and said, 'I know you want to become a drummer and I know you don’t like the piano but the piano is probably one of the most important instruments. You have everything there, you have the harmony, the melody, and if in the future you want to compose music, piano will be an amazing tool.' And I did it for the love I have for my mom. I never wanted to give her an answer that would make her unhappy so I said, 'if you want me to start with the piano, I will.' The problem was that after learning to play the piano, I couldn't stop anymore. So I learned to play both, percussion and piano.
You join forces with your lifelong friend Aymée for Viento Y Tiempo. When did you both decide you wanted to do this album together and what was the process of creating it like?
We had been talking for many years now about recording something together but the timing was always off. We each have our agendas and we had other things going on. But when the time is right, everything aligns and we were finally able to do this together. We didn't really know what the project would be and the idea of recording it in a studio vanished as days passed. And then people from the Blue Note Tokyo in Japan called saying they were interesting in premiering our show there and well it was the first door that opened for this project. Because it's such an iconic venue where I've played before and has a strong connection to jazz, we made it happen. We premiered the show in the summer of 2019 and played six shows. Afterwards, we decided to make it into an album because it sounded so great. When it's a live album, sometimes you want to hold on in deciding whether it will become an album or not because live production isn't always great. But after listening to our six shows, we knew there was something there.
Your music embraces influences from all around the world but its essence stems from African roots. What’s your journey been like to cultivating that sound?
My family and my home have helped me cultivate my sound. The music I listened to at home was very diverse. I used to listen to huaracha, bolero, rumba, all the typical Cuban styles but at the same time, I listened a lot of classical music because of my brothers. They played European-influenced classical music very well. But I was also surrounded by Afro-Cuban music and its roots. In my community, we embraced this culture. Normally on weekends, there was rumba playing all over the neighborhood. And you didn’t need to be invited to go to these events because you could just go and you were instantly part of it. You’d sing or if you knew how to play an instrument, you’d be invited to play and that’s what I grew up with.
My influences are popular music, folk music that is mainly used in Afro religious rituals and classical music. Jazz came later. Throughout my life as an artist, those influences are always part of me and my music. They are priority. Afro-Cuban culture is the structure of my music.