A “fresh wave” of sound: Jose Conde

Boston Globe, May 17, 2009

BROOKLYN – The elephant lumbered out of the forest and straight into the lobby of a luxury hotel. At the bar, an elegant woman, martini in hand, gasped, while the pachyderm, oblivious, settled down to feast on a mango. Absurd, amusing, and gently intimating some kind of ecological moral to the story, this scene – based on a photo spotted in National Geographic magazine – struck Jose Conde as perfect fodder for a song. Embellishments to the story began to write themselves in the Cuban-American singer’s mind. And so did the music.

“Elefante in Hotel,” one of several new songs Conde is developing for his next album and already performing with his group Ola Fresca, ended up taking the form of a Venezuelan joropo. On the strength of the musical variety on Ola Fresca’s 2007 album, “Revolucion,” it could just as easily have come out as a Cuban son, Puerto Rican bomba, Haitian compas, or even a New Orleans funk jam – or any combination of these and other Latin and Caribbean styles.

Conde, a 1997 Berklee College of Music grad, will make his return to Boston this summer, and bring Ola Fresca to Regattabar July 25 before giving a children’s salsa concert there the next day.

“I don’t think I was ever a purist,” Conde, who is small and lithe with sharp eyes and a relaxed manner, says over a tight espresso in his backyard garden in Brooklyn. “I didn’t grow up in a pure culture. I grew up with a litte bit of Cuba, a little bit of America, and a little bit of everything else in Miami.”

Born in Florida to Cuban immigrants, Conde grew up hearing Celia Cruz and Benny More recordings, but also ’70s American funk like Earth, Wind and Fire, and homegrown Miami products like KC and the Sunshine Band. He ran with other Cuban kids, but also Puerto Ricans, Haitians, African-Americans. “We were all culturally displaced, mixed cultural youths,” he says.

Conde’s focus on singing came early; he didn’t play an instrument until he picked up a guitar at 15. He knew he wanted a musical career, but he wasn’t sure what kind. When he finally decided to come to Berklee, he turned down a rival offer from the Greater Miami Opera (merged in 1994 into Florida Grand Opera).

“I arrived at Berklee thinking I wanted to do a rock mix,” Conde says. But instead, it was there that he reoriented himself to Latin music, and first imagined the Ola Fresca project. The name means “fresh wave.” It’s apt not just for the musical reinvigoration it implies, but also for Conde’s sensitivity to nature imagery, and his environmental commitments.

“I suffered when I saw tractors going west on Calle Ocho because I knew what they were going to do,” he says, referring to the main drag of Cuban Miami that is also a thoroughfare to the threatened Everglades. Now, he owns some mountain land in Costa Rica that he says he is reforesting.

Planetary survival, he says, should trump more parochial concerns – not least when it comes to Cuba, where he has visited but has yet to perform. “I’m just confused by this nationalism thing,” he says. “We have to come together as human beings.”

But Conde is no feel-good fusioneer when it comes to music. While he plays numerous genres, he appreciates the uniqueness and tradition of each one, which explains why the “Revolucion” CD case lists not just the songs but the style each song represents. And the guest musicians who appear are just as varied as the music, from salsa trombonist Jimmy Bosch to New Orleans drummer Ziggy Modeliste.

“I love the pure, tradicional” – Conde pronounces it in Spanish – “sound of many genres, old son, the salsa tradition,” he says. “There is a way to work a pan-Latin sensibility without losing touch of the essence of the music.”