NelsonRevista Domingo, The New Day, Puerto Rico
August 27th, 2000
by Bibiana Ferraiuoli Suárez
English Translation by Crystal Gonzalez, NY, NY
Photos Luis Vidal

Dialogue on  tres      

The sound of the Tres of  Nelson González  knows no limits. He is perhaps one of the best Tres players in the world today-if not the best.

    The sun is shining. It’s a good day to think about the rehearsal of the band that’s waiting to play for Marc Anthony, in his concert Marc Anthony Live. The group is anxiously and nervously waiting in the Hiram Bithorn stadium. In English and Spanish they are complaining about the heat that envelops them. But when it comes to playing, they are the ones that send out the heat.

     They are the magic. In the middle of all the noise, the timbales, the drums, the congas, you can distinguish the style of the Tres, which is different from all the rest. Behind them, the small figure of Nelson González stands out as he plays the guitar with absolute freedom and lyricism. He appears to be enchanted by his own song. It’s a melody that only the musicians understand.

    “When I play the Tres, I don’t even hear the applause. You give yourself to the music, and the music gives itself to you. I get into the music because if the people want to dance, I have to make them dance, and if they want to scream, I make them scream. That is why I have to be in the instrument, and when that happens the public shares in the music, because the motivation of the musicians is the applause,” expresses Nelson. He is one of the best musicians in the entire world, if not the best, and he is Puerto Rican. He was born on the coast of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico.Nelson

     But no matter how passionate he is about his instrument, Nelson must keep in rhythm with the piano, the trumpets, and all the other instruments. Sometimes, he picks up his head and smiles with the others. He is the oldest of the group and has the most experience. That’s how he feels and that’s how they want him. He also has many musicians under him.

      The song is over, the music has stopped and they take a break, if you can call it a break. Marc Anthony has come on stage with a blue hat, black glasses, a long sleeve shirt, cargo pants, and leather sandals. He smiles, says Hi to his public, stands on stage like Fred Flintstone, undecided. But Marc only imitates his walk. He likes the sound of the band, and lets them know with a nod of the head. He returns to the edge of the stage, and his walk begins to feel the musical flow.  There is something beating in his movements.  He smokes a cigar, and pauses to observe the sea of filled seats.

     The brief moment, mixed with peace, fear an emotion, ends when his musicians play the first chords of Preciosa, and he says to them, “my hair is standing on end.” A little bit after he starts singing, his potent voice fuses with the sounds of the band and creates magic.

       At the finish of “los hijos de la libertad” they celebrate the moment. The singer shakes hands with different people in the band, but when he gets to Nelson, he embraces him in a large hug. Marc re-introduces him. He has repeatedly said,  that to have Nelson González play for him is “an honor.” The musician smiled with a certain timidness at the surprise of the hug, and then greeted and hugged another friend, Danny Rivera.

                 In Marc, there doesn’t just live a great singer, but more so a sincere friend. He says that they met during the play “The Capeman” through Paul Simon. “He asked me if I would like to play in his band, so here I am.” He explains that although Marc’s music is Pop, and Nelson plays a traditional instrument, the mix is perfect. “He is the director of the Orchestra and he transmits to us energies with his voice, and some force brings together the sounds of each instrument.” He follows by saying, “The Tres is not as traditional as it seems. The music they play in the band isn’t new for me. For the most part it expands the range, because I don’t like to put limits on an instrument.” He reminisced back to the ‘70’s to remember when, in that decade, his group Tipica 73, “completely revolutionized the music of latins and Americans, jazz, and the blues.” He believed in an explosive fusion. “I was the baby of the group: I couldn’t say mucOpaline'sh, but I stayed with them to try a little rock, to change the sound of the traditional Tres. I considered the Tres my electric guitar. Jimmy Hendrix included me when he wrote the history of the music,” he comments. Typically, most guitarists reflect the image of the volatile performer with adrenaline at maximum. As for Nelson, who moved here to New York when he was in the sixth grade, he also likes tranquility. “I don’t look for opportunities for fame because fame doesn’t interest me.  I like to travel frequently to Puerto Rico and lose myself in Vega Baja with my family.” During his quiet time, he immerses himself in the worlds of Gabriel García Márquez, with the works of Mario Vargas Llosa, and with the verses of Pablo Neruda. “Oh, how I like the poetry.” He says while hugging his Tres.

(In the recent Marc Anthony concert the band was an essential part. In the Hiram Bithorn stadium, Nelson González delivered the message of Vieques by painting on the back side of his Tres.)

Puerto Rican Treseros are something rare in the world of music, because the famous instrument has it’s roots in Cuba. According to the dictionary of Cuban music by Helio Orovio, “since 1982, a ledgendary famous person like Nené Manfugás played the Tres in the streets of Santiago, Cuba, that he brought from Baracoa.” Derived from the guitar, the Tres consists of three pairs of strings: Two in high octaves and the third in a low octave. It is always identified as a typical Cuban instrument. Nelson began playing at 13 years of age in a Pentacostal church in New York. Once, the famous musicians of Cachao’s band told him he had to be Cuban. He disagreed with pride, “No, I am Puerto Rican like the Coqui.” Although he began as a guitarist, the exposed nature of the Tres, as well as the difficulty, drew him to the Tres. “In the Tres the three pairs of strings are separated. The edge is distinct. The Tres doesn’t allow you to do things like you can with a Cuatro or a guitar. For me it is a challenge, because it is not easy to have a rhythmic sensibility outside of the norm.” he admits. Nelson takes his commitment to the instrument very seriously. “In Puerto Rico, like in other countries, the customs are in danger of extinction, and they are traditions that we cannot afford to lose.” In an effort to promote the instrument, Nelson gives lessons to ten students of diverse Hispanic American nationalities. Nelson is currently writing an instruction manual for the Tres for the Mel Bay guitar book series.

Those who know Nelson only have good things to say about him. His son Joseph spent the day admiring the musical talent at the Hiram Bithorn stadium. Himself a promising folkloric singer and dancer, he will also dance at the Hiram Bithorn stadium. At the end of the year, father and son will make a record together.  Revista Domingo knows that in his free time, Nelson colaborates with SER de Puerto Ricon, los Centros Sor Isolina Ferré and other causes. In recent months, he asked his friend, Cuban actor Andy Garcia to make a video for the kids of SER, and the actor did without complaiOpaline'snt.

Nelson is easily as talented as the artists he has worked with. Some of his more notable collaborations were with Madonna and Gloria Estefan. He has also played with Jay Leno’s band three times on the show, and performed on “Saturday Night Live.” These celebrities recognize his talent, and his special way with a melody on his Tres.

To converse with Nelson is also a great privilege. It’s like taking a music history class in a few hours, because the conversation will always return to New York in the ‘70’s, when the orchestras of Ray Baretto, Tipica ’73, and Fania All-Stars were creating our modern Salsa styles. The story starts back even further, to his blessed beginnings, when he chose this rarely played instrument, and continues to his adolescence during the glory days of salsa. His first big break came at 18 with the Orchestra of Justo Betancourt. He also played a few popular sessions in a club called “and Vinny’s,” among others in the New York area. But his greatest influence was the Afro Cuban music. “It’s that the music included everything. Also, the importance and implementation of the Tres called to me. It is vital because it functions like a piano in the rhythm section. How could I not fall in love? So I began to collect music of this genre. All that I found I bought and afterwards I experimented.” From those sessions, he began to find his musical voice, and the offers poured in from different nightclubs in Queens. “Through Cachao’s band, I made connections with Lino Frías of the Sonora Matancera, the Orchestra Revelación of Ismael Miranda, Willie Colon, Oscar Hernándes: Director of Son Del Solar,  Ray Barretto, Tipica 73, Nicky Marerro,  and the Fania All-Stars. The offers seemed to come out of nowhere.”

When we asked Nelson if he remembered the following excerpt, he couldn’t do anything but laugh, remembering the long music sessions:

 “There is an orchestra, gentlemen, that has a total sound.
They dream to play, dream to come together.
They dream sensational dreams.
They begin with a rumba, salsa, or guajira or bembé.
Listen to the new sound of Tipica 73."

  "and where did you get that from, you devil!" he answered with a smile, flushed with the satisfaction that his Tres is taking new musical paths. R.D.               
                   
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