The young Rubén González was an accomplished classical pianist and in his youth was planning to become a doctor. In 1941 he gave up his studies of classical music and medicine to begin his professional career playing dance music, playing with most of the major orchestras in Cuba. He began his recording career in 1943 with the pioneering bandleader Arsenio Rodríguez, who would help revolutionise the sound of Cuban music. Rubén said that he approached the piano not as an accompanying instrument but one that also leads, whilst still maintaining the rhythm. Arsenio became a major influence on Rubéns playing style and his outlook on life, giving him some invaluable advice that he has always tried to follow. He explained that the key to being a great pianist was mastering Cuban syncopation, while at the same time playing from the heart. Don't worry about what anyone else is doing. Just play your own style, whatever it is, but don't imitate anyone. Just carry on like that, so when people hear your music, they'll say, that's Rubén."
Along with Lilí Martínez and Peruchin, Rubén was part of a trio of pianists who helped shape the way in which this music would develop. Having established his own distinctive style Rubén went on to play in various orchestras throughout South America before returning to Cuba. In the early 1960s Rubén became pianist for Enrique Jorrín, the man credited for inventing the cha cha cha, and would continue to play for him for the next 25 years. In 1979 the cream of Cubas musicians got together for the Estrellas De Areito sessions. Hand picked especially for these recordings, the stellar line-up included Rubén González as a featured soloist. After Jorríns death in the mid-80s Rubén briefly took over the role as band leader but would choose to retire soon after.
It wasn't until 1996, when the now legendary trio of albums-the Afro Cuban All Stars' A Toda Cuba le Gusta, produced by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez and Nick Gold, Buena Vista Social ClubÔ, produced by Ry Cooder; and Introducing Rubén Gonzalez, also produced by Gold, all for World Circuit-was recorded that Rubén would play again professionally. Ruben's genius was a crucial factor in the success of the projects, which were all recorded during a three week recording blitz. After years without owning a piano, and despite the onset of arthritis, the music flowed out of him prompting Cooder to call him "the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard in my life." All three albums would become commercial and critical phenomena and finally brought Rubén the international recognition that he richly deserved. Rubén's piano playing is an essential feature on the solo albums of fellow Buena Vista stars Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo. The trio of celebrated musicians toured the world several times over, delighting ecstatic audiences everywhere they went.
In 2000, aged 81, Rubén recorded what would be his swansong, Chanchullo, an album full vigour and inventiveness. Clearly inspired by his newfound success, a rejuvenated Rubén played with a power, swing and vitality that belied his years, and health. Prior to the late-90s Rubén had never toured internationally and what touched him the most was that, unlike the years he spent playing at dances, audiences were now actually listening to what he was playing. Sadly, as his health deteriorated, Rubén would be forced to retire from performing. He would remain with his family in Havana, Cuba.
Rubén González was a greatly loved individual, whose life force flowed through his playing. He had a wicked sense of humour, with an energy and passion for music that couldnt fail to touch all those who had the pleasure of knowing him, or as Ry Cooder put it, hes like a cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat. Rubén was unable to pass a piano without playing it, and the joy he got from the instrument would radiate through his very being. The world of music has lost one of the all time greats, his family and friends mourn the passing of a great man. Although he will be sadly missed, whenever one thinks of Rubén it will be of the happiness he brought to all those around him, and to the millions more that will enjoy his music for many years to come.
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