Álvarez Guedes sketch on a vinyl disc

Alvarez Guedes: between music and humor

If we were going on the street with a microphone in our hands asking the youngest about who of the Cuban humorists they like more, many would say Luis Silva, Osvaldo Doimeadios, Omar Franco, and Alexis Valdés…we would dare to predict that a few of these boys’d dare to mention Guillermo Alvarez Guedes for a simple reason: they don’t know him. However, this man of a humble origin, from Matanzas and the penultimate of seven brothers, he was known even by the stones before the triumph of the Revolution. Besides telling jokes like any other, Guillermo had the great merit to know many singers and musicians from the island… How was it done by him? Here we tell it.


First a musician and later a humorist

Guillermo Álvarez Guedes picture
The fifties were very successful for Álvarez Guedes

Since he was a child (was born in 1927), he liked the life of an artist. Barely being 5 years old, he performed in a theater in his hometown Union de Reyes and as a teenager he joined the “troupe” of a travelling circus that acted around the area, but his great passion was music.

The year 1941 was passing by, the restless Perez Prado, at that time as a pianist of Aniceto Diaz band; he did a cast as a singer. Afterwards he joined the band led by Ernesto Duarte and completed several seasons at the National Casino. However, the acting could more and in 1949 he performed on the radio, dramatizing street crimes in one of the programs of red reports, son on fashion at that time.

The mythical TV producer Gaspar Pumarejo, founder of this media in Cuba, smelled his talent and proposed to act in some adventures, comedies, and magazines of musical type. Precisely in one of them, the star program Casino de la Alegría from CMQ radio station would leave an indelible mark casting a drunken man written by the script writer Francisco Vergara. His popularity was snap, so was the young Guillermo’s payment, which was worthy to establish new projects of maximum personal interest.


The adventure of GEMA

Picture of Elena Burke snapping the fingers with the beat
The first recorded singer by Gema records was Elena Burke

Guillermo Alvarez Guedes, his brother Rafael and the pianist Ernesto Duarte Brito created a recording label that was very successful to the collectors and fans of the Cuban music in 1957. It was named “Gema”, and the first Long Playing recorded was for the singer Elena Burke, which they announced several musicians from the Filarmonica Orchestra and it counted with the two great maestros’ arrangements: Rafael Somavilla and Adolfo Guzmán. By the way indeed, according to what Alvarez Guedes used to tell himself, it was a whole luxury to see Mrs. Burke recording of an only take, while other singers like Fernando Alvarez and La Lupe took more time, due to the their out of tunes in the recordings.

Other of the artists launched by the recording company was Rolando Laserie, in those times he was a singer of the Sans Souci Bar and with an increasing popularity among the Havana public. The “Queen of the Guaguancó”, Celeste Mendoza was also in the payroll of the artists who opened the label and performed with a daring arrangement of the Mexican folk song Echame a mi la culpa, in guaracha rhythm. Bebo Valdés and Chico O’Farrill were also stars who recorded for Gema during the Cuban time of the recording company.


«The worst remembering of my life was the day I left»

Winds of Revolution were blowing in Cuba, in 1958. And it’s known those winds brought good things for some and bad ones for others. Inside the second group was Alvarez Guedes. He took the decision so early; on October 23rd, 1960 he was leaving to The USA on a one way trip. The nationalization of all the industries, among them the recording company founded by Guillermo, along with the very famous ones like Puchito and Kubaney was one of the causes of his exodus.

Funny information: on the same plane that would take him to the northern nation, also Celia Cruz, as an exiled was travelling.


GEMA continued recording

First he tried to establish the recording company in New York, after he would get to set it in Puerto Rico, under the name of Gema Records, where he played an important role to be the first discographic label to launch the Gran Combo one of the salsa bands of essential memory in the history of the Latin music. In the 60s and 70s he recorded among others Andy Montañez, Danny Rivera, Manteca and his band, Broadway band, Roberto Ledesma, Kiko Fuentes, Jesús Caunedo and his band, Luisa María Guell and a large inventory of artists.

Of course Alvarez Guedes also would record records, not as a singer, those “sins of youth”, would keep forming a part of his rich vital experience, even as a humorist. He highlighted a total of 32 albums full of good Cuban humor and “swear words”. The comedian died in 2013.

Satirical, irreverent, and anti-dogmatic was Guillermo Alvarez Guedes. Not only went beyond “the eternal drunk”, or the artist who imposed the Ñoo…! (Gee!), as a label of unequivocal Cuban type… He was also an entrepreneur who left an unforgettable mark in the still Cuban musical industry.

Consulted Sources: Armando López / Especial / El Nuevo Herald, 08.04.13

Rosalina Marrero-Rodríguez, Álvarez Guedes prendió fuego en nuestra música, para primerahora.com

Gema Discography on discogs.com

Couple dancing danzon drawing

Danzon means Cuba

It’s so exciting to know that the International Festival dedicated to our national dance will be held in Havana this month. Among so much banal music and so much rude lyric, this news is a cool wind that travels from the middle of the XIX century to our days. Cubans have a “motto” for everything, we’ve labeled the Havana Danzon Festival (be celebrated from June 21st to 25th, 2017) the following: “From Danzon to Mambo and Cha Cha in the centenary of Dámaso Pérez Prado’s birth”. We could think that is large, but fair. Three of the most important forms in the Cuban musical history are outstanding, successful in many.

This festival will also be dedicated to the immense figures: Paulina Álvarez (if you haven’t listened to Omara Portuondo’s CD, Buena Vista Social Club diva with Paulina, it’s time to make it for you), and Aniceto Díaz, creator of the Danzonete, form derived from the danzon. Similarly the arrival of the danzon to Mexico will be remembered, specifically to the Yucatán Peninsula.


– Is there dance tonight? No, I get sweat.

The tradition of public dances in Cuba comes from 1791. In a first moment they were begun in the suburbs of Havana, above all in Arroyo Naranjo municipality. It was just a couple of months, you can enjoy of this hobby so wanted by the Havana people in the city. The most played music forms were the dance and the contradance coming from the Spanish colony, according to the experts, full of a French overtone, considered “chic”. This influence was reaffirmed years later by the exodus of French settlers to Haiti and Santo Domingo, settled in east of Cuba. Of the “turbulent and wild” atmosphere of these dances this paragraph testifies, taken from a newspaper of that time called El regañón de la Havana, 1830:

«Being finished, then, the serious dance, the contradanza began, being aside all the dancers, the judgement and the behavior. I don’t dare to describe everything that happened there (…) the contradanza was danced the worst as possible, and after twenty minutes of not so decent frolic, because that wasn’t dancing, all the dancers full of sweat and really exhausted left, to come back from there to the same page again for a while».

Oh! My dear chronicler, you’d have died not once, a thousand times if you see in Havana, 2017 the young people dancing reaggueton! But well, let’s go on the matter that we’re dealing. Add the dance the fancy things, the tall collars and the tails, bows and the vests, all clothes necessary in the male outfit. Women didn’t have it so easy; tight in corsets and attire, with skirts, half-slips… they sweat blood. Time was passing by the Spanish dances were becoming into creole dances, and at the same time they paved the way to the contradanza… the warm and voluptuous climate of the tropics kept changing these dances and in 1850 in Matanzas, the black and the mulatto young people started to play songs made by parts, the ones were called danzon because their choreography was based on a “high” dance with new steps and figures, more rhythmic and cadence. They seem to be more complicated, because permissions had to be asked to rehearse the dance weeks before the presentation. However, we had to wait more than 30 years so another guy from Matanzas, popular singer of contradanzas and named Miguel Faílde, got after some attempts, a new way to recreate through the music the old choreography that was known as danzon locally. His first song was called “Las Alturas de Simpson”. Its acceptance was so big that the bands had to repeat the song two or three times for a night under the request of the dancers. The band which performed was made up of woodwind instruments, most of them, some stringed and minimum percussion.


Fortune and misfortune of the Danzon.

It seems incredible, but it’s true. After knowing the acceptance, the Danzon had its moment of rejection. The wealthy society from Havana in the 80s of XIX century began to consider it a “negro dance” and it was practically exiled of the most exclusive dance floors. Two places were outstanding where the form was danced despite of everything, the first: The Trotcha Salon in Vedado, area that began to be defined as a residential zone, and in The Glorieta in the beaches of Marianao, Saturdays and Sundays. The wave of rejection began to be dissolved at the early beginning of the last decade of the century, what it was a “negro dance” became to be called a “Cuban dance”. Some researchers consider that one of the main reasons to this triumphant was that finally, the musicians learned the real formula of the danzon created by Faílde and they used wisely, besides some African songs, excerpts of arias of opera, zarzuela, guaracha and songs, which gave a touch of refinement. Besides the small instrumental bands known as French charangas, made the danzon songs of their own and put them on the top of the popularity. So much so that the Princess Eulalia de Borbón (with multiple echoes in the Cuban society of that time) and Don Antonio de Orleans was the right moment to show the chords of the renewed form. The success kept pointed out of this way by the famous magazine La Habana Elegante, in its March 21st, 1893 edition:
«The real couple, after going around the salons and galleries of the Spanish Casino, they stopped to see the so unfair criticized danzon dance, admiring the sweet melodies that characterized it».
The Danzon had many cultured, among them the most important were: Raimundo and his brother Pablo Valenzuela, who made Miguel Faílde band known, Manuel Saumell, Antonio María Romeu, Eliseo Grenet and Jose Urfé, all of them filled the first of the XIX century with charm and gentleness. Mentioning aside deserves the unforgettable Barbarito Diez, the danzonero singer par excellence, without a rival at the moment to work with the form.


Mexico fell in love with the Danzon.

Couple of actors from the Mexican movie Danzon
Photo of the Mexican film “Danzon”, 1991, directed by María Novaro.

Danzon was danced “in a little step”, with the couple looking into each other’s eyes, she, with the hand fan ready to talk in a language only suitable to experts, he, bursting with charm and kindness. There was no place for disrespect; it had strict codes even for the “hug” of both dancers: it was unthinkable to find a higher hand or lower.

The own design of music, with a first introductory part, and others destined for dance, it made that friends or lovers had the time to talk or give themselves into love requests, such a thing, not well seen if it was done in other places according to the strict rules of that time. These charms made that in Yucatán people liked this dance so fast, taken to Mexican lands by the Cuban immigrants who were running away from the difficult political situation in Cuba at the end of the XIX century. Some elements were maintained, but irreparably the local musicians (mainly from Veracruz) set a particular label. The bands that played the danzon were called danzoneras and they were gifted of a complete section of brass and strings. The musical form paved the way to interior of the country, reaching the capital, and its biggest exponent was Salon Mexico, temple of the popular dance, with shows that began at 7 o’clock and finished at dawn. In the 60s of the last century and by the government regulation, the Palacio del Danzon (The Palace of the Danzon), known also this way, shut its doors but some discrete locals kept opened to the joy of the fans. Despite being born in Cuba, The Danzon declined in our country inn the XX century, mainly because of the start of the new rhythms like the son, the mambo, the Cha Cha and the casino.


Let’s dance Danzon

Few months ago I was taking a walk in my loving Old Havana; mainly I was taking it around the harbour on Oficios Street. To my surprise when I heard the unmistakable chords of the danzon Almendra…the music was coming from the Santiago Ramón y Cajal Old People’s Home. Intrigued, I entered the courtyard of the place, The Siglo XX Band was playing and many couples of elderly were dancing, with an energy that cheered the weak.

The Havana Danzon Festival will have a dance contest. Domestic or foreign dancing couples can enter the contest and three prizes will be given, such a Great Prize to the best couple without matter the country of origin. I’d be very happy if among the awarded were some of those who I saw with wide smiles and crying eyes full of rememberings…

Sources: Colonial Cuba, music, composers and interpreters 1570-1902, Zoila Lapique Becali, Boloña Editions, 2008. Digital Edition from Granma newspaper. Blog http://danzonenmexico.blogspot.com

In this Infography you are going to be able to know some features of the rhythms that made a hit in Cuba at that time.

Infography about the arise of Danzon, Cha Cha, dances and all are Cuban from the XIX and XX centuries.
Image text 2: Infography “Cuban musical forms of the XIX and XX centuries”.
Melissa Etheridge, Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright collage, sit in the Central Park of Havana

Pop stars and “tour lideres”…? In Havana everything is possible.

“How times change, Venancio how you think…” Done to a T of these years seem to be the chorus of and old and sticky song from the duet Los Compadres. The arrival of American tourists to the island doesn’t stop, and the entrepreneurs continue seeing in this fact an amount of indisputable interests. In a panorama made by the uncertainty of some months ago, the laziness of the current Trump government under the check of the politics towards Cuba, allows to speculate that if the relation between the countries is not going to better off anymore, it won’t be worse either.

Some web sites dedicated to the so called “Industria del Ocio” (Leisure Time Industry), like the Condé Nast Traveller’s and of music, mainly of the Billboard and Rolling Stones magazines that echo an opinion of a fact so unusual as true. Three stars from the American pop rock will come to Cuba like “tour leaders”. These visits will try to cover as possible and during four days, some more emblematic, colorful and why not? “tourist”aspects of the Cuban culture. For the design of every of the excursions, the American side, Music & Arts Live, has been assisted by the Ministry of Culture cooperation and the Cuban Institute of Music as well. However, as far as we know any official media of the island has spread the news, despite the first of these meetings will be this same May.

Where are the singers from, or even better: who are they?

Well they’re three and from solid careers: Ben Folds, Melissa Etheridge and Rufus Wainwrigth, all American. So much known or if they aren’t, we suggest you to read these brief biographical reviews:

Ben Folds: Ben is considered one of the most influential musicians of his time. He’s been more than a decade sharing stage with the most famous symphony orchestras, as Sidney, Australia, Kennedy Center, playing with them his pop hits and also his claimed Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. During five seasons he was the judge of the popular NBC show The Sing Off, which catapulted the taste for singing a capella in the country and helped to launch the careers of many groups that opt for this variant of the musical interpretation.

Folds has some pop albums, in charge of the Ben Folds Five band, multiple rock records in solo and unique cooperations with artists of the prominent Sarah Bareilles, Regina Spektor, Weird Al and William Shatner. His most recent CD is a mix of rock and classical music, which during weeks was on the Billboard list for this last category.

Folds is also a restless photographer, a member of the prestigious Sony Artisans for Imagery. He’s in favor of the musical education and the musical therapy and he’s a member of the Artist Committee of the Americans for the Arts.

Melissa Etheridge: She bursts into the rock American scene in 1988 with his debut album, the one she entitled with her own name. However is with her fourth CD Yes, I Am, 1993, that got her most heard hits and wins a Grammy award. In 1995 her CD Your little secret bursts into toppest hit lists, and it opens the way to get the Songwriter of the Year Honor in 1996 from the ASCAP Pop Awards.

Well known by her confessional lyrics and of a peculiar voice, husky, Etheridge is one of the favorite American composers and singers of the last decade. In February, 2007 her song I need to wake up, song of the documentary of Al Gore An inconvenient Truth, about the climate change, wins the award of the film Academy in the best song category. Etheridge recognized in public her lesbo sexual orientation at the beginning of her career, in times that wasn’t so easy to make that kind of confession. In 2004 she was diagnosed breast cancer and fought the disease so successfully.

Rufus Wainwright: Praised by the New York Times for his “genuine originality”, he’s gained the right to be considered one of the greatest vocalists and composers of his time. Born in New York and grown up in Montreal, so far he has with seven studio albums, three DVDs and three live concert recordings.

He’s received among others, the awards Juno for best alternative album and has been nominated as the best composer of the year in 2008. Besides he’s composed music for dance and he keeps work relations with talented artists like Elton John, David Byrne, Boy George, Joni Mitchell, Pet Shop Boys and the producer Mark Ronson, among others.

It’s so fair to say that his interest is not only to the pop style, also his work in the classical music is well known too and his successful opera Prima Donna has been represented in many theatres of the world. He hopes to open his second opera, in charge of the so called Canadian Opera Company, on October 2018.

Havana in all color

The web sites dedicated to upload these events call people of all ages, interests and tastes to participate. The tourists/fans who take this call and come along their idols in a Cuban adventure, are going to be lodged in the sumptuous Meliá Habana Hotel, and they’ll have to pay, according to the chosen room, prices in the range of 2699.00 to 6299.00 dollars. This fee includes besides lodging, the right to private and public concerts, interchange meetings with artists, city tours, some food and transportation.

The particular interest of every singer gives a distinctive label to the activities to do, as the names of every excursion suggest:

“Ben Fold’s Havana Getaway”, 4 days and nights of music and photography with Ben in Havana. Being celebrated from May 25th to 29th, 2017.

“Melissa Etheridge, M.E: in Havana”, 4 days and nights exploring the Rock and the Soul in Havana. From June 22nd to 26th, 2017.

“Wainwright Libre!” 4 days and nights celebrating with Rufus and his friends the sounds and Havana sights. From September 21st to 25th, 2017.

The common denominators of all will be some of the MUST of all who get to Havana: visits to museums and the most important cultural Cuban institutions, city tours on convertible cars, tour throughout the historical center of Old Havana, cigar and rum taste, salsa and rumba parties, taste of the Cuban music, among others.

For their followers, Ben reserves music and photography workshops, with the participation of well-known Cuban photographers Néstor Martí and Gabriel Bianchini, Melissa will be in charge of a music workshop as well and she’ll meet artists and defending campaigners of the women rights, while Rufus will be in charge of the direction of a talk about music at the High Institute of Art (ISA).

Every artist will give two concerts, the first of a private way, only for their tour companion. The second, public, besides their tour followers, everybody who wants to go can make it.

You must be wondering what centers or institutions will be visited by the stars and their fans, the list, according to the organizers is still on a change, this is it:

  • Francis of Assisi’s Convent and Church
  • The House of Music
  • The Atelier Restaurant
  • Cuban Art Factory
  • Fusterland
  • High Institute of Art
  • The Cecilia Restaurant
  • Fine Art Museum
  • 1830 Restaurant
  • Printing Experimental Workshop
  • Marti Theater
  • Mella Theater
  • Abdala Studios
  • Miramar Café
  • Havana Club
  • Alicia Alonso Havana Great Theater
  • The Guarida Restaurant
  • The Doce Apostoles Restaurant


The stars talk about Cuba:

Ben Folds:

Ben Folds posing with a camera
Ben Folds: I think what the Cuban people have reached in music, dance and visual arts is exciting and inspiring

«I’ve always dreamed of going to Cuba. I think what the Cuban people have accomplished in music, dance and visual arts is exciting and inspiring, a complete success. During years I was fascinated by the reach and the spread of the Cuban art and culture, it’s simply hypnotic and amazing…there’s nothing to be compared with».

«My mission on this trip is to discover by first hand, the power of art in Cuba in all its ways…, to see in what way it has been able to influence on the people and at the same time to commit artists of any gender on the effort for a better understanding of the world that is around them».

Cuban Artists who will perform with Ben: El Noro (salsa singer), Otto Santana (percussionist), Annie Garcés (singer), Obiní Batá (women folk band), Interactivo (musical fusion band)


Melissa Etheridge:

Melissa Etheridge, singing in a recording studio
Melissa Etheridge: I find that on this trip to Havana, there’s romance and beauty

«It seems amazing that we can visit Cuba. When I was a child in the 60s, I remember that everybody was talking about this country, a very close mythical place and at the same time so far…»

«I find that on this trip there’s beauty and romance. I also hope to enjoy many things that we haven’t lived in any other place. We’ll have front seat to enjoy of this historical moment from different points of view, in the musical, social, to experience freedom and the change. »

«Something that is important to me, is meeting the LGBT community, with its local leaders and artists…»

«It’ll be very interesting to what consequences to my creation this trip will bring, what it’s going to give me. Lately I find too much inspiration when I begin to see beyond myself. Recently on my album Memphis Rock and Soul, I do a tribute to the classical musicians of soul… one gets to have a clearer knowledge of himself when you are away of your comfort zone».

The Cubans who will be cooperating with Melissa are: Haydeé Milanés (singer), William Vivanco (troubadour and singer), Obiní Batá, Las Canelas (women salsa band).


Rufus Wainwright:

Rufus Wainwright sit in a chair and with a hat in his hand
Rufus Wainwright: Havana is a city more on fashion of New York than Miami’s…

«I grew up in Montreal, Quebec, people there used to visit Cuba frequently above all looking for its great beaches. I remember when Ry Cooder created Buena Vista Social Club together with Win Wenders in the 90s. This fact made me to focus on Cuba, although I always knew that I was only scratching the surface of a more complex phenomenon».

«The first time I came to Cuba was in 2013 and it was incredible visiting Havana. This city is more on the fashion of New York than Miami’s. The architecture is amazing, majestic, and seductive in all the sense. The people are friendly, inviting, willing to know and very open. I’m very excited by the fact of living all that again».

«I say that it’s very important to be open and being proactive when we share what we are as a society, get involved in cultural interchanges, learning from different people and arising the American reputation to be envoys in any part of the world».

The Cuban who will be together with Rufus are: Carlos Varela (troubadour and singer), Interactivo, Obiní Batá.

If you’re interested in knowing more details about the visits of these American artists to Cuba, followers of others that in some times before they found in Havana the inspiration and the warmth welcome, visit to the websites dedicated to Ben Folds, Melissa Etheridge and Rufus Wainwright.

Enrique Jorrín Orchestra

Cha-Cha =Enrique Jorrin+Cuba

Danzones went and came through his mind when in the half of the 40 decade, he introduced in these songs, a final part sung. That was the limit, the dancers not only beat the rhythm at the same of the music, even also sang together with band choir, made by the same instrumentalists (a novelty introduced by Jorrin). Those catchy choruses step by step passed to the slang, a new rhythm was developing. The 40s and also the preceding decade, the 50s, were prolific in the creation of new dances and in the crystallization of tendencies that people already identified. You can tell that mambo and the cha-cha almost arose at the same time.

The architect of these wonders, the man who knew to pick up scattered elements and give them coherence was named Enrique Jorrin. He was born in the western province of Pinar del Rio and since he opened his eyes in 1926 didn’t conceive another thing than playing and composing music with his inseparable violin. However his first instrument was a dilapidated piano that belonged to his sister. He used to forget the school lessons; he got some scolds from his parents for being devoted to the self-study of the theory of music. This early knowledge was the one that permitted with only 12 years old to compose his first song, the danzon Osiris.


The young Jorrin’s embarrassment

Jorrin said no to his parents’ wish to study medicine. He longed to be a professional musician so much that he dropped out school in the last year of high school to get into music. Some bands already played songs of his and decided for these hits, he replaced his brother Miguel, also a musician, more experienced though, on a radio program from the Aliados Bus Company, located on Belascoain and San Jose. The young man Enrique knew plenty that his family was hooked on the huge radio devices from that time to listen to him in his debut, but unfortunately he got disappointed, nerves prevented him from playing not even the half of the notes assigned in the score. He returned home inconsolable, although the encouraging words of relatives and friends were really useful. Enrique Jorrin never forgot this passage of his professional life and every time he saw young people to make their début that reminded him of his disaster. Of course this incident didn’t daunt him, as his posterior career proved it.


The Cha-Cha, different and common

Enrique Jorrín playing violin
Jorrín and his best companion; violin

Unlike the mambo, that required experienced and skillful dancers, the cha-cha steps were soft; the rhythm takes the name of the sound from the dancers’ feet when they beat the rhythm. Among the amount of innovations done by Jorrin, besides the already mentioned to make choirs with the own band members, the introduction of the amp sound was in the work of the bands that performed dancing music. Before in the great dancing salons, only two or three microphones were set, dedicated generally to the singer, the bass, the piano or the kettledrum, but there were so many “mute” instruments, above all the string instruments. Jorrin amplified the sound of the violins giving a distinctive label to the “charanguera” bands of that time.

The effervescence of the cha-cha was on its top when in 1953 the Jorrin band made seven songs a hit: La engañadora, Nada para ti, Osiris (at the beginning a danzon rhythm and afterwards it became into cha-cha), El alardoso, Me muero and Miñoso al bate. The success was so enormous that on the bar vitrolas, the vinyl records were worn out and they were changed every week. You can move the dial of the radio through the 36 radio stations existing at that time and La engañadora song was being played indeed. The fever was extended to other composers from the time, who began to do cha-cha of a lot success, like Rosendo Ruiz (junior) with Rico vacilon and Los marcianos, Richard Egües with El Bodeguero, a Nat King Cole’s hit and Miguel Jorrin with No te bañes en el Malecon.


Jorrin: a common man

A few artists have enjoyed in life the devotion of their work, one of them was definitely Enrique Jorrin. Death took him with all his full possession of his faculties (in 1987 and hardly at the age of 60), with projects half made and the dream of future tours, recording contracts and a promised documentary about the history of his life and musical work, that unfortunately was never carried on.

When he was questioned if having arrived to the top of his artistic career made him satisfied, the composer of more than 500 songs, used to say that no one ever reached the full satisfaction, there was always something to be done. However, he was so proud to be in the musical history of a country like Cuba and the world knew that the international famous cha-cha had been created by a common citizen who walked around the Havana streets.

Tata Güines hands playing congas

The secrets that Tata Güines took to his grave

What did Tata have that everybody was loved by him? He was heard and was seen because what he used to do was to enjoy with these two very alert senses, common people and intellectual, neighbors from Jesus Maria neighborhood, where he lived for so many years and doctors from Miramar and he never let anyone different behind. But the most interesting of the case is that this phenomenon not only happened in Cuba, it didn’t. There was no “Yuma” who can do resistance. That’s the way thousands of press cuttings that the musician kept show so badly, witnesses of his successful performance on the stages around the world.


He came to succeed from Güines

We don’t know if the success from predicted by the fortune shells or any fortune teller. The fact is that the little boy was born on June 30 th, 1930, named as Federico Aristides Soto Alejo, gave a name to his small country of international borders, Güines.

Maybe the sound of the impromptu bongos, made by childhood innocence and besides of course, with sausage cans and condensed milk modeled a different ear, a unique way to get sounds out. Many years later his interest on music would take him to be part of the different bands from the black societies. And he got to Havana, the great capital, to settle down in Las Yaguas, a neighborhood with a strong poverty and marginal life, but with an impeccable rumba sense. At the age of 15 he admired Chano Pozo; he tried to impersonate his performance and the way to get out the sparkling from the leather drums, above all from his immortal songs Manteca and Blen blen blen.

Tata Güines during a performance
Getting the sounds out…

The worst paid drum players: from Cuba

Tata was unlucky to get paid badly because of playing a percussion instrument like the drums. What a paradox, folks! The ones who kept the rhythm, the shining of the melody, the ones who beat time had to give in and to be less than the trumpet players and pianists.

No percussion, has there been Cuban music? Tata wondered. From this point, his laudable purpose in life: doing the percussionists some credit to the highest standards. I firmly think that the time admitted he was right. Looking for his “oreganos” (the money) he did everything: he took his drums with him around Havana, he was as a temporary band member in some bands, and he played anything: güiro, timbal, bongo, the harpsichord, the double bass…and even he dared to sing. In one of his Havana hectic times he met his idle Chano Pozo.


Chano had more vigour than technique…

Tata confessed. He was a good improviser, had charisma, he connected with the audience, he was a maestro, but rude in the sound. Maybe the biggest of his attitudes was his creativity. He always stood out over the neighborhood rumba players, in Cuba, as it’s known; they were and are a legion. Unforgettable for Tata was the overwhelming conga along with Chano with “Los Dandy de Belen” carnival group, from the seafront, crossing Prado to Monte Street, everything without stopping to play and with the drums hanging from his shoulder.


“Gold Hands”, he reaches New York

That’s the way Tata was called by the music critics of this cosmopolitan city. With all the strength of his youth, he launches himself to play and be a member of bands, projects, he plays in the popular Broadway dance floor, The Palladium, even Benny’s request, he agrees on following him in the percussion during 17 unforgettable days. He played at The Waldorf Astoria hotel for rich people, and he started in his maturity of his artistic life, as a soloist. He took until the last drop the jazz effervescence of the city, accompanied Gillespie’s musical discharge in the early mornings, Maynard, Chico Hamilton and without doubt, he left his legacy.


«There’s no percussionist in the world that doesn’t follow me»

For Tata the amount of drums which a percussionist can have a “solo” wasn’t important, because he boasted about recreating with two the senses of five.

The matter was about to take advantage from the different tunes of the drums and know how to combine them, no matter the amount. Tata played during many decades with the same drums, made by Vergaras brothers; with cured oak of barrels of Spanish wine, (someday the incredible Cuban luthiers would be told).

Many times these instruments were about to be bought, believing that the magic “stated” in the drums and the technique could be made with mere discipline, but Tata was never conceived without them. With the passing of the years, he mended the patches himself, painted the wood. He used to use the leather of an ox on a drum, on the other one of a cow “Male sound and Female sound” and Tata Güines’s mysteries began.


Every maestro has his notes

Close Up of Tata Güines and his hands
Tata Güines took to his grave so many secrets!

Tata kept many things and secrets to himself. He used to say that anybody who liked could discover his technique, listening to his recordings, so everything was there. Nevertheless, he gave some clues:

  • Not raising the hands too much when you play the drum. “Effects” are not worthy, an unnecessary “quarrel” is on, you lose strength in the half of a song, and it’s a total mistake. He used to play low, stick to the drum, in a clean, strong and steady way.
  • Avoiding the strong hits, because they don’t produce pleasant sounds. What it’s about’s to seduce the ear, and after the heart.
  • The left hand is the one that produces the rhythm so let’s work it with eagerness. You need to have speed and skill with this hand, even if you’re not left-handed. If the left one gives the rhythm, the right one gives the dry sounds and the combination of the two, the melody emerges.

I remember the TV programs in which Tata Guines was on. What caught my eye so badly were of course his hands brought out by the white lights of the TV studio. His hands were full of jewels, well-cared nails, that he also used despite the criticism at his first start, to scratch the drums or to brush them, according to the case and to take out the most incredible sounds. But I’m sure, that the biggest of his secrets rests in peace with him.


Consulted source: Cubanos en la música, Mayra A. Martínez, Ediciones Unión, 2015

Photos: Pedro Herrera archives and http://diariomayabeque.cu/2014/06/tata-de-guinesmanos-de-oro/

Esther Borja with umbrella

Esther Borja, a charming lady

I remember perfectly well. The living room of my house around the 70s was known by a Dumont TV, those made of wood and a speaker covered with fabrics. My extended family was hard to please my personal childhood tastes. They could on the alternate channel at that time, it’s good to remember it, we only had two TV channels in Cuba: “6 and 2”, being passing the “cartoons”, very funny, translated into Spanish by that wonderful voice known by the nickname of Jazmín, in fact Conchita García. So, my uncle, my grandparents and my great-grandmother were implacable with at least two programs, one of them, was the one named: Album de Cuba, with an extended life on the TV grounds, from 1961 to 1986. I remember from those nights two things, the exquisite making of the Cuban songs presented and the warmth of the hostess of the program, Esther Borja, always with kind words for her guests and always determined, despite the windy atmospheres at that time, not let behind and die anything of a Cuban legacy. We owe Esther a lot, educate us under the Lecuona’s legacy, personality on his way to the exile, stopped being liked in some official circles.


Teaching as a call

Esther Borja shows a picture of Lecuona
Esther Borja and Lecuona, a true friendship

For pleasing her parents, she registered at the Normal School of Havana. According to what she said later, she thanked deeply her wide training received and therefore, her taste for the literature, the music and Fine Arts, in general.

Probably due to this call and her desire of teaching, she was never miser concerning advices for the new singers, indeed she didn’t teach singing lessons officially, she always reminded them that different media, radio, television, theater, required of also different attitudes. A record or the radio appeal on the close part of the artist, you can even change tunes, a way to say it. At the theater, however, a bigger excitement is needed, a more noticeable projection. She was a bitter enemy of no feeling singing, she used to say that learning the texts of the songs was mainly the time to transmit the emotion. Even experienced this postulate with the song Te vas juventud by Lecuona. During years and despite of many fans’ requests, she refused to sing it in many of the recitals she offered. Her song didn’t have its time yet, which she experienced a time later in a festival at the Lyrical theater of Holguin, it was like crystallization. Suddenly lyrics and music got full sense, she felt the essence of the song, and since then it was included in her programs.


Esther, the traveler

She liked to travel a lot, and didn’t waste any occasion in the middle of the amount of tours made to the five continents to be aside and enjoy the cities where her artistic commitments used to lead her. Without doubt Buenos Aires was the one she felt more attracted to, intense in her artistic and cultural life. New York was one of her favorites, indeed giving her a latent coldness in the human relationships.

Among her favorites the musical New Orleans city was. She lived and married an Argentinian journalist. She owes this city to be the first to celebrate her first success Damisela encantadora, by Ernesto Lecuona. So much so that some shops and commercial products used the name of the melody to identify their advertisement.


No limits

Ramón Calzadilla, Esther Borja and María Remolá at a Cuban television set
Ramón Calzadilla, Esther Borja y María Remolá performing in Album de Cuba program

So much has been written about the merits given by acting in plays, clubs, cabarets…, without despising, so incredibly of those last ones. We’re pleased to tell you that a person as Esther Borja, sang Juliet from the operetta The Count of Luxemburg at the Havana Comedy Main Theater, starred by the Así es la Habana (That’s the way Havana is) production at the Caribe cabaret, from the former Havana Hilton Hotel, today The Havana Libre Hotel. She integrated numerous artistic delegations sent by so important enterprises like Casa de Las Américas to different festivals around the world and when the revolution triumphed, countries like the former Soviet Union, China, Poland and Czech Republic, knew her art.



The ocean…forever

Esther used to tell that her grandmother on rainy days when the northern cold weather told her: “Esthercita, let’s get the waves”, and both went to the Havana seafront to be let touched by the salt and the wind. Also referred that during her long stay in Argentina, she used to go so many times to see the Plata River, so wide, that she fantasized with the idea that one was the yearning ocean. At the age of her respectable 70 years, she could be seen in the mountains fighting the waves of the ocean near her home, besides practicing with some frequency: golf and squash.


Esther Borja and her “Rapsodia de Cuba” (Rhapsody from Cuba)

This way her first Long Playing was called, that highlighted in 1953. From that moment her voice was taken in innumerable recordings made in Cuba and overseas. I still keep by family inheritance, three of the most emblematic titles of her career: Esther Borja sings unforgettable songs by Ernestina Lecuona, deserved tribute of the artist to the person who guided her to dedicate seriously as a singer, Esther Borja sings to Gonzalo Roig, a peculiar record made together with another figure of the Cuban forgotten singing music, America Crespo and the beautiful plaque Esther Borja sings at two, three and four voices Cuban songs, a display of style and harshness, due to the technique of that time didn’t permit the previous listenings, that makes Esther to respect so badly the tempo of the melody to treat to adjust the successive production of her voice in first, second, third and fourth. All the recordings were made under the Kubaney label.

Rhapsody from Cuba is also a title of an extraordinary documentary-interview, directed by Pavel Giroud and conducted by the pianist and cultural promoter Ulises Hernandez about the singer’s life. Meeting him, I knew that the officials from the Radio and Television Institute never gave Esther not even a reason to call off her program Album de Cuba. It doesn’t matter, never did indeed. The legacy that it left in more than a generation of Cubans, worth totally the dedication that for 25 uninterrupted years Esther Borja displayed before the TV cameras.


Consulted Source: “Cubanos en la música”, Mayra A. Martínez, Union Editions, 20.

Walt Disney, Marlon Brando, Pete Seeger, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte, Beyoncé, American artistas in Cuba

American artists in Cuba. The six most influential visits from the centuries XX and XXI

Havana in the first half of the XX century set up as a mecca for intellectuals and artists from the most diverse geographies. The ones of Spanish language had the visit goal, the fulfillment of job contracts in theaters and Cuban radio stations, the Americans used to go on vacation mainly, to promote their films, or simply to interchange experiences and to widen the cultural horizons. In this work we set as your consideration the six according to our point of view, of more impact, just because of the repercussion in the Cuban society of those times or the social and political matter in which they were developed, al of them have a common meaning: love for music and mainly the Cuban one.


Walt Disney wanted to listen to Cuban music, 1931

Bongo, the character made by Disney after he visited Cuba
Bongo, the character made by Disney after he visited Cuba

It’s been only four years before this date that Walt had created the most popular of his animated cartoons, Mickey Mouse, or in his Spanish version, the mouse Miguelito. After months of uninterrupted works, of founding projects and observing how his enterprise was getting big, the artist decides to make a relaxing tour to Havana, after leaving Florida. He chose as a lodge, the emblematic National Hotel of Cuba, opened recently in those times and with a huge prestige.

Today the management of the hotel has baptized some rooms with the name of visitors who stayed in, this is the case of number 445 which is named Walt Disney.

This visit had a great impact, and this was the violation in charge of the management of this hotel for a short period of time, having access to the facilities of this place by colored people. Disney, an enthusiastic of the Caribbean rhythms and mainly Cubans was so willing to listen to good traditional music, a band properly made, and full of virtuous bongo and drum players. And it’s only possible, as it’s known, with the contest of the drum players by right, the humble Negroes of the neighborhood, members of the most prestigious bands at that time.

Being so impressed by the fast rhythm of rumbas and congas, Disney introduced in many of his films made after his trip to Havana, the music that he listened and recorded in the Cuban capital, besides creating the Bongo character, a mere reference of his visit.


Marlon Brando, rashed and from rumba in rumba, 1956

Marlon Brando playing tumbadoras
Marlon Brando a real fan of Cuban rhythms

He came to Havana and did it incognito, “Mr. Baker”, he wrote in the guest book, today in ruins, The Packard Hotel. But without the need of Internet, Facebook or Instagram, journalists and followers managed themselves to discover him in one of his Havana big parties. He loved the cabarets of the beach, go and see play Chori, and the people around him were real common ones, because he didn’t stand the bourgeois behavior of the high class society.

One day he said: «I just love tumbadoras», and went to buy the percussion instrument, that cost the outrageous price of 90.00 pesos, money, differently from others, he could afford. He always made himself understood that he was in Cuba because of its music, to listen to it from a live source. However he was so jealous that the photos taken were published in exclusive in the Cuban media press. He said that in The States, they would understand his attitude as an eccentricity. But Brando’s rumba didn’t finish in Chori’s show, it was also in The Panchin, the Pennsylvania, the Sans Souci…he was 32 and he was already awarded with his first Oscar.


Pete Seeger the Guantanamera “second author”, 1961

It was in a summer camp where a Cuban told him to learn music and verses of a known Cuban song, the Guantanamera by Joseito Fernandez, which the musician Julian Orbon had introduced the Cubans’ most universal verses, the hero Jose Marti. And in this way Pete took the music that he popularized throughout the world home and also the taste for the work of the Cuban independence apostle. He sang it so many times, that Joseito Fernandez and him had to reach a copyright agreement, matter resolved without big complications by both sides.

We believe that the presence of Seeger in Cuba, in the middle of a brutal confrontation in times of the cold war after his second visit in 1971, it was a clear demonstration of how the countries can get close if for a second the political disagreements are forgotten and the cultural values take precedence over the differences.


Dizzy Gillespie and the ways of jazz, 1977

Chano (Pozo) or Charlie (Parker) was no longer in existence and he was already 60. However when it seemed that in Cuba live performances of the old trumpet player weren’t longer enjoyable, fate in a way of Cuba-USA jazz interchange, (a horseback riding luck between the touristic and musical), permitted living some intense days of the lovers of this form in Havana, as a matter of fact, they’re not a few.

Unforgettable was the night that not only Gillespie, even figures like Stan Getz, Jo Anne Bracken, David Amram, Earl Hines and Ry Cooder (after a few years, one of the biggest driving forces of the Buena Vista Social Club projects of the Cuban traditional music), among others, tunes instruments and voices to play along with Chucho Valdes and Irakere band. The spectators called up at Mella Theater, the event head office, say that the figure of Chano drum player, mainly his musical song “Manteca” was the excuse chosen for more than half an hour to bring and take voices and wonderful improvisations, showing why the Dizzy-Chano link was definite to shape the new Jazz critics in the second half of 1940.


Harry Belafonte: «I’m acting in Havana» and so he did, 1980

As a matter of fact, the first visit to Cuba of the American showman was in 1976, accompanied with another big actor, Sidney Poitier.

But the year when he did whatever he wanted was the unforgettable 1980, marked by the break of families and massive exodus in the Caribbean country. Harry was a defined admirer of Cuba and Cubans and he didn’t care so much what the American establishment said about his multiple visits to Cuba. Karl Marx Theater, total sold out. The ones who were there said that it was colorful and full of Latin and Caribbean songs, mixed with American rhythms. The production included his unforgettable hits: Banana boat, Taxi cab, Pastures of plenty, Streets of London and How long have you been blind? among others.


Beyoncé Knowles, the most important success in Havana in 2013 and the beginning of a longed-for end

Beyoncé kissing Juana Bacallao´s hand at Gato Tuerto night club
Homage of Beyoncé to Juana Bacallao at Gato Tuerto night club

At the beginning of April, 2013, only a phrase was heard on Havana streets: Did you see Beyoncé? The singer and mega star of the American show business came together with her husband the rap player Jay-Z, determined to take as possible the caring impertinences of thousands of fans off his better half grouped around The Saratoga Hotel in the Cuban capital. The couple came to enjoy a “private” trip to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary.

Here she visited schools of music, community artistic projects like The Colmenita, she was in of the oldest nightclubs of Havana like the Gato Tuerto, where she admired and (for everybody’s surprise who was there) kissed the unstoppable Juana Bacallao’s hand. She tasted typical Cuban food and even she danced music, made in Cuba the night in which the salsa and timba woman Haila Maria Mompie sang for her in a surprise party. Definitely, she danced to death a lot. After she and her splendid husband, back to The States had to stand the criticisms of some characters like the Cuban-American Pitbull who showed his real disagreement with the visit to Cuba. Who would say to everyone that in a year and 8 months after, the opening between Cuba and The States begin? Just after Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s visit to Havana has the splendor for the coming events.


Source: Artistas en la memoria, Leonardo Depestre Catony, Editorial José Martí, 2015








Dance couple and conga players

Rumba men, Cuban and Unknown…!

There are artists who became eclipsed by his work. The same has happened with many composers who achieved the popular deep-rooted of their creations, the origin of the same got confused and conceals with other lucks, in such a way that some of them fall into the huge anonymous folk bag, which means if we think right, a subtle paradox.

Of course we all know the popular song Mata Siguaraya (Siguaraya tree), rediscovered by the Cuban people when the salsa man Oscar D’León visited Varadero beach to one of those unforgettable Cuban and international music festivals in 1983 – . In one of his verse, he says:

En mi Cuba nace una mata que sin permiso no se pué tumba, no se pué tumbá porque son Orisha. (In my Cuba a tree is born, without a permission you can’t cut it up, you can’t cut it up, because it’s Orisha).

Of course indeed, it comes to your mind right away…if you’ve visited the Tradicionales de los 50s Show, I’m certain you’ll remember the memorable version that Juana Bacallao makes of this song. If we quiz you now who wrote it? In the certain knowledge, your memory wouldn’t be so sure to define a response… maybe Piñeiro? Don Miguel? A Sonora Matancera band member? Benny himself…? No, you’re wrong, and I can dare to say that only a few will know the right name of its composer. In this article your doubts are going to be cleared up…


We give you a hint, its maker is a through and through rumba man

There are some who place the origins of the rumba in the ancient cultures of Fenicia and Egypt (no doubts, a whole show would have been to see the Pharaoh woman Nefertiti with her trembled hips dancing through a drum bust…), however; there are more who advocate for its birth in Cuba, led to the different dancing and musical expressions, above all the ones that came from the west of that continent. It’s said that the rumba is a combination, integrated by three trends: the yambu and the guaguanco, both from urban origin and the columpia, from a rural one. The lyrics of these three are full of words and expressions such as Africans as Spanish, the basic components of the Cuban nationality.

Here we say that our character is a prolific author of heard and popular guaguancos. The guaguanco isn’t only played; even it’s sung and danced. Its lyrics are a “social chronicle” of the humble people, who lived (and still live) in the barrack yards, that’s the “sung rumba”, by excellency. Our unknown author, achieved to major in all the elements of the guaguanco, not only being the author, even he stood out as a singer, dancer and quinto.

Rumba and guaguanco achieved the highest expression in the cities of Matanzas and Havana. In the capital, Guanabacoa, Regla, Marianao and Centro Habana neighborhoods took all the fame. Right on April 5th, 1919 in the “Modelo” barrack yard located on the streets of San Rafael and Hospital, in the same Cayo Hueso neighborhood, our incognito rumba man was born. He had several jobs, but we can say that he lived from rumba to rumba, with the double advantage to participate in the party and besides to earn a few pesos. Another rumba of his is “Siento que me regaña el corazón”, with its very famous chorus:

Si tú me lo das, ¿Por qué me lo quitas…? (If you give it to me, Why do you take it away…?

Guess now? Not yet?


If Pérez Prado was the “King of the Mambo”, the “King of Guaguanco” was…

Gonzalo Asencio and this character is the one I’m talking about. More known as Tío Tom (Uncle Tom), nickname that doesn’t have anything to do with the romantic novel by the American writer from the century XIX Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Tío Tom, folks, was definitely the best and most prolific author that Cuba has given in that popular way of the rumba that’s called guaguanco. we can say without being wrong being told by thousands of Cubans and foreigners who have enjoyed with the old creations of Tío Tom, however, just a few saw or met personally, but, indeed, the close people to his closest circle of friends, made up by rumba lineage musicians.

Son of his circumstances, the Tío couldn’t escape from the fights in which the neighborhood parties ended, there the differences were solved with punches and stubs. However, the most serious problem that Gonzalo Asencio had was because of political issues, he was declared opponent of the President Carlos Prío Socarrás’s government, from 1948 to 1952.

After 1959, Tío Tom’s creating work never stopped, this time in his more social variation, creator of the so called revolutionary guaguanco, with his own compositions of the political effervescence from those times.


The most plagiarized, stripped and imitated

Tío Tom
Tío Tom, a genuine rumba men

From the popular authors was of course Tío Tom. Numerous are the examples of artists who came to Cuba singing “anonymous” compositions or awarded to a determined author and they came out from the pen of the rumba man from Centro Habana. Besides it was so big the amount of songs made by him, that sometimes he didn’t remember them well, because he not only made guaguancos, even he forayed into other forms, like the speech or traditional songs taken from the African beliefs. However, A Tío’s composition never made remarks to rude words or vulgarity, despite playing songs so delicate like machismo, show off behavior, love affairs or racism.

Closing we propose the most known Tío Tom’s guaguanco, of course, you’ve heard dozens of times, and in the most popular voices from the this Cuban form, from Miguelito Valdés until Celeste Mendoza:

Consuélate como yo,

Que yo también tuve un amor, y lo perdí…

Y por eso digo ahora, ya yo no vuelvo a querer.


De que te sirvió el querer

Si a ti también te traicionó como a mí


Por eso ahora,

Ya yo no vuelvo a querer,

Ya yo no vuelvo a querer,

Ya yo no vuelvo a querer…


(Console yourself like me, I had a love and I lost it…that’s why I say now, I won’t love anymore, no more.

What was good about loving? If you were betrayed like I was

That’s why now, I won’t love anymore, no more, I won’t love anymore, no more, I won’t love anymore, no more…)


Source: Del tambor al sintetizador, Leonardo Acosta, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 2014


Photos: http://salsachile.com/guaguanco/


Pérez Prado doing an usual gesture


A musical revolution started to take part at the end of the 30s and got its biggest splendor during the 50s. It had many intellectual parents but only one consolidated it internationally, so much that Marcello Mastroianni, the famous Italian actor, enjoyed its rhythm in “La Dolce Vita”


Sometimes there are times that in the musical development of a time some elements converge that for tradition and “fashion” reach to reinforce in the popular taste.

It happened with one of the most international Cuban rhythms from the 40s and 50s, the Mambo.

On an early date like 1937, Orestes Macho López signed already a danzon named “Mambo”, with a fourth part that musically responded to the “mambeados” canon. This “new type” danzon was taken into consideration of the respectable by the Orquesta de Arcaño y sus maravillas, but incredibly by that time, “The miraculous blind man” Arsenio Rodriguez was testing on his side and more testing with a form of his creation, the one he called “Diablo”, with some coincidences of rhythmical patterns with the danzon in question. The polemic was so much by the honors of the creation of this form, that even the pages of the prestigious Cuban magazine Bohemia, echoed the opinion of it in the 40s.


Two were not enough, they were seven

The musicians experienced with rhythms, melodies and harmonies that later would the Mambo labels. According to our point of view, the so called Orestes Macho López and his brother Israel Cachao López, both with Arcaño were already and Pérez Prado with Casino band, Arsenio Rodríguez with his own band, Bebo Valdés, well known pianist and father of the so virtuoso pianist and jazz musician Chucho Valdés, the tresero Andrés Echeverría (El Niño Rivera) and the pianist René Hernández, at that time musician of the trumpet player Julio Cueva’s jazz band. It’s more than proved, as the famous Mexican corridor says “it doesn’t matter to get first, even to know how to get”, Pérez Prado was the artist who made the new rhythm international and for that he did it from many ways.


In Cuba the Mambo was told no…

Pérez Prado in tuxedo
Pérez Prado conducting the Orchestra

Pérez Prado, unstoppable, talked some huge prestige musicians to record two sides of a 45 rpm single with the two songs “Mambo caén” and “So caballo”, both with modern arrangements. However the timid Cuban businessmen of the boom didn’t want to take chances, they preferred to bet for sure and this obliged Pérez Prado to leave Mexico, where he received a great help from the Cuban vedette living in this country, Ninón Sevilla, who at those times she was succeeding in the Mexican movies. The first well known songs in Mexico were “José” and “Macamé”, but the real hits were “Mambo número cinco” and “Que rico el Mambo”.

It’s interesting to notice that the foreign vision of the Cuban music tended to classify as “rumba” to all the rhythms from the island(known as many and varied), until the Mambo appeared. Then everything was Mambo, like Cha cha chá afterwards and more contemporary, Salsa.


Shoulders, hips and feet (among other things)

Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re in 1943 at the Tropicana cabaret in Havana; the night that Dámaso Pérez Prado played for the first time live the times of the new rhythm. The people from Havana used to be accustomed to the soft Son and moved but foreign Swing, they must have been astonished before the rhythmic progression of Mambo, with its rapid musical phrases that made the least expert dancers sweat to death before such a big challenge.

So Pérez Prado, against the trend about all the jazz players to bind more the sound of the band, he established some sound levels with two main registers: the upper one, because of the trumpets and the lower, due to the saxes, both in perpetual counterpoint and above all with a striking rhythmical-melodic function. That was the main key of all his liveliness.

The Mambo had many descriptions: wild, modern, sensual…

All these, dressed up by Pérez Prado’s yelling (considered by the members of the band unnecessary at the beginning but definitely turned into a distinctive label of the rhythm in the popular taste) and for the complex figures of his dance, in the 50s he was the absolute owner of the great party salons in New York. If we were asked about the main feature of this dance, we’d answer that is the energy taken from the steps, energy which is underlined and complements with the synchronized moves and alternate of shoulders, hips, legs, feet and hands, sometimes standing out the musical landscape with claps, what makes a hundred percent, sharing with the dancers the song that the band is playing. A new style for the dancing couple was of course the introduction of the tap or puntas in the steps.


The Mambo is…out of this world!

Dámaso Pérez Prado was born in Matanzas, 1916 and died in Mexico (country which sheltered him and succeeded) in 1989. Among his most curious anecdotes tell that he took as a nickname “Cara de foca” (Seal face) labeled by Benny Moré who composed a song (Mambo rhythm, of course) to Marilyn Monroe herself. He was also the first Latin artist to keep 26 weeks on a row on the top on the Billboard chart, the song “Cerezo Rosa”. Of course, it calls the attention that it’s one of the musical forms that has appeared more in the times of his success and also here in some films from all over the world, such as:

In Mexico: Coqueta, director Fernando A. Rivero, 1949, Los apuros de mi ahijada, Fernando Méndez, 1951, El suavecito, Fernando Méndez, 1951, Del Can-can al Mambo, Chano Urueta, 1952, Mexico nunca duerme, Alejandro Galindo, 1952, Santa Sangre, Alejandro Jodorowski, 1989, among others.


Spain: Kika, Pedro Almodóvar, 1993.

Photogram of La Dolce Vita with Marcello Mastroianni embracing to Anita Ekberg
We heard Mambo in La Dolce Vita…

United States: Cha cha chá Boom! Fred F Sears, 1956, The Brave Bulls, Roberto Rossen, 1951, Gran Bola de Fuego, Jim McBride, 1989, Nacido el 4 de Julio, Oliver Stone, 1989, Ed Wood, Tim Burton, 1994, Casino, Martin Scorsese, 1995, Small Time Crooks, Woody Allen, 2000, Space Cowboys, Clint Eastwood, 2000, El Curioso Caso de Benjamin Button, David Fincher, 2008.

Italy: La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini, 1960


What about you? Do you cheer up to dance Mambo?



Elije tú que canto yo, Leonardo Acosta, Union Editions, 2014.




Photos by:  www.andina.com.pe and  www.bbc.co.uk

Man looking for musical inspiration among sound waves and musical notes


The outstanding Cuban composer Jose (Pepe) Valladares reveals for Tradicionales de los 50, some musical creation clefs. Besides we suggest some on-line resources to start to write your own music from home.

Some studious say about music, when times go on, the melodic wealth becomes poorer, the chords become more repetitive and the variations less brilliant, and the use of the almost infinite resources that the tools of the composition give, they come out unnoticed by an insignificant percent of the new composers who come out in the end.

Two of the epithets won by the music made some years ago up today are homogeneity and preference.

José (Pepe) Valladares
José (Pepe) Valladares

Of course there are reasons and many in which this happens, one of them, is longing to enter so badly in to the dominant trend of tasted recipes and not to risk anything. This along with the lack of the real studies of many composers, the current musical composition prospect becomes worse. But dear reader, be careful, we aren’t stating that for a good composition, you need to graduate from Juilliard Academy or ISA, good examples of self-taught musicians are from Cuba, being exclusive Benny Moré and Sindo Garay cases.

The key of the success of these kinds of hearing musicians was and it’ll be forever in the interest and unconformity before an outcome, in the permanent demand.

We have to “live and breathe music” and of course to have enough intelligence to know and appreciate a good advice given by an expert never giving up the will to learn and better what nature gave as a present.

Tradicionales de los 50 has among its lines, the one Jose (Pepe) Valladares Aguiar, a successful Cuban composer, a modern King Midas who in the 70s and 80s, he made any kind of music a hit coming from his own inspiration. When he was told about the possibility to make him a little survey about today’s issue, he agreed nicely to satisfy our interests.

Seven questions to be asked to him (PV):


1. What do you need to be a successful composer?

PV: Out of hands I’ll tell you that you need to have the musical talent and enough virtue to make songs that last through the years. Second place and not less important in this hectic times, we have to know the market rules.

In this matter I want to share some experiences: one can do a song based on real events or fictitious, the importance is creating an accessible structure to a normal person’s ear, running away from the artificial poses and manners.

A composer should take advantage of the first verse to focus on the subject with something striking…

From there, not dropping the melody or the lyrics, so the one who listens to it, feels part of it, motivated by the theme. Half of the song, a bridge should be created and “drop” the song to the chorus.

Based on this formula, I made my compositions and I reached favourable results in the audience.


2. What comes first, the melody or the lyrics?

PV: Both of a way or the other. For those who fell the need to create, an advice: carry a small tape recorder, cell phone, tablet, good for saving those inspirations and in this way to avoid to be forgotten.


3. Can anyone make music?

Fountain pen writing music
Is the current music uniform and predictable?

PV: The music, itself takes specific studies, but anyone can be inspired and set an idea that a professional musician improves later in more technical details, in fact there are many self-taught composers who have reached the success. To this natural gift, studies are added and the composer prepares himself, the guarantee will be much more solid.

Today there are programs in the market that using computer resources make dilettante and professional musicians can do even orchestrations without the need of instruments or “real” performers, we should thank the technological development in this field.


4. Do you have any advice for amateur composers?

PV: I want to divide this response in two parts, one more spiritual, the one that gives base to taste and elegance when you compose. I would advise three things:

  • Listening to good music and pay attention to its diverse structures, above all in those that have gone through time with success.
  • Knowing grammar. Be good at spelling, in the making of sentences. Read good poetry. Meet people similar to a creating taste and devote time to know, like I said before: the musical technique, study it.
  • Looking always for the originality and not be dragged by modernism.

From a more crafted point of view, the composers know or with time, discover that there are three main terms in the success of any song, just already spoke in the first question briefly:

  • Verse
  • Bridge
  • Chorus

Making a song in which these three components stand out separately and together are coherent, it’ll have a great possibility of success. There are cases in which this structure is changed, that’s to say, it begins with the bridge or the chorus, this will depend on the composer’s taste and his smell.


5. What do you think about the current condition of the Cuban music?

PV: Despite too much time has been lost, there’s a huge desire that our music shines like in the 50s again and beyond.

The sound which every band, group and singer was identified has been lost, with a few brief listening time.

Efforts begin to be made to make those old dreams come true, but is in the hands of many and everybody to recover that lost scepter.

According to popular music, it’s not having the old prestige.


6. Which of your songs have you felt more pleased?

PV: Although my songs are over the 600, “Ni la casa ni yo” has been the song which I have felt more pleased, first with the result of its making, lots of weeks on the first position on the radio and TV stations from our country during the 70s. Second for being the first time to face a microphone in a recording studio and having only 20 minutes for it.

Third because it was worthy to relate a real story of my love life and it worked as a controversy. That’s why this song will be my favorite ever.


7. You have had as singers, the greatest from Cuba and overseas: Beatriz Márquez, Annia Linares, Issac Delgado, Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco, Eliades Ochoa, Song by Four, Marco Antonio Muñiz, Johnny Ray, among others. To you what’s the most important, a good singer or a good song?

PV: A good singer is able to put on top a song limitless. A good song will remain forgotten if it’s not sung by a good singer.

Do you want to experience with that song that’s on your mind? Do you dare to let your musical composition in the hands of the audience?
As you read, there are some resources on line which you can take and perform on the creation ways; we leave you some of the most popular as an amateur level and medium. Notice the list we’re giving you is from programs DAW, from English: Digital Audio Workstation, they’ll be like a canvas which you can “paint” with sounds, besides you can edit, record, mix and master:

  1. Image-Line Fruity Loops
  2. Apple Garageband
  3. Sony Acid
  4. Cockos Reaper