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Cuban Musicians Around the World
Bola de Nieves

Cuba’s greatest contribution to world culture is its music. The myriad musical genres in Cuba draw from the conflation of musical influences from Spain, France, England, Italy, the United States, Austria, China, and Africa, leading to all sorts of musical styles: danza, habanera, danzón, danzonete, tumba francesa (from Guantánamo), chachachá, mambo, bolero, son, canción trovadoresca, Afro-Cuban chants, drum beats, bembé, guaguancó, columbia, yambú, tahona, changüí, guajira, criolla, romanza, parranda espirituana, zapateo, conga, mozambique, pilón, pacá, simalé, dengue, guaracha, criolla, pregón, sucu-sucu, jazz jam sessions, boleros, feeling, and timba habanera.

Along with the United States and Brazil, the largest island in the Caribbean is a cardinal vertex that completes the triangle of the world’s great popular music forces. It’s part of an important geographical feedback loop ranging from Asia and Oceania to Africa (mother of almost all rhythms), and including blues and jazz (from the US) and folk music, and the perfect influx of the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic from Brazil. Blacks and mulattos have generated these stormy antiphons that emerged from the cultural encounter between Europeans and African slaves. The Caribbean is a space of melodic intermixing, and Cuba is at the center of the revelry: the seed of habaneras, danzones and tangos congos, and the expansion of son (the root of the Puerto Rican bomba music, plena, merengue, vallenato, joropo, and cumbia).

Yes, “son [music] is the most sublime for the soul to have fun.” The musical group Sexteto Habanero recorded son in New York in the 1920s. Ignacio Piñeiro’s Septeto Nacional performed the song “Suavecito” at the Ibero-American Exposition of Seville in 1929, a catchy tune that Sevillanos made their own: “Suavecito, suavecito / softly is how I like it / a pretty Sevillana lady / told her hubby / I’m going crazy, my darling / for Cuban music.” Bodies approach, and wiggle to the sounds of the clave and the metallic strumming of the guitar: “Son would become our first musical export,” wrote Cristóbal Díaz Ayala in his book, Cuando salí de La Habana (1999).


In 1928, the Cabaret Lido in Paris received pianist Oscar Calle and his orchestra, including trumpeter Julio Cueva, who wrote the popular guaracha tune “El golpe de la bibijagua.” Pianist Eliseo Grenet, composer of the beautiful and sad “Lamento cubano,” settled in Paris and for a time conducted the Cabaret La Cueva orchestra. Grenet created the “conga de salon,” a simplified form of Cuban comparsas (carnival street dances). The pianist and composer Moisés Simons traveled to Spain and achieved resounding success with the zarzuela “La Niña Merced,” but his final destination was Paris, which Rita Montaner had already conquered by popularizing “El manisero” (known as “The Peanut Vendor” in the English-speaking world, which Simons composed in 1928), making it an international hit. The Parisians danced to “Ay, Mama Inés” (“Ay Mama Inés, ay Mama Inés / all of us blacks drink coffee…”).

In the 1930s, Cuban musicians could be found in most of the nightclubs in the City of Light —Marino Barreto, Pedro Guida, Rita Montaner, Lázaro Quintero, Antonio Machín, Don Azpiazu, Julio Cueva— playing guarachas, boleros, congas and son. In that decade, Madrid welcomed the pianists Ernesto Lecuona and Armando Oréfiche. The Lecuona Cuban Boys orchestra traveled the world. Italian Alberto Rabagliati was the lead vocalist of the orchestra Oréfiche. The combination of European subtle harmonization and Cuban rhythmic power proved the key to success. At the start of World War II, there wasn’t a European party without a Cuban musician in the house.

Trumpeter Vicente Sigler arrived in New York City in 1920 and quickly imposed his style with an orchestra made up of Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians. Violinist Alberto Iznaga (1906-1995) arrived in the Big Apple in 1929. After being part of Sigler’s orchestra, he formed the successful Siboney, widely accepted in New York clubs. The flute player, clarinetist and saxophonist Alberto Socarrás (1908-1987) was the first Cuban jazz player to record a flute solo with Clarence Williams in 1929. Azpiazu’s orchestra performed in many American cities, and bolero singer Panchito Riset made history with his sharp and unique vibrato resonating to the suggestive lyrics, along with Don Antobal (Azpiazu’s brother) and his group.

During those years, New York City also welcomed Eliseo Grenet, Antonio María Romeu, and Alfredo Brito, who wrote the best arrangement of “El manisero” and was a member of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Mario Bauzá joined Noble Sissle’s band in 1932, and later joined the group led by drummer Chick Webb, where he became musical director and discoverer of one of the best jazz voices of all time, Ella Fitzgerald. When he was a trumpeter in the Cab Calloway band, he pretended to be sick so that Dizzy Gillespie could replace him and thus make himself known to Calloway. Other notables include Frank Grillo, Machito (the future director, maraca player and singer in the Afro-Cubans — the first group to fuse Afro-Cuban rhythms with the imprints of American jazz), La Lupe, Celia Cruz, and many more.

In 1946, Chano Pozo traveled to the United States for a brief collaboration with Miguelito Valdés and Arsenio Rodríguez. Mister Babalú introduced him to Mario Bauzá and he, in turn, took him to meet the big band trumpet director, Dizzy Gillespie, who was looking to incorporate a conguero (conga drummer) into his orchestra. At a September 29, 1947 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York —where they played “Cubana Be,” “Cubana Bop,” and “Afro-Cuban Suite” (G. Fuller)— delirium overtook the place. The conguero’s bedeviled drumming and his couplets in the Yoruba language transformed the face of the bebop: “Mysterious and frenetic rhythmic power,” exclaimed the band’s regular drummer, Teddy Stewart. Singer Ella Fitzgerald was in the audience and later told Dizzy: “I don’t know, but jazz will be different from now on; that Cuban has revolutionized its phrasing.” The “Sugar Blues” interpreter was not mistaken: “cubop” was born, the beginning of what is now known as Latin jazz in its Afro-Cuban form. Then there would be “Manteca,” “Tin Deo” (with James Moody), “Woody’n You” or “Guachi Guaro.” In the emblematic Latin jazz standards “Carambola” (Chico O’Farrill), “With Soul” (Gillespie), “A Night in Tunisia” (Gillespie), or “Mambo Inn” (Bauzá), Chano Pozo’s roots in the Havana neighborhood of Cayo Hueso are evident, demonstrating the important intersection of Cuban rhythms with jazz from the United States.

It’s December 3, 1948, at the Rio Bar on Lennox Avenue in Harlem, and “Manteca” is playing on the jukebox. Chano is drinking rum straight-up; he’s dressed in white, with two-tone shoes and a red pocket square embellishing his drill suit, hinting at his veneration of Santa Barbara. He seems concentrated on the liquor bottle. Enter Cabito Muñoz, a World War II veteran and retail marijuana supplier who had cheated him by selling joints that were tampered with (a mixture of oregano with very little pure marijuana). The “Blen, Blen, Blen” composer complained, and an argument ensued that drowned out the brass section of “Manteca.” “Ya don’t steal from me, ya piece of shit,” it’s rumored that Chano said. Shots were fired. Cabito Muñoz emptied the magazine of his American army gun on the “Comételo to” composer, killing Luciano “Chano” Pozo González. The cost of the joints was about fifteen dollars. Chano Pozo was carrying $1,500 in his wallet; it was a matter of pride, not money: an Abakuá cannot be taken advantage of. That night he was slated to play with Miguelito Valdés’ orchestra. Later Benny Moré would confess in a lively mambo-guaracha: “I get so sad / every time I remember / the famous rumberos / I get so sad / Oh, Chano / Chano Pozo died! / […] / Without Chano I don’t want to dance / without Chano / I don’t go to rumba anymore / without Chano / but, I can’t anymore / without Chano / I don’t go to rumba anymore.” Fernando Ortiz wrote: “Chano Pozo was a revolutionary among jazz percussionists, his influence was direct and immediate. Chano’s ancestors spoke through his drums, but so did all of Cuba.” Later came Tata Güines, then the jazz drummers: Cándido Camero, Patato Valdés, Orestes Vilató, Francisco Aguabella, Mongo Santamaría, El niño Alfonso, Angá, Francisco Mela, Luis Conte…

Cuban musicians also flocked to Mexico: Bola de Nieve, Benny Moré, Celia Cruz, Ernesto Lecuona, Los Hermanos Rigual, Acerina, Osvaldo Ferré, Juan Bruno Terraza, Julio Gutiérrez, Ninón Sevilla, Orlando de la Rosa, Adolfo Guzmán, René Touzet, Silvestre Méndez, Dámaso Pérez Prado, Sonora Matancera, María Antonieta Pons, José Antonio Méndez, Olga Guillot, René Cabel, Mariano Mercerón, Vicentico Valdés, Rolando Laserie, Rudy Calzado, Daniel Herrera, Osmany Paredes, Pancho Céspedes, David Torrens…


Chico O’Farrill (1921-2001) was a quintessential Afro-Cuban jazz conductor, composer and arranger, widely solicited by American jazz players for more than 50 years. Later Bebo Valdés played again in Sweden and around the world with his Lágrimas negras and Cigala. Cachao, Juanito Márquez, Chocolate Armentero, Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Horacio “El Negro” Hernández, Miguelito Valdés, Yosvany Terry, Willy Chirino, Albita, Gloria Estefan, Pepe Rivero, Iván González, Iván “Melón” Lewis, Dafnis Prieto, Niuver, Gema y Pavel, Yelsy Heredia, Timbalive, Habana Abierta, Alain Pérez, Raúl Paz… Tico Torres, a Cuban, even played the drums in Bon Jovi’s hard rock band, and Alejandro González of the band Maná and one of the best Latin rock drummers, is the son of a Cuban mother. Add to the list Juan Formell and Los Van Van starting in 1969, and Chucho Valdés and Irakere in 1973.

Cuban musicians around the world form a long chronicle, and their footprints extend throughout the world. Yes, anyone can go crazy —like the Sevillanos did in the 1920s— by listening to the harmony and rhythms from the island that presides, musically, over the Caribbean.