Ricardo Herrera, Corinne Winters, Leonardo Granados, Jeffrey Picon, Michael Barrett, and Steven Blier (at piano)
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Cuban music took the world by storm in the 1920s and 30s, and found a special welcome in Paris. Last month the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) offered a rousing program that interwove the concert hall, the nightclub, and the theater, with music by José White, Eliseo Grenet, Ernesto Lecuona, Luis Casas Romero, Alejandro García Caturla, Sindo Garay, and Miguel Matamoros. The show also featured songs by Moisés Simóns, including excerpts from his rarely performed 1934 operetta Toi C’est Moi. The songs were wittily performed by soprano Corinne Winters, baritone Ricardo Herrera, and tenor Jeffrey Picón, accompanied by the twin pianos of NYFOS director Steven Blier and associate director Michael Barrett and the rhythmic percussion of Leonardo Granados. To hear excerpts from the New York concert, click here.

Here are Steven Blier’s program notes:

Ricardo Herrera, Corinne Winters, Jeffrey Picon
Photo: Matthew Murphy

With its instant appeal, it is easy to think of Cuban music as happy-go-lucky. But the sunny exterior of the songs in this program often mask dark social issues. Their origins are surprisingly complex because of the multiracial context from which they arose. It is usually said that Cuban melody and harmony derive from Spanish roots, while its complex rhythms come from Africa. Like all generalizations, this one is an oversimplification—but one that contains an important kernel of truth. In a country plagued with racial animosity and fear, music became an arena where people of all colors could eventually find common ground. White Cuban artists like Alejandro García Caturla and Alejo Carpentier spearheaded the Afrocubanismo movement, bringing the primal force of black culture into classical music; while darker-skinned Cuban artists like Sindo Garay and Miguel Matamoros entranced the world with sweet, cosmopolitan songs that gently softened the African edge for international audiences.

Paris became one of the most glamorous of those audiences for Cuban music. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, many Cuban composers and performers flocked to the City of Light where they found a warm welcome. In the early decades of the 20th century Havana was in many ways a thriving city, filled with American tourists looking for a good time and decent, legal alcohol during the Prohibition era. But in the late 1920s, Cuba’s economy went into decline with many middle-class Cubans rapidly sliding into poverty. Musicians were hit hard by the downturn; after a long period of steady employment, work dried up. When they did land a job in a club their pay was just two pesos a night. The country was under the dictatorship of Machado, one of Cuba’s most repressive and violent rulers. More and more musicians joined the underground movement trying to topple him, and the Machadistas retaliated: nightclubs were often the scenes of shootouts, armed confrontations between revolutionaries (many of them players in the dance band) and Machado’s paramilitaries.

Alejandro Garcia Caturla
Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Cuban novelist, critic, and jazz historian Alejo Carpentier was among the first important artists to leave in the late 1920s. His outspoken opposition to Machado had landed in him in jail, and upon his release he managed to escape to Paris with the aid of the French writer Robert Desnos. Carpentier became a magnet for other Cuban dissidents. Keenly aware of the adventurousness of Parisian audiences, he saw opportunities for his compatriot painters and musicians. The Cuban public tended to be conservative and not yet comfortable with the new wave of Afrocubanismo he had been promoting at home. Parisians, on the other hand, were mad for it. In 1928 Carpentier leaned on his old law school friend Alejandro Caturla to join him, and obtained a commission for a couple of art songs in an upcoming concert—music by Caturla, texts by Carpentier himself. The composer had wasted no time when he arrived in Paris; he hung out with Sergei Prokofiev, discussed Surrealism with Louis Aragon, and took up studies with the leading music teacher of the era, Nadia Boulanger. Fired by his French training and ready for the challenge, Caturla wrote the songs in two weeks. They premiered at the Salle Gaveau with soprano Lydia Rivera and none other than Ernesto Lecuona at the piano. The superlative reviews clinched Caturla’s career. His music is a unique confluence of Cuban street culture, clangorous African ritual, and the elegant rigor of art song.

Eliseo Grenet
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Soon other composers found their way to Paris. Eliseo Grenet, a staunch opponent of Machado, was hounded by the dictator and went there to conduct the premiere of his operetta La virgen morena; he also became part owner of La Cueva—one of the most successful nightclubs on the street known as Rue des cubains (Cuban Street)—where he often performed. Grenet returned to Cuba when the coast was clear, where his work as songwriter, conductor, bandleader, and producer enriched the musical life of Cuba immeasurably.

The sheer number and quality of Ernesto Lecuona’s user-friendly songs—including “Malagueña,” “Maria la O,” and “Siboney”—would have been enough to propel him into international fame. He had been a child prodigy—he wrote his first song when he was 11 and made a New York debut at age 21. But in addition to his musical gifts, Lecuona also had uncanny skill for business, a rarity in a musician. He knew how to spot opportunities and turn them into gold. Cleverly parlaying his musical gifts into a brilliant career that spanned Europe, Cuba, and the United States, he made Paris one of his hubs. A series of piano recitals first brought him there, and he also played in the nightclubs after hours. [Trova Film, based in Tenerife, Canary Islands, is producing a documentary about Lecuona.]

There he might have run into Miguel Matamoros, whose trio also headlined on the Rue des Cubains. He was the antithesis of Lecuona—a self-taught boy from the country with an intuitive gift for rhythm. He created an exuberant street band sound with a distinctive tumbao, a kind of polyrhythmic groove filled with unusual syncopations. The Trio Matamoros stayed together for 35 years, from 1925 till 1960—a triumph for any group of players, and a breathtaking achievement for three untrained musicians. Their songs remain classics in the repertoire.

Cuban commemorative stamp with “El Manisero (Peanut Vendor)” theme by Moisés Simons.
Courtesy Letralia.com

For Moisés Simons, Paris became a second home in the 1930s. Unlike most of his colleagues he was not merely a star of the nightclubs, but also a success in musical theater. In collaboration with librettist Henri Duvernois he wrote an operetta, Toi C’est Moi, that enjoyed a triumphant run in the 1934-35 season. Alejandro Carpentier praised it lavishly, calling it “the peak of Simons’ creative career.” This was high praise for a composer who had conquered the world of popular music early in his life. Like Lecuona, Simons had been a child prodigy, and he hit pay dirt with his 1928 hit tune “El manisero,” known in America as “The Peanut Vendor.” A very clever composer, Simons can weave bar after bar of sexy musical magic using no more than four or five chords for an entire piece. Like Kurt Weill, Simons was a musical chameleon and adapted his style to his audience. Toi C’est Moi has moments of Cuban fire but is suavely French for most of its duration. So were his next operetta, Le chant des tropiques, and a pop song provocatively called “Le cul sur la commode” (“My rear end on the chest of drawers”)—a comedy number that went to the top of the charts in 1937.

Sindo Garay
Courtesy of The Cuban History.com

Going to Paris must have been a dream come true for Indo-Cuban Sindo Garay. He traveled there in 1928 with the singer Rita Montaner, enjoying three months as the darling of the French public. Garay had pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Born in Santiago, he was uneducated and illiterate until he taught himself to read at age 16 by copying the store signs in his hometown. He was self-taught as a musician as well and never learned to read music: his songs had to be transcribed by others. But Garay’s lack of training did not stop him from creating bewitching melodies and expanding the simple harmonic patterns endemic to most Cuban song. Using a sophisticated palette of altered chords, he made a lovely contribution to Cuba’s musical heritage. Garay lived a very long life. “Not everyone can claim to have shaken the hands of José Martí and Fidel Castro!” he used to boast. And his friends would joke that whenever Garay needed money, he would celebrate his “hundredth birthday” one more time—a party he extended from the time he turned 99 till his death at 101.

Simons, Lecuona, Grenet, Matamoros, Garay, and Caturla were among the many musicians taking a champagne-infused refuge from their embattled homeland. In Paris, their music was seen as fresh and exciting, their Cubanness a cause for celebration. And no doubt many of them were happy to get away from the extreme machismo and homophobia that prevailed in Cuban society.

José Silvestre White, Afro-Cuban violinist and composer. Shown here after he received the 1st prize for violin at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1856. Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Courtesy of AfriClassical.com

But they were not the first Cuban composers to emigrate to France. That distinction goes to José White, born in 1836 to a Spanish father and an Afro-Cuban mother. White was another child prodigy; by his teens he had learned to play sixteen instruments, and at the age of 18 he gave a violin recital accompanied by American piano virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk in Havana. It was Gottschalk who encouraged White to study abroad and helped him raise money for the voyage. White left Havana when he was 19, enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire, and remained there for sixteen years (1855-71). His music attracted the admiration of Italian opera composer Gioachino Rossini, by then an elderly man. José White’s career took him back to Havana, where he was accused of allying himself with the Independence Movement. Running afoul of the repressive Cuban government, he absconded to Mexico, Venezuela, and Brazil before returning to Paris in 1888. There he continued his career as a composer and teacher—a rare distinction at that time for a Cuban mulato. Among his students were the composer George Enescu and the renowned violinist Jacques Thibaud. He wrote very few songs, concentrating on his primary instrument, the violin. But “La bella cubana” is a true Cuban classic—a kind of sensual, Antillean “Beautiful Dreamer” still beloved by Latin Americans today.

Luis Casas Romero
Courtesy of Radio Cadena Havana

All of these composers made it to Paris—with one exception. Luis Casas Romero remained in his homeland for his entire career, where he wrote hit songs, conducted orchestras, and most notably launched Cuba’s very first radio station. There he became an adept programmer, bringing Afro-Cuban song into the homes of white listeners—and forging an important link between Cuba’s racial cultures. Many of his songs are classics—especially “El Mambí” and “Si llego a besarte.” Without doubt they were sung on the Rue des cubains in Romero’s absence.

Most Americans instantly associate Cuban music with jazz because of its many famous ambassadors—icons like Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Machito. But jazz is only one strain of the Cuban tradition, and one that began to permeate that culture somewhat later in the 20th century. What truly unites Cuba’s music is not jazz’s spirit of improvisation, but the omnipresence of dance. Cuban culture is dance culture, and we hear the rhythms of tango, rumba, conga, and habanera in almost every piece, whatever its provenance. It doesn’t matter whether Cubans are writing for the concert hall, the theater, the street band, or the night club—they are always on the dance floor. In the early years of the 20th century, black street musicians banged on every percussion instrument imaginable, made out of whatever came to hand; white dance bands didn’t use drums at all. While Cuban music loves bongos, claves, and congas, it doesn’t actually require anyone to beat time—the rhythm is woven into the very fabric of the composition. Its seductive beat conquered the world a century ago and will always remain a vibrant source of musical delight. It is the radiant music of survival, the triumphant synthesis of many cultures, an ambassador no one has the power to resist.

I received invaluable assistance from Pablo Zinger and Mirta Gómez when preparing this program. My beloved brother, Mal Blier, lent a firm editorial hand to the translations. And I owe a great debt of thanks to Gus Chrysson who shared knowledge, history, artistic culture, good judgment, and musical savvy with me every step of the way. To all four, great thanks–y un fuerte abrazo. —Steven Blier

Photo: Matthew Murphy
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Steven Blier
Steven Blier and Michael Barrett have hosted New York Festival of Song's signature series since founding NYFOS in 1988. Blier is a national treasure, adored for his boundless knowledge of song, smart and funny stage commentary, meticulously researched program notes, and gift for imparting his passion to the singers he coaches. Barrett is a sublime and suave musician in his own right, the mastermind of Caramoor and the Moab Music Festival. These two were pioneers in launching the thematic song recital, and still are. Their scintillating programs draw from repertoire across musical genres and styles; rarely heard songs are unearthed or familiar works positioned in surprising ways.