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[LIFE magazine 6 October 1947 pp. 145-48, 151-57]


From Havana's shabbiest cabarets and voodoo lodges pours an endless flood of sultry rhythms, which are danced to all over the world


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In 1930, on the heels of the stock-market crash, a wailing, bombilating Cuban tune called The Peanut Vendor hit Broadway and set America's feet and hips squirming in the intricacies of a new dance-the rumba.  The significance of this event in the history of U.S. mores at first seemed slight.  Prognosticators noted the trend, attributed it to depression-frayed nerves and gave it a year or so to peter out.  But in the course of a decade the rhumba had not only shown that it was here to stay, it had become the basis of a huge American industry.   Latin-American dance bands equipped with maracas and bongos elbowed U.S. jazz bands in nightclubs and ballrooms from New York to San Francisco.  Rumba specialists like Xavier Cugat made fortunes in Afro-Latin rhythm.  In one year (1946) Americans paid Arthur Murray nearly $14 million to teach them the dance.  Rumba enthusiasts still account for more than 60% of his enormous business.

The Peanut Vendor, which started it all, was followed by a steady stream of similar Cuban song hits, which began nosing the conventional American fox trots from their top positions on Tin Pan Alley's best-seller lists.  Small Cuban farmers neglected sugar cane and tobacco to raise gourds that could be manufactured into maracas.  Music began to rival sugar, cigars and rum as one of Cuba's leading exports, and the American man in the street, buying it in vast quantities every time he got near a juke box, became its leading consumer.  Of all the popular music played today over the U.S. air waves, on juke boxes and in Hollywood movies, approximately 20% is Latin-American, and nearly all of that 20% comes from the small island of Cuba.

Though Cubans are gratified by this increasing demand, they are quick to point out that there is nothing new about their trade in musical exports.  Economically Cuba may be just another

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so-called banana republic.  Politically it may be a hotbed of tropical instability.  But musically it has rivaled New York as the popular musical capital of the Western Hemisphere for nearly a hundred years.  Little Cuba's amazing influence on the world's popular music started in the early 19th Century when an itinerant Spaniard named Sebastian Yradier settled in Havana, listened to the languid, cajoling tunes of the natives and wrote a tune called El Areglito.  El Areglito became the first habanera.  Imported to Spain, the habanera became a standard feature of Spanish folk music, and a generation later Georges Bizet wrote one that would up as the most popular tune in France's most popular opera, Carmen.  Yradier followed up El Areglito with the old Cuban favorite La Paloma, which was commissioned by Mexico's Emperor Maximilian and has served as a model for Latin-American tunes for three generations.  Somewhere in the 19th Century, according to scholars, Cubans also invented the tango, which they exported to Argentina, giving the Argentinians what has since become their most characteristic form of national folk music.  The rumba and the conga came later.  But these are merely the most notable of Cuba's recent musical contributions to the world.  For home consumption Cubans produce a clattering assortment of sons, guarachas, danzons, puntos and boleros that still keep the hot Havana nights in a continuous uproar of melody.  The curious thing about all this Cuban music is that there is nothing generically Cuban about it.  Its music is written and played in a hybrid musical language that is part Spanish and part African Negro.  Its melodies usually echo the sultry songs that were brought to Cuba from Latin and Moorish Spain.  Its rhythms are descended from the tom-tom beats of the African jungle.

It thrives on bullets and marijuana

UNLIKE sugar and tobacco Cuban music is raised in the streets of Havana by a swarming, polyglot underworld that sings, drinks and starves with impartial exuberance.  It grows in brothels, taxi-dance halls and clandestine voodoo lodges which upper-class Cubans persist in regarding darkly as temples of human sacrifice.  Many of its tunes are created on borrowed pianos, some of them by bullet-scarred, marijuana-smoking characters who sell them for the price of a swig of rum.  They are tried out in the ram-shackle cabarets of Las Fritas, a street
[To see a full size photo, right click and VIEW IMAGE]
In Las Fritas Nightclub, dancers Clara and Alberto Render [dance the] traditional Cuban folk dance called "Shoeing The Mare"

of Coney Islandlike concessions at nearby La Playa, where Havana's Negroes spend their nights out.  From Las Fritas these tunes sweep into downtown Havana, where their whacking, clattering accompaniments are toned down for the tourist trade in expensive cabarets like the Chanflan and the Faraon.  With luck and promotion by the music publishers of Havana's chaotic Tin Pan Alley, they may reach the ears of American bandleaders and catapult their authors into international fame.  More often, however, they lose themselves in the seething uproar of Havana's night life, sinking downward

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like Havana's prostitutes, from high-class nightclubs to 6¢ creep joints, and die out, making room for younger and fresher tunes.

At Las Fritas one of the more recent hits is a jumpy little tune known as Penicilina (Penicillin), which celebrates the curative properties of what, in free and easy Havana, is a particularly useful drug.  Penicilina's words automatically preclude widespread international popularity:

I carry you from limb to limb
As Tarzan carries beautiful Juana,
Because I took penicilina [Penicillin] and cured myself.
Try it and you will find out.

What is this, what is this?
How bad I feel.
To him who is lovesick, I say.
To him who is lovesick, I say
 That penicilina can cure you.
Try it and you will see.

Penicilina has several other versions, the most popular of which has no words at all and is sung with flashing eyes and uncontrollable hips to the illuminating text: "Bum-bum, bum, bum-bum, bum."  Its repetitious six-note melody is underpinned with a thumping, rattling accompaniment that sounds like the forcible destruction of a warehouse full of cutlery.  Invited to make a recording of it, its author, a genial Negro named Abelardo Valdes, embarrassedly included a stanza of Mendelssohn's Wedding March to fill it out to standard disk length.  Its local popularity finally achieved such proportions that Valdes was moved to turn out a second ditty called Sulfatiasol.  "My friends," he announced triumphantly, "tell me I should open a drugstore."

The object is not money

PENICILINA" was obviously not written with a canny eye toward U.S. commercial possibilities.  The prevalence of tunes of its type causes the more enterprising of Cuba's music publishers to throw up their hands in horror.  Although the better-known Cuban composers have an organization like America's ASCAP, the lamentable fact is that the balance of Havana's exuberant song writing industry is carried on not for money but for fun by its obscure and impoverished composers.  Various attempts to organize them on a sensible, businesslike basis have ended in abject failure.

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Such efforts at economic betterment as have occurred amid the prevailing aura of marijuana and indigence have been sporadic and highly individualistic.  One of these erupted last year when a big, flashily dressed Negro named Chano Pozo became obsessed with a hunger for a new Buick convertible.  Pozo, whose masterpiece was a ditty called El Pin Pin, had achieved some fame on the side as a dancer and a player of the big African conga drum.  He approached his publisher, one Ernesto Roca, and demanded an extra thousand dollars as an advance on a new song.  Roca refused and Chano Pozo assaulted him.  Like all prudent Havana music publishers, Roca had an armed bodyguard who promptly pumped four bullets into Chano Pozo's midriff.  Slightly inconvenienced, Pozo spent two weeks in a hospital, recovered and managed a down payment on the Buick without Roca's help.  A few months later Pozo courted death again, this time as the breakneck driver of his new Buick.  The Buick was wrecked, but Pozo escaped.  He is still the toast of Havana's nightclubs and radio stations.

The homicidal musical limbo of Havana floats somewhat indeterminately between two other worlds.  One is the heaven of international success, money, New York nightclubs and Hollywood fame to which good Cubans sometimes go in spite of themselves.  The other is the underworld of African Cuba.  And African Cuba is both musically and spiritually an outpost of a jungle civilization whose headquarters are still near the Niger and Congo rivers across the Atlantic.  In this underworld African tribal dialects mingle curiously with mangled Spanish.  Even today old Negroes are to be found in Cuba who regard themselves as temporary exiles and who, when asked their nationality, describe themselves not as Cubans but as transplanted Yorubas, or Araras.  Their tribal organizations, complete with religious rituals, music, medicine and magic, are a mild source of worry to the Cuban authorities, who regard them as a potential political menace.  Under the dictatorship of Machado, which ended in 1933, satirical political ditties from the jungle caused frequent unrest, and more than one Negro songwriter disappeared with a price on his head.

Its rhythm comes from African jungles

TWENTY percent of the Cuban population is African, and much of the male portion of that percentage is affiliated with a vague organization known to Cubans as Los Nanigos, which has existed ever since colonial times.  Upper-class Cubans sometimes frighten their children by telling them the Nanigos will get them if they are not good.  The Cuban police keep Nanigo tribal rituals under surveillance and are ready to pounce the minute there is a change from harmless voodoo to political agitation.  Once a year, at carnival time, the Nanigos come into the open as the big event of the Cuban comparsas.  Their value as a tourist attraction is undeniable.  For five successive Saturday night the streets of Havana stream with joyous throngs of fantastically costumed Negroes, prancing along to drumming and chanting that sounds as though it came straight from the heart of Africa.  But when the comparsas are over the Nanigos go back to their slums and farms.  The big conga drum, which occasionally makes its appearance during the

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carnival, reverts to the status of an illegal instrument.  It has been outlawed except during fiestas for a good reason: the conga drum has been used as a jungle telegraph, roaring out secret messages from town to town in the Cuban hinterland and from neighborhood to neighborhood in Havana.

With few exceptions the instruments of Cuban music are constructed on native African models and are unquestionably the most primitive ones that have ever been used in civilized music.  The Cuban Negroes make them out of dry gourds, hoe blades, old cutlery, skeletal remains, tree trunks, discarded cowbells and goatskins.  But their manufacture for the export market has now become a standardized industry.  Even the exotic quijada, which is made out of the tooth-bearing jawbone of a horse, is now manufactured according to strict specifications.  The Havana musical instrument firm of Jose A. Solis, which supplies many of the world's foremost quijada virtuosos, lists the instrument with the following note "[The quijada] is composed of the inferior maxilar of native horses about 2 years old, prepared in such a manner that when struck with the fist produces a peculiar vibration very original and solely of this instrument.  Dimension are: 14 in. long. Weight 1,250 grs."

The indispensable trademark of all rumba bands is, of course, a pair of maracas, or gourd rattles, which are shaken with unremitting enthusiasm by a musician who devotes his entire career to the craft.  Closely related to these are the guiros, or "nutmeg graters," –long gourds with corrugated surfaces which are scraped with a nail or bit of wood and emit a sound somewhat like the continued cranking of an outboard motor.  A pair of bongos, or large drums made of hollow tree trunks and calfskin and thumped with the bare hands, is also to be considered standard equipment.

A large rumba band is incomplete without at least one big conga drum, which is made of either a hollow tree trunk or an old barrel.  A very high-class rumba band may also contain a marimbula – a large boxlike instrument with a series of metal tongues attached to it.  When plucked with the fingers like the tongue of a jew's s-harp, these strips of metal give forth a powerful twanging sound resembling that of a bull fiddle.  The marimbula is a common instrument in the Belgian Congo.  The Nanigos make it out of old boxes or suitcases and discarded clock springs.  Cowbells [pico] and Chinese wood blocks [claves] may be added.  So may a large earthenware jug called a botija, which is precisely the same instrument as that used by old-time American Negro jug bands.  One notable feature about all these instruments is that none of them, except possibly the marimbula, is capable of carrying a tune.  In the primitive backwoods ceremonies of the Cuban Negroes this deficiency is filled, if at all, by the human voice.  In the rather prim-sounding danzons of Havana, flutes and guitars often provide the melody.  But in rumba music as Americans know it, the percussive symphony of the primitive Cubans is drowned in a standard orchestration of violins, pianos, accordions, saxophone, trumpets and so on.

Such refinements are the price paid for civilization.  The primitive Nanigo can make music out of practically anything.  One of his favorite instruments that has, as yet, failed to appear in standard nightclub bands, is the door.  To play the door, you remove it from its hinges, rest one end of it lightly against your knees and pound it deliriously with both fists.  The result is extremely sonorous.

Cuba's No. 1 composer

AT the opposite end of the Cuban musical spectrum from door-playing is the lucrative art of composing Cuban music for the international market.  And in this art Cuba has produced a large handful of the world's most popular composers.  One of them was the late Moises Simons, who won himself a permanent place in history by writing the famous Peanut Vendor.  Another is Eliseo Grenet, nightclub owner and dean of Cuban bandleaders, whose pro-African Cuban Lament so enraged the Cuban dictator, Machado, that he had Grenet chased all the way to Barcelona, Spain.  Grenet's masterpiece is the popular tune Mama Inez.  The undisputed king of Cuban popular music is, however, a mild-mannered, melancholy looking man named Ernesto Lecuona.

Lecuona is a unique phenomenon in the world of popular music.  Mention his name in any random gathering of Americans and the chances are you will draw a blank.  But you will seldom meet an American who is unfamiliar with his durable song hits.  Some of them are such old familiar tunes that people are always attributing them vaguely to some long dead classical composer.  Other tunes

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are constantly nudging the top numbers on each year's hit parade.  Still others are genuine classics familiar to every aspiring piano student.  Among a list of some 300 compositions that Lecuona has turned out during the past 40 years, the most universally known is probably the sultry song Siboney, which is sometimes jokingly referred to as the Cuban national anthem.  It is closely seconded in popularity by the ubiquitous piano pieces Malaguena and Andalucia (The Breeze and I), and by an enormous sheaf of popular songs (Say ‘Si Si,' Always in My Heart, Noche Azul, Two Hearts That Pass in the Night, Maria My Own, Jungle Drums, I'm Living from Kiss to Kiss and so on) that are played and sung in nightclubs, ballrooms, restaurants, ball parks, bars and broadcasting studios from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

In the song-publishing houses of Manhattan's Tin Pan Alley, Lecuona's compositions are known as "standards," or perennial best-sellers.  Where the average Tin Pan Alley hit has a life of a few months, Lecuona's tunes go on selling for decades.  Siboney has been recorded by every major record company two or three times over and is still going strong.  Say ‘Si Si' has sold almost a million copies in the U.S. alone.  Malaguena, with a steady sale of 100,000 copies a year since 1931, has set something of a record in the catalogs of its New York publisher.  In arrangements for everything from brass band to piano accordion, it is the most consistent best-seller in the U.S.  It has even passed the durable record of what was previously the all-time champion in long-term U.S. popularity, Paul Lincke's death-defying, 45-year-old classic, Glow Worm.

He takes his admirers with him

is a large unquenchably good-natured 51-year-old Cuban with tobacco-brown eyes and small vocabulary of infra-Basic English.  He commutes indefatigably between a cluttered apartment in Havana and a suite in a midtown New York hotel.  Despite an untiring effort at sartorial elegance, he looks (as his friends are continually pointing out) exactly like Comedian Zero Mostel.  A distinctly sedentary type of man, he is nearly always to be found slumped wistfully in an easy chair, surrounded by a chattering g roup of loudly dressed Latin admirers who follow him wherever he goes, eating his food and drinking his liquor in unlimited quantities.  Lecuona himself seldom touches a drink.  He regards this portable bedlam with an absent, preoccupied air, occasionally rising with an apology to go to a nearby piano and thump out a few tunes over the din of conversation.  "After all," he explains defensively, "a man ought to be able to play piano in his own house."

Though his royalties are calculated in the tens of thousands, Lecuona has none of the characteristics of a man of wealth, except

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perhaps his rather absent-minded indifference to money.  He is constantly giving away small sums to assist aspiring maracas players and cabaret singers, American as well as Cuban.  Over the years the total of these gifts is undoubtedly immense.

Lecuona is such a celebrated figure in Latin America that when a man named Ricardo Lecuona was killed in a Colombian airplane crash, radio stations in Mexico, Chile, Peru, Brazil and Argentina went off the air for a silent minute of mourning under the mistaken impression that it was Ernesto who had been killed.  Five years ago ex-President Batista of Cuba named him cultural attache to the Cuban Embassy at Washington.  As foreign propagandist for Cuba's native music he ranks second only to the redoubtable Spanish bandleader, Xavier Cugat.  His unofficial career as Cuba's No. 1 musician, which has recently culminated in half a dozen scores for Hollywood and Latin-American movies, started in the cabarets and silent-movie houses of Havana.  As a child of 11 he had already borrowed a pair of long pants and organized his first orchestra.  A two-step called Cuba y America, which he composed at that early age, is still in the standard repertory of Cuban military bands.  His first big international success arrived in 1922, when he toured America and appeared for eight consecutive weeks at the Capitol theater in New York, introducing his Malaguena and Andalucia to U.S. audiences.

While Malaguena and Andalucia were typical Spanish-style "salon pieces" which might easily have been turned out by Latin composers on either side of the Atlantic, Siboney, which he introduced in 1927, sounded the typically Cuban note that was to infect U.S. dance enthusiasts with the rumba epidemic.  The whole epidemic, as Cubans have since frequently pointed out, was based on a monstrous misconception.  Siboney was not a rumba at all.  Neither is The Peanut Vendor.  The mistaken and lucrative idea that they were, germinated in the head of the canny Tin Pan Alley Music Publisher Herbert E. Marks, who has since become the largest importer of Latin-American music in the U.S.  In Cuba the rumba is an athletic exhibition dance requiring an enormous expanse of space and an amount of inspired wriggling that would reduce the average American dance floor to something resembling a choreographic hockey arena.  Its music is fast and extremely furious.  The dance that Americans have imported under its name is also authentically Cuban, but it is known in Cuba as the son (rhymes with "tone").  The misconception started when the Marks publishing company issued The Peanut Vendor as a son and found its bewildered customers arguing at retail music counters: "Must be a misprint.  Whaddaya mean, ‘song'?  The directors of the Edward B. Marks Music Corp. immediately went into a huddle and decided to call it a rumba instead.  And to unsuspecting Americanos it has remained a rumba ever since.

At the moment the son's popularity is threatened in Havana by a new dance known as the botacita (the little boat), and enterprising U.S. dance promoters like Arthur Murray are scurrying to Cuba hoping to find it a new terpsichorean gold mine.  As danced in the music halls and on the streets of Havana, it is a thing of regimental proportions in which throngs of happy Cubans rock from side to side in a boat like rhythm with their hands on their hips.  Like most Cuban dance crazes, it can be blamed squarely on the Nanigos and where it will all end nobody can tell.

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