By Susan Kepecs
Fifty years of US-imposed blockade on Cuba couldn’t dampen our rabid enthusiasm for the big island’s miraculous music on this side of the Florida Straits. Still, the market – booming with Buena Vista Social Club concerts and CDs made accessible thanks to Britain’s World Circuit Records in the late ‘90s – withered a bit during W’s presidency. Obama hasn’t done much to change the situation, but I see a resurgence shimmering in my crystal ball. Paramount jazz pianist Chucho Valdés is on his first US tour in seven years. AfroCubism, the album World Circuit originally intended to make – a gentle, loping collaboration between Cuban sonero Eliades Ochoa and Malian world music star Toumani Diabaté that was scrapped when Diabaté couldn’t get a visa to Cuba in 1996 – was recorded in Spain in 2008 and finally released last month. And there’s a new book on the stands – the definitive bio so far of the late Cuban singing idol Benny Moré, “el barbaro del ritmo.” The book [University of Florida Press, 2009] was written by homeboy John Radanovich, who’s titled his slim tome with a translation of Benny’s nickname – Wildman of Rhythm.
This book merits a CulturalOyster post for two reasons. First, the zoot-suited, charismatic Moré was and still is the undisputed king of Cuban song. The treasure trove of tracks he laid down on RCA Victor, the lion’s share from the ‘50s with his mind-blowing Banda Gigante, epitomizes every genre of Cuban music from balmy boleros to guaracha-swing. Whether you’re a neophyte mambero or a raging rumbera, you don’t know beans about Cuban music if you aren’t hip to Benny Moré.
And second, as I hinted above, Wildman of Rhythm has Mad City roots. Radanovich, who currently lives in Florida, was here earlier this month promoting his book. “Madison completely formed me,” he said over coffee at Borders. He was born here, and though he grew up in Milwaukee he spent his childhood chomping at the bit to return. “In 1969, when I was 6, we visited my tie-dyed uncle in Madison, where he lived on Mifflin street. He had plants in the back that we knew weren't "tomato" plants as he told my parents. He had Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin posters and bead curtains. When we left, we saw two women nude sunbathing on the balcony next door. My mom remembers that I said ‘I want to go to college here’ at that exact moment.”
Radanovich planned to become a photo journalist. “But I realized I didn't want to be a war photographer, so I switched to a double major in English and French. And I wrote for the Daily Cardinal about world music, which lead to my pursuing the music of the Americas ever since.”
Two of his life’s obsessions, Radanovich said, are Louis Armstrong and Benny Moré. “I immediately understood their music the first time I heard it.”
Unable to find an authoritative source on Moré, he ended up in relentless pursuit of the story’s pieces, scouring Havana and Miami for years with no intention of writing a book until one day he realized there was no escape.
The way Radanovich describes the process sounds like doing jigsaw puzzles in the dark. There should have been tons of researchable material in Cuba, he said. Moré’s death in 1963 was perfectly timed for history, since all but the last four years of his life were spent in the pre-Revolutionary period. The Cuban national archives should be full of radio interviews, news clips, photos. “But there was nothing. It was like searching for a ghost.”
Radanovich managed to meet a few of Moré’s still-living musicians, including his cousin, songwriter and backup singer Enrique Benítez, “El Conde Negro.” “He’s very sharp,” Radanovich said. “He remembers. But we’d be talking about a specific recording session and he’d seem so lucid, and then he’d say ‘but I’m not sure …” And I’d ask ‘what are you not sure about?’ and his answer was ‘well, we were really, really drunk...’
“I thought oh my god, he’s the last link to the historical record and I’m trying to get it straight – but I was never sure I had it right.”
For a long time, Radanovitch added, he didn’t understand how politics colored what people told him. Jazz in particular is a hot potato in post-Revolutionary Cuba. In the ‘40s and ‘50s Cuban players came to New York – Cubop, born of the famous Dizzy Gillespie / Chano Pozo collaboration, forever altered the path of American music. And American jazz was big in Havana. Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole and Benny Goodman played regularly at the Tropicana and other city hotspots. Expat Cuban sax master Paquito d’Rivera, in his book My Sax Life [Northwestern University Press, 2005], talks about the jazz recordings his father collected in Havana during that epoch. But after the Revolution, everything American – including jazz – was prohibido.
D’Rivera, who left Cuba in 1980 and never went back, gave Radanovich a Havana phone number for legendary Cuban trombonist and Banda Gigante arranger / composer Generoso Jiménez. “The first thing I did when I went to Havana was to look up Generoso,” Radanovich said, “and the first question I asked him was ‘how did jazz influence your arranging of music? What did you listen to and what big bands did you like?’ Generoso got a funny look on his face and said ‘We never listened to jazz. It had no influence on me whatsoever.’”
“Whenever I asked the same question in Cuba and in Miami I’d get diametrically opposed answers,” Radanovich continued. “I could never split the difference. It never made sense to me. The contradictions were constant, and very difficult to deal with. Just the way Benny’s name is spelled is controversial.”
Benny was a stage alias – Moré’s real name was Bartolo. “People come out of the woodwork on my website,” Radanovich says, “and either agree with me or tell me I’m wrong, it’s got one “n,” not two. It took me years to come to terms with this issue. Finally I tracked down his grandson in Miami, who insisted Benny took his name from Benny Goodman. I’m 98% certain that’s right, but it’s still a little bit suspect.”
Wildman of Rhythm’s not perfect, Radanovich admits. And besides the uncertainties, which in a way are part of the story, the book’s dotted with small errors of fact and translation not directly related to Moré that an astute bilingual, bicultural editor should have ferreted out. But Radanovich put a lot of heart into this work. The details he was able to piece together in the dark, neatly woven into the backstory of late pre-Revolutionary Cuba in all its mafioso glory, are more than worth the sticker price.