by Susan Kepecs
The great sonero mayor Abelardo Barroso was born in Havana in 1905 and died there in 1972 – 24 years before Afro-Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos González brought the old soneros, who’d been more or less relegated to the dustbins of prerevoltionary history, to the attention of Ry Cooder and Nick Gold. From this collaboration came the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon at the end of the 1990s (http://www.buenavistasocialclub.com/). Barroso missed the rebirth of Cuban son, but he was not forgotten by the Buena Vista musicians. A song penned by another late great sonero, Ibrahim Ferrer – “Mi Musica Cubana,” for his second solo Buena Vista album, Buenos Hermanos (World Circuit, 2003) – tells it like it used to be. The lyrics (they’re better in Spanish) go like this: “There are many who say they’re the real ones, but they forget the ones who got there first. Of the many I know there’s only two names I’d say – one was Abelardo Barroso, the other Beny Moré.”
The Buena Vista craze faded away – Ferrer and too many other musicians who were part of the original BVSC group are gone – but leave it to Nick Gold to bring Barroso back to life as we head into 2015. With permission from Cuba’s state-owned record label EGREM, where the original is archived, the old Buena Vista production team – Gold, superstar sound engineer Jerry Boys, and the World Circuit label – remastered Cha Cha Cha, starring Barroso with la Orquesta Sensación, led by percussionist Rolando Valdés and recorded in the mid-1950s on the prerevolutionary Cuban label Puchito. I own a lot of EGREM reissues, which I love, but they’re pretty lo-fi. Cha Cha Cha is something else entirely. From 60-year old magnetic tape recordings stored all this time in the voracious heat and humidity of Cuba’s capital city, Boys has wrung miracles. Cha Cha Cha features a wide range of tunes in its eponymous genre, plus a little somethin’ else. And it aptly captures the remarkable versatility of Barroso’s voice.
The advance copy I got has no liner notes, so I can’t talk about the rest of the lineup, but Cha Cha Cha is all about Barroso anyway. The great sonero possessed a style less silky than Ferrer’s, less urban and slick than Moré’s – and more nuanced than either. Baptized “the Cuban Caruso,” Barroso plied his pipes with the best sextets and septets of the 1920s son boom. Most famous among them were the Sexteto Habanero and the Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñero; you can get some reissues and compilations on CD. In the ‘30s, Barroso co-led the Charanga López / Barroso with pianist Orestes López, whose brother, better known in the States, was the bass-playing mambo king Cachao.
Charanga’s the key to Sensación’s sound. Unlike the classic Havana-style son instrumentation you hear on the BVSC albums – guitars (including the distinctive trés cubano), percussion, bass, trumpet, piano – the first charanga orchestras played stately danzón, an early twentieth century Afro-Cuban genre that drank deeply from French influences. Afro-French culture, of course, came at Cuba from both sides in the nineteenth century – New Orleans to the west, Haiti to the east. Danzón was instrumental music, and charangas got their characteristic sound from violins, flutes and piano as well as bass and timbales. In the 1930s, when Barroso teamed up with López, charangas, picking up the hot son trend, added vocalists – and so it was that the violin and flute sound persisted as Afro-Cuban music diversified.
As legend has it (one legend, anyway – there are multiple variations on this theme) Barroso’s career faded in the late ‘40s / early ‘50s, Havana’s Mafia heyday, when the money was on US-influenced big band mambo jazz. Barroso was working in radio and in cabaret orchestras, playing percussion and sometimes singing a little – but as the story goes he had to make ends meet by working as a stevedore on the city’s docks. And then violinist Enrique Jorrín, with the charanga outfit Orquesta América, started emphasizing the cha cha cha rhythm. New charanga orchestras sprang up to carry the craze. One fateful night in 1954 or ’55 the owner of Puchito records, Jesús Gorís, recognized Barroso playing congas at a cabaret. At Beny Moré’s request Gorís invited the faded star to record with Rolando Valdés’ charanga, the Orquesta Sensación.
Barroso reveled in being returned to his rightful place in the universe, staking a boastful claim – “soy Abelardo Barroso!” – to almost every track on Cha Cha Cha. His first hit with Sensación – it was huge – was his signature song from the Sexteto Habanero days, “En Guantánamo.” On Cha Cha Cha there’s a fast cha running beneath the son – you can dance on either beat, though the latter prevails. The tune reveals how nuanced Barroso’s voice was, even when he was pushing 50. A few almost operatic notes throw the opening a little curve, and then he glides into that loping, old-fashioned sonero sound that’s as Cuban as cigars and sugarcane.
The second track on the album, “La Hija de Juan Simón,” was originally the title tune from a Spanish tear-jerker musical made into a 1935 film produced by Luis Buñuel. Sensación does it as flamenco-cha; Barroso puts out a jaw-droppingly dramatic performance, exaggerating vowels and dropping consonants like a cantaor sevillano.
“Tiene Sabor” has the double entendre lyrics and call-and response pattern of the son sub-genre guaracha – call it guaracha-cha. The trés is prominent on this track, along with punchy violin / flute work
The danzón-cha “Yo ‘ta cansaa” is elegantly slow, with the cha-cha-cha definitively marked. It’s a really sexy dance tune about an old man who’s too tired to go to work. There’s a lovely extended break in which Barroso lays out his list of complaints “my kidneys hurt!” – and each time, the chorus responds “he can’t work!” In a related vein there’s “Triste Lucha,” an Arsenio Rodríguez bolero-son that, in Sensación’s hands, melts across the imaginary danzón / son frontier.
“Bruca Manigua,” another Rodríguez tune, has been done by a lot of artists including Ferrer and Sierra Maestra, back in that band’s Juan de Marcos days. Rodríguez, as Ned Sublette, your best English-language source on Cuban music by far (Cuba and its Music, Chicago Review Press 2004), points out, wrote this song about being a slave in the Afro-Spanish dialect of his grandfather’s generation. Rodríguez called it a congo, but Sensación does it as son-cha with trumpets, fiddles, and mucho swing.
“Brujo en Guanabacoa” is pure cha cha cha, with lyrics about going to see a babalao – you know, a santería priest – in a Havana barrio famous for its santeros. A little guaguancó coda wraps up the track, emphasizing the African-ness of this theme.
There’s a pair of pregones – songs taking their clues from the street criers in Latin America who sell newspapers, or fruit licuados, or well, peanuts. One is “El Manisero” – the peanut vendor – that famous son-pregon written by Havana composer Moisés Simons in the late 1920s, done by everyone from Stan Kenton and (yikes!) Dean Martin to the Fania All-Stars. Sensación does a really chewy son-cha take on this tune, more son than cha, irresistible pa’ bailar – and 110% Cuban, like everything on this album.
The other is “El Panquelero,” a pregon-cha almost surely composed by Barroso. It’s a Manisero knockoff, but about pancakes, and the cha’s juicier here – I could dance to this one all night.
“Macorina” – written around 1930 by a Spanish poet residing in Havana about a mulatta who utterly scandalized that great city early in the twentieth century – was made famous by the late monarch of Mexican song Chavela Vargas, who sang it as a bolero at almost every concert she gave for half a century. Vargas first recorded this tune in 1956 after a trip to Havana, but Sensación may have done it first, and theirs is guaracha-cha.
Barroso sang “El Guajiro de Cunagua” back in his Sexteto Habanero days, but Sensación slicked it up for the ‘50s as son montuno, with piano guajeos, flute but no cha, and guaguancó at the end. Going deeper in the realm of rumba, “Mulata Rumbera” is guaguancó-cha (you can dance on either beat) that goes straight rumba three-fourths of the way through. And “La Reina del Guaguancó” is rumba all the way – it belongs entirely to Barroso, the drums and the chorus.
How’s that for an ample sample? This is a big, rich album of Cuban music, and World Circuit debuts it – in typical Buena Vista style, with photos and notes (hopefully including the complete Sensación lineup) later this month.