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Soneros of Cuba: Four of the Greats

By Edited May 29, 2016 0 0

Cuban son brings together all of the diverse elements of Cuban music with powerful singers whose rough voices tell many stories and lyrics that range across a wide variety of different ideas and modes of expression. These are four of the artists who defined the genre and still rank amongst the best of them.

1. Miguel Matamoros

Perhaps one of the most well-known (and loved) soneros ever produced by Cuba was Miguel Matamoros. Not only did he sing in his strong, direct voice with his trio but he wrote songs that became an essential part of the son canon and expressed the joy and pain of life in poetic language.

Miguel Matamoros was born in 1894 in Santiago De Cuba. His early life was full of hardship and struggle which may have helped shape the deep emotional expression in his song writing. His father left the family and died leaving his mother to care for him. As a child music was an escape for him and he learned to play the harmonica to support his family.  He also taught himself to play the guitar which would hold him in good stead later in life.

As a young man Matamoros did every job imaginable from working in the mines to chauffeuring to pay his bills but music had other plans for him. Eventually his song writing, elegant guitar playing and sonorous voice got him noticed.  He learned his craft from famous Cuban trovadores like Sindo Garay and kept honing his guitar technique by learning from the master guitarist Ramón Pérez Navarro.

Starting out he joined the Trío Martinelli and then directed the Trío Oriental. Eventually he broke out on his own and created the Trío Matamoros along with Ciro Rodriguez and Rafael Cueto. This is the group he was to play with for the rest of his life.

Matamoros wrote in nearly every genre of Cuban music save rumba. He was a master lyricist and guitar soloist. He created the complex, elegant and lyrically intense bolero-son by combining the plaintive bolero style lyrics with the energy and rhythm of the son. 

Some of his best know songs include El Que Siembra Su Maiz, Mama, Son De La Loma and El Trío y El Ciclón as well as bolero-son classics like Juramento, Lagrimas Negras and A La Orilla Del Guaso.

One man defined Cuban son in the 1940's and 50's and that man was Beny Moré. While he had no formal training as a musician he naturally took to music and used his expressive voice to deliver an emotional punch in each word.  He could croon tenderly or belt out dance numbers in inimitable style.

He was born Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré Gutiérrez in Santa Isabel de Las Lajas in the province of Cienfuegos. Like many of the soneros in this article he grew up in poverty and in the midst of a family of 19 children. He started cutting cane early on in life and his singing, even then, drew the admiration of his fellow cane cutters. Despite wanting to support his family with his cane cutting job eventually he had to follow the call of music.

Like many Cuban musicians of his era he started out playing the guitar and singing wherever he could get a gig and making money from whatever people threw in his hat. Eventually his voice drew the attention of another one of the soneros mentioned here - Miguel Matamoros. Moré joined the Trío Matamoros as a stand-in vocalist. While touring Mexico he met Perez Prado (a musical innovator who popularized the mambo) and joined his band as a singer.

It was also in Mexico that he changed his name to Beny after discovering that his nickname (Bartolo) was Mexican slang for a donkey! He toured with Perez Prado for two years, went back to Cuba to work for another band and returned to Mexico.

Eventually he had to strike out on his own and so the renowned Banda Gigante was born. It bore much more resemblance to an American big band with a large brass section and Beny led it with gusto despite having no formal training as a conductor or band leader. Of course he had help from 'Chocolate' Armenteros (a talented trumpet player) as musical director but it was all Beny out there on stage.

There are many musicians of great talent who possess a dark side and Moré was no exception. He was addicted to alcohol and eventually it killed him. As has often been the case with beloved Cuban musicians his death was cause for national mourning.

Some of the songs that he popularized include La Culebra, Que Buena Baila Usted, Cienfuegos,  Maracaibo Oriental and Soy Del Monte.

Arsenio Rodriguez was a musical innovator and the sonero whose creation of the African-inspired son montuno would lay the foundations for modern salsa music.  He had a tremendous voice and was a skillful tres1 player who composed over 200 songs.

Rodriguez was born into a large, impoverished family in a small town in the province of Matanzas in Cuba. He grew up celebrating his African past and would stay in touch with it throughout his career. As a child he was kicked by a mule which damaged his optical nerves and blinded him. His blindess was to prove no obstacle to his innovative career.

He learned to play a variety of instruments (especially the tres) and percussion from a carpenter who built instruments and that was the start of Rodriguez' journey as a musician. When his mentor died he started to listen to other tres players and incorporate their techniques into his playing. Rodriguez became a master instrumentalist on top of his ability to sing and compose.

As Rodriguez formed his first band where he sang his own compositions (a rarity at the time) he was beginning to experiment with the son montuno. A montuno was a repetitive chant sung by people working in the fields. When Rodriguez added it to the standard son he created a canvas for vocal and instrumental improvization and soloing. In combination with the African drumming the sound was electric and exciting.

Some of his notable compositions include Mamí Me Gusto, Bruca Maniguá, Dame Un Cachito Pa' Huele and Monte Adentro.

1A Cuban guitar-like instrument with three pairs of doubled-up strings.

With his vocal innovation and powerful voice Miguelito Valdés has gone down in history as one of Cuba's most talented soneros. Although best known for his performance of the song Babalu (hence his nickname Mr. Babalu) he sang on a vast number of recordings and was a prolific performer right up until his death.  He is also known for his ability to interpret Afro-Cuban songs despite not being of African ancestry.

Valdés was born in 1912 to a Spanish father and a mother of Mexican Indian descent in the Belén neighbourhood of Havana. His family moved to that cauldron of sonero creation, the Cayo Hueso neighbourhood, where he became good friends with another man who'd go on to musical fame - Chano Pozo1.  The young Valdés learned to respect Cuba's African musical roots through this friendship.

Music was in his blood early on and he joined the Sexteto Habanero Juvenil in 1927 as a singer who could also fill in on percussion and tres. By 1929 he was studying guitar and singing on and off in a chorus backing various dance troupes.

The first big break into renown came when he joined the Orquesta Hermanos Castro which was a famous Cuban jazz band. Although he was a mulatto2 in a mostly white orchestra he became the drawing card and his career was launched.

He briefly recorded with Orquesta Riverside before moving to New York.  Valdés' home base would remain the Big Apple for the rest of his life. In America Valdés was able to expand his fan base and expose more of the world to the intricacies of Afro-Cuban rhythms and music. He worked with Xavier Cugat, Machito and El Sonora Matancera. This raised his profile to the degree that he wound up doing film cameos. He would continue working as a singer until his death on stage in 1978.

Some of the songs that Valdés is known for include Babalu, Arroz con Manteca, Negra Leono and El Limpiabotas.

 1 One of Cuba's most respected Afro-Cuban percussionists.

2 A person of mixed ancestry.



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