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Viva España and Mexico

The current rebirth of interest in Latin-American dance music, rumba, samba, mambo salsa, and other neo- African variants, has its roots in the 1920s or even earlier. During the first decades of the last century the Argentinian tango and its habanera hybrids had been popularised throughout Europe and by 1930 the recording and broadcasting industries were exploiting the commercial possibilities of other dance rhythms from other southern American countries, Brazil, Mexico and Cuba. In the United States parallel processes of evolution continued under the general heading of ‘commercial dance’, first through the ‘King Of Kitsch’ Xavier Cugat and Pérez Prado and, later, with jazz and Afro, and, later even, reggae–overlap, successively, by Tito Puente, Machito, Charlie Parker and, in the late 1980s, by ‘Miami’s Golden Girl’ Gloria Estefán. From the early 1920s onwards Europe, however, and specifically Paris, saw a sophisticating influx of Latin musicians, in particular several Cubans, including Ernesto Lecuona (1896-1963) and Don Marino Barreto (1909-1997). In London, Lecuona set a benchmark by his first visit with his Cuban Boys (in 1934), while Barreto subsequently established himself in the British capital, to be followed by the part-Scots, part-black Venezuelan, Trinidad-born Edmundo Ros (born 1910), and the Scottish Roberto Inglez (alias Robert Inglis, 1919-1978) and others.

As in other musical genres deriving in smaller or greater part from folk-dance sources, it can often be difficult to differentiate the authentically Latin from the spurious, or the truly traditional from the commercial counterfeiting of Tin Pan Alley, however catchy the tune. Into the latter category we can, however, with confidence place Chiquita Banana, a 1938 creation by Len Mackenzie, Garth Montgomery and bandleader Bill Wirges, by Maxwell-Wirges Publications, New York. And while the ballad (canción) Granada, published by Peer International Corporation, New York, in 1932, was featured by vocalists as diverse as Mario Lanza and Claudio Villa, its indisputably mock-heroic semblance conceals its genuinely Mexican origins. Its composer Agustín Lara (1900-1970), a native of Tlacotalpán, spent most of his working life in Mexico City. Musically self-taught, he earned his living playing in Mexican brothels and speakeasies, where the experience of having his face slashed in a brawl with a woman reputedly inspired his ‘paean to womanhood, Morucha’, His other successes included Rosa, Tus pupila, Gotas de amor and, even more famously Mujer.

La raspa (literally either ‘shrew’ or ‘scolding’) may be traceable to the early flamenco, El raspao, whereas under its original title Jarabe tapatío, Mexican Hat Dance derives from a rhythm of Arabic origin traditionally performed by the inhabitants of Guadalajara. This last was reportedly first danced in 1790 at the Coliseo in Mexico City, but its earliest publication copyright in Mexico dates from 1919 and it later became even better known through a 1933 New York re-publication, in an arrangement by F. A. Partichela. The earliest known printed version of Cielito lindo dates from 1919 and although no composer or lyricist were credited, its time-honoured refrain ‘Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores’ has a certain folksy ring to it. In this context the musicologist Otto Meyer-Serra cites Querino Mendoza y Cortez, who claimed authorship when applying for copyright in 1929. Others, unspecified, pre-locate the tune, if not the words, to the 1830s.

Although variously credited as a Mexican folk-song La Cucaracha (literally ‘cockroach beetle’) dates back to about 1885, or possibly earlier. With its companion La Valentina, it was one of two songs of the 1914-1915 Revolution published simultaneously, in Mexico City, in 1916. Its title refers to ‘La Cucaracha’, a female protagonist of the Mexican struggles, and indeed in 1934 it was used as a theme-tune, billed as ‘a fox-trot by Hawley Ades [with] American Adaptation by Juan Y. D’Lorah’ and published by Irving Berlin, Inc., for the film Viva Villa (MGM, produced by Selznick and partly directed by Howard Hawks and dubbed ‘1001 nights of glorious romantic adventure’, with a plot based on the life of the revolutionary Pancho Villa, portrayed by Wallace Beery). That same year another vocal version appeared, with lyrics by Stanley Adams, by Edward B. Marks & Co. and in 1935 one of many subsequent treatments (words by Carl Field, for M. M. Cole Publishing) made its first appearance in Chicago.

Although perhaps better known nowadays through the lyrics of the 1960 Solomon King updating She Wears My Ring, La golondrina was in its original version an inspired canción de exilio, in style very much the companion of La paloma, which it predated by several years. It was the work of Narciso Serradell (1943-1910), a native of Alvarado, near Vera Cruz in Mexico, who wrote it for a competition, in 1862. Serradell was subsequently incarcerated for revolutionary activities and published the song years later, to his own French lyrics, while working as a teacher, in exile in France. Later still it appeared in a Spanish translation by Francisco Martínez de la Sierra. While most familiar to modern ears through the pop revivals of Ricky Valance, Los Paraguayos and others, La bamba (literally ‘black, i.e. Afro-Caribbean, woman’) is probably the most famous of all the huapangos from the central Bajo and Gulf coastal regions of eastern Mexico which, originally scored for guitars harps and percussion, are heard to best advantage in and around Vera Cruz.

Not surprisingly three selections are included by the prolific Lecuona. A highly accomplished pianistcomposer whose lighter output for film and radio to some extent obscured his true stature, Ernest Casado Lecuona was a native of Guanabacoa, Cuba. Born into a musical background, the precocious Ernesto gave his first recital at five, published his first composition at eleven and at seventeen graduated from the Havana Conservatorio Nacional, taking first prize and gold medal. After making his New York solo début as a pianist-composer at the Aeolian Hall in 1914, he embarked on a career as a recitalist, continuing compositional training with Joaquín Nin and, during the early 1920s, with Maurice Ravel, in France. By the decade’s end he had ‘gone commercial’, however, and, with his famous Cuban Boys dance outfit, alternating white tie and tails with gaucho attire, made tours of Europe, Latin America and the United States.

The bulk of Lecuona’s estimated four hundred compositions feature “ ‘white’ peasant and Afro-Cuban rhythms” and of these, Malagueña (published as a piano solo by Edward B. Marks Music Co., New York, in 1929), his first international commercial song hit ‘Siboney’ (1929; penned as “a tribute to the Caribbean Indians”) and La Comparsa (1934) are among the best remembered.

Peter Dempsey

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