Memories of Cuban music

Lino Betancourt’s chronicles.

Throughout time the history of Cuban music has counted on the narrative fervour of those who have also created and interpreted it. The list of those musicians-writers is long and notable, and some of them accomplished the feat of executing, without accompaniment, a Dictionary, or an Encyclopedia, as are the cases of Helio Orovio and Radamés Giro.

But that history has also been told by (other) music enthusiasts, persons who have devoted their life to passing on the thousands of anecdotes and legends heard from the musicians themselves at meetings, gatherings, jam sessions throughout the island. That is the case of Lino Betancourt Molina.


Like those alluded to in the classic metaphor of Miguel Matamoros when defining from where the singers came, “they are from the hills and they sing on the plains,” Betancourt came from the hills (Guantánamo) to the plains (Havana) many years ago. From there he brought the taste for the trova and the custom, not just of listening to the songs, but also the stories of the trova singers.lo-que-dice-mi-cantar-1-1


“…when I was young I worked as a broadcaster in a radio station in Santiago de Cuba and at midnight, after I finished my work, I used to go to the market square to have something to eat, and there I frequently met some bohemian trova musicians tuning their guitars and their voices. Guided by the pleasant sound, I used to climb the hill to the barrio of El Trivolí, and while there, under a street lamp or by a window, I would meet with my trova acquaintances…. Those men of extraordinary nobleness and humility already considered me one of them. That’s how I met veritable patriarchs whose names became well-known later on, though not as much as they deserved….”


The latter excerpt belongs to Lo que dice mi cantar (What My Song Says), a book published last year by the Pablo de la Torriente Brau Cultural Centre. In it, Lino Betancourt collects a hundred chronicles about Cuban music, placing emphasis on the trova, “my life’s passion,” as he says. In this book he leaves proof of the reencounter with his “admired trova musicians” in Havana, already mixed, from all the provinces. Thus, in his frequent meetings with them he was able to find out everything which he has later narrated in multiple talks through the media.


On several occasions I saw his talks on television and I felt like hearing more about those stories because Betancourt is an excellent oral narrator, a born conversationalist who joins to the knowledge about the subject the profession of the radio broadcaster which he was.


Lo que dice mi cantar is structured in five text blocks: Authors and interpreters (the most numerous); Groups; Songs; Dances, rhythms and genres; and Other issues: The narration of these articles is a mixture of events, biographies, anecdotes and testimonies. Precisely these last two sections are the ones appreciated the most because they are closer to the oral sources.


In all times, musicians have been the artists with the richest life in terms of events and incidents that later became legends. Musicians, like sailors, are always on the move, traveling, in their work to conquer new spaces. And the Cuban trova musicians from yesteryear were a transhumant troupe that crossed the archipelago from east to west, no longer seeking the glory – which reached many very late in life – but rather finding it and making a living. In that effort they wrote and sang memorable songs we have heard since we were children, at times not knowing exactly the name of the author or his/her fate.


Lino Betancourt speaks to us about those fates, as well as the plots from which those songs told by their creators originated. Especially relevant because of the importance of the persona and creations are those referring to Miguel Matamoros, who according to Betancourt confessed:


“The ‘Son de la Loma’ is not called like that, but rather ‘Mamá, son de la loma.’ That number occurred to me in 1922. It was a night in which I was serenading in Trocha and San Pedro. Alfonso del Río was playing and singing with me. Then from a nearby house a lady came out with her small little girl and said: ‘Mister, my daughter wants to know where the singers come from, because she wants to meet them.’ I got the inspiration from that question and that same night I did the rest. ‘They’re from the hills’ means that they are from Santiago de Cuba and ‘sing in the plains’ is that they sing in Havana.”


And further on Matamoros says:


“‘Lagrimas negras’ is a bolero son, but I didn’t compose it because of me, but rather because of a neighbour who always visited my home complaining that the husband had left her, according to her, for no reason.”


Also attractive is learning about Isolina Carrillo’s reasons for the composition of the bolero “Dos gardenias,” but since she gives – Betancourt notes – two versions of the events we are left with the doubt, the mystery since we don’t know which one of them is the real one.


The article “Los falsos autores de canciones cubanas” (The False Authors of Cuban Songs) is enlightening because it sheds light on old wrongs in the recording world: famous musical pieces in which there was confusion about their authorship because of very diverse reasons. Some of those “confusions” took years to clarify with the subsequent prejudice for the authors.


Though they are matters from the past, their correlation reaches us because, while in matters of copyright the situation is now very different, when a song becomes famous, goes far and crosses the world it acquires a certain independence of its creator. And specifically, in the field of the bolero the popularity of the singer has faded many authors of famous songs. How many don’t think that the author of “Vete de mí” is Ignacio Villa (Bola de Nieve)?


The music chroniclers refer to events that could have occurred in another way, that could have been told in diverse ways because in the storeroom of memory they suffered changes, or because the oral sources, with the passage of time, made changes in their testimonies; that is why a book of texts of this nature should not be read as a manual of History, even when dates are mentioned, data is given, bibliographies are referred to, because its function is to be a chart between the many ports the histories touch. And one appreciates the trip, the landscape, the visited sites, what leads to a new journey, the seduction for subsequent explorations, based on other charts, with other destinations of knowledge with the aim of knowing (more) from where the singers come. (2017)


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