Friday, June 24, 2011


Life Magazine reported, "Cuba's Tin Pan Alley: From Havana's shabbiest cabarets and voodoo lodges pours an endless flood of sultry rhythms, which are danced to all over the world, by: Winthrop Sargent 6 October 1947:

In 1930, on the heels of the stock-market crash, a wailing, bombilating Cuban tune called The Peanut Vendor hit Broadway and set America's feet and hips squirming in the intricacies of a new dance-the rumba. The significance of this event in the history of U.S. mores at first seemed slight. Prognosticators noted the trend, attributed it to depression-frayed nerves and gave it a year or so to peter out. But in the course of a decade the rhumba had not only shown that it was here to stay, it had become the basis of a huge American industry. Latin-American dance bands equipped with maracas and bongos elbowed U.S. jazz bands in nightclubs and ballrooms from New York to San Francisco. Rumba specialists like Xavier Cugat made fortunes in Afro-Latin rhythm. In one year (1946) Americans paid Arthur Murray nearly $14 million to teach them the dance. Rumba enthusiasts still account for more than 60% of his enormous business.

The Peanut Vendor, which started it all, was followed by a steady stream of similar Cuban song hits, which began nosing the conventional American fox trots from their top positions on Tin Pan Alley's best-seller lists. Small Cuban farmers neglected sugar cane and tobacco to raise gourds that could be manufactured into maracas. Music began to rival sugar, cigars and rum as one of Cuba's leading exports, and the American man in the street, buying it in vast quantities every time he got near a juke box, became its leading consumer. Of all the popular music played today over the U.S. air waves, on juke boxes and in Hollywood movies, approximately 20% is Latin-American, and nearly all of that 20% comes from the small island of Cuba.

Though Cubans are gratified by this increasing demand, they are quick to point out that there is nothing new about their trade in musical exports. Economically Cuba may be just another so-called banana republic. Politically it may be a hotbed of tropical instability. But musically it has rivaled New York as the popular musical capital of the Western Hemisphere for nearly a hundred years. Little Cuba's amazing influence on the world's popular music started in the early 19th Century when an itinerant Spaniard named Sebastian Yradier settled in Havana, listened to the languid, cajoling tunes of the natives and wrote a tune called El Areglito. El Areglito became the first habanera.
Imported to Spain, the habanera became a standard feature of Spanish folk music, and a generation later Georges Bizet wrote one that would up as the most popular tune in France's most popular opera, Carmen. Yradier followed up El Areglito with the old Cuban favorite La Paloma, which was commissioned by Mexico's Emperor Maximilian and has served as a model for Latin-American tunes for three generations. Somewhere in the 19th Century, according to scholars, Cubans also invented the tango, which they exported to Argentina, giving the Argentinians what has since become their most characteristic form of national folk music. The rumba and the conga came later. But these are merely the most notable of Cuba's recent musical contributions to the world. For home consumption Cubans produce a clattering assortment of sons, guarachas, danzons, puntos and boleros that still keep the hot Havana nights in a continuous uproar of melody. The curious thing about all this Cuban music is that there is nothing generically Cuban about it. Its music is written and played in a hybrid musical language that is part Spanish and part African Negro. Its melodies usually echo the sultry songs that were brought to Cuba from Latin and Moorish Spain. Its rhythms are descended from the tom-tom beats of the African jungle.

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