Illustration: Mayo Bous / Magazine AM: PM.

The kings of the jukebox

Reading time 5 minutes

Fueron la banda sonora de las más grandes ciudades y los más apartados parajes de la América hispana. Sus voces —que parecían curtidas, en su mayoría, por la nicotina y el alcohol— matizaron los amores y  desamores que disfrutaba o padecía el imaginario masculino de Latinoamérica, en una fusión un tanto desatinada del macho agresivo, repleto de hombría, con el cornudo llorón y lastimero.

Their diverse tones, the orchestrations in which the Cuban clave of the four bars prevails over the sweet breath of the song, the exact phrasing and a sort of virile tawdriness, comparable only to that of the Mexican ranchera or that of the more pampero Argentine tango, made the bolero an infallible ally of drunks, rascals, workers, pimps, peasants, stevedores, employees of neck and tie, judges and criminals, unfaithful bourgeois hidden in the cabinets of the perfect family, doctors and tanatoesthetics... in short, an amalgam compacted by the mechanical harmony of the jukebox, the first robot that was introduced in our daily becoming, programmable, in addition, by the consumer. A robot that joined the kitsch aesthetics in the 30s and 40s of the last century, with gaudy neon lights and gold or silver backgrounds adorning its bulky and heavy body.

Cuba gozó  la magia de reyes de la vitrola locales y asumió, incluso, a algunos foráneos.

Perhaps the first of all was Panchito Riset, with his sharp aggressive, a kind of cry that anguishedly declared that In a kiss ... life. Or I remembered, pleadingly, that “…the little room is the same, like when you left." Then many would come, all accompanied by compositions that often skipped all limits, like the one that first says “…you are perfect, but not damn / you are flirtatious, but not haughty", to conclude in a resounding and devoid declaration, in addition, of the most elementary poetic attempt: How hot you are / to eat-kiss you whole!

With these songs Riset settled in New York at the beginning of the decade of the 30 to remain there until his death in 1988.

Riset seduced the Latin audience of the great city, sang with the most important orchestras of the New York bohemian and even founded his own. In Havana, he made only one very brief incursion in 1934. He was not that famous yet, but from the 1940's onwards, they began to broadcast him in the jukeboxes throughout Cuba, from one end to the other. And he sat chair. So much so that an imitator came up here, Domingo Lugo.

However, Panchito Riset was caught in New York by diabetes that prevented him from presenting himself in other places. There he remained among the endless skyscrapers for more than 50 years making, above all, recordings of simple acetates to satisfy the demand of the jukeboxes that devoured their numbers throughout the continent.

After him, Orlando Contreras and Orlando Vallejo, Ñico Membiela, Fernando Álvarez, Bienvenido Granda, Benny Moré, Wilfredo Mendy, Daniel Santos and some others entered the Cuban jukebox environment until reaching the last kings of the jukebox on the Island. There we find José Tejedor, always in the company of Luis Oviedo, Orestes Macías, Kino Morán, Roberto Sánchez as soloist voice of several orchestras, and Lino Borges.

Ahora bien, entre el primero y los últimos, hubo un  rey que trascendió el bar y el lupanar e iluminó el bolero con una manera mucho más mesurada y propia, que evadía la crispación impuesta por Riset. Alguien que sostenía un repertorio más allá de la vitrola y que se movía con soltura en los más depurados escenarios: emisoras de radio, canales de televisión, teatros y salones de esparcimiento. Me refiero a Vicentico Valdés, el más completo —junto a Benny Moré— de nuestros ases de la vitrola.

Vicentico Valdés, al igual que Riset, había cantado en cuartetos, sextetos, septetos y formatos diversos de la música popular cubana. Es decir,  agrupaciones que amenizaban bailables y se veían obligadas a interpretar sones y guarachas, pero también boleros, para que los bailadores descansaran sin dejar de mover los pies y romancearan con sus parejas. Fue en esas agrupaciones donde ambos modelaron sus respectivos estilos, conformaron sus líneas iniciales de repertorio, saborearon en vivo la resonancia del bolero en el abrazo amoroso de los danzantes e intuyeron, como nadie, cómo tocar las fibras de ese público bailador y romántico que necesitaba de un catalizador sentimental que no fuera ni el vino, ni el ron, ni la cerveza. Ni la música en vivo, no siempre a la mano. Y lo encontró en la vitrola.

Vicentico himself stated that in his career there were three numbers that he considered capital: Añorado encuentro, by Piloto and Vera, Envidia, by the García Segura brothers, and Los aretes que le faltan a la luna, by José Dolores Quiñones.

Precisely these three numbers are largely representative of what characterized the singer's repertoire. Añorado encuentro is an example of the elaborated song, both in music and in lyrics, that Valdés cultivated. Envidia is a bridge between that elaborated song that Piloto and Vera rubricate and Los aretes…  undoubtedly the most vivid expression of the jukebox song.

It happens that Vicentico Valdés was interested not only in the audience of programmed reproduction and went to composers of other aesthetics. Suffice to say that premiered the first songs of Marta Valdés that reached the public, which raised the level of music and text in his song.

When the jukebox was coming to an end in Cuba, several boleristas appeared with the potential to be leaders of this peculiar instrument of musical diffusion. Among them, José Tejedor with Luis Oviedo and Lino Borges, the closest to the success of their predecessors.

Lino Borges changed the tone, modified the repertoire somewhat, did not use nasality, showed a crystal clear voice and brought the bolero to a lyricism of good taste. That is to say, he made a high-profile bolero and enchanted from one side of the island to the other an audience in process of change, although with the ear still tuned for the jukebox. But the jukebox began to disappear in Cuba much earlier than in the rest of the world. The new social project did not consider them among its priorities and tensions with the United States and the rest of the continent prevented the equipment from continuing to arrive. Tejedor and Luis, like Borges, only enjoyed a short jukebox period, although they managed to sustain their career.

Jukeboxes disappeared first in Cuba and then in the rest of the world. Maybe they left our bustling and everyday environment disappointed of bars and canteens. Between us the market was lost in a two by three with the triumph of the rebels. In other latitudes the causes were other. But they vanished anyway.

The first robot that entered the world of our daily becoming, the first possibility -rustic, elementary- of programming a channel of musical diffusion, left us helpless with its disappearance, but remains in the memory of the mediations that modernity kept building, how its aces remain who reigned for years with their weeping or triumphalist boleros, plaintive or effusive, all exponents of a sensibility that was caught by a group of boleristas who were - and went down in history - as the kings of the jukebox.

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