Illustration: Mayo Bous / Magazine AM: PM.
Illustration: Mayo Bous / Magazine AM: PM.

The kings of the jukebox

7 minutes / Julio Cid

26.04.2019 / Articles

They were the soundtrack of the biggest cities and the most remote places of Hispanic America. Their voices - which seemed tanned, mostly, by nicotine and alcohol - nuanced the loves and desamors enjoyed or suffered by the masculine imaginary of Latin America, in a somewhat unfortunate fusion of the aggressive male, full of manhood, with the cuckold weepy and plaintive.

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 enjoyed the magic of the local kings of the jukebox and even assumed some foreigners.

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.

Now, between the first and the last, there was a king who transcended the bar and the lupanar and illuminated the bolero with a much more measured and own hallmark, which evaded the tension imposed by Riset. Someone who held a repertoire beyond the jukebox and moved with ease in the most refined scenarios: radio stations, television channels, theaters and recreation rooms. I refer to Vicentico Valdés, the most complete - together with Benny Moré - of our aces of the jukebox.

Vicentico Valdés, like Riset, had sung in quartets, sextets, septets and diverse formats of Cuban popular music. That is, groups that entertained and were forced to play sones and guarachas, but also boleros, so that the dancers could rest while moving their feet and romance with their partners. It was in these groups where both modeled their respective styles, formed their initial lines of repertoire, savored live the resonance of the bolero in the loving embrace of the dancers and intuited, as anyone, how to touch the fibers of that romantic dancer audience that needed a sentimental catalyst that was neither wine, nor rum, nor beer. Nor live music, not always at hand. And it found it in the jukebox.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRNZnFMQHLM

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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Julio Cid

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