Los Llopis. Ilustración: Rubén Cabrera (Cabra).
Los Llopis. Ilustración: Rubén Cabrera (Cabra).

After the origins of rock in Cuba: Los Llopis

10 minutos / Julio Cid

09.10.2020 / Articles

Rock and roll jumped into the world in the '50s of last century as a marginal, groundbreaking, thug and rebellious rhythm ... The industry, then, created two icons nuanced by the dictates of the market and the social urgencies of enjoying such attractive music without any prejudice. This is how they launched the highest figure of rhythm into the arena of record companies and the media in the second half of the 20th: Elvis Presley, and a practically exemplary group in the further development of the genre: Bill Haley & His Comets.

There were also others such as, just to mention a few, Big Joe Turner and Carl Perkins, the latter pioneer of rockabilly, or the multifaceted Joe Brown who, in addition to being a vocalist, was a guitar, ukulele and banjo player. All that musical baggage enters, first, two Latin American countries: Cuba and Mexico. Later it spread throughout the continent and devastated Western Europe, with the exception of Franco's Spain, where it was not frowned upon by the caudillo's hosts.

In this context, two Cuban brothers who were music fans, trained in an engineering degree - first in Cuba, then at the prestigious Harvard University in the United States - decided to form a small band to dedicate themselves professionally to music, after trying at parties of friends and family.

Si bien en la Isla, desde muy jóvenes y como aficionados, Manuel (Ñolo) y Francisco Llopis incursionaban en la guitarra, en tierras norteamericanas amplían sus conocimientos musicales y definitivamente se inclinan más por corcheas y semicorcheas que por los cálculos de la carrera elegida. De manera que, en el nuevo grupo, Ñolo es el guitarrista y Francisco se inclina por la steel guitar, un instrumento de cuerdas con sonoridades hawaianas muy empleado en el country y el rock norteamericanos.

De regreso en La Habana aparece el compositor Ñico Rojas, quien les aconseja incorporar nuevos instrumentos e integrantes, sugiriéndoles a otro cubano, músico de profesión y pianista: Felipe Dulzaides. Para cerrar el cuarteto, Ñico los pone en contacto con el saxofonista Leandro Torres.

Under this format the Llopis-Dulzaides Quartet debuted. But, after five years, while the repertoire is increasingly opting for rock and roll —whose temperature had risen with the appearance of Presley—, Felipe Dulzaides decides that this is not his thing; He is more interested in jazz, and leaves the quartet to form his own, Los Armónicos, one of the most interesting groups in the Cuban musical scene of the 1950s and 1960s. With their departure Los Llopis emerged, with the three original members - although Leandro Torres, in addition to the sax, deals with the piano and the accordion - and Manolo Vegas, a gigantic man with a powerful voice who with his charisma will define, stylistically, the new formation with which the quartet reappears some time later.

Los Llopis. Ilustración: Rubén Cabrera (Cabra).

Los Llopis. Ilustración: Rubén Cabrera (Cabra).

Los Llopis made their debut in 1957 on Radio Progreso's El show de las 7 y 30. Later they reached television, cabaret and, finally, recording studios. The appearance in Cuba of the steel guitar had been an event for the general public. Now, with the rock and roll repertoire, its presence is re-dimensioned, because in its sound there is a kind of reference to electronic modernity, without giving up boleros and Caribbean rhythms.

It is curious that in none of the quartet's formations described on the Internet is the percussion performer consigned, an element so significant both for rock and for Caribbean numbers. Tony Pinelli states that the first line-up included Javier Dulzaides, Felipe Dulzaides' cousin, but does not refer to his instrument. It could have been he who was in charge of the percussion in the first stage of the band, although the most likely is that —for the second period— it was carried out by one or more of the instrumentalists of the group.

Two years after that debut, the first LP appeared, Chiquita, recorded with the Meca house, but the label refused to include rock songs on the album, preferring to offer only boleros. Of that long duration, Do not ask for more forgiveness stood out, a song seasoned with the Hawaiian sound and close, in some way, to rock and roll. The success of this number in Cuba and its repercussion in Mexico take Los Llopis to the Aztec country, where they are invited to record for the Peerless label, which also refuses to include rock on the new album.

The claims of the public, however, lead to another LP being recorded at the beginning of 1959 that would become history: Rockabilidad, an album with 11 numbers of North American rock covered in Spanish and one of the supposed new genre that gave it the around the world: La Pachanga. With this album, Los Llopis became the first group to record rock in our language, since their counterparts on the island, Mexico and Spain, had not yet done so. Because if we take a brief look at the scene of the 1960s, Los Rebeldes del Rock and Los Rogers appear in Mexico; while in Spain there are Los H.H. and Micky and the Tonys. They are all an obligatory stop for the study of rock in Spanish, but all, in turn, are after this Cuban group.

Despite the fact that there were many who thought that the genre would not sound good in Cervantes's language - which is why the record companies refused to bring the new Anglo-Saxon rhythm to the acetates - the sales of the album would say the opposite. Although there is a curious fact: contrary to what everyone expected, of the 12 songs that made up Rockabilidad, none of the rock versions released into Spanish took the record of being the most liked. The honor went to La Pachanga, by Eduardo Davidson, a piece highly criticized by many specialists.

Justo Rockabilidad sirve al grupo de carta de presentación para actuar en dos de las más importantes salas de fiesta del Madrid de los ’60: Pasapoga y Florida.

A su llegada a la capital española, Los Llopis se topan con un obstáculo: no podían hacer pública la fuente de aquellos rock españolizados que ellos interpretaban. ¿Por qué? Pues porque Franco no gustaba de los movimientos lascivos, los pantalones ajustados al cuerpo y el cabello sobre la frente de Elvis Presley. Lo consideraba nocivo para el espíritu castizo que él quería para su tierra. Sin que mediara prohibición oficial alguna, el ídolo de la juventud en medio mundo había sido satanizado por el franquismo a tal punto que nadie lo pasaba por la radio o vendía sus acetatos. Sin embargo, sus interpretaciones circulaban clandestinamente entre la juventud que los identificaba con suma facilidad. Lo primero que de Elvis Presley se escuchó allí, de manera abierta, fueron estas versiones que popularizaron Los Llopis. Podían ser buenas, brillantes o malas, pero fueron las que dieron a conocer al Rey del rock and roll entre el gran público de la península ibérica.

Los Llopis. Ilustración: Rubén Cabrera (Cabra).

Los Llopis. Ilustración: Rubén Cabrera (Cabra).

Los Llopis are cited by almost everyone who deals with rock in its Hispanic variant. But, at the same time, they are that incognito, obscure and recognized - albeit unknown - referent that remains in nine letters. And the cause of all this seems to be in the eclectic and incoherent repertoire that characterized the group from its birth until its dissolution.

With a sound that did not change in the slightest (perhaps only in the Spanish guitar that was replaced by an electric and more modern one), Los Llopis allowed other Hispanic groups to go ahead with newer and more attractive options.

Attentive to the tastes of the public, the demands of businessmen and the market - too attentive, I would say - they interpreted in the same presentation a bolero, a rock by Bill Haley, another by Elvis Presley, a Peruvian waltz, a pachanga, and closed with a Cuban carnival conga. Something like all the content of a disco in the same quartet. This, inevitably, was weakening his proposal.

En España, por ejemplo, aceptaron un contrato para grabar —¡en una sola mañana!— Rockabilidad en pleno, 12 canciones que se editaron en forma de tres EP’s y un LP, bajo el sello Zafiro. Versiones de temas ya grabados con anterioridad en México a las cuales bien pudieron haber dedicado más tiempo  en la nueva grabación, para revisitarlas y limpiarlas de impurezas que, sin dudas, contenían. No obstante, el disco en tierras españolas tuvo un notable éxito. El gran golpe lo dio Estremécete, que permaneció varias semanas como número uno del programa Discomanía, de Raúl Matas, cátedra de los espacios radiofónicos musicales en la España de aquellos tiempos.

En la propuesta musical de Los Llopis no hay exactamente una fusión de los ritmos antillanos con lo anglosajón del rock, como algunos piensan. El resultado al que llegan es una suerte de mezcla que siempre resulta dispar, lo que también influye en la prematura aparición de la decadencia.

After the Spanish success, the band made several tours of Latin America and Europe to settle, at the end of the '60s, in the United States, a wrong decision: they went to dance home from the top. There they dissolved because of the little interest they aroused among Hispanics who, at one time, were their most loyal followers.

There are very few references to the fate of the members of the group after its dissolution. It is known that Leandro Torres, the saxophonist, died in Miami in 2005; that Francisco had an orchestra in Los Angeles that reiterated the quartet's eclectic repertoire; that his brother Ñolo lived in California, it is not known exactly what he did. They all passed away. Today the only survivor could be Manolo Vegas, the solo voice, who released a nostalgic album in Miami in 2005, with the same concepts that weighed down the group during its successful, albeit very short, career. But it's been too long to say that Vega is still alive and well.

We can only enjoy the recordings of these Cuban pioneers of rock in Spanish that have been lost in time and have not even awakened nostalgia.

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Julio Cid

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