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Articles The Orient Rhythm Orchestra. Photo: Courtesy of the Author The Orient Rhythm Orchestra. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

Clave and memory of the Ritmo Oriental Orchestra

The weight of oblivion has fallen on La Ritmo Oriental. It is true that Cuban popular music has been characterized by a creative effervescence, permanent evolution and even dizzying changes, but, 25 years after its disappearance, the significant contributions of this orchestra are there - although they are not talked about.

And they are not simply diluted. Today they are part of the abc of many orchestral concepts and survive in certain musical arrangements, in the scenic projection of some singers, in the rhythmic sections of several orchestras, among other tracks. Their legacy is part of those pieces of knowledge that the whole guild incorporates, consciously or unconsciously, most of the time without paying attention to the origin. La Ritmo Oriental is an essential link in the island's dance music evolution. Without this orchestra it would be difficult to explain the connection between the stage that we still think of as more traditional and the last decades of more contemporary timba sound, all marked by the watershed that in the past century meant the musical revolution of the seventies.

Strictly speaking, La Ritmo, due to its format, is what is called a charanga type orchestra, according to the masterful exposition made by José Loyola Fernández in the second chapter of his recent work La Charanga y sus maravillas. Orquesta Aragón, Museo de la Música Editions. With this last one there is an indisputable connection, and also with Fajardo y sus Estrellas, who in turn are heirs of Arcaño y sus Maravillas, and this last one by Antonio María Romeu, (and here we stop), to use the words of Enrique Lazaga, founder and director for many years. Its origin dates from 1958 after a split with Elio Revé due to conceptual differences. Since its creation, and for a space of approximately twelve years, this group remained in the canons of the charangueras orchestras with the limitations and possibilities that this format allowed.

Working for a space of six years uninterruptedly in the Tropicana Cabaret during the sixties, allowed them a confidence that other groups did not have. In this type of work, permanent contact with the public is essential. And this may be the genesis of the gear achieved by La Ritmo: the almost daily work at that stage and the permanence for years of several of its musicians, to the point that the rhythm section Lazaga-Claro-Daniel (güiro-congas-timbal) remained intact for more than thirty years, something unthinkable then and now.

Thus, at the beginning of the 1970s, everything was ready for the introduction of profound conceptual changes, in line with what happened with other well-known groups today. Although some songs by this time already presented a reconceptualization of the rhythmics, it is not until Mi socio Manolo that the public begins to notice that something different had been gestated, and turns it into a hit. After would come Yo bailo de todo (luck of consecration), Yo traigo panetela and Con el chenche buchenche, to name a few of that decade. This last song, together with Mi socio Manolo, was especially recorded for the carnivals in different points of the Island; In those years it was common to broadcast in advance the songs that each group was going to play in these events.

Today the arrangements of La Ritmo Oriental may sound somewhat naive and even old. However, a comparative analysis with groups from the 1970s and 1980s reveals not only distinctive features that confer a hallmark of identity, but an interesting evolutionary line of typical orchestras, with well differentiated treatment of rhythm and clave, unique effects and very own tumbaos. Let's stop momentarily in what the musicians usually call "effect".

Although the clave, (Cuban or guaguancó) allows us to weave more or less complex rhythmic frameworks, sustain a constant march based on a chorus and a montuno can be monotonous if changes in the structure of the composition are not conceived. That is why metal section passages (now known as "mambos") are introduced, instrument solos, improvisations of singers, bridges, pedal, break or masacote (climax of the musical theme with strong percussive, ecstatic and extremely danceable load), in correspondence with the possibilities of the instrumental format and the personality of the arranger. All this is done with the aim of keeping the dancer's spirit up. However, as it is music made to dance, an excessive use of these can end up denaturing the composition or simply make it boring. And it's that in this type of music the protagonism of the rhythmic element is fundamental. It's music made for dance but it should not be seen schematically in one direction, but rather it is a kind of creative process that is consummated in that musician-dancer interaction, where those who move their feet are the translators par excellence of the musical language, but at the same time, the musicians, most of the times unhappy, are constantly trying and tensing the language with new proposals. And in this the percussionists are like a kind of playful imps that all the time are hunting for as much opportunity as there is to exacerbate the rhythmic tensions within each measure. It is in this context that the contribution of the rhythm section Lazaga-Claro-Daniel (Enrique Lazaga, Juan Claro Bravo and Daniel Díaz) can be seen, and the "effects" that these musicians conceived were a fundamental contribution to the way in which they understood the issues of rhythm in the usual way.

An "effect" in this type of music can be understood as a rhythmic phrase expressed by the unison of several instruments, which depending on the level of musical development in question has a greater or lesser complexity. It can be done on the fly or by stopping it, and it can involve all the instruments of the orchestra or a part of them. It can be interpreted as a kind of momentary rupture, sometimes it is like a decoration or simply a wink. In any case, the ear of the dancers, that has been training along with the virtuosity of the instrumentalists, notices and adopts these aesthetics of rhythm, and thanks them not only as a dressing against that heretical monotony, but as a provocative sample of the power and the sonority of the orchestra; because arrived at a certain level of massivity in the reception and consumption of this music, a group that does not have a strong sound, what is called "macho" (even being sexist), does not make anyone move the skeleton. At the moment when La Ritmo Oriental begins to make appreciable innovations, the typical orchestras used to perform the "effects" only with the percussion instruments, while the rest of the instruments continued with the march, in that comfortable sonority that is created between bass, piano and violins, with the unsettling play of a flute. And not only the typical ones did it like this, but also some sets and other instrumental formats. But the decade of the sixties had already tightened the nuts with pilón, pa'ca, dengue and mozambique, and the massiveness of the dances began to push this music in new directions. In this sense, those of La Ritmo, who during those years achieved a harder charanguera sonority without departing from the canons, soon began to produce totally new "effects" in which they involved the entire orchestra, as well as producing them with variations of tempo so far unseen. As cited in 1971: Sabroseao con La Ritmo, the song Sabroseao con La Ritmo It's one of the first approaches that this group made to this aspect.

Witnesses of the time, and the own Lazaga, tell that the stage during the concerts of this orchestra was filled more of musicians than of spectators, summoned by the magic of the effects that they tried to "hunt" at all costs, because the occurrences of Lazaga and his troops were unparalleled. Until then, for example, the sequences of three effects were produced simply by repeating the same three times. One of the things that these musicians proposed was the non-repetition, that is, create three different effects without distorting the dancer. No one had made this so far, but these percussionists managed to conceive it as a natural evolution against the repetitive nature of the arrangements in most orchestras. In a way this is how the arrangements evolve in popular dance music. There have always been musicians who rebel against the repetitive and standardized that is, in short, the greatest risk that leads to exhaustion. The dance floor always demands more, but the creativity of the musicians also has its own demands. What began as an "effect" en bloc of the whole orchestra, ended up producing something strange in them, since they began "to throw them back" (in the slang of the musicians means to slow the tempo down) that not only sought to squeeze the tensions of the key and the rhythm, but avoid the outrage that occurred in the sense of time when the march stopped. Difficult to explain only with words, but, if you want, make a simple exercise to listen to the effects of Yo bailo de todo, and then, put in context, you can see where the game is and the cohesion referred to.

But like any popular dance music orchestra aspires to be a show, there are always certain extra-musical details that are incorporated with the purpose of achieving a differentiated connection with the audience. In the case of La Ritmo, its members gave particular interest to the choreographies of the musicians themselves in the live performances. This gained special importance with the entrance of Tony Calá and David Calzado to the orchestra, and it was very well received, since the connection of the music played, with its strong percussive accent and the movements developed by the instrumentalists themselves were shown with a organic character without having to go through the professional sieve. The exaggerated gesture and free acrobatics were not used when suddenly a group of women joined the stage, something that in general has not characterized the dance of the average Cuban, who can be said to have developed an instinct to balance dance and music without false fuss. The Charanga Habanera wisely appropriated this hook of choreography in the nineties, involved a greater number of musicians and introduced other movements typical of the American music in vogue as break dance. Not in vain David Calzado called them "the elegant ones of the dance floor", because since the times of La Ritmo Oriental this violinist measured the pulse of the scenic variable as the cornerstone of communication with the audience.

When the eighties arrived, those of La Ritmo went through their best moment. Relatively stable team of musicians, a consolidated bassist with strong musical personality as is Humberto Perera, a well-known millimeter sense of rhythm and, above all, a strong, striking sound, without using metals.

Another aspect also developed by Lazaga and his musicians was based on the counterchoruses on air, something that was not strictly exclusive of this orchestra or created by themselves, they used it relatively frequently, bringing freshness to the structures of the dance compositions. These counterchoruses were structured as a kind of response to the choruses performed by the vocalists themselves, but developed by the instrumentalists and broadcast not directly to microphones, but to the air. This gave a massive response as if the audience were singing, and it became a kind of wink, being not only an invitation to its repetition, but a simulation of the tone of the very mass of spectators.

There are sufficient elements to interpret this movement as an attempt at prototimba as opposed to the salsa boom that generated so much controversy in Cuba in the early eighties. No less interesting is the analysis of his singers, of which Tony Calá and Juan Crespo Maza stand out, this last one valuable composer for the group. And no less important, the specific contribution of Daniel Díaz to Cuban percussion with the novelties introduced through all those years, expressed in the sui generis set of timbale with tom-tom and bell on the foot that offered other rhythmic possibilities.

In short, La Ritmo Oriental offers many research possibilities that do not deserve the drift and forgetfulness suffered, not to mention that it managed to remain in the very first level of popularity for more than a decade (there are several figures and orchestras in the music of our recent decades that barely reached a lustrum of notable popularity, and that today are more favored by the collective memory thanks to factors alien to music). A director and prolific musician, (Enrique Lazaga) in full faculties is an invitation, not only to the memory but to a present that bets to overcome the ruptures with the tradition. The discography is extensive, it is at hand. The musicians are getting better. It's just a matter of meeting once on the road. About La Ritmo, and its best years, at some point we will come back with more.


Rafael Valdivia is right Coleccionista de vinilos errante en la madeja de la discografía cubana. Ingeniero alguna vez. En su playlist nunca faltan los grandes soneros de antaño. More posts

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  1. julito w Quilca says:

    Excellent compilation of tremendous Orchestra, and he was not given the place he deserves, but his legacy is enormous, a fantastic style, some songs with a lot of flavor and sweetness, glory to tremendous brave rumba players.

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