Drum Party / Silk Hands
El año 1940 fue el momento decisivo para la conga como instrumento: fue el momento en que uno de los más grandes músicos cubanos de todos los tiempos, Arsenio Rodríguez, transformó el septeto de sones en conjunto al añadirle dos trompetas, un piano y una conga o tumbadora. Hasta ese momento, la conga era un instrumento de baja categoría en la música popular cubana y su medio natural era el de la rumba y las comparsas.
However, when in 1948 Federico Arístides Soto decided to emigrate to Havana to try his luck, transhumant years of life still awaited him: by day, a magazine vendor, shoe shine, and at night, with the conga in tow, from Luyanó to Vedado earning 10 cents for a presentation on the radio or at most, a peso for playing dances in academies such as that of Mars and Belona. These were times when the congueros were not considered musicians.
En la categorización de este instrumento y para que se considerara a sus ejecutantes como músicos de igual nivel a los restantes, influyeron varios factores. Uno de ellos, muy decisivo, fue la modificación que introdujeron en su construcción los hermanos Vergara, a fines de la década del 40. Antes, los cueros se fijaban clavándolos en la estructura de madera hecha a partir de barriles de vino y había que afinarlos con velas cada dos o tres números. Este inconveniente acabó cuando los hermanos introdujeron el sistema de llaves metálicas tanto para las tumbas, como para el bongó. Otro elemento indiscutible fue la legendaria figura de Chano Pozo, quien antes de emigrar a los Estados Unidos ya era estrella del show de Tropicana, fama que luego se acrecentó a partir de su incorporación a la orquesta de Dizzy Gillespie en 1946 y por recomendación de Mario Bauzá.
Son of the tresero Joseíto Alejo, Federico Arístides Soto Alejo was born in the municipality of Güines on June 30, 1930. From a very young age he constantly hit the desk of his school, and when he came out with his shoe shine drawer, he deviated towards the corner of Santa Barbara where the bembé was never missing. Interestingly, he started playing the bongó and then learned the double bass with his uncle Dionisio Martínez, who introduced him playing this instrument in his Ases del Ritmo ensemble. Later he would found his own ensemble: the Estrellas Nacientes. Before leaving his hometown, he had already become familiar with the jazz band format, where there was such a group: the Swing Casino. Since he arrived from his town they called him Tata Güines. That nickname had been given to him by Estela, the sister of Arsenio Rodríguez, in whose ensemble he played before his Havana period.
Tata passed through many groups before becoming “hands of silk”: Jóvenes del Cayo, Havana, Sport, the Orchestra Sensión, Gloria Matancera and the Rafael Ortega orchestra at the Sans Souci cabaret. Occasionally he ventured into other genres from his increasingly frequent radio performances, among others, he accompanied the group of Guillermo Portabales, acting alongside Celina González and Ramón Veloz.
Viendo cómo los propios directores de las agrupaciones discriminaban a los congueros al punto de pagarles menos que a los otros músicos, Tata decide convertirse en un virtuoso, escuchar las grabaciones de las jazz band norteamericanas que pasaban por la radio, asimilar el mundo del jazz, su ritmo, sus acentuaciones y buscar la manera de introducir la conga en ese universo. Estaba tratando de poner en práctica en La Habana lo mismo que su inspirador, Chano, había logrado en Nueva York.
De él ha dicho Leo Brouwer: “Hay un elemento que no hemos valorado suficientemente: él, con las uñas, yemas, dedos y manos, construye una orquesta de timbres que sobrepasa el papel esquemático de la percusión y el ritmo…”.
Ya la década de los ’50 marca una etapa superior en su carrera. En 1952 integra la orquesta de Fajardo y sus Estrellas. En 1955 viaja a Venezuela, México, y en 1956 llega a Nueva York. Decide probar fortuna y se instala en la Gran Manzana. Toca en el Palladium y allí coincide con Benny Moré, quien hacía una temporada junto a Machito y los Afrocubans, actuando juntos por espacio de dos semanas. Es contratado en el Waldorf Astoria, súper lujoso hotel donde adquiere estatus de solista y alterna en la escena con Josephine Baker, Frank Sinatra y Los Chavales de España. Bien pagado, pero discriminado, nunca se adapta a ese ambiente, el inglés se le resiste y decide regresar en 1960.
However, he knew how to take advantage of that New York stage: when he finished his performances at the Waldorf, he would come to the clubs in Harlem where he would meet in the early hours to jam ... no less than with Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson and Chico Hamilton.
The present anthology, a gift for collectors, offers an overview of Tata's career. Its author, Jorge Rodríguez, renowned figure in Cuban discography, has made a rigorous selection covering not only the stages through time, but also the different genres in which the talent of this singular musician has allowed him to shine with his own light.
When record companies finally became interested in recording records with a genre that proliferated for several years as an underground phenomenon (the jam), at the end of the 1950s, a pleiad of all-star musicians already existed in Havana, earning the life in the orchestras of the great nightclubs (Tropicana, Sans Souci) performing all genres of Cuban popular music and international light music: names such as Guillermo Barreto, Frank Emilio Flynn, Bebo Valdés, El Negro Vivar, Orestes López, Cachao, and Tata Güines.
Es así que entre 1957 y 1958 se graban en La Habana, bajo los auspicios de Orlando López, Cachao, y Chico O´Farril: Cachao y su ritmo caliente y Los mejores músicos de Cuba.
Abre el primer disco de esta antología Descarga cubana, una especie de declaración del ars poética de Tata: en 1957 ya había cristalizado su concepto sonoro del instrumento, así como su discurso polirrítmico, con tema y variaciones hasta el infinito, en combinaciones que siguen hoy causando el asombro y la admiración de percusionistas y seguidores del género.
What does a good rumba need but a team of "timberos" that maintains a "march" like a train, a choir and some spectacular dancers? In Estudio de trumpeta, as it is a show only to hear, the dancers have been replaced with the solo by Negro Vivar (the title of "studio" could not be better: they are cataloged as pieces to show virtuosity). It is only enough with the overwhelming march of Barreto, Tata and Tamayo, plus the bass of Cachao. At the time, Tata "takes out" his hands: twenty-seven seconds the solo lasts, no more is needed. Could you imagine for a moment writing that solo on the staff and giving it to the most accomplished virtuoso of that instrument to play?
Si Descarga No. 2 hubiera sido una audición en la que el aspirante solo hubiese contado con 30 segundos para mostrar de lo que es capaz, eso habría bastado a Tata para clasificar. ¿Cómo se puede mostrar tal creatividad en un intervalo tan breve? Son facultades reservadas solo a quienes nacieron marcados por el signo del talento.
“The conga is an accompaniment instrument, and with the double bass it acts as a guide. It is important to respect the rhythmic concepts and not because our instrument enjoys a certain popularity, we must act as a soloist ”. Tata thus declared Luc Delanoy in his book HOT! A history of Latin jazz, which comes to express synthetically and eloquently the fair concept of the role of congas in any type of music, which has not prevented him from making a brilliant career, both nationally and internationally, and make memorable solos in many of the phonograms in which he has participated, crossing arms with the other instrumentalists as equals.
The jams are based on their instrumental treatment on the same principle of jazz formats (the same as large and small): statement of the theme, with all of them, then beginning a succession of solos by the participants in which, generally, percussion (congas y pailas) closes this sequence before returning to the topic. Meanwhile, it offers the necessary “march” to soloists. Only, Cuban at last, they focus on the rhythm, not on harmony as on the standards of North American jazz. On the other hand, there is no theme in itself, but a very simple, motivational statement with two pairs of chords that are repeated to infinity.
In Special de Bebo, grabado en 1955, se suceden los solos de Bebo, Generoso, Tojo Jiménez, (“Ay, Generoso, ¡qué bueno toca usted!”), Cachaíto, y cierra el de Tata. La descarga permite a un conguero tan imaginativo como Tata, introducir patrones rítmicos y diseños de improvisación de la rumba, mientras el bajo y la paila le ofrecen la marcha, entonces él puede “sacar las manos” (a su debido tiempo) en temas como Special… y el que hace junto al pianista Pedro Justiz, Peruchín: La mulata rumbera.
As a result of the recurring confluence of some of the “monsters” of the rhythmic base of any genre of music, namely: the blind pianist Frank Emilio Flynn, the drummer and timpanist Guillermo Barreto, the bassist Papito Hernández, Tata Güines at the Congas and Gustavo Tamayo in the güiro, a group that came to life more or less stable that initially became known as the Cuban Quintet of modern music and later, with the replacement on the bass of Papito Hernández by Orlando López, Cachaíto, as Los Amigos. Between 1962 and 1982 they recorded several phonograms of which the first saw the light in the era of the acetate disc, under the title of Tropicana, volumes 1, 2 and 3.
Some of these recordings have become standards for downloading currently: Sherezada cha cha cha, (from the duet of Piloto and Vera), Pa´gozar (from Tata Güines), Sasauma and Gandinga, mondongo and sandunga, by Frank Emilio Flynn. As it is a smaller format, the possibilities for showcasing each member are greater, to which is added the factor that they already knew each other very well at that time and had already played and recorded many times together. Frank Emilio's piano solos are already an obligatory reference in several books that have seen the light on downloads and Latin jazz. The same happens with the formidable duo that Tata and Barreto, the parrot, came to constitute. It seems that they were born predestined for each other from a musical point of view, because their coincidences cannot be greater. This reaches the apotheosis in Sasauma, theme in the main course are the percussions: Barreto, Tata and Tamayo.
Going back to the 60s, Tata was the great Tata Güines and in 1964 he decided to create his own formation: Tata Güines and his tatagüinitos, who appropriated the town that acclaimed them, fired up in the carnivals of 1970 with El perico está llorando and Mami, dame mantecao , the most representative of that group and that appear as tracks nine and ten of volume one of this phonogram.
In 1977 Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Earl Hines and David Amram suddenly burst into Havana from a tourist cruise ship. Of the concert that, upon learning of this exceptional presence, was organized at the Mella Theater, and in which the group Irakere and Los Papines participated (which in turn led to the invitation of the mythical Chucho Valdés band to the festival of Newport the following year), CBS sponsored in 1978 a “Cuba-USA Encounter” that took place in the Karl Marx Theater for a whole weekend and in which visitors, among others, Stan Getz, Billy Joel, took part , the Fannia All Stars, the Typical 73, the Weather Report group, and Billy Cobham, acting as CBS adviser. The visit of the previous year by some of these musicians this time brought them a little more informed that what was on the Island was an avalanche of news that at that time they were completely unaware of, but that already in this second meeting, more nurtured and heterogeneous on both sides, it was known that dazzling things would come to light.
Parallel to the performances at the Karl Marx, some recordings were produced in the Egrem studios, including one of the Typica 73. Among those present were the pianist Sony Bravo, the timpanist Orestes Vilató and the violinist Alfredo de la Fé, and in which also participated the hosts Richard Egües, Juan Pablo Torres, Guillermo Barreto and Tata Güines, among others. Among the songs that were recorded was his download Pa´gozar that appears closing volume one of this anthology, and Fiesta de tambores, which colossally opens volume two, songs that constitute a real gem with luxurious solos that no comment would describe. , and in which Tata takes center stage as a star of the genre. It is striking the solo that opens Fiesta…. If you had to choose a theme in all this anthology to show who Tata is, I would choose this one, and it is only a sample and summary of his unlimited creativity, virtuosity, his ability to turn the congas into an orchestra of timbres, with dynamic planes, counterpoints and diverse accents.
He did not go to a conservatory, but he did study how these great musicians know how to do it: listening to all the greats of any genre who preceded him. Tata knows how to be a brilliant session musician, a virtuous percussionist, who in an all star as the second track of volume two (Guaguancó a todos los barrios), knows how to stay on a march that is all it takes to interpret this music classic. Cuban popular, especially when such monstrous names as those that make up the payroll of that theme take part, from the phonogram Estrellas de Areíto, produced and directed by the recently disappeared great trombonist, orchestrator and producer.
Just as care has been taken to show the different facets of Tata, the same has been done with the themes. This is how Manteca cannot be missing in this phonogram, his tribute to who, unknowingly, was his guru: Chano Pozo, in another all star, this time by musicians from the Tropicana cabaret orchestra. The beginning solo is more virtuous, but the central solo is more substantial in terms of polyrhythm, and the ending solo is very succinct and evocative, as if humbly saying: “Chano Pozo: Present!”.
Musicians from all latitudes and generations have come to invite Tata to his phonograms, in many cases, dealing with the opus one of these, as a solo artist. That has been the case of the recently disappeared and very talented conguero, former Irakere, Miguel Ángel Díaz, Angá, on his famous album Pasaporte (1994), and the same has been done by guitarist Pedro A. Justiz, Peruchín, Jr. with his album Descargando. Peruchín jr. and the cuban all stars.
After the recording of Pasaporte, Tata recorded in 1995 his album Aniversario. This time it is a rumba album. From that phonogram tracks six to nine of the second volume have been selected in which Tata meets his timberos brothers. Master of the genre, note that unlike the downloads, the all stars of the son, like Estrellas de Areíto, Tata does not take his hands in the same way (impossible). Like the good "off-road" musicians, he keeps his march "decorating" discreetly at times. Attention: a leather priest is officiating ...
Se ha reservado para el final dos de los temas fuertes de Passport: nuevamente Pa´gozar (un obligatto) y el que da título al fonograma Passport: Tata & Angá. En Pa´gozar se dan cita algunas estrellas de la “vieja guardia” como Richard Egües, Frank Emilio y el bajista Carlos del Puerto, más algunos del “relevo”, como los ex Irakere César López (sax alto) y Orlando Valle, Maraca (flauta). En el tema Passport el único “veterano” es Tata, pues los demás son las estrellas del jazz fusión de estos días: el pianista Ernán López- Nussa, César López, Maraca y Juan Munguía en la trompeta. Bien diferenciados el discurso de uno y otro conguero, este track no hace sino obligarnos a hacer una reverencia profunda ante el talento de estos monstruos de los cueros y los músicos que los acompañan.
Cuando usted tenga en sus manos este disco, aún antes de escucharlo, ya va a saber que está ante un fonograma de excepción: tanto por los temas, los géneros, como por los músicos que toman parte en sesiones junto a Arístides Soto Alejo, Tata Güines, quien a lo largo de cuatro décadas de trabajo, logró consolidar la dignificación de su instrumento a la vez que su persistencia y talento lo llevaron a figurar entre los grandes de la música cubana de todos los tiempos.
And then, collector friend, you will deposit this album in the chest of your most precious jewels. Every time you hear this Drum Party, it will be a gift to your senses, enjoy it. Old Havana, January 17, 2008
María Elena Mendiola