Magazine AM:PM
Articles Illustration: Gabriela Estrada. Illustration: Gabriela Estrada.

The doctor in his sauce

For my friend, Didier Domínguez,

who else taught me to transit

 through the ins and outs of the obvious

In Cuban music, after Benny Moré, there was no phenomenon that concentrated in such a short period of time a preference, popularity and fame like those of Manolín, The Sauce Doctor, in the 90s of the last century. I know that such a statement may sound reductive and even sacrilegious to many. It will be said here that Los Van Van, there that Irakere or NG La Banda, now that Gente de Zona or Chocolate MC, but, more than in podiums and comparisons, perhaps the explanation lies in the link between the two eras: the The 50s and the 90s of the 20th century are the two golden periods of Cuban popular music to date, and, for different reasons, both artists were its greatest exponents.

Audiences seek, create and find figures made in their image and likeness, according to the times; and although enough is already known about Benny, and he is still being written about, Manolín has been ignored for too long.

For whatever reasons, in Cuba, cultural criticism, musicology and the media have been complicit in this process of ablation of our recent musical memory. It would seem to matter very little that the "mechanics" of Manolín, his resounding and brand new success, the peculiar connection with his public and the context in which this occurred, offered enough substance to address some psychosocial traits of Cubans in recent decades. Few have been the works that have addressed with the depth that it deserves, the impact and meaning of this artist and his group in those years, while the vitality and intrinsic values of arrangements and compositions created by this group of excellent musicians, remains in an undeservedly small area.

I believe that the phenomenon of El Médico and its imprint on Cuba deserves some attention, so I will try to outline some characteristics of this event.

The egg and the hen

It has often been said that the singers of the Cuban orchestras are like the pitchers of a baseball team. The collective constantly depends on that role. The singer is the one who carries the dramatic thread of the show, who ends up deciding, more often, when to lower or raise the orchestra, pump the songs, bring in the mambos, interact with the public, speak with the body (in fact, it is the only one who does not remain bodily limited by his instrument), etc. However, if it is difficult for a person to match the aptitudes for singing and the charisma for this type of music, it is also difficult for both qualities to converge with a type of orchestral arrangement and sonority that fit them. And it is that the punch of the interpreter also depends on what sounds from behind. Let's go, then, from the back of the stage forward.

One of the great successes of Manolín and his team, in the period of stardom between 1994 and 1998, is to have found all possible timbre balances, as well as their own way of arranging that would allow the orchestra to adapt to the vocal characteristics of the leader and not the other way around.

In the timba developed by this group, without ceasing to be harsh and rough at certain moments, there is a certain cachaza typical of an orchestra that was adjusted not only to the singer's parsimonious tone and the primacy of his verb, but also conditioned and at the same Time was compared to the deep rhythmic sense of the choirs created by him, as well as the staging of the songs in a brainy planning, perfectly staggered, consciously provocative and agitating the public, which appealed to the most impressionable side of the Cuban of his time. , in a very fertile symbiosis between verb and rhythm. In short, there was an effective marriage between the orchestra and the singer to offer the dancers (and non-dancers) a certain image of themselves.

It is very striking how quickly all this was achieved. If in the initial stage the arrangements of the group remained somewhat timid and under the shadow of NG La Banda, a few months after recording the first album (a crazy adventure, Caribe Productions, 1994) differentiations are already beginning to appear that would mark their own path. Federico García, a Spanish businessman based in Cuba, owner of Caribe Productions, would bet on the project, sensing a certain commercial success, and, as he asserts to this day, baptizing it as El Médico de la Salsa, given what was then the profession of its singer.

A fundamental factor in this discovery of an identity so interwoven with its lead singer, and which ended up transcending the orchestra itself, is the entry of Ángel Arce on the timbal (one of the Pututi brothers), who was not the group's initial staff.

As Angel himself tells in an interesting interview to grant the Canarian singer and percussionist Moise González, the technical and physical characteristics of his older brother, Alexis Arce (the other Pututi in the orchestra), on drums, found the ideal breeding ground with his entry into the group . Without the need to mark shell, key, or counterbell to already have his brother in that role; being José Miguel Velázquez in the bongo and the bell; the performance of the Greater Pututi in the drum acquired an amazing degree of freedom. It was here that they began to appear breaks more aggressive, more colorful sequences, another use of hi hat and from the box. Alexis also kept a kettledrum in his set even after his brother established himself on that instrument, among many other contributions that the drummer displayed at his total whim and creativity.

This complete freedom facilitated a "North Americanization" of sonority via drums and pushed the bass tumbaos in a more funky. Victoriano Nápoles, in charge of this last instrument and also with the responsibility of squaring the base, wisely grasped the changes and ended up, with the help of Luis Bu (keyboards), creating new tumbaos that condensed and spaced out the notes to encourage the percussion filtered through those silences, to the point of ending up giving it a twist both to the rhythm of the piano tumbaos that Eduardo Nápoles The Chaka executed with masterful economy of resources and great effectiveness, like the march of the tumbadoras that Alexis Cuesta The Mipa he ended up "massacoteando" sometimes in an indecipherable way due to the need to inevitably get out of the regular pattern of salsa, which no longer fit in with the new rhythmic architecture.

Such a tight evolutionary simplification of the orchestra would only remain as something technical if it weren't for the new ways of arranging, especially between the second and third discs (For my people, Caribbean Productions, 1995; Y In good faith, Caribe Productions, 1997), would prove a greater functionality for the choirs devised by Manolín, compared to the previous songs.

It is visible how, as this evolution occurs, the choirs become more and more rhythmic. In musical jargon, it would be said that they have more of a key, and this was manifested with more cunning, precisely because Manolín's creativity stemmed both from the street and from the casual tumbao, from the feedback he received from his musicians and from the occurrences in rehearsals. . In this sense, a fundamental role in the final result of the songs is the connection that the leader of the group managed to establish with his arranger Luis Bu, who managed to shape many of Manolín's ideas and put his hand in several of the hits of the orchestra.

Evidently, by changing the flavor of the rhythmic cells in the new tumbaos, the singer mounted on them and returned choirs that connected with more accurate montunos. It should not be lost sight of the fact that some years ago, in the musical environment, the richness provided by the fusion of elements of the funky, the R&B, among others, with the rumba, and which —excellently handled also by other groups of this stage— would end up crystallizing in the continuous Cubanization of various aspects of North American music through timba.

Thus, at a time when rehearsal hours were followed by presentations almost daily, it was logical that the arrangements would evolve rapidly, and this can be seen, in the case at hand, in the notable differences between consecutive albums, sometimes only a year apart. What is striking is that Manolín's communicative capacity also evolved under this same dynamic, and he gradually discovered himself as an excellent conductor of crowds and in the media, but, above all, in mass dance.

Manolín is a born agitator on stage, in the best sense of the word. He is not one of those who appeals to the gesture or the phrase of common use; not even during these years does he use clothing in tune with the fashions or farándulas of the moment. Nor is he the type to wallow in the self-confidence that might confer public favor or fame in order to impose an image. His resources as a communicator run more through intonations, modulations and vocal inflections skilfully developed in the recitatives with the aim of creating situational atmospheres around the theme and the dance, than the staging of a character, a visual show, or displays of melodic virtuosity. . Manolín is an extract of the most theatrical and self-conscious side of the Cuban of his time. It's a showman of the word with certain gestural restraint in contrast to the chosen trade; a true reflection of the extent to which certain expressions of popular roots had been seasoned in the last decade of the 20th century.

Possessing the ability to pick up signals from his surroundings, it can be said that El Médico was a kind of sponge that absorbed information at all times, both from the people on the street and from the team that surrounded him on stage. But his musicians also displayed admirable flexibility and adaptation to be guided by all the environments that he created in his presentations. Manolín came to communicate his themes with an almost dramaturgical conception of the times, skillfully handling sudden changes of intention and dynamic nuances, the staggered sequencing of the phases conceived for each theme, among many other details.

Contrary to what his main critics insisted on foisting on him, insisting on some of his vocal limitations, Manuel González proved once again that those who judge popular singers strictly by the technical parameters of singing are on the wrong side of history by not understand the complexity of the contexts and the communicational factor that acquired so much weight in the stage we are dealing with; although controversies of this nature go back several decades with more than one relevant and popular name in the centers of controversy.

But back to the back of the stage. Let's analyze other elements that testify to the adaptation and contribution of the musicians as they gradually discover, together with the public, their lead singer.

Give him two...       

An eloquent element of what has been exposed so far is what within the group its members called "el dos", a rhythmic phrase developed fundamentally by Ángel Pututi and El Mipa —timbale and tumbadoras respectively—. "The two" was a kind of fan[1] set as a march break, ending in a two-tap effect that came to work very effectively, especially when it ended in a short pedal note on the bass.[2] In accordance with the structure of most of the songs, this was the moment that gave way to the climax and its punch was given, to a certain extent, by the complicity generated between musicians and dancers by combining that vertiginous break of the march, with the marked predictive character that the pedal gave to its own closing moment with the pump and all the corresponding strong percussive load.

This is just the moment of the helpful “hand up” of the Cuban orchestras, which in the case of Manolín and his band was developed in a very intelligent way. “El dos” constituted a hallmark of El Médico because the inventiveness of its percussionists —especially that of the Pututis— managed, like no other group, to concentrate through the pedal, just in that temporary period of suspension of all the percussion , the tension and expectation necessary for the dancer to end up discharging his entire body (there is no “hand up” without a body down, if we apply Newton's third law to the “partnerism” of the time); all this in a precise moment of the compass that could be noticed even by the most inexperienced and profane in these matters of the key.

There came a time when Alexis on drums realized that the intentional emptiness of the percussion tensed much more frenetically if he filled it with a succession of taps on the bass drum as a kind of call —as collective as it was consensual— to fall , and likewise came to be perceived in its ecstatic character by the dancers.

“El dos”, as well as other characteristics of the orchestrations of this group, which in a strict sense could be considered only as a construction of the musicians, could also be perceived as a result of teamwork, the result of rapport not only human and between the members of the orchestra, but of the intuitive complicity through the connection between the knowledge of the musical language acquired through studies and the experiential, empirical character of that same language in the street of which Manolín became the most faithful representative at that time.

To a certain extent, “el dos” constitutes a musical expression, an adaptation to the capacity for suggestion developed by this interpreter; to his innate ability to calculate and the premonition of the emotions that a part of us Cubans display when we decide to get together to dance en masse.

This capacity for prospecting in insular social psychology through the mediation of dance managed to articulate such a consensus of preference during these years precisely because it started, in addition to some elements such as those referred to here, of very effective compositions, with well-planned messages and oriented to playing the sensitive, excitable side of certain collective imaginaries that were no longer satisfied with the customs of the neighborhood, the anecdote, the vindication of the handsome man or the woman as an object of desire and atonement for guilt.

Regarding this last aspect, one of the successes of El Médico was not falling into those traps of easy incisiveness against the figure of women. Manolín sensed in the middle of the road that this ballast limited the scope of his messages and his compositions, taking note of the pulse that was established between several Cuban orchestras and certain governing bodies of culture and the media (remember the case of hey you crazy or The witch). In his other vision, in which women are a fundamental and receptive subject of his themes, it could be said that he even flirted with songs of feminine self-affirmation for those years, as in the case of loose hair and road or give yourself your place, who would come to settle accounts with She is worth nothing, a kind of concession that was made in its early years.

The horizontality of the messages that Manolín launched with his compositions did not distinguish between social strata, educational levels or ages, something remarkable for the time. There is in his songs from this period a whole vocation for popular philosophy that strives to penetrate, as far as it can, the epidermis of those years, at the same time that it is nourished by a semantics of rhythm that inhabits that same surface and that subsists by being reinvented every day. The choruses, which sometimes lasted longer than usual and sometimes became longer than the inspirations themselves, achieved massive depth not only because of the textual message or the melodic hook, but also because of the audacity to amalgamate rhyme and rhythm intrinsic to the verse. , with some novel accentuations in the use of the key.

If there are phrases that survive until today in the popular speech of some Cubans, such as: I know you from behind, above the ball, that's for your consumption, loose hair and road, or, I killed you with the data, is both because of what they sentencefully summarize in a moral code, and because of the ability to be evoked within the framework of a composition with a high level of musicality.

But finding the precise seams —that is, the necessary aesthetic elements in this type of music that are not exhausted by the mediation of dance to mesh compositions, arrangements and virtuosity— becomes more difficult in these years of aggressive timba. In this context it is very difficult to achieve the fillings and the "finishes" in time, typical of previous stages and well inherited by the salsa movement.

For this reason, it is doubly commendable that Manolín's team has found the way to weave a very well-pasted sound mortar, especially between percussion, to the point of making it difficult to distinguish between various instruments even for a well-trained ear. This is something not very common among the timba orchestras of the time, and was due, among others, to a factor that unfortunately goes unnoticed when talking about Manolín's musicians: the talent and the role that Alexis Cuesta played within the orchestra The Mipa in the tumblers.

In a recent conversation I had with Adel González, one of the currently most authorized voices (and hands) on this instrument, he told me about this type of “silent contribution” that many percussionists have made to Cuban music. For Adel, El Mipa is the case of the musician with virtuosity and natural taste, discreetly based on a collective idea, which, even showing a well-defined identity in its interpretation, with technical elements worthy of study, is not proposed as a priority, neither a conceptualization of his own technique, nor a creation of patterns or prototypes of marches, in the style of Tomas Ramos Ortiz the Pangasius (another reference in the tumbadoras that at that time was part of Paulito FG and his Elite).

However, the "masacote" achieved by El Mipa on the drums with his peculiar way of playing is one of the key factors in the mooring of all the percussion of the orchestra. Tumbadoras, drums, timpani and bell, together with Ramoncito on the güiro, achieved that filling of very good taste, thanks to the irregularities of the tumbler, to that continuous coming and going between the most open sounds and the most covered ones extracted from the hides, a kind of permanent ups and downs that provided not only a rhythmic richness to unite the rest of the percussion, but also seasoned with interesting nuances what inevitably has to regulate any pattern with a danceable functionality.

A clear and almost didactic example of all this percussive impasto effect can be found in Whoever is lying down. Just after the second mambo entered, the intention is to suspend bass and piano notes, and leave the percussionists practically alone, accompanied by “Los chamacos” (the group's brass). With the bass alone in percussive function and showing the percussionists that rhythmic web with an exquisite sense of syncopation, this exhibition isolated from the general "masacote" of the orchestra —actually present in the body of all the numbers— is the bearer of a very happy for those years.

In this way, El Médico's band, starting from a timba matrix with an eclectic spirit, matched, in time and space, anchoring to the rhythm, filling and timba dura. It is easy to say, but on many occasions these elements have ended up being divergent forces.

Give it mambo...

Another element of distinction within this type of compositions, and which requires a lot of skill, is the creation of the mambos. Articulating phrases for the metals that synthesize and give continuity to the spirit of the montunos, that can sneak into the interstices of a choir, that achieve an identity well adjusted to the piece and to the ears of the dancer, is almost as important as the creation of the same choirs and montunos.

Many of the traditional and timba compositions have been remembered for years also for what their horns say in some fragment of the song. think of How good you dance, María Caracoles or Dance my rhythm, played by Benny Moré, Pello El Afrokán and Irakere respectively, to cite just three examples.

Sometimes, the effectiveness of mambos comes from finding an appropriate simplicity and can end up being the key to stealing almost all the memory of a player. hit, even above the choirs, as it is, in the case at hand, in There is amoresbelonging to the disk For my people (Caribbean Productions, 1995). In others, as in loose hair and road, the mambo to remember is the one that manages to articulate, just at the moment of lowest intensity, a sudden change in intention, bringing the piece to a high point (tactics that are conspicuous by their absence in current arrangements and that have been effective in all kinds of music). Another moment may require a mambo that is at the height of a sticky incisor choir to alternate with it, as in The ball (in this case devised by Ángel Arce Pututi).

Jeans Valdés (alto sax and also arranger in the group), Juan A. Silveira flask (tenor sax), William Polledo and Dileivis Ramirez (trumpets) together with Braily Ramos (trombone) were the members of the brass band known as “Los chamacos” at this stage of Manolín. They too, with their skills and precision, helped the band develop its own identity.

Enrique Perez Fat and Lázaro González also contributed from the voices to create another seal of distinction. This was another great success, the timbre contrast of the choir in relation to Manolín's voice, something that Havana D' Primera happily inherits by permanently assuming Enrique in such an important role, also proven in the Revé Orchestra and with Issac Delgado.

To finish with the members, mention should be made of the no less important contribution of Lázaro Rodríguez on electric guitar, who made contributions to the arrangements, allowed a flirtation with sounds close to pop and endowed the orchestra's performances with greater harmonic richness, at the same time time that helped to install more and more of his instrument in this type of format.

There are many reasons why the phenomenon Manolin has left several marks in the memory of Cubans. Although his career continued abroad after this stage, the period we are analyzing is undoubtedly his peak, due to the temporal coincidence of many factors that made his meteoric rise possible. But among them, none is more important than contact with their natural audience, that touch that is the nourishing source of a good composition designed for baile; of the choir and the melody that remain levitating in the air, of the show that live Cuban musicians have always been.

Rumors have recently been heard of his return to the Cuban stages. It seems that Manolín continues to be good at managing expectations. Will he still be able to creatively hold his own with his audience after 20 years? How much has that audience changed? Only the benefit of the doubt can be a positive thing. In any case, the floor and the feet of the dancers are the ones that would have the last word.

[1] It is known as a fan to certain rolls that are executed on the timpani looking for rhythmic adornments or to generate an accentuation preamble in a specific note of the compass.

[2] A pedal note is the one that persists despite the harmonic changes and its use in the bass is a frequent resource in timba to add more dance pressure to the songs.

Avatar photo Rafael Valdivia Wandering vinyl collector in the skein of Cuban discography. Engineer ever. The great soneros of yesteryear are never missing from his playlist. More posts

Leave a comment

View published comments
  1. Andrés A says:

    #1 – I don't think I've seen an article that analyzes in such a complete and detailed way the phenomenon of the “Salsa Doctor” as it is. This work deserves to be read by every lover of Cuban music culture. In addition, the mastery of descriptive language that the author has and the ease with which he uses these tools for the consumer deserves to be noted. Thank you very much for your work.

  2. Lázaro Rodríguez Lazarito guitarrista de Manolin says:

    Excellent the way you approached and told the whole story of Manolin and the orchestra, thank you 🙏

  3. Julian Fernández says:

    Excellent article! The musical explanations are very good, although I think that I appeal to the Afokán and its rhythm Mozambique was a huge phenomenon in its time, I also think that the 60s were a hive of music with the creation of the Pilón, the Pacá, the Dengue and the Mozambique, which were rhythms with their dances. Rafael Valdivia's writing is still very good, congratulations.

  4. Luigui León says:

    Manolin the salsa doctor will be and will continue to be the king of Timba!! 🔥🔥🔥 #SembrandoCultura

View published comments

We also suggest