1928: Guty Cárdenas
This week I'm thinking about "Rayito del sol," a 1928 recording by Guty Cárdenas, the Troubadour of the Yucatán.
Mexican popular-music recording is about as old as popular-music recording in general: corridos and danzas by Mexican were cut onto wax cylinders alongside Sousa marches and ragtime banjo workouts in the first decade of the twentieth century and the last decade of the nineteenth. But a strong case could be made that Guty Cárdenas was the first Mexican pop star in the commonly understood meaning of the phrase. The fact that he's not as well known as, say, Argentina's Carlos Gardel, France's Maurice Chevalier, or the United States' Bing Crosby, each of whom could be considered something like his equivalent in their home nations, is perhaps less a function of his abbreviated career (he died when a stray bullet hit him in a cantina in 1932 at the age of 27, after only five years of recording activity) than an approach to Mexican music which ignores genre-fluid internationalists like Cárdenas in favor of the more "authentic" ranchera, mariachi, or bolero stars who emerged a decade later and helped to fashion the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.
The first issue of "Rayito del sol" (Litttle ray of sun), as Columbia 3266-X, bears the genre tag "Canción Yucateca" on the label, but it's not a traditional song of the Yucatán. Cárdenas composed it with a lyric by Ermilio "Chispas" Padrón (though he receives sole credit on the label). He is accompanied on guitar and lower harmonies by Carlos "Chalín" Cámara, along with an unidentified violinist. The song has become a standard in Mexico, particularly the southern state of Yucatán, where Cárdenas was born and with which he identified all his career. It's a hauntingly slow, sad song, remembering the beauty of the morning sun on a sleeping woman's hair, and wishing to be able to return and caress her as the sun does.
But although "Rayito" was one of Cárdenas' most popular recordings and has cast a long shadow, it was far from his only mode. He was one of the first to perform Augustín Lara's boleros, helping to cement him as Mexico's premier urban-pop composer of the middle of the twentieth century, and recorded ballads by Cuban giant Ernesto Lecuona. He even recorded North American pop, from Broadway foxtrots like "Rio Rita" to the Herb Nacio Brown/Arthur Freed trifle "Pagan Love Song", from a Ramón Novarro Hollywood film.
His death would leave the more polished and operatic José Mojica as Mexico's premier crooner of the era, contested only by the silken Juan Arvizu: but they too would be eclipsed by the cinematically-fueled trio of Pedro Vargas, Jorge Negrete, and Pedro Infante, who would dominate the Mexican midcentury with their polished rancheras and boleros, and might be comparable to the Rat Pack generation of showbiz sentimentalists north of the border. My fascination with the 78-r.p.m. era means that Cárdenas, neglected by all but the most steadfast of archivists, means more to me than his successors: his geographical positioning from the Yucatán hinterlands (where the population even today is largely Mayan) was a symbol of post-Revolution Mexico's modernity and internationalism, which enables him to be dismissed as merely a bland pop crooner today. But there's always more going on than that.