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Exist Yesterday.

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1942: Rita Montaner


This week I'm thinking about Rita Montaner's recording of Julio Cueva's "Golpe de Bibijagua," which I was going to say I have not been able to nail down a recording or issue date for, but: 1942.

An alternate digitization is available here.

This was going to be an excuse to talk about the uncertainty which is necessarily attendant on any project which tries to recreate as complete a picture of the past as possible. I would have complained that there are many reasons why Cuban recording history is one of the patchiest and least well-documented (at least in the resources I have available to me) of the major Latin American scenes, but probably most significant is the half-century of economic sanctions against one of the poorest nations of its size in the hemisphere by a global superpower acting primarily out of spite. Then I would have said that the most complete discographies I have seen of Rita Montanter's recording activity do not annotate this recording; they skip from 1929 to 1941, a gap in recording activity which is at the least suspicious (especially given that she was one of the most popular and in-demand Cuban entertainers throughout the 1930s, flitting between dates in Havana, New York, and Mexico City). And I would have speculated that based on the layout of Victor's label it would have to have been issued between 1937 and early 1946. But at that point I happened to look up her accompanists on the record, and the recording was filed under their name in the discography: June 18, 1942.

So. Instead, this is going to be about the limitations of my own approach to the period. I have been limiting my discussions of "vernacular pop" — not just here, but in my head and in dozens of google docs — to records produced between 1926 and 1935, a decade-long span which encompasses both the giddy heights of global recording activity in the late 20s, and the devastating slump in global recording activity which followed the Crash. (Which, indeed, may be a partial explanation for Rita's absence from discographies in the 1930s.) But a decade's span, although it can often seem extremely significant in the rock era (in which careful mythologizing and rapid turnover of recording technologies have created stark quasi-generational differences between 1957, 1967, 1977, and 1987) is not actually long enough to tell the complete story of an era, much less of a person. Despite notable early deaths, most musical stars of any worth have careers spanning multiple decades: and in 1942 Rita Montaner, who had been a worldwide sensation since 1927, when she was the first person to record "El Manisero", the song which brought Cuban popular music to global attention, had significantly changed her approach since the late 20s.

She had been trained to sing in the high, frilly style of the zarzuela, Spanish light opera, as her 1927 recording of sentimentalist Félix B. Caignet's bolero "Te Odio" demonstrates, and even some of her early Afro-Cuban recordings were performed in a relatively stiff, dicty soprano. (Cf. "Rumba Guajira", 1927, on which she accompanies herself on piano.) She was, in fact, not a particularly vernacular singer, but a pop singer who sang vernacular or semi-vernacular material because it was in fashion, like a Broadway diva singing a Tin Pan Alley blues in the same period. But by 1942, after a decade of constant performing on stage, on the radio, and in films, her voice had grown lower and more flexible, her delivery was easier and more syncopated, and she sang in the more nasal style affected by true soneros and troveros.

Not that "Golpe de Bibijagua" is an Afro-Cuban son: it's a guaracha, a nineteenth-century bourgeois Cuban theatrical genre of fast-paced, quick-witted comic song which did indeed find itself frequently adapted by popular son orchestras and trova singers. It was written by Julio Cueva, trumpeter in the Orquesta  Hermanos Palau, who accompanied Rita at this session; his sputtering trumpet lines are a highlight of the record. In Rita's mouth, the lyric "Que baile así, así así, así na[da] má[s]," (dance like this, like this like this, like this [and] nothing else) almost sounds like "así asi, à cinéma" (like this like this, [in French] to the movies), a reminder of her celebrity and importance outside of the world of the merely vernacular or even merely Cuban.

Because she was a proper diva, combative to her co-stars, addicted to upstaging, and (thanks to her rock-solid, and well-founded belief in her popularity with the people) reckless in her vocal defiance of the corrupt Batista government, who presumably killed her brother in a drive-by shooting, attempted to bribe her to say good things about them on the air, and pulled from the air an early television sketch show built around her due to its mockery of the government. She died suddenly in 1958 of cancer, a year before Castro's revolutionary  forces assumed control of the Cuban government. Revered by a younger generation of singers like Celia Cruz, she remains a symbol of a vanished older Cuba, one more striated by class but still able to make a global legend out of a self-described "mulata," who frequently identified in song and conversation with her African heritage, like her.

Jonathan BogartVernacular Pop