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No cantes nada sucio!

Since its beginning, the American recording industry took a keen interest in the market provided by ethnic groups forming the melting pot of the young nation, as potential customers. After all, the first best seller of the new media had been an unknown tenor, Enrico Caruso. According to a 1909 introduction by Pekka Gronow, as quoted on Ethnic Recordings, the Columbia Phonograph Company urged its dealers in the company's house magazine to "remember that in all large cities and in most towns there are sections where people of one nationality or another congregate in 'colonies'...

"Most of these people keep up their habits and prefer to speak the language of the old country. Speak to them in their own tongue, if you can, and see their faces light up with a smile that lingers and hear the streak of language they will give you in reply. To these people, records in theft own language have an irresistible attraction, and they will buy them readily."

And again, two years later:

"Don't wait until you have sold every American-born individual in your locality a Columbia before giving the one-time foreigner attention. You will probably find a good deal of much easier business among the people of foreign nationality."

But those dealers soon found out that in order to convince foreigners to buy the new talking machines or phonographs, you had to offer them some of their own music. That's why pioneer companies such as Edison, Victor, Zonophone and Columbia launched, very early on, an ethnic recording program that, thank God, was documented in Dick Spottswood's 7 volumes, "Ethnic Music on Records, 1893 to 1942," published in 1990. They started using the foreign talent living in the States but very soon, at the very beginning of the century, they were sending recording teams to the nearby Caribbean nations and Mexico.

As a new industry, it encountered many problems to be solved, but the foreign market had some of its own, the main one being the language, a mystery for the recording personnel. Gronow, the source mentioned before, tells us about it: "When Columbia engineers recorded the Cajun accordionist Dewey Segura in New Orleans in 1929, they told him: 'We don't know what you're singing, we ask you just one thing: Don't sing anything dirty.'"

Actually, Caribbean musicians did not sing dirty in these early recordings; but they certainly sang some bizarre things!

For example, they sang in African languages, mixed with Spanish, in many sones, including the one titled A la cuata co y co by Sexteto Bolona recorded in New York, circa 1926...

Me tengo que hacer un ebbo

con coco, maiz y jutia

Un gallo pa Yemaya

A la cuata co y co

Oya sile, oya deo

A la cuata co y co.

I have to take a liturgical bath

with coconut, corn and jutia

(a small rodent)

And a cock for Yemaya

(a goddess)

Son of Oya son of Oya

(another goddess)

Let's go half and half

Had a Cuban recording corporation recorded this, most certainly it would have been censored. But the Cuban government did not dare to prohibit the circulation of a Brunswick record. The hillbilly Cuban singers or guajiros took more liberties in their puntos guajiros. This form is probably the oldest original Cuban music, dating from the eighteenth century. Its ten-line verses deal with feelings of love towards one's woman, family or country, but they also praised the efforts of Cuban patriots during their struggle of independence against Spanish rule. As such, it was one form of protest song. After Cuba gained independence in 1902, the punto criticized Cuban governments, and since there was an American intervention from 1898 to 1902 and a second one in 1904, they also criticized the North American government's policies, as illustrated in the following punto, "Alza la vista al oriente recorded in 1906 by Antonio Morejon in an Edison cylinder:

Con cuanto amargo dolor

Pregunto yo en el momento (bis)

?,Cuales son los pensamientos

del gobierno interventor?

Contestadme por favor

no lo sometan a orgullo

que es muy triste el murmullo

respecto al americano

y ya es hora que al cubano

se le conceda lo suyo.

With quite a bitter pain

I ask at this moment

Which are the plans

of the intervention government?

Please answer me

don't let pride detain you

Because it is sad the rumor

pertaining to the American

and it is about time that the


get what is rightfully theirs.

This expressive scheme was also used by many Puerto Rican musicians in New York, who recorded patriotic songs regarding the island's political status. Probably, the companies did find out what was going on sooner or later, but continued to allow it due to the United States' democratic tradition and history of freedom of speech.

Thus, what might have been a cultural limitation, was indeed a way for dozens of ethnic groups to perpetuate an important segment of their musical heritage. Indeed, the presentation of culture was not in the minds of the recording industry moguls, but fortunately, that was an important by-product of the thousands of 78s recorded at that time.

The manufacturers had some questions already answered: why they had to record (to sell talking machines and records), when (as soon as possible), where (in the States, if possible, or anywhere else) and how, (with the equipment available, or portable ones, in the case of overseas recordings). But they still had two questions to solve: what and who to record. At those times there were no A & R executives (perhaps fortunately) so talent scouting was probably left to the ethnic merchants distributing the phonographs of Edison, Victor, Columbia, or whatever. At least that's the way it was with Victor in Cuba, with Humara y Lastra Corporation, a general store that was their distributor. Probably the artists themselves chose what to record, and judging by the results, the system worked pretty well.

Especially, in the case of Puerto Rico, where the system worked marvelously. In 1910 and 1917, two recording trips were made by Columbia and Victor, respectively, to San Juan. At that time the popular music in Puerto Rico favored by the dominant white class was of European origin, such as pasodoble, waltz, mazurka, polka and danza, but this last one also has Afrocaribbean influences. Seis, bomba and plena, the forms played by the common folk classes, were seldom heard outside their socioeconomic ambiance.

Consequently, of the 105 Columbia recordings published, 77 were danzas, and 13 were polkas or pasodobles, and only six were seis. The same happened with the 50 Victor numbers; 17 danzas, 8 scholar songs, and 11 European tunes.

In 1917, by means of the Jones Act, American citizenship was accorded to the Puerto Ricans, and a great emigration of poor farmers took place, mainly to New York City. By the twenties, a sizable population of Puerto Ricans had settled in the Big Apple. As this community grew in numbers and increased its economic power, some money was available for recreational purposes. So not only farmers but also musicians decided to leave Puerto Rico and move to New York. By the mid-twenties, a humble colony of Puerto Ricans was able to support their own entertainment. They were solvent enough to hold parties, dances and buy phonographs and records. They were a marketable target for recording companies. And good musicians like Pedro Flores, Rafael Hernandez and others stayed in New York City. It was only natural that they started recording for Puerto Ricans on the island, but especially for those in New York, just like them. Since there was no dominant class to tell them what to record, there was a dramatic change in the public's preferences.

By 1929, the first plena and the first bomba were recorded; seis was also used and also some Cuban forms such as danzon, guaracha, son and bolero were adapted to the Puerto Rican style. Few danzas were recorded. In the following years, the same trend was followed in Puerto Rico, and thus a complete change, initiated in New York, took place in Puerto Rican popular music. I wonder if that would have happened if New York and its recording studios had not been available.

Another problem the engineers had to face in Havana in their first recording trips was the band's composition. While complete segregation was the rule for American bands at the time, quite the opposite happened in the Caribbean, especially in Cuba, where Cubans of African origin had almost since the island's colonization had dominated the music guild. So, when the Zon-O-Phone engineers came to Havana in 1905, they probably had quite a surprise waiting for them: Afrocuban groups and orchestras, and worst of all, race-mixed orchestras! The same happened to Edison and Columbia, who arrived in 1906, and to Victor in 1907.

The orquestas tipicas, those typical orchestras that played mostly danzones, included both black and white musicians. The American engineers probably did not notice it, but they were making musical history.

As pointed out by Dick Spottswood in his notes to the CD The Cuban Danzon, Folklyric 7032:

Numerous danzones were recorded during the earliest recording trips to Havana in 1905-1906, even though the emerging technology had only been capable of capturing orchestral music on records for a few years. In New York, dance music on records was performed by small contingents from military bands or house musicians who crowded uncomfortably around big recording horns, grinding out hits of the day. Cuban orquestas tipicas were among the first independent working ensembles to make records.. Not until more than a decade later, when the original Dixieland Jazz Band and Paul Whiteman's Orchestra brought their distinctive sounds to the record market, did the industry begin to realize the value of so-called 'name' bands, with distinctive sounds and a performing existence outside the studios.

But the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Paul Whiteman's were white musicians' groups while black Americans had to wait a few years to have access to the recording studios, Afrocubans had that opportunity back in 1905, ironically, granted by the same North American recording industry!

But there is more about these orquestas tipicas and its danzones. On the CD mentioned above, The Cuban Danzon, which has a very suggestive subtitle ("Before there was jazz"), its editor, Chris Strachwitz, pointed out in the liner notes the similarity of the instrumental format of the orquesta tipica (created at least by 1870) and the New Orleans jazz bands (in the making at the beginning of this century) with a front line of cornet, trombone and clarinet. In the same liners, Spottswood also mentioned that the three most important Cuban orquestas tipicas that recorded between 1905 to 1907, had cornetists as their leaders, as did the New Orleans ensembles in the majority of the cases.

Quizzed by this similitude, Strachwitz asked New Orleans music researcher Jack Stewart to contribute some comments about the connection between these two musical traditions. Those comments, too long for the CD booklet, can be found however in the Arhoolie catalog web site. In his thorough essay, Stewart delved into the similarities and coincidences of both musics. But he did not consider this striking similarity of a trio composed of cornet, trombone and clarinet, which as in the classic concerto grosso form, engage in instrumental interaction, with the rest of the orchestra as a background; with the cornet usually as the leader, and with the other two instruments playing countermelodies, harmonies or other musical embellishments. This very same principle had been used at least since 1870, by Cuban orquestas tipicas. For example, in Alza Colombia, a danzon recorded in 1907 in Havana by the Felipe Valdes orchestra, the rhythm patterns or syncopations are, of course, very different from the ones used in Dixieland; but by combining the sounds of these three instruments, their voices humorously intermingle in a playful interchange akin to Dixieland.

Black regiments fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American war in 1898; there has always been a close link between Havana and New Orleans, and those danzon recordings should have reached the latter by the 1910s. Here I rest my case, and I pass the query to you: Would it be possible that the instrumental trio format of Dixieland took its inspiration from the Cuban danzon?

To sum it up, the early and vast presence of the American recording industry in the Caribbean and South America, aside from the economical motivations of such its practices, created an unrestrained, free and enormous flow of venues, styles, composers, musicians and artists, especially in the three first decades of the century, which left thousands of records as a living testimony of the culture of many countries. And then Dick Spottswood, with his Ethnic Discography, gave us the treasure map to find, study and divulge this heritage.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Rudolph Mangual
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:TA: latin music, history; TT: Don't Sing Anything Dirty!; musica latina, historia
Author:Diaz Ayala, Cristobal
Publication:Latin Beat Magazine
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Oct 1, 2000

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