That is why the musical cadence of our rhythms has been interpreted by numerous orchestras and soloists in many parts of the universe, driven by Cuban female groups and orchestras. It comes to our minds, with some pride and pleasure, some of the most outstanding female orchestras I will be talking about in this article.
The presence of the woman in the Cuban music has not been fully elucidated in our musical field. That´s the reason why we will be commenting, as much as we can, based on what we know, and on our interest for the history of Cuban music motivates us to provide some data on this issue. By the end of the 1920´s, it emerged a female musical movement led by Doña Irene La Ferté, who with her daughters, founded at their home a charanga group, in Havana, in 1928. This group was integrated by: two violins, one trumpeter, a guiro and a paila played by Irene herself. These women included in their repertoire themes that were very popular at that time; they performed in centers where their friends used to meet.
Later on, Irene´s daughter, Mercedes Herrera, founded a new group under the name of Eden Habanera in 1932. It might be that Doña Irene La Ferte´s charanga became the first female orchestra of Cuban popular music. We can also mention the Ensueño orchestra founded in 1930 by Guillermina Follo, which had the following instruments: two trumpets, three saxophones, one trombone, two more violins, more drums, battery, piano, double bass and one singer.
They were considered a jazz band group, and their repertoire included jazz, waltz, all kind of Cuban and foreign rhythm. They used to play in Prado Avenue, outdoors, starting at Dragones street, up to San José street; that is, the front of Cuban Capitol. The Ensueño orchestra was very applauded in almost all its performances, and its sound was simply exquisite, as history says.
Another group was Renovacion, directed by Carmen Franco with its singer, Rita Maria Ribero. At the beginning of the 1930´s the Orchestra under the name Las Hermanas Mezquida, was created; although it lasted a short time, taking, some time after, the name of Yambambo. This orchestra played regularly in El Progreso Cubano radio station, today, Radio Progreso, located in Monte and Angeles streets.
The legendary Isolina Carrillo did not lose any time and created her group which she named Las Trobadoras del Cayo -The Key´s Trobadours- (referring to the Key West neighborhood). The author of Dos Gardenias played this time the trumpet and led the orchestra. Her fame lasted from 1933 up to 1935.
A female orchestra which travelled early around the world was Orbe. It was integrated by Esther Lines as violinist, saxophonist and director; Bertha Fraga, violonist and saxophonist; the Delia Sisters and Luisa Vallejo, as singers; Aracelis Rosillo, as trumpeter and Elsa Diaz, as drummer. They were welcomed with great fanfare in 1934 in Veracruz, Mexico.
In 1932, the University of Havana was closed by the then President of Cuba, the satrap and murderer, Gerardo Machado. Thousands of students were expelled from it, among who was a little young girl, a Dentristy student named Concepcion Castro Zaldariaga. Looking for a way out to this situation, she thought about creating a female orchestra, being supported by her studies on guitar, saxophone and other musical instruments.
She encouraged her sisters to follow her and study music. Her sisters´ names were Caridad, Ada, Ondina, Alicia, Argemira (alias, Millo), Olga and Xiomara; so that´s how they began to study theory and singing of scales, in a big mansion located in Lawton municipality. But in spite of the studies, Concepción (Cuchito) founded a septet, which took the name of Anacaona, a Dominican Indian heroine.
The septet´s debut took place on February 17th, 1932, at Payret Movies Theater, having a resounding success. They showed off with frenzy. Millo was the bongo player and Ondina, the trumpeter. The former was taught by Agustin Gutierrez, a bongo star at the Septeto Habanero, while the latter was a student of the legendary trumpeter, Lázaro Herrera, a member of the Septeto Nacional directed by Ignacio Pineiro. These girls recorded the following themes with the voices of Graciela Perez Grillo and Alicia Castro:
* Maleficio (Witchcraft) /s Guerra y Blanco
* Algobueno (Something Good) /s Ignacio Piñeiro
* Oh marambé marambá /s Ignacio Piñeiro
* Amor inviolado(Inviolated Love) /s E. González
* Bésame aquí (Kiss me Here) /s GD
* Después que sufras (After you suffer) /s Guerra y Blanco
Some years later, Concepción enlarged the orchestra by bringing her sisters. They had a musical life that could be considered as a legend. In 1935, they incorporated the pianists Hortensia Palacio and Graciela Perez Grillo. Their performances in their homeland and in the rest of the world were very successful and as a recognition to their outstanding work, we will start mentioning their tours:
1933- Tour by Puerto Rico
1938- Tour throughout the United States, participating in the opening of what used to be the famous Havana-Madrid Salon
1939- Tour by the French territory, interrupting it when the Second World War began
1940- Return to their homeland
After taking some vacations at their home located in Lawton neighborhood, the orchestra started a big tour by almost all the South American nations. In 1950, the Anacaona orchestra shared the Maracaibo carnivals, in Venezuela with Ernesto Grenet Ensemble, at the time this commentator integrated this group.
We took advantage of some free time to attend the performance and we realized that this band was a sensation, either by their performance as well as by their excellent quality. At present, the Anacaona orchestra keeps on with its successful life, led by the Aguirre´s sisters. Whenever we talk about female groups and orchestras, we can´t miss to mention Los Aires Libre del Prado.
What was Los Aires Libre del Prado?
They were a natural permanence of female groups. Los Aires Libres...was not an amusing group without female music. They guaranteed both remuneration and post for all. Los Aires Libres del Prado started to play in Dragones and Prado streets; right next to it, there was the Saratoga hotel; then they finished at San José and Prado streets, where we find the Payret movies theater.
The Saratoga hotel had a large portal where there used to be a glass platform with outside speakers, where we could listen to the piano, double bass and some rhythm that accompanied the most famous Cuban singers. This hotel had some fifteen or twenty tables each with four chairs, that were served by waiters appropriately dressed up with their uniforms. The public used to call this place La Marquesita de Saratoga -The Marquis of Saratoga- where the agglomeration of musical elements and art in general was substantial.
To one side of this hotel and 30 meters away from it, there was the first platform of Los Aires Libres, with the latest female orchestra. Next to it, there was another platform having similar conditions. The third platform that was supposed to be the most successful of all had the same conditions than the other two.
The wind instruments resounded in the Cuban Capitol as a thunder; the passers-by who walked by the sidewalk of less than one meter long, were delighted with that music so well executed, and the girls wearing the Guaracheras uniform, enjoyed the show as much as the public did. The tables were always full and the light that Los Aires Libres del Prado radiated, made it the most spectacular site of Havana during the nineteen-thirties and the nineteen-forties.
As an interesting data, we can say that a scene of the movie El Romance del Palmar -The Romance of the Grove- where we see our Rita Montaner singing El Manisero was shot in Los Aires Libres del Prado, accompanied by the Hermanas Alvarez orchestra.
This show did not have a master of ceremony, and the music was constantly reproduced, since the platforms changed the orchestras every forty minutes, so we could walk from one end to the other up to midnight. Almost all the curious passers-by were peasants eager to hear that wonderful music. Based on our reminiscences and research, the movements of the female orchestras at that age did not only come from Havana.
In other provinces similar groups were founded, such as: in Madruga, Las Hermanas Estupiñan; in Pinar del Rio, the Estudiantina Pinareña, and in the area of Camajuani, there were: the Casiguaya Septet, directed by Sara Aguilar, the Canoabo Septet, directed by Hilda González, and the Caracusey Septet, directed by Conchita Hernández. We may also add to this long list La Camerata Santa Cecilia de Camagüey, as well as Las Indias del Caribe.
We´re conscious we have omissions in this hard work, since, for almost half a century, the reference collection that would allow us to obtain credible information has been somewhat difficult; but, surely, an approach to the woman in Cuban music gives us some licence to tell things already erased by the contemporary mind.
We should also bear in mind that music is the most captivating artistic expression of our people, and it has had the virtue of transmitting its rhythms to all those who have had the opportunity to hear it. This work has been possible thanks to the suggestion provided the Colombian journalist, Umberte Valverde, on occasion of the death, last April 17th, 2010, in New York, at the age of 95, of one of the founders of Anacaona orchestra: Graciela Pérez. She left us some recordings of high historical value for Cuban music.
Días Ayala Cristóbal, Musicologist and Researcher
Musicalia Foundation, Puerto Rico
Manuel Villar Fernández, Researcher and Musicologist
Jesús Blanco Aguilar, Researcher and Musicologist
Bsc. Belinda de la Caridad Suárez Pesi
Translation: Roxana Márquez Herrera (Cubarte)