Millions have grown
up with an image of South American culture
inspired by movie musicals. They offered
a glimpse into an exotic paradise where
everyone sang, danced and made love,
where nights were always lush and tropical.
The phenomenon has become so much a
part of our shared world wide cultural
heritage, that we forget its origins.
It’s remarkable that the genre was largely
popularized by one man, Ernesto Leucona,
whose roots were in serious music.
Lecuona was Cuban,
and a conservatoire trained pianist.
His worked in the ancient Spanish zarzuela
tradition, which synthesized theatre,
operetta and art music. It is an adaptive,
creative form, and the Lecuona in turn
incorporated Afro-Cuban characteristics,
developing a distinctive style that
was to have widespread and long lasting
influence. As in the text of Que
risa me da,
"Today it’s the rage to dance
whether in Shanghai, Russia or New York,
and it’s because the rumba gets you
with its rhythmical sound"
After the development
of "talking pictures", musical
movies gripped the popular imagination.
The Latin American genre was ideally
suited, because it combined song with
acting, exotic scenery and romantic
plots, humour and escapism in a world
hit by the Depression of the 1930’s.
Lecuona’s music fitted the bill perfectly
and he found instant success, writing
for at least 11 movies, such as the
seminal Cuban Love Song of 1931,
which starred Jimmy Durante and Laurence
Tibbett. Movies, radio, nightclubs,
and recordings fuelled the growth of
bands like those of Xavier Cugat, and
Cesare Romero. They had huge international
hits with the composers many songs like
Malagueña, and Say
si si. Chances are that many have
heard this composer, without realising
who he was. In turn, these inspired
a host of new variants. Tango music,
for example, still has a huge following
in Scandinavia. For decades, South American
music rivalled jazz, and latin bands
were prominent in popular music and
dance. Perhaps we have Lecuona to thank
for Carmen Miranda !
Yet success has obscured
the composers role as a serious musician
who was admired by Ravel and Gershwin,
and his grounding in art music and zarzuela.
His teacher was Joaquín Nin,
the pianist and composer. BIS Recordings
have pioneered a revival of interest
in Lecuona’s music. They have issued
a five CD set, "The Complete Piano
Works" with pianist Thomas Tirino.
After hearing this recording, I’m keen
to check these out, too. With this release
of some of the solo songs, they are
expanding coverage of the composer’s
output. Perhaps recordings of his 37
orchestral works may one day follow.
Carole Farley did first hand research
in tracking down scores that had lain
untouched in abandoned basements, and
in drawers and trunks that had not been
opened in years. Her choice of the songs
on this recording reflect her favourites
out of several hundred. Some are relatively
well known, such as Dame des tus
rosas. Others, however, are first
recordings, though for most of us, all
of it effectively is new. But what a
The song chosen as the title of the
recording, En una nocha así
comes from the film Carnival
in Costa Rica, a 1947 Warner Brothers
hit starring Cesar Romero and Dick Hyams.
Also lovely is Siempre en mi corazón,
epitomising the description of the genre
as "brilliant and triumphal
rhythm, harmonious and sensual"
used in another song. What gives the
songs their appeal is the contrast between
sensuality and nostalgia, as if beneath
the lilting surface lies depth and sorrow.
Completely different is Rumba mejoral
Its edgy, jumpy rhythms are a striking
mix of jazz, Hispanic and 1930’s dance
music. Similarly, the brisk Conga
Cuba, is slightly less joyously
hyperactive, but fun. La comparsa,
also known as "Carnival procession
" evokes "the sound of
bare drums, maracas and percussion,"….."magical
sounds inspire contortions".
underpin all the songs, creating a striking
tension with the sensual, often nostalgic,
extended notes in the voice. Indeed,
the piano part is dominant, defining
the character of each song far more
distinctly than the voice part, which
floats sensuously over the piano like
a warm breeze. Most of the texts are
pretty basic, many written by the composer
himself. Perhaps the most profound songs
in the collection is Canción
del amor trist, to a poem by the
Uruguayan Juana de Ibarbourou. It is
a strong, passionate ballad, as if the
intensity of the poem brought out something
quite ferocious in the composer.
Carole Farley is an
opera singer of great experience, debutting
at the Metropolitan Opera in 1977. Her
performance is pleasant, barring occasional
challenges and slight waywardness. Her
singing of softer, gentler lines is
very attractive. She has also recorded
the songs of José Serebrier,
who wrote the text for one of the songs,
Devuélveme el mi corazón.
The pianist is John Constable,
who has worked with many musicians,
including Serebrier. His playing is
firm, adroit, and he manages the tricky
tempo changes with flexibility. Other
recordings of Lecuona’s songs do exist,
but this is the one that will put them
on the map.