The first 101 years of the immortal Cuban singer Beny Moré

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Gods die young, said the poet Nicolás Guillén on the occasion of the early death, at 43 years old, of Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré Gutiérrez. Beny Moré, one of the most important figures of the Cuban music scene of the last one hundred years, nicknamed “The Monster of Cuban Rhythms.”

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In August of 2019, Cuba and the world celebrated the one hundredth birthday of this popular musician who achieved legendary status. His music continues to be present in the everyday life of his people and has influenced generations of Cuban singers and musicians.

Like Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, or Javier Solís in México (or today’s Juan Gabriel and José José); like Carlos Gardel in Argentina and Julio Jaramillo in Ecuador, for Cuba and
Latin America, Moré is one of those popular idols whose voice persists through the times. These iconic musicians have become not only classics in their respective genres, but
also in the collective memory and cultural heritage of their nations.

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Benny Moré performs at the Hollywood Palladium.

Thanks to Moré’s recordings, and technological advances in the music industry, the songs he produced and performed, half a century ago continue to be heard by his people after his death in 1963 attributed by some to cirrhosis.

Moré enjoyed an extremely unhealthy lifestyle. From old 75 and 45 rpm vinyl records of Moré’s boleros, guarachas, merengues, and a broad spectrum of Afro-Cuban rhythms, new generations of compact records were made and sold to millions of fans, during the decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Later, CDs and digital platforms like Spotify make it possible for new audiences to appreciate his voice. As of this writing, Beny Moré’s account has over 269,100 followers.

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Moré possessed an innate talent only spotted in those famous superstars in music history, such as Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Charly Garcia. It’s known as perfect pitch. Only one in every 1,000 to 10,000 people are born with this arguably, uncommon ability. It allows them to identify a musical note from any instrument or sound without external instrumental help.

That condition does not explain the totality of Moré’s genius as a composer and performer, but it’s one more element in the creation of his legendary reputation and work. All musicians must develop a hearing connection with their art. But in Moré’s case, he used his born gift to chastise any member of his giant orchestra who had the misfortune of falling out of tune, with his well-known dissaproving exclamation “Eh!”.

More´s songs, boleros, guarachas, guaguancos, rumbas, etc., spoke to his people about life and love, their daily tribulations, the loveliness of women, the farmers´(Guajiros) struggle. He sang about mothers´and fathers´love, and Cuba´s countryside splendor.

More than anything, his tunes exalted the allure of his hometown, and other communities he visited during his performances outside of the capital Havana.

His tunes lauded Cuban towns such as Santiago, Cienfuegos, Guayabal, Manzanillo, Varadero, Oriental Maracaibo (no relation to Maracaibo in Venezuela, but to the oriental Cuban rhythm known as changuí during mid-18th century from which the ‘son’ is derived) as well as Havana various neighborhoods.

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Moré’s voice’s versatility allowed him to easily control all type of rhythms. He was unabashed about praising himself for his virtuosity, when performing the guaracha ‘You
choose, and I sing’ written by
Joseito Fernandez.

However, in his voice, boleros attained a style so distinctive and personal that I will venture to say it’s the summit of this genre since its creation 150 years ago in Cuba. (Although Mexicans never get tired of
claiming to be the inventors.)

To listen to songs like, ‘No me vayas a engañar’, ‘Corazon rebelde’, or ‘Conocí la paz’, among other jewels of his extensive repertoire, I assure it is one of the upmost delicious musical experiences of any person who loves boleros.

At the beginning of his career, Moré, recorded with the worldwide acclaimed ‘Matamoros Trio’. With them, he traveled to México returning to Cuba five years later after acquiring a certain amount of fame, not only in México but throughout Latin-America. He solidified his fame after working with the Cuban composer Dámaso Perez Prado inventor of the Afro-Cuban rhythm ‘Mambo.’ The world went crazy dancing mambos during the 1940’s and 50’s.

His return to Havana was preceded by the popularity of his son ‘Bonito y Sabroso.’ This tune gained him the nickname of ‘The Prince of Mambo,’ and opened to him the doors of all Cubans, and the rest of the world’s musical venues.

Part of his legend is his publicly expressed disdain for all the popular orchestras of the time, including ‘La Sonora Matancera.’ This feeling pushed him to create his giant band of more than 40 of the best Cuban musicians of that time, eager to follow the whims and volatility of their capricious conductor.

The orchestra’s main characteristic was the power of its woodwind section, in constant dialogue with the trumpets, clarinets and saxophones, which imbued the unique sound with a contagious energy. The incessant participation of the saxophone in lieu of the tres put Moré’s personal stamp in the execution of ‘montunos,’ although he applied it to most dancing harmonies.

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Part of his legend portrays different versions over the cause of death of this genial performer, the oldest of 18 brothers. Some say it was cirrhosis what took him to his grave, but among Cubans there is another sinister version. It’s said that the artist was the victim of a violent attack in México.

The Cuban exiles contend the attack was performed by the minions of Fidel Castro who ordered the assault after Beny snubbed him as the then-young leader of the Cuban revolution.

Beyond all these legendary clouds around his demise, there is no doubt his music is today an important part of the Cuban people’s musical legacy to humanity, an indelible slice of Cuba’s musical patrimony.

(Translated to English by Eduardo Cerviño)

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Detail of the cover of one of his most popular albums.

Beny Moré: la centenaria e inmortal voz de Cuba

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Los dioses mueren jóvenes, dicen que dijo el poeta Nicolás Guillén ante el deceso temprano, a los 43 años de edad, de quien fuera una de las figuras cumbre de la música cubana: Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré Gutiérrez, el Bárbaro del Ritmo, el gran Beny Moré.

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En agosto del año 2019 Cuba y el mundo conmemoraron el centenario del nacimiento de este músico popular convertido hoy en leyenda, cuya obra sigue presente en la vida cotidiana de su pueblo e influenciando a nuevas generaciones de cantantes y músicos.

Como Pedro Infante o Javier Solís, en México (y ahora también Juan Gabriel y José José); como Carlos Gardel, Mercedes Sosa y Gustavo Cerati en la Argentina; como Julio Jaramillo, en Ecuador; en Cuba y Latinoamérica Moré es ese tipo de ídolos populares cuyas voces persisten a través del tiempo hasta haberse convertido no solo en clásicos de sus respectivos géneros sino sobre todo en memoria colectiva y patrimonio cultural.

Gracias a las grabaciones y a las diferentes renovaciones de soportes que los avances tecnológicos han permitido desde los años cincuenta en que grabó la mayoría de sus temas, continúa cantándole al pueblo más de medio siglo después de su muerte, acaecida en 1963 en La Habana, como resultado de una cirrosis.

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Benny Moré actuando en el Hollywood Palladium.

Fue así como de los antiguos discos de acetato que giraban a 75 y 45 revoluciones por minuto, en los que sus boleros, sones, guarachas, mambos, merengues, y una amplia gama de ritmos afrocubanos y latinoamericanos fueron grabados y dados a conocer entre millones de personas, se pasó a las cintas de cassette populares durante las décadas de los setentas y ochentas; luego, a los discos compactos, memorias digitales y computadoras, hasta el momento presente en el que, sin que nos sea dado contar con el icono de los discos de vinil o compactos en las manos, es posible oír toda su obra musical en plataformas digitales como Spotify (al momento de redactar esta nota, en su aniversario 101, la cuenta de Beny Moré y su impresionante discografía tiene ya más de 269101 oyentes mensuales).

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Moré, poseedor de un talento innato de proporciones mayúsculas, tenía como algunos famosos músicos e intérpretes de la historia (Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovski, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Brian Wilson o Charly García) lo que se conoce como oído absoluto. Se trata de una controvertida y no muy común habilidad con la que nace una de cada 1000 a 10000 personas, por la que pueden identificar cualquier nota o tono determinado de un instrumento o sonido sin que para ello se ayuden de referencia alguna.

Esa condición no explica la complejidad y totalidad de su genio como compositor e intérprete, y es apenas uno de muchos elementos que integran la leyenda de su vida y su música. En realidad, un músico debe dominar sobre todo el oído relativo, y me aventuro a decir que a Moré le sirvió más que nada para fustigar a los miembros de su orquesta gigante cada vez que alguno, para su mala fortuna, cometía el pecado sonoro de desafinar, al que de inmediato profería su también ya legendaria interjección de alerta, fastidio y desaprobación: “¡Eh!”.

Moré le cantó a la vida y al amor, por supuesto, a través de ritmos como el son y el bolero, la guaracha, el mambo, el chachachá, el bembé, el guaguancó y la rumba, y especialmente le cantó al pueblo cubano y su vida cotidiana: a sus mujeres, a sus campesinos los guajiros, a la madre y al padre, a su pueblo Santa Isabel de las Lajas, a la manigua, y a una buena cantidad de pueblos, ciudades y provincias de Cuba como Santiago, Cienfuegos, Guayabal (Amancio), Manzanillo, Varadero, Maracaibo Oriental (que no se refiere a Maracaibo en Venezuela, sino al ritmo oriental cubano conocido como changüí, de mediados del siglo XIX, que según algunos estudios sería el ritmo del que nació el son), así como a La Habana y sus diferentes barrios.

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La versatilidad de su voz le permitía dominar prácticamente todos los ritmos sin dificultad, algo de lo que solía preciarse cuando interpretaba la guaracha Elige tú que canto yo, de Joseíto Fernández. El bolero, sin embargo, adquiere a través de la voz y el estilo de Beny Moré lo que me atrevo a llamar una de las cumbres en su larga historia de casi un siglo y medio desde que fuera creado en Cuba (aunque los mexicanos no se cansan de reivindicar su invención). Escuchar temas como Corazón rebelde, Oh vida, No me vayas a engañar, Conocí la paz, entre muchas otras joyas de su extenso repertorio, le aseguro que debe ser una de las experiencias musicales más deliciosas para quien sepa y guste del bolero.

En sus inicios grabó con el trío Matamoros, con quienes viaja a México para no regresar sino hasta cinco años después, cuando ya tenía cierta fama en ese país y en otros de América, sobre todo a raíz de su trabajo con el músico matancero Dámaso Pérez Prado, a quien se atribuye ser el autor del mambo, un ritmo afrocubano que enloqueció al mundo hacia finales de los cuarenta y durante la década de los cincuenta. Su regreso a La Habana con el tema Bonito y Sabroso, bautizado ya en México como el Príncipe del Mambo, le abriría las puertas de la isla y sus más distantes y variados escenarios.

La leyenda Moré incluye el desprecio que sentía por orquestas famosas de la época como la no menos legendaria Sonora Matancera, con la que se negó a grabar pese a que hay registros de actuaciones en conjunto; y la conformación de su banda gigante que incluía más de 40 de los mejores músicos cubanos de entonces, todos listos para improvisar siguiendo a su director y caprichoso intérprete.

La orquesta se caracterizaba por una enorme potencia de sus vientos, en permanente diálogo: trompetas, trombones y saxofones llenan cada tema de una energía contagiosa, y será su sello propio la incansable participación del saxo que pasa a reemplazar al tres en la ejecución del montuno, pero aplicado a la mayoría de los ritmos bailables, a diferencia de otras orquestas que privilegiaban el piano o la flauta traversa para tales menesteres, como la Orquesta Aragón.

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Legendaria es también la proliferación de una serie de versiones diferentes sobre las causas de su muerte. La biografía oficial del músico guajiro da cuenta de que fue la cirrosis lo que le llevó a la tumba a tan temprana edad. Entre cubanos se dice también que alguna vez le dieron una pateadura o golpiza en México, y no falta entre los isleños exiliados quien afirme que fueron los secuaces de Fidel Castro quienes le golpearon por un supuesto desaire que el músico habría hecho al entonces joven líder de la Revolución.

Más allá de todos esos entretelones legendarios, lo cierto es que su música es hoy un legado del pueblo cubano a la humanidad que debe formar parte inequívoca de su patrimonio cultural.

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Detalle de la portada de uno de sus más populares álbumes.

Half a century in the life of painter Jorge Chalco

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by Rodrigo Aguilar Orejuela

I met Jorge Chalco twenty years ago. By then, the artist had shown his paintings in galleries and museums in America and Europe. His artistic trajectory had expanded for over three decades. My first impression of the man was that of a simple person. Secure of himself. In control, and grateful for the rewards life had given him through the years of dedication to his art. Chalco was grateful of having had a premonition about the artistic road he should take for the rest of his life.}

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This interview was the first of many held over the years. Chalco was in the final process of an exhibit to take place in Washington, DC, the USA capital. That exhibit’s theme dealt with the dreams, worries, and migratory nightmares of thousands of Ecuadorians during the 1990s. The artist’s own life experiences reflected those of his people. Chalco also had to emigrate. The barrage of emotions he endured during his voluntary period of exile permeated the canvases in that USA exhibit.

The unending corruption, deceit, and carelessness of the Ecuadorian authorities became a pivotal theme in Chalco’s future exhibits. The artist turned into a witness and spokesman of his people’s tribulations, a role he embraced in his next dramatic series entitled, The corrupt. My art against the beast.

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For much of his life, Chalco’s art has dealt with the calamities or sweetness of social events. But, the meaning of the artist’s work is not obvious to the viewer. His primary interest is the artistic composition, the color treatment of his visions. It’s up to the canvas viewer to analyze and interpret through personal discovery of the artist’s intent.

Jorge Chalco was a farmer boy in Gapal, at the time a rural area of Cuenca. On his way to school, the boy would encounter students of the school of arts wearing white aprons. They carried canvases, brushes, color tubes, and other occupational instruments. “I used to look at their work,” said Jorge. “The colors and images fascinated me.”

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Still, the fledgling farmer wasn’t yet aware of the magical influence those casual encounters were planting in his mind. There was little time in the youngster’s life for playing and drawing, but he made time for mischief while roaming through Cuenca’s nearby city streets. This behavior could have made a hoodlum out of Jorge. Sadly, his parents couldn’t understand his aspirations for a different way of life.

With the passing of time, the artist in his soul grew at the expense of the farmer. Both endeavors are noble, but the first fed his spirit as well as his belly. Chalco moved on to the school of art.

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His studies at the art school in the University of Cuenca were decisive in his creative formation, but those were not happy times. His memories of some of the professorial staff are not pleasant. To him, many were not equipped for teaching. He found them egotistic, narrow minded, even envious.

When Chalco was still a student of art, participated and won first prize in a competition organized by the Ecuadorian House of Culture. Jorge did not receive support or congratulations from his professors. Instead, they expressed disapproval of his work, and asked to recant the award. Later, Jorge won First Prize in the Gorivar Gallery of Quito. This was gratifying in the extreme. Soon after, he won another important award from Civil Aviation. It consisted of a month traveling to museums in Spain, France, Holland, Italy, and Germany.

Jorge Chalco was a farmer boy in Gapal, at the time a rural area of Cuenca. On his way to school, the boy would encounter students of the school of arts wearing white aprons.

Six months after returning to Ecuador, the growing star received the National Award Mariano Aguilera. Also, a gold medal as the country’s most important painter of the year. The national and local press media covered this award with great enthusiasm. Professional recognition gave him the opportunity to travel and show his paintings in respected galleries and museums around the world.

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The prolific work of Jorge Chalco does not deal only with the dark aspect of the Ecuadorian society. The artist also relishes the traditional vibrancy of the indigenous culture. It includes popular festivities, carnivals, fireworks, costumes, ancestral mythology, and ceremonies that honor ancient gods. Those deities have resisted the inhumane efforts of the Catholic Church to obliterate a glorious past.

He has not forgotten his younger years walking in mountain towns. Subconsciously he absorbed his ancestral spiritual roots. He helped built colorful paper castles, and figurines made from kaolin he collected on the outskirts of the surrounding hills.

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Those formative years experiences, combined with his adult social awareness, gave birth to the bulk of Chalco’s pictorial iconography. Jorge is a dreamer, with a never-ending curiosity about his surroundings, insatiable thirst for knowledge, and total dedication to his skill. Over the last half century, all this had melded in his mind and gave rise to the genial master painter he is today.

The press and many books had praised Chalco’s virtuosity for years. The following is a summary of such books:

  1. Chalco 1968 to 2006 The Itinerary of an Indefatigable Painter. Text written by the Cuencan author Jorge Davila Vázquez. Published by The Municipality of Cuenca in 2006.
  2. Chalco. A detailed study written by the distinguished art critic from Quito, Hernán Rodríguez Castelo. Published by the Municipality of Quito in 2011.
  3. Jorge Chalco in Perspective. Written by Rodrigo Villacís Molina in 2018. A collaboration between the University of Azuay, the Catholic University of Ecuador, PUCE, Mutualista Azuay, and Diners Club.
  4. Beyond Jorge Chalco’s Drawings. By Spanish art critic José Carlos Arias Álvarez. Published by The House of Ecuadorian Culture Matriz of Quito.

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The above-mentioned recognition received by the artist reinforce our perception, that Jorge Chalco is without a doubt one of the most important painters of the last 50 years in Ecuador, and his name will forever be an indelible part of our nation plastic arts annals.

(Translated by Eduardo Cerviño)