Salty mist obscures the early morning streets of downtown Centro Habana. Painted scantily-clad prostitutes, horny sailors, strumming musicians, strutting gangsters, a clutch of disoriented American tourists, an exhausted Cuban-Chinese cook finally getting off work, a down-and out guajiro drunk in the gutter, a couple of red-eyed rats and some cockroaches all mingle in the worn, steaming narrow streets, figures stumbling, hugging, laughing, sleeping, trudging, scuttling past the jazz clubs, flop-houses, gambling dens, bodegas, bars, apartment buildings and row house mansions as the light from Morro Castle shines across the bay and waves soothingly lap the edges of El Malecón, where lovers tangle in the dark and early-bird fishermen start to set up their reels, lines and nets. Across the street from three mangy alley cats foraging for fish in front of a now closed Catalán restaurant, two old men argue heatedly about baseball, their toothless shouts launched at each other like fastballs, seemingly oblivious of the hour, thankful for a little cool air fluttering down Padre Varela, the wide avenue that angles its way towards the Bahía de Habana.
Somewhere in this rich bohemian stew of mingling fetid harbor air and fresh sea breezes wafts the distinctive smell of aftershave cologne, cigar smoke, and rum breath. It’s punctuated by the occasional sound of the metal tip of a cane hitting an ancient paved cobble street, made from the ballast of slave ships. Suddenly a distinctive laugh peels out, a mahogany tenor voice sing-shouts, “¡A gozá’!” — echoing up the candy-colored Baroque and Art Deco façades of the barrio’s corroded
buildings, rolling down Calle Neptuno and then ricocheting off a majestic yet crumbling stone-cornered colonial chapel and finally rippling out towards the sea wall. A large-brimmed guajiro hat is now seen through the fog, seemingly floating atop
a shadow, like some wraith from a detective novel or film noire scene; then a flash of cream-colored Cubop zoot-suit cuts the dense air, and an empty bottle hits the curb, as the lone figure drifts out towards the Malecón following the dying echoes of his own voice.
It’s safe to say that Beny (or Benny as it is often spelled) Moré is still (and will probably always be) Cuba’s favorite and most iconic vocalist whose influence was central to what we call salsa, a legacy still felt today. “El Benny” was born Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré Gutiérrez, on August 24, 1919 in the rural hamlet of Santa Isabel de Las Lajas in the former province of
Las Villas near Cienfuegos, and died in Havana on February 19, 1963. Beny occupies a unique position not only in the history of Cuba’s music but also in the socio-political and cultural life of the island because despite major differences between
detractors and believers in Castro’s revolution, they can all agree he was the greatest sonero (improvising vocalist) of all,
the original “El Sonero Mayor” (a title subsequently passed along to Puerto Rico’s Ismael Rivera). Moré’s appeal was and
remains international, making him a trans-national ambassador of Caribbean Latin culture.
Aside from the unique quality of expression, fluid execution and natural, warm timbre of his voice, there is something
intangible and magical in Beny’s sound that defies explanation and has its roots in Mother Africa (his maternal great-great-grandfather, Ta Ramón Gundo Paredes, was reportedly the son of a tribal king in the Congo). Moré’s famous iconic walking stick is said to have been given to him by a santero priest (some say his grandfather) as a ‘power object’ to help the singer get ahead in the world of music. Beny was adept at a full array of ‘toques’ (folkloric rhythms) and religious songs, especially those of Palo Mayombe (he was a mayombero and was also tremendous rumbero (performer of rumba).
Somehow, perhaps because of his dual self-identification as both a simple guajiro (country peasant) who loved his mother above all else, and an urban bohemian known for his playful sense of humor and snappy dress (his signature loose-fitting zoot suit and pegged trousers held up with suspenders also served to reduce pressure on his over-worked liver!), coupled with his heartfelt and committed background in Afro-Cuban traditions on the one hand and his sophisticated, urbane
musicality and confident leadership of his Banda Gigante on the other, Moré could be all things -indeed different things-
to many people, the world over. He was equally adept at most Cuban popular song genres, such as the mambo, bolero, son montuno, cha-cha-cha, and guaracha, all of which are represented here in this special collection. Many of his signature catchphrases, such as “¡Azúcar!” and “¡Ecua jé!” for instance, were later adopted by other singers.
Moré first rose to prominence as a young man singing on the radio in Havana during the early 1940s, initially making his mark with El Conjunto Cauto and Sexteto Fígaro on stations like CMZ and Radio Mil Diez. Subsequently Ciro Rodríguez of the famed Trío Matamoros heard Moré singing in a bar and was impressed. Starting in 1942 Moré sang with the trio for several years, starting as a “fill in” for leader Miguel Matamoros and eventually taking over the leadership and expansion of the group into a conjunto, making several recordings with the Conjunto Matamoros while on tour in Mexico in 1945. Moré remained there, changing his name to Beny after being advised that Bartolo was a popular name for burros (donkeys) in Mexico. Due to a thriving nightclub scene and booming film industry many Cuban performers made a living in Mexico City during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and it was in this environment that Beny met Dámaso Pérez Prado, the flamboyant Cuban
pianist and mambo bandleader who would give the singer his first big break, providing many signature tunes with RCA and helping to influence the big band sound of Moré’s own future solo career. While in Mexico City Moré also had several hits with the Mexican orchestra leaders Rafael de Paz and Jesús “Chucho” Rodríguez (who gave him the nickname “El Bárbaro del Ritmo”), as well as that of Cuban reed maestro Mariano Mercerón.
Returning to Cuba in 1952 (where he was virtually unknown) Moré continued with Mercerón as well as singing with Bebo Valdés, appearing on many top radio stations (CMQ, Radio Progreso, and RHC-Cadena Azul), recording several more
timeless hits. After a stint with the orchestra of Ernesto Duarte Brito and helping fellow Cienfuegos compatriots Orquesta Aragon break into the competitive market in Havana, Moré decided to form his own orchestra, and in 1953 the Banda
Gigante (usually consisting of 16 members) was born. Throughout the rest of the 1950s his Banda Gigante was extremely popular and featured such important musicians as Ignacio “Cabrerita” Cabrera, Alfredo “Chocolate" Armenteros,
“Tabaquito,” Rolando Laserie and Fernando Álvarez, as well as arrangers like the pianist Pedro Nolasco Jústiz Rodríguez aka “Peruchín” and trombone maestro Generoso “Tojo” Jiménez. In 1956 and ’57, they toured North, South and Central America as well as the Caribbean, performing at New York City’s famed Palladium and at the Oscar Awards in Hollywood, California. Moré was even offered a tour in Europe but declined due to his distrust of flying, though the French were particularly keen to hear him live (he had been in three air accidents already so was afraid to push his luck).
Beny remained in Cuba during and after the revolution, stating that he preferred to stay among “mi gente” (my people). Though he had controlled his prodigious alcoholism towards the end of his life, sadly it was too late. When cirrhosis of the liver killed him at the tragically young age of 43, 100.000 of his beloved gente attended his funeral and mourned the passing of Cuba’s greatest entertainer and el alma del pueblo (the soul of the people).
Released May 2, 2017