Thoughts on Cuba while watching Cuban musicians performing the 1947 bolero "La gloria eres tú"

I didn’t expect to be thinking so much about Cuba today. It all started with a random musical itch I was scratching.

“La comparsa” and the wooden flute headjoint

Today I was in a Latin music mood as I was playing my flute at home, and started looking up flute versions of music on YouTube for fun and inspiration. One piece that came to mind was the famous “La comparsa”, by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. Last year when Bebo Valdés died, I wrote about being moved by the reunion of Bebo with his son Chucho in a tearful duet performance of this piece on two pianos, and thinking about their separation as Bebo abandoned his family to flee Cuba for Sweden while his son stayed behind to become one of Cuba’s great musicians.

I found a really quirky Latin jazz performance of “La comparsa” on YouTube by Cuban-American jazz flutist Bobby Ramirez and Puerto Rican Jose Negroni on keyboard:

Ramirez on flute was unfortunately out of tune with the keyboard, but what I noticed was his wooden headjoint. I’ve never seen the old traditional Cuban wooden Charanga flute, but do see flutists playing the modern Boehm flute with a wooden headjoint for a different sound. In fact, I love and prefer wooden flutes, but they are expensive and I own only one, a Casey Burns Irish flute. So just for the fun of it (I can’t really justify the investment right now), I decided to search the Web for makers of wooden headjoints.

Juan Novo wooden flute headjoints

One of the top Web hits was Juan Novo. It had the benefit of having an embedded YouTube video with the caption “This musician appreciated Mr. Novo’s craftsmanship so much, that this song was dedicated to him.” So I checked out the video. Indeed, the young woman playing the flute said, “Está para Juan Novo”:

By the way, I noticed that Juan Novo’s biography said he was sent from Cuba to the US all alone by his parents in 1962 to “escape the rampant communist indoctrination”.

“La gloria eres tú”

I was captivated not so much by the flute playing, but by the beautiful singing, of the young woman in this video of the classic bolero “La gloria eres tú” written by Cuban composer José Antonio Méndez in 1947. I was really touched by her clear, unexaggerated but free expression and style, especially in light of much more famous performances of the song in my memory:

“La gloria eres tú” is one of my favorite boleros (my favorite being “Sabor a mî”) of all time. For comparison:

Luis Miguel

My first exposure to “La gloria eres tú” was, like probably many others of my generation or younger worlwide, through the revival of the bolero by Mexican pop star Luis Miguel in the 1990s and onwards. I have all his bolero albums, a result of taking up Latin ballroom dancing in 2000 and hearing him singing in much of the music we practiced, performed, and competed to, including my first discovery of “Sabor a mî”, which was also on the 1997 album “Romances”. Luis Miguel is a great musician, I will continue to admit, but in time I drew away from his high-powered, slick performances.

Here he is live, from his 2000 DVD “Vivo”, which was the last thing I bought by him before backing away from his work:

Olga Guillot

Of course, the gold standard for “La gloria eres tú” is the performance by Cuban Olga Guillot, the “queen of the bolero”. (In 1961, she was yet another musician who fled Cuba.) I like how she alternates between different moods, starting out gently and almost like a prayer, but then gets more and more passionate. She very quickly changes the color of her voice and dynamics. For me it’s still the greatest performance of this bolero:

Elena Burke

Another recording I have of the bolero is from an album by Cuban singer Elena Burke. She has her own style, with a low voice, and more staccato delivery:

Elena died in Havana in 2002. Her daughter Malena came to Miami in the US in 1995 with her family. Here is Malena Burke performing the bolero with Arturo Sandoval on piano:

Malena Burke’s oldest daughter Lena is also a musician, a pianist and singer, and has worked with Gloria Estefan and others.

Here’s Lena singing the famous 1929 bolero-son “Lágrimas negras” with Bebo Valdés and others. This is such a weird combo, with her being sixty years younger than Bebo and stylistically very “American pop”:

Arturo Sandoval

Speaking of Arturo Sandoval, he defected from Cuba to the US in 2000. I discovered him initially when his biographical film “For Love or Country” about his life before defection came out, and I saw him perform in the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh in 2002.

Here’s a Latin jazz version by Arturo Sandoval on flugelhorn, from his 1994 album “Tenderly”:

Where is Blau Colonial Cayo Coco?

So there were many thoughts and questions already in my mind as a result of listening to this old Cuban bolero, as a result of my remembering past performances by musicians who had left Cuba. When I hear classic boleros, I think about old Cuba, the culture and society that produced this kind of music and musicians, the political upheaval, the consequences.

But back to that little band Nucay, captured presumably on a phone outside on a windy day by a random tourist who posted the video on YouTube in 2010. What has life been like for the members of Nucay, and for the charming young flutist/singer?

First, what and where is “Blau Colonial Cayo Coco”? Apparently it’s a resort now named just Colonial Cayo Coco on the island of Cayo Coco that is part of Cuba. In particular, this place was designed to look like a village. This kind of thing makes me uncomfortable. I guess tourists fly in to pretend to have a nice “village” experience, while the hired musicians are probably paid to look and act the part.


I looked up more performances on YouTube by this band Nucay.

“Oye como va”, cha-cha

The caption for this video reads, “Ramon Almeida and daughter Arleytis [sic] lead this wonderful group of talented Cuban musicians.” So now we have some names. I presume the leader with maracas is the father? (Later I determined his daughter’s name is actually “Arletis”: read on.)

This was a fine performance of the classic cha-cha “Oye coma va” written by Tito Puente in 1963. No, Puente was not Cuban; he was born in New York and was a big force in creating the mambo/salsa scene in the US in the 1950s. A great Latin jazz musician. I should have gone to see him perform live when he was in Pittsburgh in 2000 before he died. His music was great for listening to as well as dancing to; I still remember practicing my dancing to the first album of his I bought, “Mambo Birdland” (which has an “Oye como va” track).

And I’ll confess that hearing performances of this work over a decade ago inspired me to think about taking up flute again.

Arletis did a fine job on flute here, jazzing things up:

“Ay Maria!”, merengue

The musicians seem to be having fun; how could one not, given the catchy music and all of them singing? I really enjoyed flute action by Arletis in this upbeat classic.

Note that merengue is not Cuban, but comes from the Dominican Republic.

“Sabor a mî”

My favorite bolero, performed well. The caption reads “Cuban Music with the help of young percussionist from Quebec”, but this is wrong: “Sabor a mî” was composed in 1959 by a Mexican composer, Álvaro Carrillo. These distinctions matter to me: “Latin” music is not all the same, any more than the people or the distinct cultures are.

Some salsa song

This is some salsa song; I’m afraid I cannot identify it offhand, the way I did the other songs. I’d have to try to transcribe the lyrics and hope that a Web search finds something, but have my doubts when it comes to salsa.

I loved the father-daughter musical interplay here, with Ramón singing and Arletis on flute.

Summary of Nucay

OK, so Nucay is a pretty good band and plays a lot of classics to please the tourists. What else?

Arletis Almeida, “Sentirse Asi”

It turns out that a search for more Nucay material on YouTube reveals the following slick, professionally produced video uploaded by someone in 2012, promoting Arletis Almeida as a singer, with the caption “Arletis Almeida, flutist of Grupo Nucay in Cayo Coco Cuba, with her original song Sentirse Asi written by her father and band member Ramon Almeida”.

Here, she is almost unrecognizable to me, very much made up and glamorous and placed in an urban nightlife setting, with shots of handsome men, alcohol, cigarettes. The contrast between this angsty, sensualized persona and the cheerful flutist playing at Colonial Cayo Coco with her father was quite jarring to me.

The singing is beautiful, and the song actually breaks out into a standard bolero accompaniment. It’s really something hearing bolero singing of this quality from a young person today. My overall feeling when hearing either this newly composed bolero or the classic music in the earlier videos is this: there’s some kind of time bubble that can still happen in the world, for better or for worse (a subject bigger than this blog post), and Nucay and Arletis Almeida illustrate it. Here in the US, no young people sing in this way. The many influences from pop, hip hop, and much more result in much more “fusion”. You saw that above in Lena Burke’s singing.

Thoughts on Cuba

After watching this video, I wonder what has become of Arletis Almeida. Does she still play flute? Has she embarked on some kind of lounge career? Who knows? She’s in Cuba. Cuba is a world away. It took tourists to make her name even register on the Web, through the links to the YouTube videos.

I’ve waited for decades for an end to the senseless embargo of Cuba. I’ve already run out of space here to even begin talking about the politics of the Cold War, about the human cost of isolating Cuba. Cuba, a place with a complicated history, but once an advanced nation by any standard, filled with culture, music classical and popular, home of world chess champion Capablanca.

“Con los años que me quedan” and nostalgia

For some reason, I was reminded of Gloria Estefan’s music video of the bolero “Con los años que me quedan” from her nostalgic 1993 album “Mi Tierra”. It’s an odd kind of nostalgia, given that her parents fled Cuba when she was young. She made this album to embrace her Cuban heritage. But what world is portrayed here? Something like the world the tourists at Cayo Cayo hope to see? And what is Arletis trying to do as she sings boleros today?

Anyway, it’s definitely a beautiful song, and Estefan sings it soulfully:

(Update of 2014-12-17)

Totally by coincidence, news has come of the apparent plan by President Obama to normalize relations with Cuba after half a century. I cannot process this news right now.

Life for Arletis and her father may well change one day in interesting ways.

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