CORAL GABLES, Fla.—Cuban popular music is full of spirits and saints. They’re an irrepressibly vital bunch, too, still summoning emotions and memories for an audience that welcomes them as passionately as ever.
On a recent Saturday night, a crowd packed into a plush, tiny cave of a club called El Clique in Coral Gables, hanging on singer Francisco “Pancho” Cespedes’ every breath, sighing, laughing, rapt, as he channeled Bola de Nieve, one of the patron spirits of Cuban music who became famous some 70 years ago.
“I don’t know what life would be like without you,” Cespedes pleaded to the eternally treacherous woman of so many boleros.
Behind him, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the greatest Cuban jazz pianist of his generation, swayed at the piano. It was Rubalcaba’s show, but since he and Cespedes just recorded “Con el permiso de Bola” (“With Bola’s permission”), a tribute to Bola de Nieve, the legendary singer, pianist, composer and entertainer who died in 1971, Cespedes dropped in to sing.
After the show, Cespedes tried to explain the timeless appeal of the artist sometimes called the Louis Armstrong of Cuba.
“Bola de Nieve is us,” he says, a glass of scotch clutched in his plump hand, his round body stretched to bursting his pin-striped suit, and his oversize gestures and booming voice threatening the confines of the shabby, closet-sized dressing room.
Cespedes can’t remember the first time he heard Bola de Nieve’s music. Like so many other great Cuban musicians, Bola de Nieve is part of the air in Cuba.
“Since we were born, he was close to us,” Cespedes says. “He was just something that’s there, like the Malecon of Havana.”
It is because those songs have been echoing in his head since before he can remember that Cespedes wants to sing them.
Being around for a long time in Cuban music doesn’t necessarily mean old. It can mean an artist will be richly, inspiringly forever—or as long as musicians like Rubalcaba and Cespedes and others can keep him alive.
The Bola CD created by Rubalcaba and Cespedes expresses two qualities at the heart of Cuban music.
One is the way that classic figures and songs remain alive for decades, inspiring and enriching contemporary music, and, at least on the island, remaining intimately familiar to everyone from teens to their grandparents.
The other is Cuban artists’ capacity for emotion, whether dance floor exuberance or broken-hearted ecstasy, and their audiences’ instinctive, similarly intense response.
Together they form a large part of Cuban music’s extraordinary richness. Unlike in the United States, where artists and styles are discarded ever more rapidly, Cuban musicians are always incorporating, referring to, and inspired by their predecessors.
Their audience can instantly recognize even a few bars of a classic song or style. When rock troubadour Carlos Varela in his 1990s song “Como los pesces” (“Like the fishes”) quotes the Cuban standard “Lagrimas negras” (“Black Tears”), about a rejected lover, the resonance of the 1930 classic instantly and powerfully reinforces Varela’s theme of being rejected and betrayed by one’s country.
That near-universal intimacy with Cuba’s musical past “gives you a very strong connection between artist and listener,” says Ned Sublette, a Cuban music historian and musicologist. “Everyone is working from a set of common cultural references, and the musical language is understood.”
Rubalcaba and Cespedes grew up with that language, although they now speak it outside the island. Rubalcaba, 43, left Cuba for the Dominican Republic in 1992, and moved to Broward County, Fla., in 1996, while Cespedes, 51, left in 1991, since then moving between Mexico and Miami.
“North American culture has a philosophy of existence that doesn’t permit things to get old,” says Rubalcaba.
“It’s like there’s a fear of accepting that things have to get old. They try to erase certain moments of the past, and live very concentrated in the latest thing happening now. The importance of preservation is forgotten.
“I’m not saying that Cuban music is in the past, but it’s constantly nourished by the past. It doesn’t destroy the past to create the present.”
Says Sublette: “I suppose it could be intimidating, but mostly it’s a very empowering thing. You’re standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Bola de Nieve
Bola de Nieve was a unique giant. Born Ignacio Villa in 1911, he studied in several conservatories and played piano for silent movies, going on to accompany the famous singer Rita Montaner in the 1930s, who nicknamed the rotund, dark-skinned musician Bola de Nieve, or Snowball.
He was an elite rather than a popular figure, a cabaret stylist known for sophisticated, ironic patter, subtle musical interpretation, a repertoire that included songs in French, English, Catalan and Italian. He had an international circle of friends that included artists like Spanish classical guitarist Andres Segovia and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
“For Cubans, he was one of the elite—he wasn’t a popular dance artist like Benny More or Celia Cruz; he wasn’t a stadium artist,” says Cristobal Diaz Ayala, a Cuban music historian. “He was an international figure because of his repertory.”
He was also a very confident man, independent in his artistry, comfortably gay and black in an era that discriminated against both.
`He was homosexual, and it never bothered him if people noticed him for that. He was always like, `So what?’” says Ayala. “He had integrity. He never did anything commercial; it was all for art. What the audience liked about him was that he only sang what he wanted to sing.”
It is that artistic integrity and individuality that most inspires Cespedes. “He had something unrepeatable,” he says. “Bola de Nieve took his art along a path that was unique, really unique.”
Despite their physical resemblance, Cespedes and Bola de Nieve are very different.
Bola de Nieve lived relatively quietly. While he was an elaborately theatrical performer, his musical interpretation was subtle, focused on bringing out a song’s meaning.
Cespedes burst onto the Latin music scene in 1998 with “Vida Loca,” an exultantly heart-ripping ballad that he sang with electrifying passion. His hard-living reputation helped give that and other songs their impact—Cespedes seems to live with the same intensity with which he sings.
It was a reputation similar to that of singer Benny More, probably the most idolized figure in Cuban music, who died of alcoholism in 1963 at age 44; or Elena Burke, the legendary “woman of feeling,” known for her wild life and adored for her intensely romantic ballads, who died of AIDS in 2002 and was an inspiration and mentor to Cespedes.
Living as if every moment will be your last is not necessary to sing that way, says Cespedes. “No, no, no. That’s my life,” he says. “I’ve lived to the extreme, I’ve lived to the limit, but that’s me, me, me. Other people, I don’t know. But that’s the risk I take.”
Romantic ballads are a standard throughout the Latin world, and Cubans certainly have no monopoly on intense singers. Many of them are quick to cite American artists, from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin, as artistic and emotional inspirations.
But Cubans do have a gift for bringing emotion to music.
“When you’re an artist, you sing what you’re feeling, as if you’re living it,” says Elena Burke’s daughter Malena Burke, who performs weekly at the Little Havana club Hoy Como Ayer.
“My mother was like that—very intense, very deep. Pancho learned a lot from my mother.”
Perhaps Cuban artists’ talent for feeling is part of what enables them to bring the past alive.
Rubalcaba says that Cespedes got deeply involved in recording the tribute CD: “I think that Pancho really put himself into Bola’s personality, to the point where he confused what Bola did with who he was. But I’d insist that for me the most important is that although you can feel the essence of Bola de Nieve on the record, you also feel Pancho.”
And that is where the wisdom of all those decades past comes into play.
“It’s easy to throw yourself completely into something, it’s not easy to not be completely grotesque doing it,” says Sublette. “That’s where the art and the technique come in. It’s not just raw emotional commitment.
“There are only a few people who bring it all together in one package, but the Cubans do it often.”