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Songs from Cuban-Americans in Florida, 1939-1940

A large brick building.

The cigar factory that created a community. The Ybor Cigar Factory was built in 1886 just outside of Tampa, Florida when the Spanish-born owner, Vicente Martinez-Ybor, moved his factory and workers, who were mainly Cuban Americans, out of Key West Florida. This created the town of Ybor City, a Cuban ethnic enclave. The success of this factory stimulated growth of other businesses in Tampa and Ybor City later became part of the city of Tampa. This photo was taken after 1933. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

A team of folklorists made recordings of Cuban folk and dance hall music as part of projects to document Florida arts for the WPA (Works Progress Administration).  Found online in the presentation Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1938-1942, these recordings occurred at a time when old songs from rural Cuba could still be found, and when Afro-Cuban styles of music had not yet combined with jazz and other genres. The recordings were made in Key West, Florida and in Ybor City, which is part of Tampa today. These communities are related as the Ybor Cigar Factory, which was once in Key West but moved north, taking many workers along with it and creating Ybor City. Folklorists Robert Cooke, Herbert Halpert, Stetson Kennedy, and Alton Morris joined up to collect songs, stories, and riddles in this Cuban American community. They also ventured into an Ybor City dance hall. Stetson Kennedy’s young wife Edith, who was Cuban-American, assisted with introductions to the communities they visited and may have helped with translation. She can be heard on recordings of riddle sessions with children, but not on the recordings of music found in this essay.

These recordings are unusual for the era of early audio ethnography in that there are short interviews on the same recording with the song, so we have the opportunity to hear the voices of the ethnographers talking with the performers.  The disc space available to fieldworkers was often limited by a sparse recording budget, precluding such interviews.

Among the songs collected were songs of rural Cuba, remembered by people who learned them in their communities. Spanish style songs included this serenade. When Stetson Kennedy asks singer Evelio Andux if he learned it  on the radio, he says no, he learned it from his mother and father when he was growing up in Key West:

Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cook also recorded Felip Valdez and Milton Esquinaldo performing a tragic ballad in which a girl and a soldier fall in love and have a child out of wedlock, who grows up to become a soldier and unknowingly kills his father in battle. There is a transcription of this ballad in the collection (in Spanish).

Punto is a term for a group of related Cuban traditional styles. In the Florida Folklife collections from the WPA era, collectors often noted the genre in place of the title. This may be because the performer gave the genre, or it may be because the collectors were looking for that particular style and used that for the note. Here is an example, which the group Sesteto Encanto performed for Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cook in Key West. The collectors called it “Puntos Guajiro.” Various members of the band add their own verses to the song. A translation of a couple of these verses is found in this partial transcription. It seems to be an opportunity for performers to show off by making up outlandish verses, such as “I am going to give you a contract, climb a mango tree with your head hanging down”:

The fieldworkers often asked about work songs, but did not find very many examples. “La canción de panadería,” is a great find for the folklorists because Evelio Andux learned and used it on the job while working as a baker. He explains on the recording that it was a work song that they used when they were “pulling” dough. By this he means shaping the characteristic Cuban batards out of rounds of dough.

Many folklorists of the 1930s and 1940s were looking for what they considered “pure” folksongs. Those passed down by word of mouth with no known author and preferably of great age.  But the fieldworkers for the Florida WPA projects had broader interests. With regard to Cuban American music, they knew that the emerging popular dance music was being created from traditional music; traditional music was being brought into the dance venues and then sometimes modified with additional instruments or by blending different styles together. This was important because they were making recordings before the emergence of genres such as salsa or cha-cha-cha, at a time when when they could capture culture in the act of changing.

An example of traditional dance music still popular today is son Cubano. It is a genre of dance music different from Mexican son. This recording of a local song was made when the ethnographers were working in Key West in 1940. “El Caballo de Palo” is a song about a young man nicknamed “El Caballo de Palo,” or “Hobby Horse,” who married a millionaire but the couple lost all their money. The lyric is simply a couplet repeated over and over again (a transcription and translation can be found in the collection here). The song became a popular song for dancing and spread through the Cuban American community in the area.

Cuban conga drums being played.

Afro-Cuban Drum Circle at Meridian Hill Upper Park East between 15th and 16th Street and W and Euclid Street, NW, Washington DC on Sunday afternoon, 4 September 2016 by Elvert Barnes Photography. Shared on Flickr with a Creative Commons Licence, with attribution.

While doing research in what was then Ybor City (now part of Tampa), the folklorists went to the Cuban Club and got help from  the club’s pianist Art Pages, who was bilingual. He can be heard here, giving the English translation of band manager Gilberto Delfino’s “Introduction to Cuban Club Performances.” At the end of the recording Herbert Halpert asks where the performers are from and Art Pages answers that they are all from Cuba. Then Halpert asks about traditional music and Art Pages says that the musicians have to be able to perform traditional music because it is frequently requested.

Art Pages and Ramon Bermudez demonstrated “five Cuban drum rhythms” for the ethnographers, giving us some idea of the important genres for dance in the Cuban Club. The rhythms they chose were son Cubano, rumba, bembe, conga, and mani. These are broad categories within Cuban music. Son and Rumba genres combine Spanish song and dance with African rhythms. Bembe is a rhythm from Yoruba culture. Conga refers both to the Cuban tall narrow drum and a music genre. The music genre uses an  African rhythm, but its exact origins are not known. It is surprising that mani is included, as this is combination of a choreographed version of an African martial art from the Congo region performed with sticks representing weapons used for practice and entertainment. Unfortunately the field notes to not give us a clue as to what this band used this rhythm for.

While it is clear that Afro-Cuban rhythms were much in demand by dancers and so were entering into popular music, the songs Halpert collected at the club do not fit neatly into the categories that Ramono Bermudez demonstrated.

An example is “Guabina,” a song Art Pages explained was an Afro-Cuban song in which a man tells a young girl not to mix with other tribes but to stay with her own tribe. The performers must be light-skinned Cubans, as they say they perform the song in blackface. This is Florida during segregation, when African Americans could not perform in many venues. When Herbert Halpert asks if the song is really Afro-Cuban, the artists assure him that they learned it from Afro-Cuban performers. During slavery, African peoples were brought from a region and then sold to plantations in particular locations where they then could speak their own languages and maintain some of their traditions. I wondered if there was anything about the song that indicated what tribes might be referred to in the song, and what else could be found out about it. So I asked folklorist Eoghan Ballard, who is knowledgeable about Cuban culture. He listened and said it was a popular style of Cuban music, but not particularly Afro-Cuban, and there is no mention of tribes in the song. So this is a product of the segregation era, pretending to be something that it is not, not unlike many songs of the minstrel and vaudeville stages.  It is a reminder to folklorists to be careful of what people tell you! I am glad I asked, because, like the fieldworkers, I hoped that what was said about the song had at least some truth to it.

My favorite song performed by this band is “Merce.” This is a song about a young Afro-Cuban girl named Merce who loves to dance and is admired as she takes the dance floor. The singer, Adela Martinez, announces that she will sing a “canto conga,” a conga song.  I was puzzled to find that the song has a rhythm that sounds to me like a mambo. Not only that, the lyrics say that Merce dances the mambo and loves the great Cuban musician and composer Chacao, who was famous for his influence on the development of the mambo. The Cuban mambo dance is said to have derived its name from the “Mambo” or Haitian Vodou priestess who dances as part of rituals. The music has complex origins in Cuban and Afro-Cuban dance music. As I dug into the history of mambo, I realized that at the time the recording was made, “mambo,” in the popular sense, referred only to the secular dance. Although the music was becoming a popular music genre distinct from conga, it was not called mambo until later, as the music blended with swing. The modern version of the music and dance began taking the United States by storm in the late 1940s and 1950s. Also, the mambo dance of the 1939 recording was not the mambo that developed later as the dance spread to non-Cuban audiences. The modern mambo is credited to  Perez Prado, who developed it in the late 1940s. The field recording captures a new genre of music emerging from a myriad of traditional forms before it became what we know today as mambo. The collection also includes recordings of an “explanation” which introduces the performers, and a rough translation of the song:

I often think of our collections as time capsules, and this collection from Cuban Americans in Florida is a nice time capsule from an interesting moment in American history before Cuban music became a national phenomenon and before many of the popular genres known today emerged. This essay gives just a sampling of the recordings of Cuban American songs, stories, and riddles you can find in Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1938-1942. The collection includes some delightful children’s songs that I did not have room for in this essay. These recordings and the field notes associated with them can be found at this link. Not every recording has a transcript and not all the transcripts are translated.  I hope you explore them and find your own favorites.

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