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Antonio Machín: The Spanish Nat King Cole

(The following is a post by Juan Manuel Pérez, reference specialist, with intern Elliot Hung, Hispanic Division.)

The great Cuban singer Antonio Machín, often referred to as the Spanish Nat King Cole, brought international recognition to the bolero, romantic ballads, and popular Afro-Cuban music. He was born in Sagua la Grande (Cuba) on January 17, 1903,[1] to José Lugo Padrón, an immigrant from Galicia (Spain) and Leoncia Machín, an Afro-Cuban woman, the 9th child of a family of 16 brothers and sisters. He started to work at an early age in a variety of trades to help his financially strapped family.

Sugar was a major element in the economy of Sagua la Grande. This is the San Isidro sugar mill, ca. 1920. P&P LC-USZ62-10516.

Machín soon showed a talent for singing. It was not surprising to see him at various places in his home town singing in public. In 1911, when he was just 8 years old, he mesmerized parishioners at his church with his rendition of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” At age 20, determined to pursue a musical career despite his father’s opposition, he traveled to Havana. Despite initial difficulties, he began singing with several orchestras and became very popular in nightclubs and theaters. He was the first Afro-Cuban person to sing with Don Aspiazu’s orchestra—considered the best on the island—in the very elite Casino Nacional. In 1929, he made his first recordings with Aspiazu, “Áquellos hojos verdes” (Those Green Eyes) and the very popular “El Manisero” (The Peanut Vendor), composed by Moisés Simons (1889-1945), a leading Cuban composer. It is not certain whether Machín was the first to sing “El Manisero”—some say it was the very famous Cuban singer and performer Rita Montaner (1900-58) in Paris. Nevertheless, it became one of Machín’s signature songs. He made various recordings throughout his career, and included El Manisero in the repertoire of most of his performances (Manuel Román, “Canciones de nuestra vida: de Antonio Machín a Julio Iglesias” (Songs of Our Lives: From Antonio Machín to Julio Iglesias). Madrid: Alianza, 1994, pp.28-9).

Havana in the early 20th century. Empedrado neighborhood. P&P LC-DIGdet-4a27322.

In April 1930, Machín went to New York with Aspiazu and his orchestra where they recorded “El Manisero” for RCA Victor. The song became a national and international phenomenon, selling one million copies in the 1930s. It was also featured in the 1931 film “Cuban Love Song.” He also performed with other orchestras and later formed his own bands: “Orquesta Machín” and the “Cuarteto Machín.” His fame increased, not only with the Hispanic public, but also beyond. The move to New York was a logical one for Machín, for there had been an interchange of music and musicians between New York and Havana going back to the 1920s. American bandleaders spent time in Havana and vice-versa and often incorporated the others’ sounds and styles into their own repertoires. The first Cuban band in New York was formed as early as 1925.[2] Machín made 150 recordings for RCA during the four years he lived in the Big Apple.[3] And thus began the Cubanization of American music, as author Ned Sublette says. There was a craze for Cuban and Latin music. “Rhumba lessons provided in excess of $14 million for Arthur Murray Dance Studios, 60 percent of their total business.”[4] There were also movies like “Bolero” (1934) and “Rumba” (1935). In 1933, Machín performed for President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House.

New York in 1934. The Chrysler building. P&P LC-G612-T01-21081.

In 1936 he went to Europe, playing in London first, and later in Paris, where Cuban music was very popular. He formed his own orchestra, “Antonio Machín y su Orquesta,” and toured all over Europe. To escape the war in Europe, Machín set off in 1939 for Seville, Spain, where one of his brothers had lived since the 1920s. He made Spain his home and his country, never to leave except for a brief visit to Havana in 1958. In 1943 he married María de los Ángeles Rodríguez in Seville. He was 40, she was 24.

Cuban music was very popular in Spain. Prominent Cuban musicians and bandleaders, such as Ernesto Lecuona and others, enthralled Spanish audiences with their lively rhythms. Cuban bands like Orquesta Lecuona, Orquesta Siboney, Trío Matamoros, etc., toured around the country performing at hotels, nightclubs, theaters, and even at bullrings.[5]

Although he struggled in his early days in Spain, earning 25 pesetas daily—barely enough to survive—Machín later performed in some of the most popular places. He cemented his popularity performing in the best nightclubs and recording songs with the orchestra “Los Miuras de Sobré.” By the early 1940s, as his cachet increased, he was making 350 pesetas daily and by the mid-1940s, two thousand, a hefty sum in those days.[6] “He didn’t have a great voice nor a large repertoire, but he managed [to] achieve the most difficult thing: to transmit an emotion that several generations fell in love with,”[7] as did couples who listened and danced to his songs. As Machín himself acknowledged, he was responsible for many marriages.[8] Joan Manuel Serrat, the famous Spanish singer, said that Machín brought solace with his songs to a people recovering from a brutal civil war (1936-39). Indeed, it was a time of great difficulties, food shortages, and misery—and, of course, the repression, especially in the early years of the Franco dictatorship. Machín toured through large and small Spanish towns, fancy theaters and clubs and small-time cafes, even circuses, playing for a variety of audiences. So much so, that he was referred to as “the singer for all audiences.” He was often introduced as “His Majesty the Bolero.”

Ad for the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, ca. 1924. P&P LC-USZ62-70141.

Machín recorded many popular songs, but his biggest hit in Spain was “Angelitos Negros” (Little Black Angels), introduced in 1947, at the Teatro Novedades in Barcelona. The song sold 47,000 copies between 1947 and 1950, perhaps the biggest success of the Spanish recording industry at the time. And if one takes into consideration the conditions in postwar Spain, this success is even more remarkable. In 1957, Machín sang this song live for the recently established (1956) Televisión Española (Spanish Television)—it was perhaps one of the first live musical performances on Spanish TV. He was so nervous that for a moment he couldn’t remember the lyrics![9] In the 1960s, the song was made into a bolero and became an even bigger hit.

I grew up in Spain listening to him almost every single day. It didn’t matter what station I was listening to, one of his songs would always be playing. “Angelitos Negros” was so popular that it has stuck with me. It is a tender, loving, and sad song, and every so often I would see people with red and misty eyes while listening to it, and he sang it with such love… It is a conversation between the singer and a painter. The singer (Machín) asks the painter, who has painted churches and religious paintings, why he never paints little black angels because God loves them, too, and black people go to heaven, too.  Other hits include “Madrecita” (Sweet Mother), “Toda una vida” (A Lifetime), “Quizás, quizás, quizás” (Maybe, maybe, maybe), and “Dos gardenias” (Two Gardenias). The way he sang his songs, his sweet voice, and the warmth and feelings he conveyed captivated audiences. He even entered the Spanish vernacular with his own namesake saying: “Te mueves más que las maracas de Machín” (You move more than Machín’s maracas).

Seville’s most recognizable landmark, the Giralda, ca. 1890-1906. P&P LC-USZ62-99638.

Machín achieved great success, not only in Spain, but also internationally. Even though he was not born in Spain, his roots were Spanish, and he adapted perfectly to the country, and the country to him. He is often referred to as “El más cubano de los españoles y el más español de los cubanos” (The most Cuban of the Spanish and the most Spanish of the Cubans). He is remembered as “Our Machín” or “Machín of Spain.” He really fell in love with his father’s country and the country fell in love with him. Machín was one of the most popular singers in the country for almost 30 years. He never stopped performing. He died in Madrid on August 4, 1977, after falling ill during a performance earlier in June. He is buried in the San Fernando Cemetery in Seville, his Spanish hometown. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, friends and family gather at the cemetery, pour Cuban rum over his grave and sing his songs. In 2006, the city of Seville inaugurated a statue of him in the Plaza Carmen Benítez looking towards the Hermandad de los Negritos[10] (Brotherhood of Black People), to which he was especially devoted. A street has also been named after him. The General Society of Spanish Authors has 529 themes registered under his name.

The Library of Congress possesses in its holdings two collections of Machín’s early recordings: “Antonio Machín, vol 2, 1932-1933” (Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex: Harlequin, 1994) and “El Manisero: Early Recordings, 1929-1930” ([S.I.]: Tumbao Cuban Classics, 1993).

For more information on Antonio Machín and Cuban music, check the Library’s online catalog, under the following subject headings:

Boleros (Music) history and criticism
Folk music Cuba history and criticism
Machín, Antonio
Music Cuba history and criticism
Musicians Cuba
Popular music Cuba history and criticism
Popular music Cuba 1921-1930
Popular music Cuba 1931-1940
Popular music Latin America history and criticism
Popular music Spain history and criticism.

[1] According to his foreign resident application in Spain. “ABC” newspaper of January 17, 2004.
[2] Ned Sublette, “Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo.” Chicago, IL: Chicago Press Review, 2004, pp. 392-396;  Cristóbal Díaz Ayala, “Cuando salí de La Habana: 1898-1997: cien años de música cubana por el mundo” (When I Left Havana: 1898-1997: One Hundred Years of Cuban Music Throughout the World). San Juan, P.R.: Fundación Musicalia, 1998, pp. 40-4.
[3] Sublette, op. cit., p. 397.
[4] Ibid., p. 398.
[5] Díaz Ayala, op. cit., pp.40-43.
[6] Román, op.cit., pp.31-35.
[7] ABC, op.cit.
[8] Román, op.cit., p.35.
[9] Ibid., pp. 37-38.
[10] The Hermandad de los Negritos is a Catholic brotherhood created in 1393 to include the city’s people of African extraction. Persons of other races were only admitted after the mid-19th century.

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