I had to laugh the other day when I read an obituary of Oscar de la Renta, the Spanish-born designer of expensive frocks. A man who understood the language of clothes, de la Renta said that he always wore a tie “because I have this complex that if I walk into a place wearing a colourful shirt, someone will stop me and say, ‘I’m sorry, but the Latin band comes through the other door.'” He could have been thinking of Abelardo Barroso — pictured above, in an illustration from the 1950s — and Orquesta Sensación.
Barroso’s story is one with which I was not familiar until the arrival of Cha Cha Cha, a new World Circuit compilation of hits from the latter part of his career. In the 1920s and ’30s, Barroso had been one of Cuba’s most popular singers. Then fashions changed and he hit hard times until a meeting with Rolando Valdes, the leader of Orquesta Sensación, in the mid-’50s restored his fortunes.
His speciality was charanga, Cuba’s popular music before the arrival of salsa. The basic formula is two violins, a flute, piano, bass, two or three percussionists, two or three backing singers, and a lead vocalist who gets a chance to improvise when the band leaves the statement of the song behind and drops into a swaying montuno, or vamp, giving the lead singer a chance to engage in call-and-response improvisations with his chorus. It’s not as brash as Latin music became when trumpets and trombones came along to replace the violins, and it has a special charm, in part deriving from the sense that the singers are engaged in a conversation, whether about that chica who just strolled past or the taste of pancakes with sugar syrup and coconut.
The 14 tracks include “El Manisero” (better known to most of us as “The Peanut Vendor”) and a sweetly mournful song called “La Hija de Juan Simón”, the story of a gravedigger who has to bury his own daughter (listen to it here). There’s also a wonderful thing called “La Reina del Guaguancó”, featuring just voices and percussion weaving around each other in a three-minute masterpiece of raw Cuban soulfulness which will be appreciated by fans of Ray Barretto’s immortal “El Watusi”. It’s worth the price of the album alone.
Barroso was in his fifties when he made these recordings, and in fine voice. He died in 1972, a few years after an operation on his vocal cords had robbed him of his ability to sing. Compiled by World Circuit’s Nick Gold, the man behind the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, Cha Cha Cha is a nice way either to remember him or, if you’re like me, to make his acquaintance.
* The painting of Abelardo Barroso is from the booklet accompanying Cha Cha Cha. It is uncredited.