Mimi Whitefield | The Miami Herald | November 17, 2016
SANTA ISABEL de las LAJAS, CUBA He melded together and mastered so many Cuban musical genres — mambo, son, guaracha, son montuno, bolero, cha cha cha — that singer and composer Benny Moré is considered perhaps the most influential musician and popular singer the island has ever produced.
His prominence was at its height in the 1940s and 1950s, and by the time he died in 1963 at the young age of 43, Moré was known as El Bárbaro del Ritmo (The Master of Rhythm).
“His talent shined in the Cuban musical world,” said Francisco Cruz Veloz, a Cuban musicologist and artist.
Despite the passage of more than half a century since his death, Moré’s musical virtuosity still resonates in the tiny south central Cuban town of Santa Isabel de las Lajas, where he was born, and beyond.
Cienfuegos also considers him a native son and he even wrote a song dedicated to the city known as La Perla del Sur (The Pearl of the South). There are music venues and discos that bear his name, a life-size bronze statue along the main drag complete with raised walking stick and his signature wide-brimmed hat, and even a cocktail named after him that is served at the Benny Moré Cultural Center, an exhibition and performance space.
At the cultural center, Yisset Bermúdez Guardarrama, one of the best-known bartenders in the city, demonstrated how to make the Benny Moré cocktail that starts with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, followed by a short cup of freshly brewed coffee, coffee liqueur, chocolate liqueur, and a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream served in a glass rimmed with sugar.
“It is a very sweet and pleasant cocktail,” she said. The winner of a 2015 cocktail contest, the Benny Moré drink is only served at the cultural center, which is housed in a restored colonial mansion that opened to the public in July 2015.
As Bermúdez whipped up drinks on a Thursday afternoon, the Conjunto Laredo, a group that is reviving guajiro son and other traditional music, launched into a salute to Moré.
“They always have interpretations of Benny Moré in their repertoire,” said Carlos Díaz Romero, the center’s director. While discos and cafes around Cienfuegos try to capitalize on Moré’s fame, Díaz shrugs: “They have the name but they are empty places. Our goal here is to revive Cuban musical traditions.”
When the band struck up the bolero “Como Fue” (How it Was) made famous by Moré, an elderly gentlemen wearing a blue guayabera, straw fedora and two-tone shoes enticed a partner on to the dance floor and the two wound into a slow, elegant pas de deux. When the group played another signature song, Guajiro de Verdad, it seemed as if Moré himself, dressed in a zoot suit and wide-brimmed hat, might come strolling through the door.
The music was so intoxicating that the bathroom attendant left her post for a few turns around the dance floor with the elegant dance stylist and then danced with a customer as the old man laughed and slapped his knees.
Even though Cienfuegos appropriates the lyrics “Cienfuegos es la ciudad que más me gusta a mí” (Cienfuegos is my favorite city) for a large Benny Moré sign along the waterfront Malecón, it is Lajas, a rural town about 45 minutes outside Cienfuegos, that truly claims El Bárbaro del Ritmo.
It is here that Moré was born on Aug. 24, 1919 and it is here where he is buried in a marble tomb in the shadow of three towering palm trees that serve as a beacon for those who still make pilgrimages to his grave site.
A large bas relief monument to Moré now marks the entrance to Lajas, but if the singer were to return today, he might find other things little changed. Horse carts clomp through the streets past homes with clothes hanging on lines, and dirt paths, rather than sidewalks, line the street leading into town.
There is, of course, a song Moré sang celebrating Santa Isabel de las Lajas and the simple joys of life in “my beloved corner, the town where I was born” and his pride in being a Lajero. “This song really encapsulates the world of Benny Moré,” said Cruz.
For all his talent, Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré Gutiérrez. who left school at 11, couldn’t read music and employed a copyist to write down his songs as he sang them aloud. He directed his band by ear. “How could you teach him formal music when he was music itself?” asked Cruz.
How could you teach him formal music when he was music itself?
Francisco Cruz Veloz, musicologist and artist
Moré’s marble tomb, where fans gather on his birthday every year, is a far cry from his humble beginnings. He entered this world as the eldest of 18 children born to a modest family descended from slaves in the neighborhood of Pueblo Nuevo.
Early on, he showed an aptitude for music, hanging out at the Casino de los Congos where the Congolese traditions and music of his great-great grandfather were kept alive. Here he learned the voice inflections and timbre of African music.
“This was his first musical school,” said Cruz. “He learned how to set his voice; he learned son, guaracha, conga. He learned to play the tres, the guitar and African musical instruments.”
At the age of six, Moré made his first primitive guitar from a stick and a sardine can that served as the sound box, according to his mother. “That is how they first knew he was a virtuoso,” said Cruz.
A turning point in Moré’s early career came when a member of the famed Matamoros Trio heard him performing in a Havana bar and he was tapped to perform with the group in a live radio performance when singer Miguel Matamoros couldn’t make it. He remained with the group for several years and performed with them in Mexico.
But no matter how far Moré traveled and how famous he became, he never forgot Lajas. And the people of the small community known for its hat makers reciprocated.
Cruz’s father, whom he described as “an intimate friend” of Moré’s, spearheaded a1956 initiative to celebrate Moré in Lajas. The elder Cruz signed a letter on display in the museum declaring that Sept. 25 would be Benny Moré Day. The townspeople gave him a gold ring adorned with the seal of Lajas.
This year, from Sept. 23-25, the town’s Benny Moré festival included three nights of dancing to orchestral music, performances of son, rumba, and guajiro music and even a horse parade. An International Benny Moré Festival also is celebrated in Cienfuegos every other year in November.
The Lajas museum, along the town’s main street, houses a few pieces of 18th century furniture, an old carriage and some books by Fidel Castro but most of the space is devoted to the life of Benny Moré.Here, among Moré’s photos, a 1960 gold record for his recording of Se te cayó el tabaco, a replica of his early guitar, his trademark hat, a rumba shirt with puffy sleeves, his ties from the 1940s and 1950s, his correspondence, and his Cuban passport, Cruz works most days creating figures — both large and small — of El Benny out of the fibers of bagasse, the byproduct when juice is extracted from sugarcane.
“He’s my spiritual guide,” said Cruz as he worked on painting the black and white shoes on one of his figurines.
Now with the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, Moré’s sound and other Cuban music are enjoying a revival of sorts in the United States. Although Moré sang at the 1957 Oscar ceremony, he never performed much in the United States, earning his fame instead mostly in Mexico, where he became an exclusive artist for RCA Victor, and his native Cuba.
“It really was in Mexico where he became famous,” said Cruz. “In 1950, he came back to Cuba to conquer Cuba musically.”
Although he played with most noted Cuban bands of the era, he formed his own big band, La Banda Gigante, in 1953. He also appeared in several feature films and worked for Cuban radio stations, including CMQ, RHC Cadena Azul, Radio Progreso, and Cadena Oriental de Radio.
While many well-known musicians left the island after the 1959 revolution, Moré stayed put.
But his health soon began to fail. The man with a tenor voice as smooth and fluid as a fine Cuban rum, had a weakness for aguardiente and rum. An alcoholic, he died of cirrhosis of the liver on Feb. 19, 1963 and tens of thousands of fans attended his funeral.
Even now Moré’s unique voice, his musicality and his Cubanía are not easy to forget. In an article marking the 97th anniversary of Moré’s birth, Ciro Bianchi Ross wrote in Juventud Rebelde this past August that the singer’s voice — “joyful, violent, sensual, sad” — was “a synthesis of national being.”