The roots of Cuban popular music stretch across oceans and continents, giving rise to an overwhelming variety of styles. Mambo, to give just one example, is a European court dance integrating with African folk rhythms and American jazz; styles brought to Cuba by French colonialists, plantation slaves, and the mob, respectively. In this climate of plenty, many Cuban musicians become specialists forever associated with their chosen rhythm, spawning Mambo kings and Queens of Son.
Now and then an artist emerges who’s able to dance to all the beats. Beny “the Barbarian of Rhythm” Moré was one such person. He was equally at home crooning over delicate piano as he was speak-rapping over galloping brass. He was also a great band leader; an intuitive interpreter of songs. The song below shows off the unique vocal tics that he revelled in– from wordless runs up and down the scales, to the rapid fire asides that pepper his songs. There are few other singers, Cuban or otherwise, who would have the sheer confidence for such dramatics. Moré was reputedly a magnetic presence on stage and a large dollop of his charisma is captured here on the record.
Born the youngest of eighteen children in 1919 in a small village, Moré left for the bright lights of Havana as a teenager. For a couple of years he made a living playing bars, and joining in with a thriving street scene that still exists in Cuba today. In 1945 he left for Mexico, a mecca for Cuban musicians in the 40’s. Here he met such luminaries as Perez Prado (famous again in the 90’s thanks to Royal Mail, Guinness, and Louis Vega) , and recorded songs with various orchestras, include Prado’s tribe of hyper-active nutters.
The song above was recorded with Raphael De Paz Orchestra during that extended stay in Mexico. It’s in the style of son montuno; son being a name of a mid-tempo style still popular in Cuba today. The exact definition of son is tricky, and it is primarily known outside of Cuba as one of the roots of Salsa.
In his essay The Cuban Son as Form, Genre, and Symbol, James Robbins explains that “for an indication of its meaning, one might compare son to blues, the referents of which range similarly from the concrete and specific to the vague and inclusive.” Unlike a straight son, son montuno is made up of two distinct section – a mid-tempo first half followed by an up-tempo second, where a repetitive vocal refrain takes over from the main vocal melody.
Many of the songs Moré recorded in Mexico are of the same exuberant ilk as the one above. Upon his return to Cuba in 1953, he set up his own orchestra and began to focus on slower tempos, showing off his genius with tender phrases. He never lost his edge, however. He was famed throughout Cuba for his ability to whip a crowd up to fever-pitch, an essential skill for any Latin singer. But even the liveliest crowd needs space for reflection now and then, a time for slow dancing.
Despite the Mambo mania developing over in the States, a mania that brought a lot of jobs for Latin musicians in the fancier clubs up North, Beny Moré remained in Cuba untill his death in 1963. He had always led a pretty wild life-style, but in the end his love of rum got the better of him.
Beny Moré stands to this day as the greatest popular singer Cuba has ever produced. His reputation there is comparable to that of Frank Sinatra in America. More’s virtuosity as a singer was not only a technical marvel, it was a master-class in emotional delivery. He could be brash and macho, exciting and dangerous, and yet, when the mood took him, as it often did in the latter half of his career, he could sing a love song with such tenderness, such moon-eyed romance, that even the stoniest of hearts would crack. He was a true one-off. He made every song his own, no matter who wrote it.