What Could’ve Been

Polo Montanez – Guitarra Mía
Polo Montanez

Guitarra Mía (Evolver EVL2017-2, 2003)

Originally put out by the French label Lusafrica in 2002, this is a sparkling, joyous disc that nonetheless carries an air of sadness. Fernando Borrego Linares, better known as Polo Montanez (“Polo of the Mountains”), died at the age of 50 as the result of a car crash in his native Cuba not long after the album’s release.

It was a tragic end to a man whose life had taken on something of a storybook quality. He was 47 years old when a representative from Lusafrica heard him performing at a restaurant in Las Terrazas, a lesser-known tourist spot noted as a respite from the hustle and bustle of Havana.

Polo’s repertoire was uncharacteristically comprised of all original compositions that deeply encompassed the classic Cuban “country” elements without relying on overly familiar standards. Polo’s first Lusafrica release, 2001’s Guajiro Natural, was a success in Cuba and beyond, even earning double platinum status in Colombia. Guitarra Mía, much like its predecessor, is loaded with styles rooted in Cuba’s African/Spanish heritage (bolero, son, guajira, etc.), with varied arrangements and Polo’s simple but remarkably elegant singing leading the way.

As a balladeer his voice is tender and heartfelt without overreaching, and when the album shifts into celebratory mode, as it sometimes does mid-song, he soars like a bird. Acoustic guitar, tres, bass, percussion and sweetly sharp background vocals provide a lively backdrop with occasional strings and trumpet, giving the entire album (recorded in Havana but mixed in Paris) a fullness and flow that’s as good or better than just about any of the traditional stuff coming out of Cuba these days. And that’s saying a lot.

There’s no telling how much more international stature Polo Montanez could have achieved had he lived, though the small but impressive body of work he left behind provides a very good glimpse of the possibilities.

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Author: Tom Orr

Tom Orr is a California-based writer whose talent and mental stability are of an equally questionable nature. His hobbies include ignoring trends, striking dramatic poses in front of his ever-tolerant wife and watching helplessly as his kids surpass him in all desirable traits.