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Artist Profiles: Septeto Nacional

Septeto Nacional

Cuban son was definitely forged in 1927 when Ignacio Piñeiro founded the renovating Septeto Nacional. Piñeiro lived in Havana from 1888 to 1969, earning his living with odd jobs, as a stevedore, a cigar roller, a carpenter, the kind of work you do if you grow up in Pueblo Nuevo, the black quarter of the city. Even as a child, Ignacio Piñeiro sang in choirs and played drums with the Afro-Cuban cabildos. Then he formed his own first line-up, Los Roncos, the Hoarse Ones, for which he composed choir music.

In 1926 he played bass with the Sexteto Occidente, whose leader was María Teresa Vera. Piñeiro traveled to New York with this sextet and on his return to Havana he immediately set about making history with son: in 1927, together with the trovadores Juan Ignacio de la Cruz Hermida, Bienvenido León Chacón and Alberto Villalón, who until then had performed as a trio, plus the tres player Francisco González and José Manuel Incharta on bongos, he founded the Sexteto Nacional – under contract to Columbia Records in Havana, who had been eagerly searching for a band capable of competing with the Sexteto Habanero, who were under contract to RCA Victor. Not only did Piñeiro write countless sones for his sextet, which became a septet only a few months later with the cornet player Lázaro Herrera, he also played bass in the new line-up. Piñeiro took the traditional sound of son, based on vocals percussion and strings and modified it by adding a trumpet for the first time as a lead instrument.

The Septeto National played around the clock on all Havana’s radio stations and gave concerts on public squares and in theaters. The capital city was raving about the new sound – a son cubano, certainly, but not the simple form brought from Santiago to Havana by the trovadores, but more refined, with a cornet and artistically arranged harmonious parts, strongly syncopated and eminently danceable, like Piñeiro’s greatest hit “Échale salsita”- this son is regarded as the original form of salsa. In 1932 George Gershwin traveled to Cuba and happened to turn on the CMCJ radio station when the Septeto Nacional were playing Piñeiro’s sones. Gershwin visited Piñeiro and the two men became friends. Gershwin studied Piñeiro’s sones and even cited “Échale salsita” in his own “Cuban Overture.” But other Septeto Nacional hits had also become part of the classic repertoire of nostalgic son line-ups and modern salsa bands: for example “No jueges con los Santos” (“There’s no playing with the Gods”), a half-joking, half-earnest warning about respecting the Afro-Cuban gods, an early musical demonstration of black consciousness.

In the late 1920s, Havana’s dance enthusiasts witnessed a musical sparring match for which there is no comparison in the history of Cuban music. For two whole years, the Sexteto Habanero and Piñeiro’s Sexteto Nacional (when Piñeiro enlarged his sextet into a septet, the Sexteto Habanero did likewise) confronted one another in the form of three simultaneous recording sessions – a master performance in terms of strategy and psychological warfare, especially as the two sextets, or septets, worked with one and the same lead singer: Abelardo Barroso, also called “the great Caruso”. Even their repertoires were identical in parts. The mulatto Abelardo Barroso had been singing with the Sexteto Habanero since 1925, that is to say, with Ignacio Piñeiro’s competitors. For Barroso, this had been his fourth attempt to make something of his life; he had tried his hand as a chauffeur, a boxer and a pelota player, and had failed each time. But there was still music, and it was as a singer that Abelardo Barroso finally got lucky. In the end, Barroso became an idol as the acclaimed lead singer in the two most renowned son line-ups.

In spring 1929, the Septeto Nacional had a brief moment of victory over their competitors, when they were selected to travel to the Ibero-American Fair in Seville and perform son at the Cuban pavilion. Spanish audiences fell in love with Cuban son and Septeto Nacional became a celebrity

In 1933, the Septeto Nacional was invited to the “Century of Progress” World Exposition in Chicago, where they not only gave concerts but also made records and were awarded a gold medal. The group had a new new singer, Marcelino “Rapindey” Guerra. At that time, Piñeiro recorded the hit song “Echale salsita”.

The Septeto Nacional’s turn-over in musicians was so fast that one scarcely knew who to expect on stage when the Septeto Nacional was finally announced.

Founder Ignacio Piñeiro left the group in 1935. The septet had to assert itself against the competition of innumerable son ensembles. Despite all the concerts and radio broadcasts, the musicians earned very little, and Piñeiro gave up for financial reasons.

Lázaro Herrera took Piñeiro’s place, but the Septeto Nacional could only keep its head above water for another two years; the famous septet was disbanded in 1937.

In 1940, the singer and sonero Miguelito Valdés brought the septet together once again for a recording session.

Septeto Nacional resurfaced again in 1954, when radio producer and musicologist Odilio Urfé encouraged a reunion. Septeto Nacional came back, led once more, by its founder, Ignacio Piñeiro and it included many of its original musicians and singers. The group performed for television that year. At that time, the cha cha chá held sway over the dance halls, and the existing son orchestras had long since expanded into conjuntos, with a strong wind sectio. The “home-made” sound of the old son septets, with only one cornet, sounded outmoded, out of fashion.

It was some years before audiences rediscovered the nostalgic sound of the 1920s. After the Revolution of 1959, the Septeto Nacional was upgraded and the musicians from the original line-up (Lázaro Herrera and Bienvenido León) invited for interviews. The Septeto was able to record several LPs and performed, above all, in the traditional Casas de la Trova. In the course of time, the Septeto Nacional line-up became younger. The new musicians, however, had no difficulty in imbuing the unbeatable charm of the old sones with new spirit.

The third generation of the Septeto National can certainly stand up to comparison with the legendary band’s original line-up. All the musicians are excellent instrumentalists and inspired soneros, who play the fresh-sounding arrangements by band leader Ignacio Esteban Aymé Castro, otherwise known as “Richard”, as if a time machine had catapulted the original Septeto from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century.

Discography:

Septeto Nacional De Ignacio Piñeiro (Areito, 1965)
Sones Cubanos (Areito, 1969)
Mas Cuba Libres (Network Medien, 1999)
El Sabor De La Tradicion (Ferment, 2005)
Glorias De Cuba (West Side Latino Records, 1976)
Soneros Mayores (Areito, 1979)
Clasicos Del Son (1987)
Soneros De Cuba (Real Rhythm, 1999)
¡Sin Rumba no hay Son! (World village, 2010)

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