There was a point in our life when we spent every available rupee on Latin music. We'd pretty much gone through all the jazz, pop and swing greats and discovering this new world of African rhythm and European melody was an obsession. It didn't take long before the name Beny Moré came up. Our first introduction was a disc of boleros and frankly, we didn't understand what all the fuss was about. It was the popping rhythms of Manzanillo that set our feet on fire. From there we found other rhythm tracks and now we happily enjoy the boleros as well. Moré's importance in the story of Cuban music is no less than Sinatra's to American pop.
The problem for
non-Spanish speaking fans is the lack of documentation in English on
the Latin greats. Latin CDs are notorious for their lack of liner notes.
Recording dates and personnel listings are rare. Biographies are almost
non-existent. We contacted author Hilda Alvarez to provide some perspective
on Beny Moré when we were still publishing the print version of MrLucky
and she graciously provided us with the following biographical sketch.
One of nineteen children, Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré, was born on August 24, 1919 in a poor neighborhood named Pueblo Nuevo, in the town of Santa Isabel de las Lajas in the province of Las Villas. Years later he would immortalize Santa Isabel de las Lajas in one of his most famous songs: Santa Isabel de las Lajas, querida / Lajas mi rincón querido / pueblo donde yo nací. (Santa Isabel de las Lajas, beloved / Lajas my beloved nook, town where I was born.) He was an extroverted illiterate, always showing the charisma that would accompany him throughout his life, and he was happy in spite of the abject poverty in which he grew up. It was all he knew. As a child he taught himself the guitar and would sing at parties, gatherings and Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies. After living in Santa Isabel de las Lajas during his early years, he eventually went to the province of Camagüey where he worked in the sugar mills, often singing boleros or sones to pass the time. His coworkers were amazed at his innate rhythm and melody, his inflections and his "swing," and those same coworkers would later encourage him to seek his fortune in music.
It was difficult for him to make the decision of devoting himself to music, due to his familial responsibilities, but the rhythm drove him to it. After performing with various local bands, he traveled to Havana in 1940 where he became a troubadour, singing in cafes, bars, and parks for tips and occasionally performing on the radio for 10¢ a show. While performing at one of Havana's many bars, he met Miguel Matamoros, who had been searching for a singer to join his legendary Conjunto Matamoros. Beny traveled with them to Mexico where he wowed audiences with his infectious sabrosura, versatility, and ingenious ability to improvise without any formal musical training.
After performing with the Conjunto Matamoros, he remained in Mexico performing with several lesser- known Cuban bands until he joined the orchestra of Dámaso Perez Prado, the world renowned "Mambo King." At this time Beny established his "look": wide-brimmed hat, long jackets (practically knee-length), baggy pants tapered at the ankles, suspenders and a long, wide tie. The walking stick would come later. As part of Perez Prado's orchestra he performed in films and recorded approximately 60 albums for RCA Victor which inundated Latin America; even today we can still hear his characteristic "ho" or "hu" in Perez Prados' mambos.
In the early 1950s, Beny returned to Cuba and for a brief period as part of a band led by "batanga" creator Bebo Valdes, performing in a short-lived radio program. At this point Beny decided to form his own band. Not a quartet, sextet or septet, but a full American- styled band. His Banda Gigante was comprised of four trumpets, five saxophones, one trombone, one piano, and a full percussion section. Later, more trombones were added, never before seen in Afro-Cuban music. In spite of having received no formal musical training, he was able to arrange and compose brilliantly, as well as conduct his band. Beny would hum and sing his ideas to Generoso (Tojo) Jimenez , who played the piano and trombone, and Tojo would write it down for the other musicians. In his hit Que Bueno Baila Usted, Beny sings..."Generoso, que bueno toca usted" (Generoso, how well you play), thereby immortalizing Tojo.
He would refer to his orchestra as his "tribe" and developed a Cubanized jazzband, incorporating what he learned from Perez Prado. The band was showered with offers to perform world-wide, on both radio and television as well as nightclubs. But among the most meaningful moments for Beny was when he was finally asked to perform at Havana's famed Tropicana nightclub. The poor boy from Pueblo Bueno had reached the pinnacle of his fame and was performing at one of the most famous nightclubs of the time!
Beny worked to the point of exhaustion, and drank to the point of unconsciousness. His colleagues were alarmed at his deterioration, yet he continued performing nightly and giving his all to his performances. He didn't just sing, or conduct. He would dance, flirt, chat with the audience, clown around and in short, was a one-man-show. Some say he would often perform drunk, but the quality of his performances never waned. His physical condition, however, worsened. One of his brothers tells the story that near the end of his life, Beny would pour a shot of rum in his hands, rub them together and smell them, calling that his "drink."
Beny Moré died on February 19, 1963 at the age of 43, while at the peak of his success. It was deemed a national day of mourning in Cuba, where nightclubs and theaters closed in his honor. In addition to the formal government sponsored funeral proceedings, a Santeria ritual was also performed in Santa Isabel de las Lajas, indicating his widespread popularity, crossing through social and economic barriers.
Beny Moré embodies the best of Cuban music, its rhythm, its soul, its humor, and its joy. The legacy of his music is available to all through many recordings. If you're familiar with his work, make yourself a "mojito" and listen to him again. If you've never experienced Beny's sound, you're in for a real treat. His music will leave you, reminiscent of one of his most popular mambos, Encantado de la Vida : Enchanted with Life.
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