Cuban Fire



Cuban Fire: The Story of Salsa and Latin Jazz

Isabelle Leymarie (2002)

Pub. Continuum

Originally published in French (1997), this 394 page English edition contains some updated material form the original and contains over 50 photographs and a number of musical notation extracts. There is also a short discography and a detailed, useful index. The book takes a logical, progressive look at the history with each decade outlined in turn, with the two main centres of music (Havana/Cuba & US/Puerto Rico) forming the basis for chapter structure.

Why you might buy it:

Well researched, a book you will come back to again and again, it’s almost an encyclopaedia of music of Cuban origin/influence, a great many names are mentioned. The book is well referenced with useful glossary,the index is user friendly with bands/performers and songs given their own highlights, also contains discography and brief interviews, nicely (though mildly) peppered with photographs throughout.

Why you might leave it:

Not always an easy read due to the (at times) relentless rattling off of lists of performers/collaborators in some sections. Whilst the book does appear to be well researched it does contain some factual errors; e.g. both Tite Curet Alonso and Luis Johnny Ortiz are credited in different chapters as being the composer of Catalino La O (it’s Ortiz). Given the appearance of Latin Jazz in the books title I expected to read much more about the developments on the West Coast than actually feature. The chapter on the rest of the world, covering 1920-today, is too short in comparison to the rest of the contents and almost feels like an afterthought.


The Roots

1. From African Liturgies to Creole rhythms

– Sacred music

– Traditional secular music

– The clave

– Rhythm instruments

The 1920’s & 1930’s: son, rumba and conga

2. Havana & Cuba

– Emergence of the Havana son

– The rise of charangas, the bolero and the guajira

– The beginnings of jazz

3. The United States & Puerto Rico

– The awakening of the Barrio

– Music in Puerto Rico

The 1940’s & 1950’s: the golden age of Cuban music

4. Havana & Cuba

– from nuevo ritmo to cha cha: the great charangas

– Updating the son

– Big bands, combos and descargas

– Singers in Cuba

5. The United States & Puerto Rico

– Que rico el mambo!

– The Afro-Cubans

– Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and other Latin bands

– Singers in the US and Puerto Rico

– Chano Pozo and his disciples

– Expansions of Latin jazz

The 1960’s: the pachanga, the boogaloo and Latin soul

6. Havana & Cuba

– The explosion of rhythms

7. The United States & Puerto Rico

– The pachanga and the boogaloo era

– Emergence of the charangas

– Revival of the bomba and the plena

– Latin jazz and Latin soul

From the 1970’s until today: advent of the songo

8. Havana & Cuba

– Traditional music

– The songo and charangas

– The son

– The nueva timba

– The Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon

– Latin jazz

– Other bands

– Vocalists

9. The United States & Puerto Rico

– Instrumental salsa

– The salsa vocalists

– Salsa in Puerto Rico, California and Florida

– The merengue

– New horizons for Latin jazz

– Latin rock and Latin disco

10. The rest of the world

– Influence of Cuban and Puerto Rican music abroad

Selected extracts (from):


This book tells the story of Cuban music in its homeland and in the United States, but also includes Puerto Rico – Cuba’s musical sister – and the Dominican merengue, currently merging with salsa and Latin jazz. It concludes with an overview of the international influence of Cuban music in its different forms of expression. To each decade there correspond roughly one or two major rhythms: in the 1920’s the son; in the 1930’s the rumba and the conga; in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the mambo; followed by the cha-cha, and in Cuba the batanga; in the 1960’s the pachanga, the mozambique and other rhythms, while in New York the pachanga was followed by the boogaloo; in the 1970’s salsa and later the songo, a Cuban creation currently enjoying wide popularity in the United States; more recently the nueva timba, also hailing from Cuba, and Latin rap, born stateside but popular today throughout Latin America. Balada, folk and political songs – which are not directly relevant to the development of Cuban dance music, salsa and Latin jazz – have been deliberately left out of this book. They warrant another specialised study.

(From African liturgies to Creole rhythms):

In January 1909, in order to avert conspiracies in the military (known as Jose M. Gomez’s Permanent Army), President Gomez swapped the companies stationed in Havana and Oriente. Some of the soldiers were musicians and the relocation of the companies brought the son to Havana and the guaguanco to Oriente. Three soldiers in particular, tresista Sergio Danger, guitarist Emiliano di Full and bongocero Mario Mena are said to have introduced the son to Havana in May of the same year. More likely however, the son spread there gradually and started to take root.

(1920/1930: Havana and Cuba):

In the beginning, the son, considered vulgar, had been rejected by black social clubs, which thought they would disgrace themselves in the eyes of the whites if they featured it. And so ironically, after a tour of Oriente, it was the posh Habana Yacht Club, Miramar Yacht Club and Vedado Tennis Club that the predominantly black Septeto Habanero played, breaking down racial barriers and carving an important niche for themselves in Havana’s competitive music scene. Singer Raphael Ortiz recalled their historic engagement at the Miramar Yacht Club: “ When the grand ladies saw those six black guys tuning their instruments they had a fit, but when the sextet broke into a montuno it went straight to their feet and not a couple was left seated”.

(1920/1930: US & Puerto Rico):

With the arrival of a growing number of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, scores of Latin clubs opened in Manhattan, among them the Park Plaza, in the Barrio (with the Park Palace, lower down in the same building), the Yumuri Club, the Cuban Casino, the Havana Madrid, El Chico, the Bongo Club and the Flamenco; and the Waldorf Astoria featured such Latin acts as Dominican singer Eduardo Brito. But East Harlem was the hub of Latin music. There the Cuban Frank Martin ran El Toreador, his compatriot Julio Mella running El Mella, located a few blocks further uptown. In 1927, the Puerto Rican guitarist and composer Raphael Hernandez and his sister Victoria – a piano teacher – opened the city’s first Latin store, the Almacenes Hernandez, which became a focal point of the Barrio. Their countryman Gabriel Oller, a relative of the Puerto Rican impressionist painter Francisco Oller, founded a music store, Tatay’s Music Centre, and in 1934 started the Dynasonics record label, specialising in Cuban and Puerto Rican artists.

(1940/1950: Havana & Cuba):

In 1957 Cachao Lopez recorded for the Panart label a series of descargas entitled Cuban Jam Sessions in Minature, which would become the most famous of these descargas series. They were done, Cachao recalls, in five hours, from 4 to 9am, after the musicians had finished their respective gigs………(snip)……. “The improvisation enabled to express the music and our soul” remembered Cachao. “Everyone played what they liked. I suggested a few ides but we created everything we liked”.

(1940/1950: US & Puerto Rico):

In 1946 Machito and Mario Bauza recommended to Federico Pagani, later known as “the godfather of Latin Music”, that he revitalise an Italian ballroom, the Alma Dance Studios. There, Machito and Bauza launched Sunday matinees named “Blen Blen Club” after blen beln blen (or blem blem blem), a composition by Chano Pozo. Machito had flyers printed which announced a Subway Dance, and huge crowds showed up. These matinees were so successful that Latin music was then featured every Wednesday night. The Dominican Joseito Roman brought his sizzling merengues; for even more excitement Pagani organized zany contests and soon the dancehall, renamed the Palladium Ballroom, became the hottest place in town. The Mafia, which controlled the place, took Pagani aside; “We love the business you generate, but please, don’t bring us so many blacks”. “if you want the green, you’ve got to have the blacks!” Pagani quipped back unfazed. The Mafia, having surrendered to Pagani’s arguments, the Palladium Ballroom became the melting pot where all races and social classes mixed and gave themselves over to the frenzy of the mambo and the cha-cha.

(1960: Havana & Cuba):

The first festival of popular Cuban music, held in Havana in 1961, consecrated the era of combos. Exchange of ideas was fostered by the Sunday jam sessions held in the early 1960’s at the club Mil Novecientos, late in the decade at the Tropicana and at the Copa Room of the Riviera Hotel, and subsequently at the Jazz Plaza Festival launched by Bobby Carcasses which featured foreign artists. Those jam sessions attracted both experienced musicians(Felo Bergaza, Rafael Somavilla, Armando Romeu, Felipe Dulziades and Pucho Escalante among them) and young and upcoming talent including trombonist Juan Pablo Torres, drummer Blas Egues, pianist Emiliano Salvador, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and guitarist Cotan. When Julio Cotazar – a jazz fan – visited Havana in the 1960’s he was struck by the vitality of the local music and he described in his novel Rayuela a descarga organized for him on the spur of the moment … in a dogs’ clinic!

(1960’s: US & Puerto Rico):

In 1962, after highly successful performances in Puerto Rico, tension flared up between Rodriguez and Puente. The catchy El Que Se Fue (“The One Who Went Away” recorded on Tito Rodriguez Returns to the Palladium and Palladium Memories) and supposedly sung for a musician who had left the band, contains the refrain:

El que se fue no hace falta

(The one who went away isn’t missed)

A mi no me importas tu

(I don’t care about you)

Ni veinte como tu

(Nor about twenty like you)

Yo sigo siempre en el goce

(I keep enjoying myself)

El del ritmo no eras tu

(The one who had rhythm wasn’t you)

thought to be a gibe at Puente ………(snip)……….Rodriguez challenged Puente again with a record entitled Tito No.1 and on Carnival of the Americas, he turned Donde Estabas Anoche?, written by Ignacio Pineiro for Los Roncos, into a defiant rumba in which the words “avisale a mi vecino” (“let my neighbor know”) became “avisale a mi contrario” (“let my advisory know”). Puente replied with the mordant “Cuando me veas llegar, echate pa’lla, tu ves que no somos iguales” (“when you see me come, get lost, you see we are not equal”).

(1970-today: Havana & Cuba):

The foolhardy (or unsuspecting) musician who tries to play in a Cuban jam session exposes himself to a real cataclysm, to a bombardment of polyrhythms, syncopations and offbeats that may leave him nonplussed. By the time he figures out the meter or the beat he should be on, his Cuban counterparts are several bars ahead of him!

(1970-today: US & Puerto Rico):

A cluster of groups appeared in the early 1970’s: Ocho, formed by the black American timbalero, pianist and arranger “Chico Mendoza” (Ira Jay Robertson). Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Robertson adopted a Latin because, he explained, “People didn’t think Americans were able to play authentic Afro-Cuban music”. Ocho’s vocalists, however, Jimmy Sabater among them, were Hispanic. Ocho recorded dense and vibrant numbers: Ay Que Frio, Margarito, Ritmo de Pollos, harmonised with flutes, La Batanga, played on vibes, with vibraslap accents on the first beat and moving from rumba to descarga. Mendoza, who also hosted a jazz radio show, later founded the Latin Jazz Dream Band, recalling Tito Puente’s style.

(1970-today: Rest of the world):

Salsa is particularly strong in West Africa and in the Congo and Zaire, and the African concerts of Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto, Orquesta Broadway, Orquesta Aragon and the Fania All Stars all elicited tremendous enthusiasm. Cuban or Puerto Rican musicians have returned to Africa to discover their roots and, conversely, African musicians have studied, played and recorded with Cubans and Puerto Ricans. The founding members of Las Maravillas de Mali, for instance, studied music in Havana in the 1960’s before returning to Bamako.


Saint-Florent, Corsica, August 2000, at the salsa festival: in front of the ancient Genoese tower overlooking the breathtaking bay, Yuri Buenaventura is delivering his inspirational salsa message. Suddenly he invites Azuquita on stage. Azuquita doesn’t know the song, a son montuno about cutting sugarcane, but grabbing the mike, he jumps – in the best salsa tradition – into an impromptu and soulful soneo with both laid back and incisive phrasing, immediately falling into step with the agile footwork of Buenaventura and his two coro singers. Two nights later, backed this time by Alfredo de la Fe’s band, Azuquita again sets the audience on fire. Buenaventura is Colombian, Azuquita Panamanian, de la Fe Cuban. They improvised in Corsica – a crossroad of many civilisations – and there again, the warmth and the vibrancy, transcending national or linguistic boundaries were for everyone to relish. Such is the power of Cuban music and its offshoots, now nourished by myriad other currents which have spread far and wide and will keep flourishing for many years to come.

(interviews: Joe Cuba):

It was Victor Pantoja who taught me how to play the conga, when he was thirteen or fourteen. We were friend in the barrio and we belonged to a stickball team called the Devils. I had studied law but when I heard Tito Puente’s Ran Kan Kan and Abaniquito on the radio, I decided to devote myself to music. I used to go to the Park Plaza to listen to the orchestras of Machito – who was one of the major attractions there – and of Jose Budet, Esy, Noro and Humberto Morales. There was a happy atmosphere and people from the neighbourhood came with their families. I first played with Alfarona X, the first group from Puerto Rico to settle in New York, and among other places we, too, performed at the Park Plaza.

[end of extracts]
Other Reviews: by Nelson Benavides (2004)
For lovers of the real salsa music, Cuban and Puerto Rico’s music, this is a excelent book. Show the beginning of salsa, cha cha cha, mambo, plena, bomba, guajira, guaguanco, danzon, son, montuno and every rhythm about that times and the present, personally that’s was and will be the best music; I don’t like the music salsa of today, it’s simple, abstract, don’t have anything!!!
I recommend this book.

Library Journal by Dave Valencia (2002)
Cuba’s unique blend of African, Spanish, and French cultures has produced an international musical legacy of unparalleled popularity. An award-winning author and a documentary filmmaker, Leymarie traces the history of Cuban music and its major artists from the 1920s to today with ardor and verve. Sections on musical roots, the 1940s and 1950s (”The golden age of Cuban music”), the 1970s to today, and more describe the development of distinct genres like the rumba, conga, and pachanga in Cuba, as well as in expatriate communities in the United States and Puerto Rico. Other recent excellent books on Cuban music include Sue Steward’s ­Musica!: The Rhythm of Latin America; Salsa, Rumba, Merengue, and More, which is more of a coffee-table book (but with a good discography) and doesn’t quite match Cuban Fire’s scholarly, sequential style. Scott Yanow’s Afro-Cuban Jazz is reasonably scholarly, but the scope is not as broad. Cuban Fire occupies the middle ground between those two otherwise terrific books and is the one to choose if you can’t afford all three. Essential wherever books on popular music are collected.

In Cuban Fire, the prize-winning author Isabelle Leymarie tells the thrilling story of popular music of Cuban origin and its major artists from the 1920s to today.

Afro-Cuban music derives its richness from the fusion of many cultures. On the island of tobacco, rum and coffee, nicknamed ‘The Green Caiman’ because of its long and curvy shape, the wedding of sacred and secular African musical genres with Spanish and French melodies give rise to numerous genres that have gained international fame: the son, rhumba, guaracha, conga, mambo, cha-cha-cha, pachanga and nueva timba.

The history of Cuban music also unfolds in the United States, where large Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican and other Hispanic communities have established themselves over the years. It was in New York, indeed, that the boogaloo, salsa and Latin jazz, created by such musicians as Machito, Mario Bauzá, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, emerged out of contact with the Puerto Ricans and African-Americans of that city. This major reference book also deals with the incandescent rhythms of Puerto Rico and – to a lesser degree – Santo Domingo, which have been integrated into salsa and Latin jazz.

ISABELLE LEYMARIE, a pianist and musicologist, has been involved with jazz and Latin music for many years. She has taught at Yale, Boricua College and The New School for Social Research. She co-directed and wrote the documentaries Machito: A Latin Jazz Legacy and Latin Jazz in New York and has produced radio shows on Latin music and jazz in Europe and Canada. Among her books are Music of South America, Cuba: the Music of the GodsCuba and Its Music, which was awarded the French ‘Prix des Muses’.


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