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Cuban Music Lesson: Bola De Nieve

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

Back in the day, there were a lot of cabaret acts in Cuba. These smokey clubs–filled with the smell of cigar smoke, rum, and perfume– always had a dude at the piano. The greatest of them all was Ignacio Villa, known all over the world as Bola De Nieve. He was one of the most popular singers, composers and pianists in Cuba from the 1930s until the 1960s.

Ignacio was born in Havana’s economically depressed Afro-Cuban neighborhood of Guanabacoa. To this day, this area is still steeped in the African aspects of Cuban culture. It is the ground zero of Santeria in Havana, and, as a result, Ignacio was raised to the sounds of bata drums, Yoruba chants, and chicken sacrifices. He was also privy to a flowering of interest in the songs and poetry of Cuba’s slave days. He would incorporate the slang and speech patterns of Cuban blacks in many of his songs. Examples include the Afro-Cuban lullaby Drume Negrito and the Santeria inspired Chivo Que Rompe Tambor.

He went to Mateu conservatory in Havana, where he developed his signature piano style.Bola De Nieve would attack the piano, pounding on it like the piano said something about his mom. It was aggressive, even in the most sonorous boleros. This, coupled with his strange spoken word-like singing style, made his sound truly unique. He got his big break in the 1930s when he toured with Cuban legend Rita Montaner. He would later work with Ernesto Lecuona, Cuba’s most famous composer. It was Montaner that gave him the nickname Bola De Nieve (snowball), which was meant to be ironic because of his dark skin. It’s akin to calling the fattest guy in the neighborhood “Tiny.” Also because Bola was fairly fat. Dude liked his lechon asado, what can we say?

After the Revolution, Bola became an ardent supporter of the Castro regime. He stayed in Cuba even after a lot of his fellow musicians left for the US and Mexico. Bola was also gay in a time when being gay in Cuba was illegal and could mean a stay in a “re-education camp.” Due to his support of the revolution, the commies looked the other way at his lifestyle.

Bola continued to tour all over the world until his death in 1971. Unfortunately, singers like Benny Moré and Perez Prado have more name recognition than our fat, piano-beating friend. This is due in large part to the Miami Cubans’ disdain for anyone who had love for Fidel and the boys. The good news is that Bola De Nieve is now having a comeback thanks in large part to a renewed interest in old style Cuban music. If you close your eyes while listening to his jams, you can picture  yourself in an old cabaret in Havana. Grab the nearest rum-based cocktail when you watch these videos. We don’t care if you are at work. Just do it.

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