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Cuban Music Lesson: Cuarteto D’Aida

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.

By Jack Tomas

You don’t see many all-girl groups anymore. It’s too bad. There is something very sexy about a group of ladies that say, “We don’t need no stinky men. We’ll do it on our own.” Even if individual members later went on to have great solo careers, like Aretha Franklin or Beyonce, their work with their all-girl groups is still some of their best. While the phenomenon can lead to abominations, (Spice Girls I’m looking at you), there is nothing like a female four part harmony. In Cuba, nobody did that better than Cuarteto D’Aida.

The group was started in 1950 by pianist Aida Diestro, (hence D’Aida). She liked the vocal groups that came out of post-WWII America like the Andrew Sisters and the Platters. Aida thought, “Why the heck can’t we Cubanas do that?” Her thoughts were probably more elaborate than that and most definitely in Spanish, but you get the idea. She put together a group consisting of herself, Elena Burke, and sisters Omara and Haydee Portouondo. Their voices were a perfect complement to each other. They say that the human voice can be the sweetest instrument of all, and in their case it was true. The group became one of the most recognizable figures in the filin musical movement of the late 50’s and early 60’s. This was a mix of American vocal pop and Cuban boleros. Many a baby was conceived to Cuarteto D’Aida.

The girls stayed in Cuba after the whole Castro thing. They never really split up, but would pursue separate projects and come together occasionally. Elena Burke went on to become one of Cuba’s great opera and zarzuela stars. Poor Aida died fairly young in 1973. Haydee later left Cuba and is now happily retired in Miami Beach. Omara, on the other hand, is as famous as she has ever been. At 79, she still tours all over the world  and is a multi-Grammy winner. This is because of the…wait for it…Buena Vista Social Club, where every Cuban old fart had their career resurrected. Since I was never able to see Cuarteto D’Aida live, seeing Omara is as close as I can get.

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