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.
For most people, their first encounter with a Cuban isn’t Fidel Castro, Andy Garcia, or Gloria Estefan. It’s with Ricky Ricardo, Lucy’s Cuban bandleader husband on I Love Lucy. In a time when no Hispanic had ever appeared on TV, here was a guy with a Spanish last name and thick accent married to America’s sweetheart. Ricky Ricardo was played by a man who was a multifaceted talent. Producer, composer, actor, director, writer, singer, and musician Desi Arnaz.
Desi was born in Santiago De Cuba, long known as the city of musicians. His dad was a prominent politician in Santiago in the 30’s. The family had to flee Cuba in 1940 when perennial a-hole Fulgencio Batista took power. Desi started out playing guitar for bandleader and chihuahua lover Xavier Cugat. Soon, his good looks and pimptacular style led him to Hollywood. He was featured in several films including Bataan and Too Many Girls, where he met his future wife Lucille Ball.The two of them would create possibly the greatest show to ever be on TV, I Love Lucy. It can’t be overstressed how groundbreaking this show was. Every sitcom convention, trope, and technique can be traced back to I Love Lucy. They are ultimately responsible both for great shows like Cheers and The Office, as well as abominations like Full House and According to Jim.
Before his success on TV, Desi was a world famous musician. He and his band toured all over the United States, Europe, and Asia. For many people he was their first introduction to Cuban music. Thanks to his live performances and later to I Love Lucy, the whole world now has some idea what Cuban music is like. He was an accomplished conga player, as you can see in the video below. His band was often featured as part of I Love Lucy, reflecting his own live show at the Tropicana club in NY. The plot of the TV show often involved Lucy trying to sneak into the live show. Unfortunately, the Lucy character sang like a screeching barn owl with diarrhea. His biggest hit was the classic conga, Babalu. The song is about a guy who goes to a Santero priest to ask for Babalu-Aye’s blessing. He says, “Yo quiero pedir que mi negra me quiera. Que tenga dinero, y que no se muera.” Translation: “I wish to ask that my girl loves me. That she has money and doesn’t die.” Seems like a reasonable request to us.
He would later found Desilu productions with Lucy, at one time the biggest TV production company in Hollywood. He literally invented the three camera sitcom format, the way TV is distributed, and syndication rights. Desilu would produce shows like The Untouchables and Star Trek. Millions of Trekkies can blame their perpetual virginity on Desi. He himself was far from virginal. He banged half of Hollywood, which led to he and Lucy getting a divorce in 1960. They stayed good friends until his death. His last words were, “I still love Lucy.” Aw.