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Cuban Music Lesson: Ernesto Lecuona

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.

Most people think Cuban music is only bongo drums and those frilly sleeved shirts. However, Cuba has always had soft spot for classical music. The National Ballet, The Cuban Grand Opera, and The Havana Philharmonic are famous throughout the world. It seemed inevitable that Cuba would produce one of the most innovative composers of the 20th century, Ernesto Lecuona.

Ernesto was born into a family of famous musicians in 1895. He graduated from Havana’s National Conservatory, and he went on to work for several years as an accompanist, just like Billy Joel’s Piano Man but less depressing. Even though he was classically trained, Lecuona was very interested in both popular Cuban music and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Slavery had just ended, and whites and blacks didn’t hang out a whole lot. To make things worse, the established world of classical music was highly racist and elitist, (imagine that.) Naturally, playing a rumba rhythm under a cello was unthinkable. Lecuona helped break down this color barrier by combining classical, Spanish, and Afro-Cuban music together in a tasty music stew.

Note: The faces the piano player makes in this video are hilarious. It looks like he is simultaneously on Extacy and trying not to pass gas.

He composed several pieces that are today considered classics. In addition to his symphonic compositions, he also wrote several scores for stage and screen that included: Canto Siboney, Noche Azul, and Siempre En Mi Corazon, which was nominated for an Oscar. Lecuona also composed several dance pieces, including the all time iconic flamenco, La Malaguena. Seriously, this is the song that pops into your head when you think of flamenco. Even Bugs Bunny dressed up in drag and danced to La Malaguena.

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