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Cuban Music Lesson: Machito

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.

Think about the 1940’s. What’s the soundtrack? Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller? Probably. Swing music was the biggest thing to happen in popular music since the birth of jazz. With the exception of that weird, slightly annoying, resurgence in the 1990’s, swing was relegated to the heap of musical history by the 1950’s. But in Cuba it lived on for a few more years in the form of Cuban big band music. One man popularized this form of swing steeped in Cuban music. He influenced everything that came after, from mambo to salsa. We are talking about the great Machito and his Afro-Cubans.

Machito was a mysterious guy. No one knows when or where he was born, mainly because he told conflicting stories. What is known, is that he was raised in Havana with his foster sister Graciela. In the 30’s, the two of them moved to New York where Cuban music was coming into vogue. This is mainly due to American tourists heading to Havana for cigars, rum, gambling, and sex with hookers. Machito worked with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman in the late 30’s. He started a band in the early 40’s with some other Cuban expats in New York called the Afro-Cubans. His sister Graciela often was the lead singer in his band. He fused swing music and Cuban rhythms to create a tasty hybrid sound. Imagine if Benny Goodman was blacker and funkier.

Everyone played with Machito. He employed a young percussion prodigy by the name of Tito Puente in the 1950’s to play timbales. Celia Cruz also sang on her early records. In Cuba, he became a fixture at the mob run hotels and clubs like The Tropicana and El Gato Tuerto. Yes, the name of that club is the one-eyed cat. After the whole Castro thing, Machito settled down permanently in New York. In his later years he became a pioneer of the Latin jazz movement, playing with guys like Dizzy Gillespie and Mongo Santamaria. He had a massive stroke on stage and died soon thereafter. He went the way he probably would have wanted. Which is nice.

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