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Cuban Music Lesson: Meme Solis

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

I always wish I had learned the piano. I could be that guy at a party that people say, “Hey Jack, play us something.” I’d try to demure, but eventually would give in to their request and blow them all away with some Chopin or Billy Joel. It’s been said that if you can master the piano, you can pretty much play any instrument. It’s both a string, rhythm, and percussive instrument. In Cuba, one of the all time greatest pianists, spent many of his prime years silenced by the government. He got away so he could play. His name is Meme Solis.

Meme, (that’s pronounced mehmeh, not like a meme video of a dancing dog), was born Jose Manuel Solis in Mayajigua, Cuba. He was one of those piano prodigies you hear about, mastering the instrument at age 7 or so. At an extremely young age, he debuted at one of Santa Clara’s big theaters accompanying the great singer Olga Guillot. When I was in my early teens, my biggest accomplishment was that I beat “Mortal Kombat”. He would go on to become one of Cuba’s premiere accompanists, playing with singer Fernando Albuerne in the Havana Hilton, (no that’s not Paris’ Cuban cousin). Meme would also team up with famous singer Elena Burke to record several albums in the 60’s. Meme hosted a popular radio show in the 60’s called, “A Solas Contigo”, that people all over the island tuned to every day. Not only could the guy play a mean piano, but he also was a well known vocalist. Why just be an accompanist if you can sing your own damn songs? In the early 70’s, he founded a groups called El Cuarteto Meme Solis, which was later shortened to Los Meme. I guess he was into the whole brevity thing. Around this time, Meme decided he’d had enough of the whole Castro/commie/olive drab/beard thing and petitioned to leave Cuba. When you file to leave Cuba, the government likes to punish you. My grandfather, for example, was sent to live in a hut and attend patients in a far off province by himself. Meme was silenced from playing in public. Imagine if you’d been doing something your whole life and suddenly you had to stop. It probably really sucked. They didn’t let Meme out until 1987, when he finally got the opportunity to play in front of people again.

Since leaving Cuba, Meme has toured all over the world. He’s recognized as one of the great Spanish language singer/pianists. Meme was a good friend of the family back in Cuba. Whenever he came by the province where my family lived, he’d always come over for dinner. It’s no wonder. My abuela’s vaca fita was the greatest thing ever. I think my mom had a crush on him. Ew.

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