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Cuban Music Lesson: Miguelito Valdes

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

One of the biggest misconceptions our Americano friends and neighbors have about us Latinos is that we are all one thing. It’s like we’re this amorphous brown blob that exists south of the border. The fact that we are made up of different countries, races, faiths, and cultures is lost on many of them. We just get homogenized into a tasteless mash of Spanish speaking goop. Of course, we know better. We Latinos are a blending of different cultures and elements that, while mixed, do not lose their particular identity. This phenomenon can best be seen in the person and career of Miguelito Valdes, The Cuban/Spanish/Mestizo/African singer and bandleader.

The reason we Cubans are often told we don’t “look” Latino is because we’re not mestizo. The Spanish killed all the Indians in Cuba before anyone had time to intermarry with them. What can we say? The conquistadors are nothing if not efficient. Miguelito was a Cuban mestizo though, as his Cuban father married a Mexican Yucatec Indian gal. He grew up in central Havana, surrounded by a mix of Afro-Cuban and Spanish influences. When he was a kid, he joined a children’s orchestra that played around Havana at dances, fairs, parks, and other non-casino or brothel venues. When he wasn’t singing love songs, he would beat people’s faces in as a boxer, (You know, like you do). He started touring with various bands around Latin America in the 1930’s and 40’s, until he decided to go off on his own in the 50’s with his band Casino De Playa. Miguelito soon became one of Cuba’s most famous vocalists. His soft tenor and entertaining style made him a hit with audiences all over the world. His most famous tune was the iconic “Babalu”, later made famous by Desi Arnaz.

Miguelito settled in New York in the heyday of the mambo craze of the late 50’s. After the whole Castro thing, he stayed in the States. He continued playing and touring until his death in 1978. Miguelito was most famous for singing songs with Afro-Cuban themes such as “Babalu” or the old slave song “Bruca Manigua”. This is what I mean about the blending of our various traditions. Miguelito, the Cuban Indian that sang songs in an Afro-Cuban style.

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