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Cuban Music Lesson: Pio Leyva

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

They say big things come in small packages. Usually this is a bunch of B.S., (who would prefer a Ford Escort to a Ferrari?) But it’s sometimes true with singers. Occasionally, the vocal gods put an amazing voice inside a teeny-tiny body. Look at Janis Joplin or Prince. In the world of little guys with big voices, no one can match the sheer baritone to height ratio of the one and only Pio Leyva.

Wilfredo Leiva Pascual was born in the town of Moron in 1917. Yes, there is a town in Cuba called Moron. There is really good fishing there. Pio, as his friends called him, entered the music world when he won a bongo contest at the age of 6. Most of us can barely not poop our pants at 6, much less beat adults at playing bongos. In the 30’s, Pio started singing with the big bands around Havana. He sang backup for guys like Perez Prado and Benny More. Pio’s voice is unmistakable. For a guy that stands all of 5 foot nothing, he has one of the richest baritones you’re ever likely to hear. I’m guessing he maintained it by smoking 15 cigars a day and drinking two bottles of rum, (He lived to be 88, so there must be something to it).

Though he recorded 25 albums and was consistently well known in Cuba, by the early 90’s he had taken up driving a taxi just to make ends meet. That’s when Juan De Marcos Gonzalez and Ry Cooder approached him about a little project called The Buena Vista Social Club. He and the other geriatric Cuban legends toured all over the world in their last years. I had the pleasure of seeing Pio sing with them when they came to the U.S.  Pio’s last project was starring in Wim Wender’s follow-up documentary to his “Buena Vista Social Club” movie, “Musica Cubana”. Pio died in 2006 and was buried in a little coffin with state honors. Also, he had one of the best ‘staches in history. Like, seriously he was the Cuban Magnum P.I.

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