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Cuban Music Lesson: Rita Montaner

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

The word diva gets a bad rap. Today we usually use it to denote a high maintenance drama queen that makes life hard on everyone. The word used to mean a woman vocal virtuoso who had achieved wide acclaim. Some of them must have been a pain in the butt to have that word come to mean what it does today, (asking for a bowl full of only brown M&Ms or whatever). Cuba in its day produced many of the good kind of diva, the greatest of which may have been Rita Montaner.

Rita was born in Guanabacoa in 1900. Cuba had just become independent from Spain and slavery had ended only a few years before, so race was still a VERY touchy problem. Rita’s mom was half-Black and her dad was white, so in the color obsessed times in which she lived, she was considered sufficiently light-skinned to appear on the stage. Not that Rita ever shied away from her Afro-Cuban heritage. In fact, she was in large part Ernesto Lecuona’s muse for many of his Afro-Cuban compositions. Rita’s voice was pure and unique, unmistakable to anyone familiar with it. She had the vocal power of an opera singer with the soul of a rumba vocalist. She travelled all over the world along with Lecuona and was a big hit in 1920’s-30’s Paris, where she appeared along with Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf.

Rita would star in dozens of films from the 30’s-50’s, many of which were produced in Mexico. These were the glory days of the movie musical and they were wildly popular. Her most famous movie was, “Los Angelitos Negros” in which she appears alongside Cuban bandleader Perez Prado. Sadly, Rita died in 1958 at a relatively young age. Because she existed solely in the world of pre-Castro Cuba, she is less known in the United States than other Cuban artists. This is sad. Go check out her stuff.

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