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Cuban Music Lesson: Willy Chirino

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.

Everyone has certain songs that transport them back to particular time in their lives. Whether it’s some tune that reminds you of getting high and eating Cheetos in college or the love song that makes you think of the girl who broke up with you and slept with your uncle. For this author, Willy Chirino’s album “Oxigeno” reminds me of being a young jr. highschooler on vacation in Miami. My cousins and I would get decked out in our ugliest early nineties silky Zach Morris shirts and Z Cavarichi’s, and head to Coconut Grove, where Willy Chirino was blaring out of every available speaker. It was a happier, simpler time.

Willy Chirino was born in Pinar Del Rio, Cuba in 1947. As a kid in 1960, Willy was sent to the United States by himself as part of the infamous Pedro Pan program. Cuban dissidents sent their unaccompanied kids to the U.S. with the help of the CIA. Willy was one of the lucky ones that was soon reunited with his parents. He grew up in Miami’s thriving Cuban exile community. He was always interested in music, and in the late 60’s and early 70’s he started experimenting with the emerging genre of salsa. Chirino soon made a name for himself playing in the clubs around South Florida and New York. He has released 20 albums, many of which have gone multi-platinum. His style can be both funny and poignant, goofy and romantic. He uses humor in a lot of his songs, most famously in “Mr. Don’t Touch The Banana” about a silly Americano that stumbles upon a Santeria ceremony and eats a banana offered to the Orisha Chango. Not cool, Americano.

Willy has continued to sell albums like churros on a cold day. He won a 2007 Latin Grammy for Best Salsa Record. He is also extremely active in the Miami anti-Castro groups, so much so that when Juanes put on his famous concert in 2010, the Cuban government specifically forbid Chirino from coming. You know you are outspoken when you are declared an enemy of the state by the Castro brothers.  Still, Willy continues to entertain with his catchy tunes, sometimes goofy lyrics, and Cuban George-Michael-like looks. He makes salsa that takes itself in no way seriously.

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