Puerto Rican Musicians and the Recording Industry

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Chapter Four—
“Vénte Tú”:
Puerto Rican Musicians and the Recording Industry
“If they had to give up eating, they gave up eating in order to buy records,” declared Francisco López Cruz, remembering his compatriotas living in New York City in
the 1920s and 1930s. “It was more important to be happy in one’s heart than to have one’s stomach full. That’s the way the Puerto Rican is.” 1
The records made by Puerto Rican musicians took their place among a variety of popular sounds as an indispensable part of the cultural world of their co­ethnics.
Many Puerto Ricans eagerly bought the dozens of new boleros, rumbas, sones, danzas, and guarachas that were regularly offered by the record stores of New
York’s Spanish­speaking neighborhoods. Some hired musicians or prevailed upon friends to play, but often as not, the Victrola was the sole source of musical
entertainment for working­class Puerto Ricans. For a relatively small investment, these migrants could liven up the atmosphere of the humblest private celebrations.
Puerto Rican records, often made by their neighbors, provided a backdrop for romance, expressed nostalgia about the island or complaints about life in New York,
and translated political discontent into a more acceptable cultural format.
The intensity such music had for its composers, performers, and audiences, however, was tempered by the commercial circumstances of its creation. While guitarist
López Cruz perceptively commented on the passion with which his neighbors embraced these mechanically reproduced sounds, such music had one meaning for its
ardent consumers and another for its creators. During the era between the world wars, Copyright 1997. University of California Press. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or applicable copyright law.
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making records was not an end in itself for Puerto Rican musicians but a source of at least occasional income and a crucial promotional tool for artists.
Semiprofessional and professional Puerto Rican popular musicians might move in different circles and each piece together his or her own patchwork of a career, but
virtually all of them had one thing in common, namely, the time spent in the recording studio. Making records was especially important for tríos, cuartetos, and plena
ensembles. If New York City gave birth to a golden age of Puerto Rican small­ensemble music, the record industry was its midwife.
The North American record industry had its own relationship to this unique musical ferment among migrant Puerto Ricans. Record production, especially ethnic record
production, was as much a sideline for North American companies as it was for musicians, though for different reasons. Whereas artists used records to promote their
live performances, companies utilized them to promote their phonographs. The net result of this confluence of motives was the almost incidental preservation, with
substantial commercial and mechanical mediation, of a primarily working­class ethnic American music.
A complex business involving production, promotion, distribution, and consumption, the recording industry required the collaboration of many people. The ethnic
audiences who eagerly sought tangible proof of their continuing culture, as well as the musicians and their merchant, promoter, and club owner collaborators, who
wanted to earn a living, all worked in conjunction with the more formal mechanisms of the recording industry. Artists and other entertainment figures struggled with a
balance between versatility and authenticity, marketability and aesthetic virtue, as did the recording executives they came into contact with, though not always in
entirely compatible or parallel ways. Their complex interactions would, in turn, have cultural consequences for the consuming audiences they spent so much energy
trying to please.
Recording in Latin America
The foreign activities of the Victor Talking Machine Company, the Columbia Phonograph Company, the Edison National Phonograph Company, and other firms were
an important precedent their ethnic recording efforts in the United States. 2
In their overseas work the U.S. companies developed attitudes and selection and
marketing practices that would carry over to their work with North American ethnics. From the early twentieth century they influenced the musical tastes and expec­
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tations of foreign musicians and audiences, Spanish speakers being prominent among them. In turn, this would have an effect on musical culture in Latin America. Both
recording ethnic musicians in their native countries and making sounds from the United States available to them, Victor, Columbia, Edison, and other companies made
sure that Puerto Rico and its neighbors acquired a mixed musical legacy. The early activities of the recording industry in Latin American provided exposure to a variety
of musics for both musicians and audiences migrating from the region. Latin American expectations of mechanical musical production and consumption were tempered
by a commercial connection dating to the late nineteenth century.
By the 1890s the phonograph was a commercially viable, if crude, machine and the first record players and discs were manufactured by several North American
companies and their European subsidiaries and competitors. Despite the popularity of records by a few early artists, such as Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and North
American bandleader John Philip Sousa, selling phonographs was the central and most lucrative business of Columbia, Victor, Edison, and their contemporaries. The
domestic market was quickly flooded with these “talking machines,” forcing companies to look further afield for their customers.
Years before Rafael Hernández, Pedro Marcano, Plácido Acevedo, and their contemporaries immortalized their small­ensemble sound on disc, North American
record companies had captured a worldwide market. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Columbia, for example, was selling and recording in central Africa
as well as in central Europe. Russia, Poland, China, Japan, and Australia were among other countries that felt the effects of this expanding musical empire. Latin
America, so close geographically to the United States, so politically and economically intertwined with its business interests, figured prominently in this early trade.
Columbia was making records in Mexico City as early as 1904, and Victor, by 1905. 3
Before the decade was over, they would also be active in Havana, Buenos
Aires, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.4
By 1915 virtually all of Latin America had been penetrated by North American phonograph companies.
In many ways, the powerful North American phonograph and record industry possessed striking parallels to other neocolonial, capitalist business arrangements
developing in Latin America at the same time. There was a pattern here: extraction of natural resources, which were then refined, processed abroad, and resold to the
people in the country of origin. The music industry recruited its raw material, live talent, from
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virtually all parts of the region and recorded those artists in makeshift studios in their home countries. The companies pressed the records in the United States and then
marketed them to the populations of the countries from which the music had come. Victor, Columbia, and their contemporaries enticed Puerto Rican and other Latin
American merchants with exclusive dealerships for their phonographs and records and in turn employed these merchants as scouts for native talent. In Puerto Rico, for
example, these companies—like the sugar and tobacco industries—were enriched by the efforts of their island intermediaries. At the same time, the invasion of
external technological and economic agents stymied the development of indigenous industries. In the case of music, this would create cultural as well as economic
repercussions.
Aquatic Agents and Floating Studios
Like the European monarchs four centuries before them, Victor, Columbia, and their ilk employed professional explorers who spent years continent­hopping by boat.
These modern conquistadores, however, went in search of new phonograph consumers and “native” talent. They were not so much experts in Latin American music as
functionaries who transferred successful selling formulas and ideas about music selection from one place to another. Indeed, many company agents who worked in
Latin America had begun in a completely different part of the world.
Newspaper articles and surviving recording ledgers provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these agents. Commercial expeditions to Puerto Rico began at least
as early as June 1909. The visitor that summer was William Friedberg, a Columbia recording­lab expert who had previously collected music in China and Japan. He
was assisted by Columbia distributor González Padín Hermanos. This department store subsequently carried the records, which were also listed in export catalogs to
be sent all over Latin America. A Talking Machine World report on the expedition is typical of trade magazines’ misunderstanding of and contempt for the music their
constituents were collecting for their profit. It also illustrates the incredible Yankee ignorance of Puerto Rican sounds in particular:
In the course of the next three or four months there will be let loose on the blasé American public an assortment of canned music that will be calculated to put life into even the
most bored. Love songs in the original Porto Rican language, whatever that may be, will be heard floating from every apartment house window on quiet summer nights, vieing [sic]
with the industrious mos­
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quito in making sleep a longed­for and unachievable goal. Porto Rican folk dances will assault the ear from every source, while no public place will be completed [sic] without a
phonograph, including a record imprinted with the Porto Rican equivalent of “We Won’t Go Home Until Morning. ” . . .
The expedition which is to corral these harmonic efforts of the guileless Porto Rican aborigine will leave to­morrow morning. 5
With the help of its commercial representative, the department store of Luis Sánchez Morales, Victor kicked off its own 1917 Latin American and Caribbean tour
with forty­eight selections recorded in Puerto Rico.6
Scouts and recording engineers had an extensive, hectic itinerary, only a tiny portion of it in Puerto Rico. Just a
few days on the island in early January were followed by about two weeks in various regions of Venezuela. After a brief return to New York, the crew continued to
Barbados, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, and Colombia, docking for just a few hours in some cities. In their eleven­month tour the
group braved many disasters—drunk musicians, one­legged singers who missed their recording dates, squabbles between rival ensembles, shipments of broken
records, town fires.7
The crew adapted the performers’ sounds to the technical capacity of their equipment, starting a process of subtle modification. A note from their
sojourn in Venezuela, for example, mentions that a crew member had taken the seeds out of an artist’s maracas and replaced them with ball bearings, which were
easier to capture on records.8
Undoubtedly this crew, which learned only the basics of Spanish and of Latino music as they went from country to country, changed a
great deal more as well.
Company scouts and recording engineers who traveled to Latin America inevitably had preconceived ideas of what was appropriately commercial music and how to
get at it. A balance had to be struck between the selection processes they had used in other countries and the local circumstances in which they found themselves. For
example, though the genres recorded depended upon the country and what was popular, decisions were based on the ideas of an elite merchant class and the tastes of
those who could afford phonographs. Local merchants were often both the intermediaries who found the artists and the providers of hastily improvised recording
studios. They received an exclusive dealership from one of the North American record companies and in turn brought hopeful talent in from the hinterlands. In Havana,
for example, the agent was La Casa Humara. A hardware store founded in 1854, it had both contacts and clients throughout the island and “a solid prestige,
something Victor needed in order to introduce such novelties as
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windup Victrolas and records.” As store personnel sold phonographs all over Cuba, they kept their eyes out for local talent. Victor executives would periodically visit
the island to make final selections and sign the contracts before recording got under way. 9
After the recording, the master disks were sent by boat to New York or
New Jersey for processing, and then they were prepared for reexport to Latin America. The company would issue a few thousand records, and the artist would tour
the island with the store’s promotional agent, who was often the very same Victrola salesman and talent scout.
In Puerto Rico a similar structure meant that formal orchestras and bands, operatic singers, and concert instrumentalists were immortalized on discs. Despite the tiny
size of the island, neither Victor nor Sánchez Morales seems to have made an effort to recruit much beyond the most visible San Juan ensembles for their 1917
sessions. The Puerto Rican Regimental Band, a school chorus, and an orchestra led by Rafael Hernández were recorded. So were speeches and poetry by politician
and writer José de Diego, a few small ensembles, and the tenor Francisco “El Paisa” Quiñones.
The repertoire recorded was quite different from that later offered by Puerto Rican groups in New York. Nevertheless, it reflected the multiple outside influences on
the Puerto Rican music of the era. The groups sang and played not only the aristocratic Puerto Rican danza but also salon dances of Cuban influence, such as
danzones, and European origin, including pasodobles, valses, and mazurkas. On the other hand, the elaborate strophic music of the jíbaros, subsistence farmers of
the Puerto Rican highlands, and the complex rhythms of the Afro–Puerto Ricans working in the coastal sugar industry were virtually ignored. These recordings thus
crystallized a carefully selected diversity of sounds played and heard in Puerto Rico. Choosing what they felt would sell the most, record companies preserved genres
and songs based on market concerns.10
In making decisions about recording and distribution, which had such important ramifications for their constituents, North American companies were not just culling the
most danceable sounds from one particular country. They were also taking into account established trade routes, favorable population demographics, and their
political ties with each territory. Close economic links between the United States and Latin America had accounted for reciprocal influences between their popular
musics for many years. With the establishment of U.S. cinema, radio, and record company branches in various parts of Latin America, a pow­
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erful culture­industry flow dominated by U.S. businesses was well established by the early 1920s.
The activities of U.S. record companies produced their own musical cross­fertilizations between Latin American countries, affecting most heavily the territories over
which they had the most economic control. Cuba, for example, had been an important trading partner of the United States since the late eighteenth century. Its land
area and population were much greater than those of the other Antilles, and not surprisingly, Cuban records were preeminent within the U.S.­dominated culture
industry. In their ongoing attempts to make records as economically as possible while selling as many phonographs as they could, manufacturers relied on Latin
America’s almost universal use of Spanish to promote a musical interchangeability between countries. 11
Spanish was not a prerequisite, however, for an unequal distribution based on externally made political and trade decisions. Thus, during the U.S. occupation of Haiti
from 1915 to 1934, the Haitians were flooded with both North American and Cuban bands and dance styles, partly via U.S.­produced radios and records.12 The
U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic formally from 1916–1924, and tacitly thereafter, had much the same result. The Dominican Republic began receiving
records from North American companies in 1913. Although these included danzas, danzones, canciones, zarzuelas, operas, and two­steps, there was no
Dominican­produced material among them. It was not until 1928 that the first records were made of Dominican artists in their homeland. Meanwhile, the Dominican
Republic’s first famous popular singer, Eduardo Brito, who recorded for Victor in New York in 1929, had grown up imitating the (mostly Cuban) music to be heard
on the few record players in his town. Throughout most of his subsequent artistic life, Brito was billed as a Cuban singer, inappropriate to his national origins but
appropriate to the mechanical legacy he and his assorted Latin American audiences shared.13
The musical environments and tastes of Puerto Rican artists and audiences were formed under similar circumstances. Puerto Rico’s ongoing colonial ties to the United
States served to make it a guaranteed market for the sounds produced by the North American companies, rather than for a large and representative sampling of its
own musical forms. In general, the island’s musical resources were tapped much less frequently than those of Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, and many other parts of Latin
America. While Puerto Rican musicians were sporadically and almost perfunctorily scouted and recorded, record company dealerships estab­
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lished prior to these local recording efforts assured that Puerto Ricans had already received mechanically reproduced Latin American music from other countries.
This colonialism also bolstered a deliberate underdevelopment of local recording facilities within Puerto Rico. While recording facilities in much of Latin America were
initially makeshift, relatively sophisticated studios developed in Mexico, Argentina, and other sites, and they remained primitive at best in Puerto Rico. Francisco López
Vidal, for example, recorded for Victor in the 1920s in the studios of radio station WKAQ. All recordings were made after midnight, when the trolleys had stopped
running, on fragile acetates; a tiny mistake could make the recording session last all night. The problems of these less than ideal studio conditions were compounded by
the technical difficulties of the recording industry in that time period. ”We recorded with only two microphones,” remembers López Vidal, “one for the orchestra and
one for the singer. So what happened was that I played saxophone and violin. The one who played the trumpet played saxophone and violin, and the one who played
the guitar also played violin. So when an interlude came with the violins we had to run [to change instruments].” 14 Guitarist Ramón “Moncho” Dávila remembers
recording sites that were not even remotely connected to the music industry. During the 1930s he and his Cuarteto Aurora recorded for the Brunswick label in a lodge
of the Caballeros de la Verdad (Knights of Truth), in Old San Juan.15 Predictably, all the recordings made by these North American companies were mass­produced
in factories in the New York region.
Just as the possibility of better economic conditions compelled working­class Puerto Ricans to migrate to the metropolitan center of their colonizers, so poor local
prospects induced ambitious Puerto Rican musicians to establish themselves in New York. But these hopeful artists entered the city at a time when the major North
American phonograph companies were determining to concentrate less on overseas performers and more on local immigrant talent.
Ethnic Recording in the United States
Two major factors combined to inaugurate the second phase of foreign­language recording by U.S.­based record companies, that taking place on their home turf.
First was the companies’ ongoing primary concern, the sale of talking machines. Both at home and abroad, these firms had applied most of their energies to enticing
the “better classes” to buy
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phonographs. In the United States this meant producing prestige series of classical recordings as well as ever more elaborate cabinetry for their record­playing
equipment. But sales slowed by the second decade of the twentieth century, compelling the companies to find ways to intrigue new classes and groups. Second,
World War I cut off American companies’ access to Europe as a source of raw musical material or a market, another motivation for turning to the spectrum of ethnic
and regional musics within the country.
Ethnic recording activities in the United States were both separate from and mingled with that geared toward a mainstream audience, in ways that would affect both
musicians and listeners. As in Latin America, the major American labels created their own categories, cross­fertilizations, and selective criteria for recording and
marketing domestic ethnic music. Multiethnic, classical, and popular musicians often crossed paths within a day’s work in a single recording studio. These ethnic and
regional sounds were not always accessible to the mainstream North American audience, often emerging briefly as fads and then disappearing. Hawaiian music
enjoyed a general vogue in the World War I era. Italian opera stars were cross­listed in both general and Italian­language catalogs and were popular with other ethnic
audiences as well. Ironically, “hillbilly” music from the American South and Midwest rated a separate catalog as a subculture music. Like much of the “race” music
recorded by American blacks, the sounds of Appalachia’s residents were virtually inaudible to the majority of citizens from other regions.
Different types of Latin American music in varying states of dilution also wove in and out of the North American consciousness. Ongoing exchanges between
Southwestern “cowboy” music and Mexican corridos, the nationwide tango craze of the pre–World War I era, and the rumba infatuation of the 1930s are just a few
examples. 16 For other reasons as well, Latino sounds formed a unique subset within a general ethnic framework. Some of the earliest ethnic records made by U.S.
companies, for example, were by Mexicans from both sides of the border and predated even African­American and Appalachian recordings.17 During World War I,
Latin America was still a source for immigrants and musicians, as well as an important market for records. While the war and its aftermath cut off the immigration of
other groups to the United States, it brought many of the newly naturalized Puerto Ricans to the continent both as soldiers and civilians, providing more potential
musicians and audience members for the record companies. The politi­
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cal and economic conditions that allowed North American companies to mass­mediate Puerto Ricans on the island also led to a constant influx of new migrants who
kept alive a separate ethnic music and a demand for it long after these had disappeared in most other U.S. ethnic communities.
Although the trend toward looking for foreign sounds on domestic soil extended to Latin Americans as well, the divisions between the domestic and foreign branches
of recording were never as clear­cut among Spanish speakers as they were among members of other ethnic groups. As a rule, Latin Americans tended to maintain the
strongest ongoing ties to the culture of their home countries, and that included loyalty to their recording artists on both sides of the border or the ocean. Culturally as
well as physically, many of these performers and their audiences traveled back and forth between the homeland and the new country.
Domestic Strategies
Domestic ethnic recording at first overlapped with overseas ethnic recording, but it also heralded a significant change in audience and orientation. In the decades
before the Depression, members of the urban and rural lower classes of Europe, Asia, and Latin America usually found steady work in the United States. Bolstered by
factory or service­sector jobs, these immigrants could often buy records and phonographs, whereas “the impoverished classes they left behind” could not “and thus did
not constitute an audience for their own traditional entertainment, so far as making and marketing records was concerned.” 18 Within the contours of these threeminute discs, ethnic music was almost by definition a genre by and for working­class migrants.
Puerto Ricans, of course, fit squarely within this category. The first phonograph had been received on the island with great fuss and fanfare in 1892, but only the
wealthy could afford to buy this novelty for their homes.19 Once on the mainland, it was another story. While Bernardo Vega remembers the modesty of entertainment
possibilities among New York’s boricuas in the World War I era, he also tells us that Puerto Rican records were already an important presence at their gatherings.
They had been available since at least 1918, when “Columbia was recording danzas, aguinaldos, and other kinds of music from back home.” Records were both
relatively cheap entertainment and a reflection of the local community. Along with the songs recorded in Puerto Rico, boricuas could listen to some of their talented
local merchants, two barbers who were among the first migrants to record: “Erasmo Lasalle was particu­
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larly memorable, a first­rate singer who was the first man to make a recording of Puerto Rican music. His shop was frequented by another great Puerto Rican guitarist,
Salvador Maldonado, who performed successfully in variety shows at the time.” 20
Clearly, phonograph companies had been quick to realize the enormous potential for this untapped market.21 In their eagerness to cultivate new customers, Victor,
Columbia, Brunswick, and their contemporaries created talking machines to fit the factory worker’s budget. They also began to produce limited editions of suitable
ethnic recordings in order to persuade a multiplicity of groups to buy these machines. As Harold Smith, in charge of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s U.S.
Foreign Department, observed in his memoirs, “In the great tide of immigration in the early 1900’s thousands of the new­comers had settled in the foreign communities
of our major cities. These foreign­born residents, confronted with a strange new language and customs, welcomed records of the songs and dances of their early
days. . . . They were all prospective Victrola owners, if they could have attractive records in their own tongue.”22
Company personnel often viewed the foreign­born as naïve and easy to manipulate. They also saw most ethnics as naturally musical and attracted to records. Much
depended upon the particular group. The Columbia Record characterized Chinese music as an “ear­splitting­clatter” and an “awful pot­pourri of drums and string
fiddles, never in tune,”23 but spoke admiringly of African musicians.24 Not surprisingly, in an article entitled “Edison Phonographs in Four Corners of the World:
Instruments Entertaining and Educating Civilized People and Untutored Savages,” Talking Machine World affirmed that “The native Cuban, like most of his Spanishspeaking prototypes, is musical by nature.”25 By 1917, Victor’s house organ was exhorting retailers to take advantage of the “enormous” and “intensely musical . . .
foreign element in our midst,” and the company displayed a respectable array of ethnic catalogs in dozens of languages for domestic consumption, including Puerto
Rican and Cuban versions.26 A perusal of these catalogs, however, indicates that much of the material was still being culled from export lists and that most of the
musicians either had been recorded on their home turf or had been brought over especially by the company to record. After World War I, Victor turned its eyes to the
domestic ethnic market and discovered to its chagrin that its major competitor was already there:
One sales field Victor had not fully explored and developed was that of domestic foreign languages. The U.S. census of 1920 showed that 13% of our population was foreign born.
Fifteen or more years earlier, the company had
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issued catalogs of foreign language records . . . but these were far outnumbered by the Columbia lists. Columbia had put a special effort behind this product, with salesmen to
contact dealers, and artists to record new foreign language numbers without delay in their New York laboratory. 27
Smith and his colleagues discovered that there was more to putting together record collections to persuade the foreign­born to buy Victrolas than just juggling existing
inventories, since “each foreign language group was constantly adding new musical hits to its best sellers,” just as mainstream Americans were doing. Emulating
Columbia and following advice from Ralph Peer, who had recruited and recorded artists for Victor’s recently established “race” and ”hillbilly” catalogs, Smith
embarked on the extensive fieldwork and delicate community relations necessary to build conduits to ethnic artists and audiences. Starting in New York and later
visiting cities in the Midwest, Smith talked to dealers already involved with the company and searched for new ones, especially in “foreign communities.” However, he
and his competitors discovered that the ethnic and class dimensions of this process were quite different in the United States than abroad. Rather than dealing with
storekeepers who shared the linguistic and class background of their clients, they found English­speaking vendors and establishments that were isolated from potential
foreign, working­class customers.
The company urged dealers to make surveys of the foreign populations surrounding them and to treat the occasional ethnic customer who wandered in as an important
liaison to his or her ethnic group. The store proprietor was to ask the “Tony Andrianopolises,” as one Milwaukee dealer wrote, what types of records they would like
to see in the store, order them, and depend upon the word­of­mouth advertising ensuing from such a conversation to bring in a flock of loyal customers.28 But
increasingly the company found that
the man who goes deliberately after foreign trade as the mainstay of his existence is in a class by himself. As likely as not he is himself foreign­born, and has traveled widely
among the people to whom he caters in their home countries. He has possibly increased his knowledge by acting as ship’s steward so that he knows what they eat, how they
sleep, what are their political, social and economic shibboleths, and what happens to them after they land in America and shake down to their proper level in this amazing meltingpot of a country.29
Perhaps modeling their tactics on those of the urbane character described above, Victor looked to a group of ethnic and multilingual Americans within its own ranks to
help in the aggressive pursuit of new
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artists and markets. Smith’s “foreign roadmen” were often simultaneously fieldworkers locating new talent and company musicians or artist and repertory (A&R) staff.
30 Tetos Demetriades, a Greek singer for the company, recruited talent and became a producer and consultant in the making of Greek, Turkish, and Albanian records
before forming his own Victor­affiliated label and ethnic record store. Alfredo Cibelli was a singer and mandolinist who was promoted to supervise Italian recordings,
recruit and recommend Italian talent, and occasionally conduct Victor’s International Novelty Orchestra. Working with ethnic record merchants, these agents helped
the company discover the size and tastes of particular foreign populations, what records should be ordered, and who in the community was recording material. They
translated or paraphrased foreign lyrics into English and found out about recorded music from the homeland worth re­releasing domestically. Working on small
budgets in shoestring operations, such ethnic liaisons not only performed multiple tasks but dealt with a variety of ethnic groups. Cibelli, for example, became closely
associated with the recruiting and making of Spanish­language recordings as well as Italian ones.
In general, capturing a local ethnic market meant a great deal more community work than did catering to a mainstream North American audience. Smith and his
colleagues found that whereas North Americans were more prone to demand famous artists and groups far removed from their circle of acquaintances, “It stimulates
interest in various localities to make foreign records of local talent.”31 It was also, of course, cheaper as well, once the record companies had worn enough shoe
leather in the initial scouting process. At the same time, the fate of ethnic recording was somewhat independent of recording intended for a mainstream American
audience. The often poor development of ethnic entertainment for foreign­born Americans, especially away from large cities, ensured that ethnic recording would
flourish even at times when North American popular pressings did not. This activity was especially strong during the twenties, even after radio became a strong
competitor for general audiences. While not only the Depression but also economic downturns, strikes, and other labor problems in immigrant­populated industries
might noticeably affect record sales, manufacturers and merchants generally experienced a steady, if modest, business in ethnic recordings, and they tailored their
expectations accordingly. Whereas a popular record for a general audience might sell several hundred thousand copies or more, a good ethnic record sale might
consist of a few thousand or even a few hundred. In turn, the production of such limited
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editions shaped manufacturers’ attitudes toward ethnic musicians and their procedures with them.
Ethnic recording was thus a valuable, if small­scale, business for Victor, Columbia, and their colleagues. As they had overseas, these companies utilized domestic
ethnic storekeepers as liaisons to artists and audiences while making most of the profits themselves. Within the realm of music, they made a concerted and basically
successful effort to work in conjunction with such entrepreneurs. In essence, this era’s ethnic recording was by and for local people, though it was by no means
controlled by them. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of company strategies depended on the context of developments within particular ethnic neighborhoods.
Barrio Record Outlets
Phonograph company personnel had assiduously courted stores in Latin America to perform the dual function of dealership and musician recruiting. Now they
transferred this strategy to their U.S. territory. Many merchants in ethnic communities, however, were precariously and impermanently just a step above the laboring
classes themselves. Instead of a few large, prestigious department stores serving as conduits between the music industry and elite customers, humbler establishments
served working­class customers with music essentially made by their peers. Smith and his ethnic­attuned cohorts found that the dealers they wished to reach were
often modest and hidden within ethnic neighborhoods. Such stores, the company found, “are usually operated on small capital, with a minimum overhead, and come
under the head of stationery, drugs, cigar, grocery stores and steamship agencies.” 32
This profile fit Puerto Rican settlement in New York. For the first years after World War I, music stores were not among the most prominent Puerto Rican commercial
entities. During that period, record stores advertising in La Prensa the Spanish­language wares of Victor, Columbia, Pathé, and Odeon typically were run by non–
Puerto Ricans, often outside the neighborhoods with the largest Puerto Rican populations. Daniel Castellanos, a Spaniard who advertised himself as the first New
York merchant of Spanish­language records, was established at least by 1922 and probably much earlier. His first shop was located in the South Ferry area of lower
Manhattan; later in the decade he opened three branches, two of them in Harlem. The vast majority of shops advertising Spanish­language wares were generally
located in either lower Manhat­
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tan or East Harlem and bore Jewish surnames. Some explicitly advertised that they had Latino managers for their Spanish departments. As in other businesses in East
Harlem, change came gradually as the neighborhood’s population shifted, and Jewish merchants sometimes stayed behind and adapted to the times. As late as 1929
Victoria Hernández, who had bought her record store from a Jewish owner for five hundred dollars, could advertise her shop as the only Puerto Rican–owned music
establishment in New York City. 33 It was not until the 1930s that a few more Puerto Rican stores became visible among the proliferation of Harlem music shops.
Under these circumstances, various types of Puerto Rican–owned stores became critical conduits to new artists. Vega suggests, for example, that before the 1920s
record companies used the Puerto Rican commercial enterprises to find their singing barbers. Despite this early start, in 1925, two years past the 1923 peak for their
general foreign business, Victor reported only 25 Puerto Rican records in their catalogs to serve a population of twenty thousand mainland Puerto Ricans. By contrast,
their Cuban and West Indian catalogs had a total of 355 records for a population little more than double the size of the Puerto Rican population.34 This paucity of
records was the result of a number of factors, including the record companies’ prior musical “colonization” of Latin Americans in their home country with Cuban
sounds, the popularity of such records among a general audience, and the lack of a critical mass of Puerto Rican migrant storekeepers who could be aggressive
advocates for their musical co­ethnics.
While Victor stepped up its campaign in the late 1920s to gain a stronger foothold in what the company dubbed the “U.S. Foreign” market, neighborhood ethnic
dealers sometimes had other ideas. As Smith and his foreign roadmen well knew, Victor’s success was threatened not only by the competition of their big­business
colleagues but by independent ethnic labels established by the very shopkeepers they sought to incorporate into their network. Some proprietors of small ethnic music
store who began by trying to create the special records requested by their local co­national customers decided that their unique understandings of their community’s
tastes could serve them well financially. Independent pressing plants could be established with a small investment, and a spectrum of ethnic entrepreneurs entered the
field in the 1920s.35 Victoria Hernández was one of these.
When Hernández founded her landmark record store on Madison Avenue in 1927, she hoped to market music she had gathered and
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pressed herself. Employing her brother Rafael as composer and performer, she produced several records with two groups, Las Estrellas Boricuas (The Puerto Rican
Stars) and Los Diablos de la Plena (The Plena Devils). The discs, recorded and possibly pressed in New Jersey, were sold for twenty cents, far below the prices
charged by the major record companies, in New York, Puerto Rico, and Curaçao. 36
In musical terms, independent labels such as Hispano had a great deal to offer to their communities. Arguably, some degree of originality as well as fidelity to older
ethnic sounds went by the wayside of such short­lived efforts.37 The songs written by Rafael Hernández and recorded on Hispano revealed in numerous ways the
composer’s intense sense of pride in his heritage. In these songs, as in many of his other creations, Hernández lovingly detailed Puerto Rican historical figures, towns,
types of food, and slang expressions. On his Hispano recordings, however, Hernández was also able to use native instruments not found on many commercial
recordings, as well as phrases and harmonic progressions taken from songs much beloved in Puerto Rico.
The best­known song from this phase of Hernández’s career, “Pura Flama” (Pure Flame), illustrates how these symbols of national pride were mixed with more
generalized conventions of Latino music. It was recorded by Las Estrellas Boricuas, a pickup group made up of some of the finest Puerto Rican musicians of the era.
Francisco “El Paisa” Quiñones was the lead singer, and Heriberto Torres lent his virtuoso cuatro playing to the effort. The prominent use of cuatro and güiro gave a
country flavor to what was decidedly not a piece of jíbaro music. Its use of alternating voices trading verses in a sort of musical argument was also reminiscent of the
controversia, a style long practiced among the jíbaros. ”Pura Flama,” however, opened with the introductory theme of the danza that had become Puerto Rico’s
national anthem, “La Borinqueña.” It continued in the lilting rhythm characteristic of the danza, although its harmonized singing style and verse structure were more akin
to the bolero.
The form of “Pura Flama” simultaneously encapsulated diverse Puerto Rican symbols and was shaped by the popular music of the Hispanic Caribbean in general. At
the same time, the song’s words drew boundaries between Puerto Ricans and members of diverse ethnic groups living in New York:
Me casé con una china,
me dejó a bofetadas.
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Luego una americana
que a mí me engañó.
Luego una japonesa,
y después una alemana.
Las judías están fachadas
pero allí no pico yo.
Yo no sé porque estas mujeres son así,
sólo sé que no me quieren a mí.
Si tú no eres chino ni francés,
ni hablas alemán ni japonés.
Razón que convence
cuando me quiero enamorar
me voy a Borinquén
para sentir el dulce hablar
de mi mulata cuando me dice,
Dame un beso mi papá.
Y yo le digo, Negra santa,
dame un beso mi mamá.
Mamá Borinquén me llama,
este país no es el mío.
Borinquén es pura flama
y aquí me muero de frío. ———
I married a Chinese woman,
she left me with slaps in the face.
Then an American woman
who deceived me.
Then a Japanese woman,
then a German woman.
Jewish women have nice figures
but there I don’t sample.
I don’t know why these women are that way,
I only know that they don’t love me.
But you’re not Chinese or French,
nor do you speak German or Japanese.
For that reason
when I want to fall in love
I go to Borinquén
to feel the sweet talk
of my mulata when she says to me,
Give me a kiss, my papá.
And I say to her, Negra santa,
give me a kiss, my mamá.
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Mamá Borinquén is calling me,
this country is not mine.
Borinquén is pure flame
and here I’m dying of cold.
The mix of humor and patriotism was characteristic of the Hernández style. His comparisons of the Puerto Rican woman to the homeland interwove thematic concerns
in a way common to Puerto Rican popular music of the era. Where a North American popular song of the era would never have mixed together these diverse
concerns, it made sense to Puerto Rican listeners to combine politics with humor, romance with love for the patria.
Hernández’s imaginative blendings, however, soon had to be transferred to a more conventional commercial format. For once again, as overseas, the economic power
of the major companies shaped the cultural choices of record buyers. Victoria’s dreams of a big, successful company were dashed when her first five thousand dollars
of earnings disappeared in the failure of her bank in 1929. Hispano became a casualty of the Depression, which had hit even the powerful major companies hard. Both
the particularities of the Depression and the general state of the record industry made it difficult for the small ethnic music stores to compete with the large North
American companies, which were intent upon capturing their market. Small companies working out of record stores simply did not have the manufacturing,
distribution, and publicity channels that the major companies had, and so they had to face their active challenges. The large firms clearly had superior resources, which
could render them more effective than even ethnic “insiders,” who ostensibly possessed superior knowledge of their audiences’ cultural needs. Musicians and store
owners had to make their peace with this uneven relationship and get out of it what they could. Victor, for example, spent tens of thousands of dollars yearly for
advertising in the foreign­language press, in addition to its ad campaigns aimed at the general audience.
Rather than war against ethnic stores, which were actual or potential record producers, the large companies used their clout to woo them. Victor enticed dealers with
discounts on foreign records, well­designed window­display items, and financial collaboration in newspaper advertising, all tempting for small­budget stores. In return,
ethnic merchants provided artists. The advantage for record sellers was that their protégés were recorded under superior studio conditions, at the cost, however, of
company artistic and financial arrangements. The storekeeper who
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wanted to make records outside of the tried­and­true sales formula or for obscure ethnic groups often assumed the risk by paying for production or agreeing to buy a
minimum number of copies.
In these and other ways, record companies hoped both to win such stores over to function as exclusive channels for themselves and to make money in the process.
Victor gave Victoria Hernández an exclusive dealership that was good for a radius of several blocks. In a densely populated area in which record stores were
beginning to emerge and compete with her own, this was significant. It was benefited the company, giving it a guaranteed outlet as well as an excellent contact for
recruitment of Puerto Rican musicians.
Such accommodations between the major companies and the small Puerto Rican record stores varied, partly in accordance with the competition between the record
stores themselves. Gabriel Oller ran a record store in Harlem, where he set up the label Dynasonic in 1934:
“With a name like Rafael Hernández to compete against,” said Oller, “I had to have a gimmick and the Dynasonic test record was it. ” . . .
He recorded the music of the neighborhood trios and quartets, the groups which played the house parties, weddings, and other social functions. Each musician received $3.00 for
the session. The recordings were done on an acetate, a test record from which a master would be made for $2.50. Musicians like Caney, Johnny López, Panchito Rizet [sic] and
Noro Morales recorded acetates and sold them to one of the three record companies at the time, RCA Victor, Columbia, and Decca. 38
Oller’s “gimmick,” which passed audition records on to the major companies, probably started off as an earnest attempt to create an alternative label. He was only
able to become independent, however, beginning in the 1940s, when the major companies’ interest in specialty recording was waning.
Continued links between the island and mainland Puerto Rican markets meant that even stores in Puerto Rico could have contractual arrangements with the major
companies while keeping in touch with their migrant musicians. Arturo Cátala of San Juan inspired the formation of Los Jardineros (The Gardeners), a New York–
based group that recorded Puerto Rican country music on traditional instruments as well as the ubiquitous dance rhythms of Cuba and the United States. A protean
collection of artists who played in other ensembles rather than an ongoing group, Los Jardineros existed mainly to supply original records to Cátala’s store in Old San
Juan. Cátala contracted with the major companies and boricuas residing in New York to make records to order for his
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audiences. Paquito López Cruz, who played with this group, remembers that Cátala “had a place in San Juan that was called the Jardín del Arte [Garden of Art].
There the records arrived, and they sold a great deal. Then he paid the musicians [and] ordered more recordings. The director there [in New York], Pedro Berríos,
was the one who made the recordings. [Cátala] sent the money to Pedro Berríos, [who] would go to Victor or to Columbia to make the records.” 39
Record companies themselves fostered links between the island and the mainland by their marketing strategies. Victor periodically showcased its artists by sponsoring
live and radio concerts in Puerto Rico.40 Musicians sometimes even traveled back and forth on their own. Francisco “El Paisa” Quiñones, for example, was much in
demand as a singer in New York but earned his living as a roving mechanic for Puerto Rican sugar centrales. Tied to his job, he could only make occasional trips to
New York to record with his colleagues.41
Between Studio and Store
By the late 1920s, when recording of Puerto Rican artists flourished on a modest scale, such performers took for granted the powerful role of record stores and
record store owners. Francisco López Cruz remembers that “Victor, for example, would go to a record shop in El Barrio, and they would say to the store owner, ‘We
want to make a number of records. Recommend me a group that plays well.'”42 It is clear from musicians’ comments that record stores could play a powerful role
even working within the interstices of the major companies. Victor and other companies were dependent on record stores such as Victoria Hernández’s to take the
musical pulse of the community. In turn, these merchants could cultivate connections with the companies and serve as crucial links between them and the musicians in a
multitude of ways. Victoria Hernández, as López Cruz, Mario Bauzá, and she herself remembered, would pay the musicians a cash advance for the recording
sessions, the pay for which was usually two weeks in coming. In the event of failed sessions, in which no marketable records were produced, the musicians would still
have received the money. In exchange for providing this security and assuming some risk, Hernández would receive a percentage of the musicians’ checks. Musicians’
accounts suggest that she may also have earned a commission on the artists she recommended to the record companies. In order to maintain her place as such a
powerful liaison, Hernández would have been obliged by Victor to select for
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them the most commercially viable artists. In such a relationship, Hernández played an important role on behalf of the musicians.
Shopkeepers such as Victoria Hernández could thus profit from advancing the interests of both musicians and record companies. Although on the surface those
interests were similar and sometimes meshed to the advantage of both, not too far below the surface was a continuation, with modifications, of the exploitive
relationship begun overseas.
Both companies and musicians considered their recording activities a sideline, though a necessary one, to the business of selling phonographs and performing live,
respectively. But the industry’s needs structured this marginality for the musicians. Once the connections were made between artists and companies by shopkeepers or
other intermediaries, the companies called the artists only sporadically. Knowing that they were catering to a limited market, manufacturers made only as many ethnic
records as it took to sell phonographs. Puerto Ricans were even more marginal within this already marginal field. Companies kept fees as low as possible, as López
Cruz remembers: “They paid little money. I don’t remember exactly, but for one session of one record that was one song on one side, and one on the other, they paid
twelve or fifteen dollars, nothing more, to each musician. But: If I got fifteen dollars, I could pay my room for a week and I could get lunch with thirty­five cents.” 43
The singer Davilita, who made many records with Rafael Hernández’s Grupo Victoria, recalls a hierarchy in which Puerto Ricans and Cubans were paid less than
other Spanish­language artists: “Victor never treated us like they did the Mexicans, the South Americans, . . . when it came to money . . . Venezuela, . . . and
Argentina and all those countries charged a lot of money and [the company] paid them. . . . Cugat was Spanish, [he] charged as if he were an American, wherever he
went. But the Puerto Ricans, no.”44
Compounding these hardships, royalties on recordings were unheard of. Victor and other firms’ policy of hiring local musicians was not just a way to please ethnic
audiences, as Harold Smith had suggested; it also saved them from doling out fees on published materials. A perusal of logs from Victor recording sessions in the
1920s reveals that many ethnic artists, and particularly Latino ones, brought unpublished manuscripts or no music at all to their recording dates. They then signed a
form ceding to the company the rights for the music, for which they would receive a one­time and probably minuscule payment. The recording of original music by
local working­class artists was thus an ironic by­product of a pernicious system.
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The companies’ lack of focused interest in and financing for the ethnic recording department shaped both their work strategies and those of the artists. Since the A&R
personnel the firms used to supervise Puerto Rican recording sessions were non–Puerto Rican and often non­Latino, they were less tuned in to the nuances of Puerto
Rican and other Hispanic music than they might have been. While this could be a handicap, it also gave the musicians a certain amount of flexibility. Victor’s Alfredo
Cibelli and his interaction with Puerto Rican musicians provides a perfect example.
Starting apparently in the late 1920s and continuing at least through the 1930s, Alfredo Cibelli, the one­time mandolinist and consultant on Italian recordings for Victor,
was the artistic director in charge of Spanish­language recordings. Since the beginning of the U.S. Foreign Department at Victor, Cibelli had worked closely with
Smith and with Nat Shilkret, the musical director of a Victor house orchestra formed “to render the latest dance­hits, paso­dobles, danzons, etc., for . . . the Spanishspeaking trade.” 45 López Cruz remembers Cibelli as “a good musician [who] knew what was a song well sung.”46
Part of Cibelli’s job was to be in touch with the neighborhood record stores. “He knew what sold because he would go to the stores, he would send his employee.
‘What’s selling?’ ‘Listen, the guarachas are selling a lot.’ ‘We’re going to make some guaracha records.'”47 According to López Cruz, Cibelli was less concerned
with the particular songs within a genre, or who owned them, than with fulfilling a quota of the most saleable genres.48 After an audition of a new group, Cibelli would
say, “‘Okay, I like this group. I think it’s okay. Two weeks from now, come with a danza, with a guaracha, with a vals, with a plena, to record.’ It had nothing to do
with who the author was. The group leader was in charge of looking for the music.”49 Thus, musicians could cavalierly recycle melodies. As music historian Jorge
Javariz describes it, “They had to have four pieces to record. If Pedro Flores, for example, didn’t have four new pieces, then, he would change the title of one that he’d
already recorded under another title.”50 Few composers went to publishers to protect their work, which meant that leaders whose talents lay more in organizing
groups or in interpreting the music of others “borrowed” songs, sometimes giving credit to the composers but often claiming it for themselves and creating a litigious
and sometimes violent atmosphere between musicians.
Javariz’s portrait of a rather informal society of musicians has been confirmed by those involved. Personnel floated in and out of groups on
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what López Cruz called a “vénte tú” (come here) basis; that is, enterprising leaders, not all of them especially musical, would form pickup groups as recording and
performing opportunities arose.
We’ll take a specific group, the Grupo Marcano. Marcano lived in New York, so he would call the musicians who made up his group—four, five musicians. He would say,
“Tomorrow’s rehearsal.” They would rehearse in Piquito Marcano’s house without sheet music, because they were numbers composed within the group, or by Rafael Hernández,
because Rafael still didn’t have copyrighted music. They rehearsed and recorded in a session. That would generally be four pieces in the same day. . . . They were Christmas
numbers that they had [with] women singing in a chorus [who] were their own . . . wives. 51
This casual approach to group formation, which saved the company money, at times extended to recommendations for artists. Leaders could bring new musicians into
the company in pickup groups or endorse new talent to Cibelli or other A&R personnel. In this way, not only store owners but enterprising musician­organizers such
as Canario, Julio Roqué, and the Spanish composer and theater director Leopoldo González became important liaisons between companies and artists.
Because record companies were only lending half an ear to such ethnic artists, songs that would have been censored in English sneaked into mechanical immortality in
Spanish. Songs with sexual double entendres, such as Rafael Hernández’s “Menéalo Que Se Empelota” (Shake It/Stir It Up, It’s Hardening), became enormously
popular in various parts of Latin America. Recorded by Trío Borinquen three times during the 1920s, it was the biggest hit the group had ever had. However, it roused
the ire of the middle and upper classes, particularly those in the Dominican Republic. Since Antonio Mesa, the trío’s lead singer, was the first Dominican popular
recording artist, people in his country were particularly sensitive to the image he represented. Dominican critics decried the crass, commercial motivations of the record
companies.52 “Menéalo” was not unique: it featured the food and sex metaphors used by many singers recording in the United States in the early 1920s, Bessie Smith
being prominent among them. Not surprisingly, this bawdy number was set in guaracha time, with a percussive piano, güiro, and bongó leading the rhythm section.
Other songs that made it past the censors were those that criticized, in more or less subtle ways, U.S. political domination of Puerto Rico and its effects. Dozens of
such songs, by Pedro Flores, Rafael Hernández, and other composers, passed unnoticed among innocuous numbers
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of love lost and found. As Puerto Ricans and as musicians, these recording artists were embedded within an industrial system over which they had little control, and
they gladly bit the hand that only halfheartedly fed them. 53
Authenticity
As in their overseas work, the North American companies tried to maintain a delicate balance between the authenticity they promised their audiences and their desire
to get maximum reuse out of performers, songs, and recordings. The companies had a sort of compact with their homesick public to provide “authentic” music by
“native” talent. The following is an excerpt from a Victor catalog:
By means of a Victor or Victrola everyone can hear the music of his native country, and in this way appreciate in its full value all the most beautiful and the best of the land that
witnessed his birth. You yourself can revive those almost­forgotten memories of childhood, now past in the far away and beloved mother country. The songs that once you used
to sing, the music to whose chords you danced with all the vigor and enthusiasm of youth, all of that which can evoke for you wonderful memories of your country, is reproduced
with absolute and inimitable perfection. . . . A magnificent and extensive collection of pure and unadulterated Spanish and Hispanic­American music is immediately within your
reach if you own one of our instruments.54
On the other hand, Victor’s desire to make as much money with as little outlay as possible meant that it tried to recycle songs and artists and hire as few outside
ensemble members as possible. Harold Smith’s description of the history of one “Latin” piece tells us a lot about how Victor milked some of this music for all it was
worth:
The hit song “that knocked them dead” in 1926 was Valencia, by José Padilla Sanchez, a Spanish composer who had found success in Paris. He had written a popular bullfight
song, El Relicario. A brother of mine, returning from Paris, brought me a copy of Valencia. Nat Shilkret recorded it in pasodoble time for the Latin American trade. Paul Whiteman
played it in the approved Parisian manner, for our domestic trade. Jesse Crawford made a pipe­organ record, movie style. Tito Schipa sang it in Spanish. The Revelers made a vocal
in English. It had a phenomenal success.55
In­house ensembles eliminated the need to bring whole orchestras or even smaller groupings from Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America for extended periods
of time. The Victor Salon Orchestra, led by composer and arranger Nathaniel Shilkret, spent years recording
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both the company’s American popular dance numbers and those targeted for Latin American audiences in the United States and abroad. The orchestra played a wide
range of music from many Latin American nations, at times adding an “authentic” representative from one of these countries in the form of a vocalist fronting the group.
Dominican Eduardo Brito, for example, first came to New York to record with Victor’s house orchestra. The only problem, as Dominican music historian Arístides
Incháustegui notes, was that “the Orquesta Internacional did not handle the percussion in the Dominican style, nor did a written musical transcription exist to guide it.”
56 In providing just the gloss of authenticity, companies such as Victor sacrificed a great deal in terms of musical depth and variation.
Where possible, companies marketed musicians to more than one ethnic group, and their categorizations were significant to artists’ careers. Recording personnel
classified Latin artists based on their versatility and salability. López Cruz, who could be classified as a folk musician, or at best a popular musician playing for a
limited, specialized audience, describes modest sales and limited publicity when he recorded: “In three weeks or in a month, they were already selling the records.
There wasn’t much publicity. What happened is that they put the records on the radio, and the people bought them. A good sale would be, in that era, ten thousand
records in the United States only, because they sent more records to the different countries: Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Santo Domingo.”57
López Cruz’s recording milieu was not the only that existed for Puerto Rican musicians. Victor and other companies recorded a variety of performers and ranked them
within their marketing strategies, testing out their salability to international Latin and/or North American audiences. Johnny Rodríguez, already famous on Puerto Rican
radio, was sent for by Victor to make some recordings and seems to have been treated like a star all along. Under Cibelli’s wing, he took voice lessons and began
recording with a series of pickup groups, whose members would be selected from the abundant resources of the Barrio Latino in the somewhat casual manner already
described. Rodríguez claims to have been well backed up by the company in terms of advance publicity and tours. As it saw that he appealed to his audience as a
universalized Latin American crooner, the company began to “lend” him to other groups, often of other genres and nationalities, though always within a Latino setting.
Thus, Rodríguez recorded with tríos and conjuntos, with Cuban Alberto Socarrás’s urbane Latin orquesta and a Guatemalan ma­
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rimba band. While highly praising Victor, Rodríguez also notes, ”l didn’t realize what was happening. If I had realized what I was in that era, I would be a millionaire.”
58 As it was, he was being paid $125 per recording session even in the late 1930s.
Within a Latino context, one was a “big star” only relatively speaking, even if he or she was promoted as the foreign equivalent of a contemporary popular American
singer. Such musicians still used mechanical media as a means to generate publicity and live, cinematic, or radio opportunities for themselves. Ironically, despite
generally terrible conditions for African­Americans in the music industry, those in the most prominent black bands could make a great deal more money, as those
Puerto Ricans and other Latino musicians who were unafraid of the social stigma attached to the crossover could attest.
Profiting from the almost inevitably eclectic experience of Puerto Rican musicians trying to make a living in New York, companies even had musicians play in house
bands for completely different ethnic groups. In an ironic reversal, Puerto Ricans could be the simulated ethnic backup for the “authentic” facade of vocalists of other
nationalities. López Cruz and Manuel Peña remember that Puerto Rican musicians sat in on recordings of Polish, Greek, or Ukrainian genres in addition to playing on
Latino records. Peña himself was a “houseman” for Cibelli on a series of international recordings. Peña remembers in particular recording Polish music with a group of
musicians from various ethnic backgrounds, including an Italian­American accordionist. In this context, Peña’s sight­reading was his most important skill: “Whenever
[Cibelli] called, well, we went to record. We wouldn’t even know what we were going to record. You had to pick up the music and read it there, rehearse it at once,
and record it. You had to read it at first sight and fast.”59
Clearly, record companies were no strangers to the somewhat cavalier mixing of musicians of different ethnic backgrounds under a facade of authenticity. At the same
time, they expected this mixing to be done on their own terms. Just as they would have been shocked at some of the political or double­entendre lyrics that were
recorded under their very noses, they were sometimes disturbed by musicians’ sabotage of their own notions of authenticity.
For performers, the musical versatility demanded of them by the companies was their bread and butter. They cultivated it with pride and pushed it beyond the limits of
where even the company expected them to go. Mixing with other Latino and non­Latino musicians in informal parties and live engagements in New York City,
musicians became adept at playing one another’s music. Thus, Canario’s musicians could sit in
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on Eduardo Brito’s group when his Dominican sidemen became ill, and Rafael Hernández was able to cross his trio over to the Dominican market. 60 While record
company personnel may have approved such crossovers, there were others that clearly did not, as the following non–Puerto Rican example illustrates.
Beginning with a radio program in 1930–31, the Argentine musician Terig Tucci worked with the Mexican singer Tito Guizar and his trio. The popular group began to
perform at musical parties given by doña Rosita de Rocha, a Colombian musician and artist living in New York, whose guests, Tucci remembers, reflected “the most
significant of the Latin American artistic scene in general and the Colombian in particular.” Through this association, Tucci got involved in some cross­ethnic recording.
In one of those get­togethers we got to know the famous Colombian singing duo of Añez and Briceño, who proposed that our trio be in charge of the accompaniment in a session
of Colombian recordings that would take place in the Victor studios. The director of the Latin American section of this company, an Italian named Alfredo Cibelli, must have been
impressed with our performance, because after Añez and Briceño, he continued to call us for other recordings of Colombian music. Thus I knew that Mr. Cibelli was convinced that
we were all Colombians! It never would have occurred to me that he could think such a thing. Of course, in order to get maximum authenticity, I surrounded myself in these
recording sessions with Colombian musicians.
Tucci saw no reason to inform Cibelli that he was not really Colombian. But a couple of years later, when Tucci was involved with Carlos Gardel and was back in the
Victor studios, his past returned to haunt him in a revealing way.
When the moment arrived for recording the songs of the films [of Carlos Gardel], Victor suggested that Alfredo Cibelli, our old friend, direct the orchestra. Gardel, grateful, rejected
the offer and explained that he already had an Argentine orchestra director. Finally the recording day arrived. Mr. Cibelli was astonished to see me in front of the orchestra!
Pointing at me, he faced Gardel and said,
“This man is an imposter! I know positively that Tucci is Colombian!”
What amount of work it cost us to convince Mr. Cibelli of his mistake.
“And to think,” he said to us some time afterwards, “that I gave you all the Colombian work in the absolute belief that you were a native of Colombia.”61
Rafael Hernandez as a Company Musician
As in live performance, musicians entered into somewhat unpredictable cross­fertilizations in their attempts to earn some income in the
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recording studio. In recording, the companies’ placement and categorizations of music and musicians added yet another dimension to the eclectic artistic and economic
decisions the performers themselves were making. Even more than in live performance, musicians worked within acute commercial constraints whose long legacy had
its effects upon the music. At the same time, phonograph company technology made possible the widespread dissemination of the new Puerto Rican small­ensemble
sound developing in New York City. Additionally, the musicians’ and their audience’s exile in New York, difficult political and economic conditions both in the city and
back home, and the inattention of the record companies to the content of their performers’ songs all contributed to the development of an intensely patriotic Puerto
Rican recorded music. This music was pressed and consumed in New York, but it was also exported back to Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America.
A look at the recording­related activities of Rafael Hernández shows how a Puerto Rican artist could simultaneously bow to the constraints of the music industry and
combine them with his own eclectic musical ideas and experience to come up with a body of works considered by his audience to be almost folkloric and certainly
thoroughly Puerto Rican masterpieces. In itself, Rafael Hernández’s recording career exemplifies the links between the mainland and the island that were created by the
record company as an industrial entity. Hernández began recording when the Victor Talking Machine Company came to Puerto Rico in 1917, shortly before he
entered the U.S. Army as a member of the 369th Infantry Band. By 5:00 P.M. on January 12, three danzones by the twenty­five­year­old Hernández had been
immortalized by the composer’s orquesta. Victor ledgers also indicate that other groups were recording Hernández’s danzas, danzones, and his vals “Miprovisa” at
least by the previous year. Hernández’s music was thus among the first offered by Victor “Porto Rican” catalogs. Hernández also played in the Banda Municipal de
San Juan, another entity recorded by the company, which used some of his works. Clearly, when he left Puerto Rico Hernández was no stranger to American
recording companies and their ways of functioning, nor to playing a variety of genres in different group configurations.
From early in his recording career, Hernández’s music reflected the range of ethnic influences to be found on the island. Although a vals, for example, “Miprovisa,” had
a distinctly Italian flavor, it used the mandolin, arpeggiated chords, and grace notes characteristic of the mazurka. Now these diverse sounds were compressed into the
three­minute format of the 78­rpm records.
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When Rafael Hernández formed his Trío Borinquen in 1926, tríos and other small ensembles were a relatively new phenomenon in popular music. Aided by new
microphones and recently developed electrical recording techniques, the sound of such groups’ delicate guitar and handheld percussion could now be preserved on
disc. Whereas previously they had recorded large Puerto Rican bands and operatic soloists, record companies were undoubtedly delighted to be able to get an
acceptably full ethnic sound by hiring such small groups, to which they could add house personnel or freelance Latino musicians as needed.
Trío Borinquen’s eclectic recording history with Columbia undoubtedly reflected the company’s desire to get the most work it could out of as few musicians as
possible, as well as Hernández’s own incredibly varied experience. His work with numerous ensembles in Puerto Rico, James Reese Europe’s army band, and several
years in Cuba just prior to forming Trío Borinquen all contributed to the repertoire of this remarkable composer. With Trío Borinquen, Hernández recorded songs,
virtually all written by him, in Colombian, Argentine, and the all­important Cuban genres, such as the bolero and the son. When Dominican Antonio Mesa became the
group’s first voice after Canario’s departure, they began to cross over to his country’s market. Indeed, the first recordings the Dominican Republic received that
remotely resembled their native music came from Trío Borinquen, renamed Trío Quisqueya on such discs to give them more authenticity. Hernández’s Grupo Victoria,
which began recording in 1932, featured some numbers as Conjunto Panameño, undoubtedly part of another crossover attempt. During most of that decade,
moreover, Hernández was establishing himself in Mexico, and his periodic recording trips to New York reflected his new home’s growing influence upon his music.
Hernández’s eclectic career and abundant talents combined with the demands of a commercial market to make him an opportunist as well as an artist. His activities
were sponsored not only by record companies but by his sister Victoria, Sánchez Morales, and the Mexican company Sal de Uvas Picot, all of whom helped finance
and coordinate his musical tours. The structure of the music industry and the demands of the audience it had cultivated shaped his repertoire and contributed to
changes in instrumentation and procedure in the recording studio.
The group’s style differed markedly from that of Trío Borinquen. The trío had used little more than guitar combined with claves, maracas, or güiro. Borinquen’s
songs often used an operatic intermingling of voices singing different melody lines and took liberties with the rhythm. Prolonging certain musical notes and phrases, the
trío’s sound was almost
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dreamy, clearly made for listening rather than for dancing. Grupo Victoria, however, bowed to the new styles of first and second voices singing in perfectly
synchronized harmonies, as well as to the metric precision needed to make songs danceable. Increasing sophistication of recording technology in this period also
enabled the record companies to engineer a complex sound with the use of a few additional instruments, while retaining the title and flavor of a small, intimate
ensemble. Clarifying the difference between “Victoria”‘s live and recorded work, the group’s lead vocalist, Davilita, explained, “Cuarteto Victoria was a lot of
people—we were like nine or ten. It wasn’t a cuarteto: what recorded was Grupo Victoria.” 62
Whereas on tour the group might actually be a quartet with two guitars and a couple of vocalists with claves and/or maracas, in the studio it was often augmented
with instruments such as piano, bass, trumpets, flutes, traps, marímbula, and clarinet and several vocalists or a chorus of voices. Using Cuban and international Latin
genres such as the son, the rumba, the guaracha, and the bolero even in the records marketed to Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans on the mainland, Grupo Victoria
depended at times upon Cuban session musicians. For a number of Hernández’s quickly immortalized recordings, Alberto Socarrás furnished the flute, and Mario
Bauzá the trumpet. “They were recording Cuban music. They wanted a sound, like a Cuban. So they get Mario there, Mario give it that flavor, Mario rehearse it with
them and give them some idea about it. I’m the one that improvise, and the improvisation gotta be Cuban. They don’t want no Puerto Rican improvisation, they want to
imitate.”63 According to Bauzá, the Cubans such as himself who worked on these recordings were more than just session musicians; they functioned as informal music
directors and used their firsthand expertise to get the right ethnic sound. Just as Puerto Ricans could be session musicians for other ethnic groups, and Latinos were
placed, particularly in the percussion sessions, in North American groups to impart a Latin flavor, Grupo Victoria and other small ensembles strove to create a
commercially viable sound using important musical additions and advisers.
Boricuas created songs featuring the dance rhythms that appealed to Latinos from all nationalities but often employed verbal, harmonic, and melodic references that
only resonated with Puerto Ricans. Boricuas found themselves to be a subculture within a subculture, dancing to the Cuban and Argentine sounds that outsiders
associated with all “Latins.” Nevertheless, they could insert in­jokes and private messages into the songs they composed within these genres. Lacking a country or
even a
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widely recognized national music, Puerto Ricans on island and mainland were still aided by their musicians in carving out a cultural space for themselves. It is perhaps
for this reason that Rafael Hernández’s songs were quickly adopted by many Puerto Ricans as their musical heritage. It was as if the songs had always existed, as if
they had nothing to do with the North American industry that had put them before their consumers.
Hernandez as Folkloric and the Rise of the Patriotic Song
“In order to rigorously classify the music and lyrics of Rafael Hernández’s songs, one has to establish a fine distinction between the popular and the folkloric,” wrote
Margot Arce admiringly in 1939. “It’s quite possible that we’re witnessing the process of transformation of Hernández’s songs into authentic folklore.” 64 Arce’s were
not the only words to that effect written while Hernández was still active within the New York–based small­ensemble milieu. And yet the composer, who had already
written hundreds of songs, rarely used indigenous instruments or worked within native Puerto Rican folk musical genres, aside from an occasional aguinaldo written
and recorded near Christmastime. Moreover, the man who proudly called himself a jíbaro grew up in a coastal town, hopped between Latin American cities, and
quite possibly never spent a day in the country in his life.65 Given the context of his life and work within a broad range of popular genres, what accounts for Rafael
Hernández’s powerful reputation as a quintessential Puerto Rican composer, and even more paradoxically, of folk music?
Javariz claims that the Puerto Ricanness celebrated in Hernández’s songs and those of his contemporaries is based on, “more than anything else, the lyrics of the
songs. . . . These lyrics are encased in musical forms which . . . are common to the entire Caribbean area.”66 It is clear that both audiences and artists were aware of
the tremendous symbolic power that song lyrics could possess. “Linda Quisqueya,” recorded by Trío Borinquen in 1928, was originally “Linda Borinquen,” but
Hernández changed the words as part of his attempt to pay homage to the Dominicans, to whose market the group was appealing. The tune, a Cuban habanera, was
the same in both versions. Conversely, years later, an attempt to change one word critical of the United States in Hernández’s 1935 “Preciosa” led to an uproar from
which the composer’s reputation never fully recovered.67
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Coexisting with the standard odes to love unrequited or fulfilled were legions of songs that praised the physical wonders of Puerto Rico, narrated the life of its people,
and, increasingly, complained of its ongoing domination by the United States. A quiet independentista, Rafael Hernández set his sentiments to beautiful melodies that
captured the hearts of Puerto Ricans, many of whom felt their “jibarito insigne” (renowned peasant) was expressing sentiments they were unable or afraid to express.
“El Buen Borincano” (The Good Puerto Rican), recorded by Grupo Victoria in 1939, exemplified Hernández’s use of a popular sound for dancing together with words
containing bittersweet humor. In a slow rumba­like rhythm of claves, bongós, and staccato trumpets, Hernández calls attention to his nationality in an odd manner:
Si no hubiera yo nacido
en la tierra en que nací,
estuviera arrepentido
de no haber nacido allí. ————
If I had not been born
in the land in which I was born,
I would regret
not having been born there.
He goes on to tell the listener that given where he was born, he cannot help being patriotic:
Yo no tengo la culpita,
oigan queridos hermanos,
de nacer en esa islita
y de ser buen borincano. ————
It’s not my fault,
listen dear brothers,
that I was born in this island
and that I’m a good Puerto Rican.
After saying that he wants to be buried in Borinquén, he establishes a sense of kinship with other Latin American countries and their independence movements:
Bolívar en Venezuela,
en Cuba Maceo y Martí,
y en república Argentina
el glorioso San Martín.
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Y le dieron a Quisqueya
Duarte bella libertad,
y a mi tierra borinqueña
sólo Dios se la dará. ————
Bolívar in Venezuela,
in Cuba Maceo and Martí,
and in the Argentine republic
the glorious San Martín.
And to Quisqueya
Duarte gave beautiful liberty,
and to my land of Borinquén
only God will give it [liberty].
Under the apparently pious resignation lurks a not so hidden criticism of the United States. The situation of Puerto Rico is so critical, the song implies, that only divine
help can rescue it.
Rafael Hernández had a unique way of blending humor and irony, patriotism and pathos, but he was not the only composer from this unrecognized country writing
nationalistic songs during the 1920s and 1930s. Two songs, Pedro Flores’s “Sin Bandera” (Without a Flag), recorded in 1935, and Julio Roqué’s “La Llave” (The
Key), recorded in 1939, also expressed passionate feelings about the patria. The Flores song, which was especially popular, decries Puerto Rico’s lack of
sovereignty and of patriots such as those of the nineteenth century to bring it about:
¡Ay! si mi patria tuviera
su propia bandera
desplegada al sol.
¡Ay! Si existieran patriotas,
como eran Barbosa,
de Diego, y Muñoz,
tal vez mi patria
no fuera tan pobre,
y esclava de extraña nación.
Hoy no tienen las boricuas,
en la tierra ni un rincón.
No les queda
más que un grito
que se ahoga en el corazón. ————
Ay! if my homeland had
its own flag
unfurled in the sun.
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Ay! If patriots existed,
like Barbosa,
de Diego, and Muñoz,
perhaps my homeland
wouldn’t be so poor,
and slave to a strange nation.
Today the boricuas don’t have
in their own land even a single corner.
Nothing remains to them but a cry
that drowns in the heart.
Flores denied any political affiliation, but it is clear that such songs were important symbols to their composers, performers, and audiences whether or not they
professed to be independentistas. Johnny Rodríguez sang the song on network radio at the beginning of World War II and considered it to be the major act of
political defiance in his youth.
They didn’t let people sing that song on U.S. radio, because before you could sing a song on American radio you had to bring the words to the censor, and if he approved it, it
went on the air, otherwise no. [But] I said, “I’m going to sing it.” It’s a very beautiful song and very suggestive, but it has something pretty strong against the Americans. But it’s a
song that’s an expression of the people. And in my youth I had independentista ideals. 68
Members of the working class such as Flores or Rodríguez did not have a monopoly on such sentiments. Julio Roqué and his orchestra recorded “La Llave” with the
fifteen­year­old Myrta Silva passionately singing the words. These powerful lyrics, written by Gonzalo O’Neill, a playwright who was also part of New York’s Puerto
Rican business and organizational elite, protested U.S. plans to build a military base in Puerto Rico with the express purpose of making the island the “key” in guarding
U.S. interests in the Panama Canal Zone. In ironic contrast to Flores’s song, with its high­flown poetry, “La Llave” tries to capture Puerto Rican speech patterns. It
mocks typical American diplomatic euphemisms and refers to a Tío, who is, of course, Uncle Sam.
Such songs took on an intensity not to be found in Puerto Rican music before or since.69 Since they were written under conditions of exile, both the indifference of the
record companies to ethnic song lyrics and ongoing and current political and economic conditions in New York and Puerto Rico sharpened what might have been
gentle nostalgia into fierce patriotism and more or less open criticism of the United States. During the 1930s the Depression hit hard on both the mainland and the
island, and tensions were high. Puerto Ricans in New York experienced deteriorating living conditions, constant discrimination, and rampant unemployment. There
were riots in Harlem, and Puerto Rican labor
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union locals and community organizations joined with the Harlem branch of the Communist Party and Congressman Vito Marcantonio to stage protests against
evictions, poor job conditions, and unemployment. Many of these organizations also supported the simultaneous struggles of dock and sugar workers in Puerto Rico
and made common cause with the island’s resurging nationalist movement.
Such patriotic music developed in this volatile era, when many were decrying the plight of Puerto Ricans at home and abroad and the political and economic role of the
United States. Music was an important form of expression for the working classes. It could be an inspiration to struggle or a sublimated form of protest during a violent
era. At a time when the U.S. government was taking fierce countermeasures against Puerto Rican independence and labor­related activities, it took no notice of these
inspirational songs. 70
During this time period one song was especially meaningful for Puerto Ricans: Rafael Hernández’s “Lamento Borincano” (Puerto Rican Lament). Bernardo Vega
remembers that this song literally filled the air in East Harlem: “At around that time Rafael Hernández was making the rounds in New York. These were his bohemian
days, when he was hard at work. His song ‘Lamento Borincano’ began to fill the air in El Barrio. . . . We were on the eve of the most serious economic depression
ever to hit the United States of America.”71
“Lamento Borincano,” also known as “Lamento Jíbaro,” was first recorded in 1930 by Canario y Su Grupo. It quickly became an enormous hit and an unofficial
Puerto Rican national anthem, and it still has that status today. “Lamento Borincano” tells the story of a Puerto Rican jíbaro, a subsistence farmer from the
mountainous interior of the island who goes into town to sell, as author Edward Rivera somewhat facetiously puts it, the ”bag or two of tubers” that “his scrappy patch
of land has thrown up.”72 Unfortunately, when he gets to the town, he discovers that it is closed up, a casualty of the Depression and increasingly difficult subsistence
for Puerto Rican small farmers since the American invasion in 1898. The jíbaro returns to his home crushed, his dreams of a better life shattered.
Despite its setting in island conditions, the song was purely a New York product. In one poignant account Rafael Hernández tells us:
I found myself together with a group of friends in a Harlem restaurant. All of us were artists in the same boat. It was a December cold such as can only exist in New York, a day in
which you’re broke [se está bruja] and it is raining a lot outside. One of our companions had a bottle of Puerto Rican rum. While we were passing the bottle, the memories of our
little island rushed in,
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and our minds flew to the sunny beaches of the faraway land. The palm trees and all the beautiful things there appeared to us that day like the image of Paradise. The nostalgia of
that cold, sad, and melancholy afternoon drew my fingers to the almost­falling­apart piano in a corner, and I began to play the melody of “Lamento Borincano.” It emerged
spontaneously. 73
Descriptions of the circumstances of the song’s recording once again stress the competitive, inbred society in which the mostly working­class musicians found
themselves and the lack of protection their work received. Hernández claimed in a 1963 interview: “I was playing in the store [Victoria’s] about nine in the morning and
Canario came, and he heard me playing. . . . ‘Come here, Canario, listen, listen well.’ He came close to the piano and I began to sing and play the number, and . . . he
grabbed the number and left running, carrying it in the street. . . . In a short time, Canario . . . had recorded it.”74 Whether or not the above is apocryphal, the first
known recording of “Lamento Borincano” was done by Canario for Victor on July 14, 1930. It featured a simple instrumentation—guitar, maracas, and clave. The
eighteen­year­old lead singer, Davilita, was recording for the first time. The way this came about also underscores the casualness of the musicians’ world and their
intersection with a recording studio that, though strict with time schedules, did not distinguish between the artists. According to Davilita,
Victor assigned a Monday for the recording, and the Sunday before, all of Canario’s group went on an excursion to Rockaway Beach and they sang and drank a great deal. . . .
[Ramón] Quirós, who was going to sing “Lamento Borincano” with Fausto [Delgado], was completely hoarse in the morning. They had to record the song, and I, who had gone to
the studio only to be with them there, was the only person who knew it. There was a huddle and then Canario came to me and said, “You’re going to record ‘Lamento Borincano.'”
And right there I almost died of fright. My stomach was turning over. This was going to be a profound experience for me, and besides, they took me by surprise, but there they
encouraged me and joked with me, and I calmed down, and thus musical history was made in New York, since that was the first recording of “Lamento Borincano.” It was also my
first recording.75
The song became an instant hit, and later an instrumentally slightly more elaborate version was recorded by Brunswick. López Cruz remembers that it came out about
the same time as the popular “El Manisero.” “‘El Manisero’ had the saving grace of rhythm, but ‘Lamento Borincano’ had the poetry.”76 While Hernández’s song,
meant more for reflection than for dancing, never achieved the popularity among North Americans that Simóns’s work did, it was, López Cruz tells us, famous
throughout Latin America:
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“Lamento Borincano” was the greatest success not only of Canario [but of] all the groups and orchestras, because it represents the sadness of the jíbaro, and his miserable life
without money, in that difficult period in which there was little work, the Depression. And this number was tremendous at that time. So tremendous that it sold a great deal in all of
America. Because the Venezuelans, the Colombians, the Argentines, all had the same problem of the campesino who lived in misery. . . .
That song was tremendous. In that time, it made people cry. 77
Called by José Luis González “the first ‘protest song’ composed in Latin America,” this number was a big hit among the peasant and working classes of the region,
who were quite unlike the rarefied audiences for most overtly political music composed today.78 The song spoke to international problems and used an internationally
recognized genre, the bolero, rather than a traditional Puerto Rican folk style such as the complex décima of the jíbaros themselves, to articulate one symbolic
farmer’s experience. Ironically, its use of a popular rather than a folk mode probably facilitated the regional crossover of its potent message. Like many of Hernández’s
songs, “Lamento Borincano” both used the conventions of popular music and wove together strands of the island’s diverse ethnic and musical cultures. The song had a
verse­and­chorus structure typical of much North American–influenced popular music. Major and minor modes alternated in the verses (one of Hernández’s
trademarks), but in a way that was more coordinated with the symmetry of popular song structure than with the song’s emotional highs and lows. Nevertheless,
“Lamento Borincano” blended this light opera and danza­derived minor­to­major transition with a folkish singing style and simplicity of instrumentation that were
reminiscent of the jíbaro tradition. Additionally, the song’s guitar lines both savored of Spanish dance styles and were propelled by a slight Afro­Caribbean
syncopation, while imparting a sense of melancholy and foreboding.
Sale, loco de contento,
con su cargamento
a la ciudad, ay,
a la ciudad.
Lleva en su pensamiento
todo un mundo lleno
de felicidad, ay,
de felicidad.
Piensa remediar la situación
del hogar, que es toda una ilusión.
Y alegre, el jibarito va
cantando así, diciendo así,
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pensando así por el camino,
Si yo vendo la carga, mi Dios querido,
un traje a mi viejita voy a comprar.
Y alegre también su yegua va,
al presentir que aquel cantar
es todo un himno de alegría.
En eso le sorprende la luz del día
y llegan al mercado de la ciudad.
Pasa la mañana entera
sin que nadie pueda
su carga comprar, ay,
su carga comprar.
Todo, todo está desierto
y el pueblo está muerto
de necesidad, ay,
de necesidad.
Se oye este lamento por doquier
en mi desdichada Borinquén, sí.
Y triste, el jibarito va
pensando así, diciendo así,
llorando así por el camino,
Que será de Borinquén, mi Dios querido.
Que será de mis hijos y de mi hogar.
Borinquén, la tierra del edén,
la que al cantar el gran Gautier
llamó la Perla de los Mares.
Ahora que tú te mueres con tus pesares
déjame que te cante yo también,
yo también. ————
He departs, beside himself with joy,
with his load
for the city, ay,
for the city.
He carries in his thoughts
a whole world filled
with happiness, ay,
with happiness.
He plans to remedy the situation
in his home, which is a complete illusion.
And happy, the jibarito goes
singing this way, speaking this way,
thinking this way, on the road,
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If I sell my goods, dear God,
I’m going to buy a dress for my old lady.
And his mare goes happily too,
sensing that this song
is an anthem of total joy.
With that the light of day surprises her
and they come to the city market.
He passes the entire morning
without anyone being able to
buy his goods, ay,
buy his goods.
Everything, everything is deserted
and the town is dead
of necessity, ay,
of necessity.
This lament is heard everywhere
in my wretched Borinquén, yes.
And sadly the jibarito goes
thinking this way, speaking this way,
crying this way, on the road,
What will become of Borinquén, my dear God.
What will become of my children and my home.
Borinquén, the land of Eden,
that which upon singing the great Gautier
named the Pearl of the Seas.
Now that you’re dying of your troubles
let me sing to you too,
me too.
Once again, the song showed an artful blending of the personal and the national, linking together the fate of one farmer and his family with the fate of his country.
Despite the fact that its narrative dealt with Puerto Rico, the song’s New York origins remained a salient part of even its reception overseas. The first live performance
of “Lamento Borincano” in Puerto Rico, in which López Cruz took part, did not occur until 1931. After careful rehearsal in New York and on the boat, Canario and
his group, all of whom had lived away from the island for several years, donned white outfits and pavas, the straw hats of the jíbaros, and caused a sensation paying
homage to an occupational group that had virtually disappeared. It was a group from which they themselves, literally or figuratively, had also disappeared. The
generalized experience of the farmer in the song could be taken to represent the ongoing economic
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struggles of Puerto Ricans on the island and, as part of that, their serial displacement first to the island cities and then to places such as New York, a phenomenon of
which the musicians and their music had been a part. Thus, the song, diffused through the mechanics of the record industry, was deeply meaningful to its performers
and audiences.
The record companies persisted through the years in treating Puerto Ricans and other ethnic audiences as dumb animals with an unreasoning instinct for music, or at
best as mere sales ciphers. According to Harold Smith, “Music means more to them [than Americans] at any time, and the music of their homelands means still more.
They love it as they love food. They like gypsy music, and they like it as loud as they can get it.” 79 While they saw music as a powerful medium of communication that
reached across language barriers, it was to further their own commercial ends, as this statement from the Columbia Record shows: “One distinct advantage of
demonstrating Columbia records to people from across the ocean is that while they may not understand your language they will instantly understand favorite marches,
love lyrics, dance numbers and comic songs, sung in their mother tongues on musical Columbia Records.”80 Members of such populations took seriously the music
issued by them and for them as a means of communication, but on very different terms, as Puerto Rican bandleader Augusto Rodríguez passionately pointed out in
1935:
“Lamento Borincano” is a historical document: it’s the optimistic, hardworking jíbaro, who dreams of the day he’ll have the happiness he deserves, whom reality changes into an
intense pessimist, it’s the faithful portrait of today’s colonial tragedy; with its sad, interesting, plaintive cadence, it captures the stoic resignation of our jíbaro and paints his
situation with more efficacy and intensity than the sterile efforts of the everlasting commissions to the metropolis in demand of justice.81
When we look at the music and the circumstances of its production and reception, the “spendthrift” ethnics who in company portraits can be easily coaxed out of their
scant funds all of a sudden become passionately nationalistic and homesick exiles. They looked at music as a way to articulate deep feelings and sometimes disguised
political sentiments, unacceptable in a more blatant form. Mechanically diffused songs such as “Lamento Borincano” spoke to their existence and validated it in a way
no popular art form had ever done before. Within the three dimensions of such lives, López Cruz’s claim that his compatriotas would rather buy records than eat
seems no idle boast.
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