A Brief History of the Cuban Style Conjunto

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    Roberto Espí and his Conjunto Casino.
    Roberto Espí and his Conjunto Casino. Photo from Album Centenario Roberto Espí – Conjunto Casino, Vol 12

    1930: The Orquesta Típica is out and the Conjunto is in

    The year 1930 marked a turning point in the development of popular Cuban music. Traditional outdoor ensembles known as típicas – synonymous with the island’s national dance, el danzón – began to die out. Of course this didn’t happen overnight, and it’s been documented that their descent began as early as 1925, roughly around the same time that an urbanized version of el son began making its mark, ascending from the poor and middle working classes right up into the upper echelons of Cuban society.

    Curiously, the elegant danzón genre had already been waning in popularity, amidst the Charleston craze which had arrived from Cuba’s neighbor to the north. It was after all, the Roaring Twenties; the Jazz Age; a time for letting it all hang out. Larger ensembles called jazzbands emerged during this time, mostly in La Habana, although there were a few in the outer provinces. These big bands catered mostly to the tourists who frequented the gambling casinos and the private social clubs. They played the straight ahead jazz of its day, wild and frenetic, while tossing in a few americanized versions of their homegrown Cuban genres. It was roughly around this period that the rather large típicas – also known as danzoneras – began to disappear from the scene. Slowly but surely they were replaced by smaller trumpet ensembles, known as conjuntos. These conjuntos were an extension of the sextetos and septetos which had popped up during the previous two decades and whose musicians mainly performed the son habanero (Havana style son).

    Son: Where East Meets West

    The original root of son habanero can be traced back to the rural mountainous regions and the coastal towns of eastern Oriente, right around the dawn of the 20th century, but the genre definitely took on a different character shortly after it arrived in the Capital.

    The most prominent of the early sextet ensembles were Habanero, Boloña and Nacional. By the end of the thirties the son genre was in full bloom all over the island and traveling abroad. These very popular groups were not limited to playing son exclusively, as they also incorporated such local couple dances as rumba, bolero, guajira and guarachas. The popular composer Miguel Matamoros – famous for his trio – formed a conjunto and traveled to México, where his lead singer Beny Moré would first come to prominence as an iconic sonero.

    Maracaibo Oriental – Beny Moré “Sonero Mayor de Cuba”

    Beny Moré and his Orquesta Gigante at Radio Progreso in Havana in the late 1950s

    Beny Moré and his Orquesta Gigante at Radio Progreso in Havana in the late 1950s. Photo credit: Unknown author (Public domain)

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