A Brief History of the Cuban Style Conjunto

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.

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

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.

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)

Maracaibo Oriental – Beny Moré “Sonero Mayor de Cuba”

Arsenio Rodríguez and his conjunto in the 1940s
Conjunto de Arsenio Rodríguez. Standing, left to right: Carmelo Álvarez, Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, René Scull, Arsenio Rodríguez, Antolín “Papa Kila” Suárez, Félix Chappottín, Carlos Ramírez. Crouching, left to right: Félix Alfonso, Lázaro Prieto, Lilí Martínez. Photo credit: Unknown author (Public domain).

1940-1950: The Conjunto Evolves

While the repertoire of these early conjuntos was quite varied, the son was at the heart of their unique sound. It was the very essence of Cuban music, the direct result of the blending of African and Spanish elements that would give birth to what would later be known as “tropical” or “salsa” music (mambo, guaguancó, rumba, latin jazz, and even songo and timba). It was, and still is an extremely flexible form, and the conjunto format was destined to carry on the sonero tradition, albeit in a more modern context. Even today, these groups have survived and flourished throughout Latin America.

One of the first forms to evolve from the rural son tradition, which included a call and response section; characterized by an intensely energetically charged quality was the son montuno. It was during this decade that the well known composer Arsenio Rodríguez created the modern conjunto by expanding the one trumpet format of the septeto to three trumpets; adding a tumbadora to strengthen its African roots. But its development would not stop there. Following Arsenio’s blueprint, other conjuntos began to emerge, combining two or more vocalists, two, three and later four trumpets, piano, bass, tres or guitar, tumbadora, maracas, güiro, bongó and cencerro (cowbell).

Dundunbanza – Arsenio Rodríguez y su Conjunto – Dundunbanza 1946-1951

Without a doubt, Arsenio is acknowledged by many as the architect responsible for the Cuban sound as we know it today. Later innovations would enrich the classic conjunto style during the first half of the decade. In Puerto Rico, conjuntos such as Capacéti, Paraíso and Diablos Del Caribe flourished. México City, Veracruz, Caracas and Barranquilla saw their share of such aggregations as well. Arsenio’s classic three trumpet conjunto was emulated in just about every corner of the Caribbean basin, and of course, in New York City.

By 1946 a new element began to appear within the conjunto format; it was that now famous jazz tinge. Brass introductions to the song or melody line took on a not-so-subtle jazzistic character, even going as far as to emulate classic jazz lines. A very good example of this is Conjunto Casino‘s intro to “A Venezuela” written in 1947 by vocalist Agustín Ribot. This jazzin’ up of the ensemble section became the norm with conjuntos like Colonial, Rumbavana, Niagara, Chapottín, Modelo, Jovenes Del Cayo, Faz, Santí and Estrellas de Chocolate, among others.

Jazzy mambo sections played over the piano-bass ostinatos, (tumbaos) – which were a regular feature with Arsenio’s band – were also introduced as a regular feature in the much faster guarácha, due largely to the influence of Pérez Prado and the mambo – itself an offshoot of the son montuno. Oddly, in New York this format had not yet taken hold, although many “hits” by Cuban conjuntos were copied and performed by local “orchestras”, all varying in size and instrumentation. “Covering” Cuban hits as well as American standards became the specialty of such emerging bandleaders as Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and José Curbelo.

Pérez Prado, Tito Rodríguez, José Curbelo, Tito Puente
LPs by Pérez Prado, Tito Rodríguez, José Curbelo, Tito Puente

Amorosa Guajira – Roberto Espí – Conjunto Casino & Jorge Varona – “Legends of Cuban Music”

Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera, 1950s
Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera, 1950s. Photo credit: most likely Ibrahim Arce -Narcy Studios, Havana- (Public domain)

And the Beat Goes On: The Creative 1950s and the Swinging ’60’s

The golden era of the classic conjuntos came to an end roughly around 1954, when the big bands – and later on in the decade the charangas – came into the overall picture. By this time Cuban music was being referred to as “latin” and Arsenio had relocated to New York City, regrouping with local “hispanic” musicians, forming a new type of conjunto, playing at faster tempos and with more energy – catering, one would assume, to the frenetic pace of New York City. This band was very influential among the Puerto Rican and Latin musicians who lived and worked in the Big Apple. Strangely, and quite logically, he added the timbales to his famed format, thus giving the conjunto a sharper edge, rhythmically speaking. I must say that it was at this time when most trumpet conjuntos in New York – and some in Cuba, as was the case with Roberto Faz – all began to use the timbales, together with the bongó and tumbadora, along the lines of the Machito Orchestra and the Beny Moré big band.

Bacunayagua – Conjunto Roberto Faz – “Bacunayagua”

The most famous of the Cuban trumpet conjuntos between these two decades was La Sonora Matancera, which used a smaller version of the timbales – called timbalitos – instead of the traditional bongó, while keeping the two trumpet conjunto sound intact. They too relocated to New York City, along with their famed vocalist Celia Cruz. Invariably, Sonora’s original repertoire was “covered” worldwide. Imitation, while innovative, was the key word during this period. The times they were-a-changing, although most of these changes went unnoticed, at first.

Change notwithstanding, the old conjunto style remained alive and well, both in Cuba and New York, and even experienced a renaissance during the late 1960’s, spearheaded by Dominican flautist Johnny Pacheco, with conjuntos like Sensación, Roberto Torres, Charlie Rodríguez, Candela, Clásico, Pete “El Conde”, Héctor Casanova, Son De La Loma, Imágen, Riviera, Saoco, Chocolate, Ralphy Santi, Mafímba and Los Soneros De Oriente emerging in the 70’s and even continuing into the 90’s. Arrangers such as Héctor Rivera, Jorge Millet, Javier Vázquez, Paquito Pastor, José Febles and Louie Ramírez began to write almost exclusively for the conjunto format, enhancing it with a harmonically “hipper” sound, while maintaining its rugged típico flavor. Sadly, Arsenio died in obscurity in Los Angeles in 1972 and did not witness the resurgence of what he had created decades earlier.

Melao de Caña – Canciones Premiadas de Celia Cruz con La Sonora Matancera

Conjunto Casino, Arsenio Rodriguez, Roberto Torres, Johnny Pacheco
LPs Conjunto Casino, Arsenio Rodriguez, Roberto Torres, Johnny Pacheco

2020: The Conjunto is on the Move Again

As the new millennium moves into the beginning of its third decade, the classic son montuno style has just about disappeared, save for a few small ensembles that call themselves conjuntos, but which are really not conjuntos. To their credit, these groups have kept the típico sound alive, albeit not in its original conjunto format. And while the classic son has become a part of musical history – relegated to the glorious past – it is still very much in the race.

Ed Martinez y su Conjunto - Que no se acaben los cueros

History, as they say, has a way of repeating itself, and the emergence of the Buena Vista Social Club, as a group, literally changed the game, reviving the old sound once again. There is now a new audience for son, guarácha and guaguancó, and the old school music is out there once again, coming out of urban New York City. As of now, there are only three such conjuntos remaining in our town, and yet, as you listen to this recording, it becomes quite evident that the “old school” is on its way to becoming part of the “here and now”. Percussionist Ed Martínez, a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican parents was born into a musical family. He began to explore “latin” rhythms at the age of 10, later studying Cuban percussion with Mario Grillo and jazz drumming with Sam Ulano, paying those proverbial dues with a number of local salsa bands. Ed, who has been an integral part of Conjunto Sabor for a number of years now, is on the verge of bringing back the traditional format – along with its accompanying dance forms – in an effort to “open up” the minds of todays pop-culture-oriented audience. No easy task, but one that he is more than up to performing. Best of luck to him and his crew with their initial release, Que no se acaben los cueros.

CHICO ALVAREZ • 2020 • New York City, U.S.A.

Chico Álvarez Peraza
Chico Álvarez Peraza
Bandleader, vocalist, composer, graphic artist and radio personality Ernesto "Chico" Álvarez Peraza has been performing as a singer and percussionist throughout the New York City tri-state area for the last four decades. Leader of conjunto Mafimba and The Palomonte Afro-Cuban Big Band, he was also the host and producer of New World Gallery, an eclectic world music radio show which had been airing over WBAI Pacifica Radio (99.5 FM) for more than 25 years.

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1 COMMENT

  1. The Jazzy mambo sections you mention were in fact a part of the New York scene in the forty’s. Machito had created Tanga and the majority of the major bands were already emulating the big jazz bands. Prez’ influence was mainly in introducing “the mambo craze”. His rather oblique style of mambo was not in line with what arrangers like Rene Hernandez were putting out. This being the main reason he stayed mostly in Mexico.

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