A Brief History of the Cuban Style Conjunto

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    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.

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

    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.

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