Graded on a Curve: Abelardo Barroso,
Cha Cha Cha

The name Abelardo Barroso sits at the very beginning of the Cuban record industry. 78 rpm discs captured him, and a sheer talent for performance insured his fame. By the mid-‘50s Barroso’s renown had withered, but through a convergence of circumstances he returned to the limelight. Cha Cha Cha is World Circuit’s terrific compilation spotlighting the vocalist’s fruitful involvement with Orquesta Sensación, the noteworthy band directed by Rolando Valdés.

The songs Sexteto Habanero cut in 1925 under the auspices of RCA Victor are considered square one for recorded Cuban music. Abelardo Barroso’s singing on those tracks made him a star, or more accurately, helped to make him one; along with the RCA sides a spate of 16 numbers Barroso sang in New York for Brunswick as a member of Sexteto Bolona establish his ability for the ages.

Born in 1905, Barroso was of a time where the stage was still the thing. In fact, his ‘30s prestige at the forefront of the danzonette period, its large-bands replacing the fervor for the guitar-based son ensembles a la Sexteto Habanero and Bolona, is barely preserved on record; only a solitary ’39 78 by the Orchestra Maravilla del Siglo.

This is mainly due to the Depression; enter hard times and exit RCA, Columbia, and Brunswick. By the ’50s though, Cuban records were being waxed through independent homegrown companies like Panart and Jesús Gorís’ Puchito, the latter an aspect of what Cha Cha Cha’s substantial liners describe as “a perfect storm.” The other factors were Rolando Valdés’ tip-top band Orquesta Sensación, the group’s arranger/flutist Juan Pablo Miranda, and of course Abelardo Barroso.

By ’55 Barroso’s popularity had subsided. He was playing guitar and singing for tips in front of the prestigious Havana nightclub La Campana, his presence on the sidewalk respectfully maneuvered by Benny Moré, leader of the club’s star draw Banda Gigante. It was there that Barroso and Valdés again crossed paths (like Miranda, Valdés was a bandmate of Barroso’s in the ‘30s), and in short order began the Puchito sessions collected on Cha Cha Cha.

And it’s an achievement of significant proportion; as stated, Barroso had already ridden atop two prior waves of innovation, son and danzonette, but instead of registering as a trend hopping last gasp, this music illuminates the guy’s skills as not a bit eroded as his sensitivity to a new style and era is quite impressive.

First recorded by Sexteto Habanero in 1930 but after Barroso had left the group for a tour of Spain, Orquesta Sensación’s 1955 smash hit waxing of “En Guantanamo” is estimated as the definitive version of the song. With Barroso’s a cappella opening ushering in the unflagging rhythm, crisp piano, bursts of trilling flute and energetic vocal chorus, it’s striking to realize the track is the flip to “La Hija de Juan Simón.”

Indeed, the notes to this disc rate Orquesta Sensación’s debut as one of history’s great double ‘A’ side singles. By the time of this recording, “La Hija de Juan Simón” was a long familiar tune in Cuba, here incorporating an appealing chorus that announces the return of Barroso in the then-novel cha cha cha style.

And his vocals are a simply superb display of emotion and technique under precise control. Barroso’s title of El Caruso de Cuba (referencing the legendary Italian opera star Enrico Caruso) was a well-earned accolade, and World Circuit’s inclusion of translated lyrics deepens the grim story of a gravedigger having to bury his own daughter.

The words to “Tiene Sabor” (the title track to Sensación’s 1959 LP) commence as boastful only to grow progressively more bizarre, though the best attributes are purely musical, specifically a heightened instrumental thrust integrating pizzicato strings and a more pronounced role for the violin tandem of Orlando Lamy and Ovidio Pérez Pinto.

Relating the tale of a peasant farmer (who naturally meets up with Barroso on his journey), “El Guajiro de Cunagua,” the A side to a ’55 single, enhances the interplay between lead and chorus as the band momentarily shifts into a greater focus on rhythm (including a nifty timbales solo) and piano. And topically, “Un Brujo en Gunabacao” concerns the practice of the African religion of Yoruba in the Afro-Cuban neighborhood of its title (which translates to “A Witch from Gunabacao”).

Lamy and Pinto step to the fore as Miranda’s flute darts into the weave with aplomb. And Barroso’s storytelling prowess is undiminished; a farmer, a witch, and with “El Panquellero,” a pancake seller, the song composed in 1932 by Eliseo Silveira, spoken of in Cha Cha Cha’s text as a friend of Barroso and renowned player of the tres (a six or nine string guitar-like instrument).

Like basically everything here, “El Panquellero” is a fairly succinct little ditty, but the duration doesn’t hinder the violins from locating a vibrant groove, especially toward the close. I won’t deny that the constant flute emphasizes finesse over verve, but on the other hand Miranda’s delivery is never egregious, leaning to birdsong rather than any flashy business.

Orquesta Sensación issued LPs, but their real forte was the single, and while thoughtfully sequenced for enlightenment and enjoyment, Cha Cha Cha retains its allegiance to the short-form and stays true to its title regardless of subject matter; “La Huerfanito” explicates the hardship and resulting loneliness of losing one’s parents and contrasts well with the hugely popular Cuban composition “El Manisero,” which offers a more lighthearted lifestyle portrait (this time of a peanut vendor) and a swell passage of swaying strings and soloing flute near its conclusion.

And “La Mulata Rumbera,” about a mixed race dancer, seems to unleash increased intensity from the bi-racial (black mother, Spanish father) Barroso and with the band stirred by his example, the cut wields some of the album’s most fiery bowing, lively percussion, and a truly spirited piano-led finale; interestingly, Miranda lays out.

On the other end of the spectrum, the assured lushness of “Yo Ta Cansa” might please Exotica fans, while ‘57’s “Macorina” (inspired by Maria Calvo Nodarse, the first woman in Cuba to hold a license to drive a car) features some gorgeous musicality in those unison violins and the ever-sturdy bass of Dámaso Moré.

The last few selections offer further pleasant developments, particularly the fantastic solos on trumpet, sax, and trombone during “Bruca Manigua” as the strings resonate expertly beneath. There’s also the extended rhythm exposé of “La Reina Guancuano” and the mid-‘60s closer “Triste Lucha” (initially released not on Puchito but via the state-owned Egrem label); if finding Barroso fragile of voice, it contains some of Miranda’s prettiest fluting.

This collection is a labor of love for World Circuit (an estimable company that clued-in the world to the heavy duty sound-making of Buena Vista Social Club, Orchestra Baobab, Ali Farka Touré, and fellow Cubans Los Zafiros) and it’s available in an excellently designed 180gm vinyl package (along with CD and digital options). Altogether, it’s a fitting tribute to Orquesta Sensación and Abelardo Barroso, Cuban sounds in general and the vitality of the period from whence it came; everybody cha cha cha.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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