Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Phenomenal trumpet-led string, percussion and voices band formed in 1924 in Cuba's Matanzas province by tres guitarist Valentin Can,, first called Tuna Liberal. The lineup included guitarist/singer Rogelio Martinez (b 1898, Matanzas), later the group's leader, timbalero Jimagua and bassist Pablo Vázquez 'Babú' (d 1969). After personnel and name changes the group became Septeto Sonora Matancera late in 1926, moved to Havana early '27, where maracas player/third vocalist Caito (b Carlos Manuel Diaz Alonso, 8 November 1905, Matanzas; d 27 September 1990, NYC) joined: his chrus singing style, a falsetto voz de vieja (meaning: 'old woman's voice'), became a trademark. Their trailblazing use of uniforms was initially mocked but soon became the norm; with rapid acceptance came gigs at celebrated Havana venues and on the radio. They first recorded on Victor mid-1928; José Rosario Chávez 'Manteca' replaced Jimagua on timbales '29; they finally settled on the name La Sonora Matancera (The Matanzas Group) '32. Former Septeto Nacional trumpeter/composer Calixto Leicea (b 1910, Matanzas) replaced deceased Ismael Goberna (an early member) as first trumpeter '35. Bienvenido Granda (b 30 August 1915, Cuba; d 9 July 1983, Mexico City) sang lead vocals early '40s-51, left due to differences with Martinez; Pérez Prado filled the piano chair '37-9; peerless pianist/composer/arrrranger Lino Frias played '42-77 (d April 1983, NYC), followed by notable NY salsa pianist, bandleader, arranger, composer, producer Javier Vázquez (b 8 April 1936, Matanzas; Babú's son). Second trumpeter Pedro Knight was added early '44 in order to rival other bands with three trumpets; after marrying Celia Cruz (lead singer '50-65) on 14 July 1962 in Mexico City, he retired from the band 30 April 1967. Babú's son Raimundo Elpidio Vázquez replaced him on bass '52; Papaito replaced the deceased Manteca on timbales '60; trumpeter Alfredo 'Chocolate' Armenteros joined Leicea '76-80.

Besides Granda and Cruz, over 60 singers have performed with them, including Daniel Santos (b 16 June 1916, Tras Talleres, San Juan, Puerto Rico; d 27 November 1992, Ocala FL), Myrta Silva (b 11 September 1923, Arecibo, PR; d 2 December 1987, San Juan, PR), Miguelito Valdés (b 6 September 1910, Belén district, Havana; d 8 November 1978, Bogotá, Colombia), Bobby Capo (b 1 January 1921, Coamo, PR; d 18 December 1989), Vicentico Valdés (b 10 January 1921, Cayo Hueso district, Havana; d 25 June 1995, NYC), Nelson Pinedo (b 10 February 1928, Barranquilla, Colombia), Alberto Beltrán (b 5 May 1923, La Romana, Dominican Republic), Carlos Argentino (b 23 June 1929, Buenos Aires, Argentina; d early 1990s), Leo Marini (b 23 August 1920, Mendoza, Argentina), Celio González (b 29 January 1924, Camajuanillas, Las Villas, Cuba), Elliot Romero (b San Juan, PR; d 1990), Justo Betancourt (see his entry), Wuelfo Gutiérrez (b Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba), Puerto Rican Yayo el Indio, Roberto Torres (see his entry), Jorge Maldonado (b 24 September 1950, Rio Piedras, PR), Nicaraguan Cali Aleman and Ismael Miranda (see Larry Harlow).

Embracing other Latin rhythms as well as Cuban, they are said to have recorded about 4,000 songs for assorted labels including RCA Victor, Panart, Seeco/Tropical, Ansonia, Orfeon, Barbaro (a Fania sister label) and Fania. Their fame peaked across Latin American and the Caribbean during the 1950s; they left Cuba for good on 15 June 1960, ostensibly to work in Mexico for four weeks; they stayed two years, then relocated to NYC '62. They appeared as Celia Cruz's backing band in the BBC documentary My Name Is Celia Cruz '88; their 65th anniversary was celebrated by a three-concert series June '89, reuniting them with 13 former lead singers; the 1 June 1989 concert was released as Live! From Carnegie Hall: 65th Anniversary Celebration '89 on Team; they made their long overdue UK debut November 1993. One of Cuba's earliest co-operative bands, with enduring solidarity, they have never needed written contracts.

Recommended albums include Se Formo La Rumbantela '94 on Tumbao (an anthology of RCA tracks 1948-50); Algo Especial '50s, hits compilation Grandes Exitos '50s, 50 Años '75 (24 tracks '49-59), all on Seeco; Betancourt reunion Sonora Matancera con Justo Betancourt '81 and Celia Cruz reunion Feliz Encuentro '82, both on Barbaro; 65 Aniversario '89 on Seeco (hits '51-8), Sonora Matancera Live On The Radio 1952-58 '96 on Harlequin.