Bolero: We, Who Love It So Much

Bolero: We, Who Love It So Much
Fecha de publicación: 
22 December 2023
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Passions, disappointments, betrayals, impossible loves, jealousy... they have walked the paths of the Cuban soul music many times hand in hand with bolero music.

Few people still live in Cuba over age 50 who have never hummed or danced a bolero song, especially associated with romantic moments.

But it's not just a thing of the past. The recent declaration by UNESCO of the bolero as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity confirms that this genre born in Cuba does not remain “in the shadows of a dying lantern”, parodying the well-known bolero Noche de angustia.

It was last December 5 when the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) approved the inscription of the cultural practice of Bolero Music in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of humanity.

The purpose of this approval, the result of the proposal contained in the binational file “Bolero: identity, emotion and poetry made song” presented jointly by the Secretariat of Culture of the Government of Mexico and the Ministry of Culture of Cuba, is “strengthen their composition, interpretation, the transmission of their knowledge and identity practices” as detailed by the international organization itself.

We Cubans, who love it so much

This genre was born in Santiago de Cuba, in 1883, thanks to the feelings of composer and guitarist José Vivanco Sánchez Hecheverría (1856-1918).

But the world knows him as Pepe Sánchez, teacher of the Santiago troubadours, among whom is included Sindo Garay, whom he met as a child and put his first guitar in his hands. Although he never studied music, he was a tailor, his sensitivity, sense of harmony and discipline in musical study and practice made his compositions outstand among the most popular of the time.

This director and founder of the famous Quinteto de Trovadores Santiagueros is recognized as the creator of bolero based on his composition "Me entristeces, mujer", written in 1883, and which was originally named "Tristeza", but since another song was already inscribed under that name, it adopted the first mentioned.

Since then, supported by talent and feeling, its musical and poetic elegance took it far beyond the Cuban borders and it reached in Mexico a little over a century ago.

Memorable compositions lime “Bésame mucho”, “Lágrimas negras”, “Si me comprendieras” have sounded in Latin America and beyond; and, by Pedro Junco, “Nosotros”, which they claim is one of the most sung boleros worldwide.

There have been many golden times of bolero in Cuba, multiplied and magnified by voices like that of Isolina Carrillo, Orlando de la Rosa, Pedro Junco, César Portillo de la Luz, José Antonio Méndez, Adolfo Guzmán and the duo Piloto y Vera, just to mention a few.

“The bolero represents a key component of the sentimental song of Latin America, whose reach transcends regional borders,” said, on the occasion of UNESCO's decision, the ambassador and permanent representative of the Republic of Cuba to that entity, Yahima Esquivel.

Musicologist Helio Orovio highglighted a similar thesis in the Dictionary of Cuban Music when he assured that “it constitutes the first great vocal synthesis of the country's music, which when crossing borders registers universal permanence.”

Loving in Bolero Tempo

In addition to the singers already mentioned, others like Benny Moré, Bola de Nieve, Vicentico Valdés, Lino Borges, Fernando Álvarez, Elena Burque and Buena Vista Social Club with Ibrahim Ferrer, Elíades Ochoa and the unique Omara Portuondo, have also made the band vibrate very diverse generations to the rhythm of bolero music.

While, in other latitudes, figures like Armando Manzanero, María Greever, Chavela Vargas, Luis Miguel, Daniel Santos, and Lucho Gatica have similarly popularized this genre.

Of course, there have been no shortage of those who describe the lyrics of boleros as cheesy, but those would only need to be reminded of that verse by Nicolás Guillén:

“Sometimes I feel like being cheesy,
to say: I love you madly.”

The power of bolero has been so radical that the most diverse spaces have made room for it, from renowned theaters, dance halls, cabarets, to the intimacy of any home.

The emblematic Omara Portuondo, whose name will always remain connected, in addition to the feeling, also to bolero, she said when it was declared Cultural Heritage of the Nation in 2021, that such decision was "a tribute to so many artists and bolero singers from around the world and Cuba, and also to so many people who have fallen in love with a bolero song."

Omara Portuondo confesses that her favorite bolero is "Veinte Años", by María Teresa Vera with text by Guillermina Aramburu.

It also results extensive this new positioning of the genre as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Because, even though technology has also made its way into the musical arena and melodies and songs are already created with Artificial Intelligence, in any case, the bolero has left its mark on many, countless loves, and will continue to do so even in this digital world.

Try humming in a whisper to the love of your life: “bésame, bésame mucho, como si fuera esta noche la última vez…”

Translated by Amilkal Labañino / CubaSí Translation Staff

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