Any person involved in these matters knows how hard it is to find a name that is appropriate, ecumenical, representative, commercial, and with all those features that a band, aspiring to success, is supposed to have. Ten or twelve possible combinations were suggested, including the one by Jon Intxaustegi “Los amigos de Machín“, not bad, but the “old men” did not buy it. The idea by Manuel, from Madrid, and by famous Cuban journalist and designer Tony Évora, was ultimately the one used. It was simple and direct: “Vieja Trova Santiaguera“.
Everybody agreed the name “had music of its own”, it “sounded harmonic”, and it was definitely “more commercial”. Later I read it was also the name of an aesthetic musical movement representing outstanding trova players from Santiago, which included all regions as well.
In September, already turned into Vieja Trova Santiaguera, the recording of the album started as soon as Manuel arrived in Havana. Literally speaking, a real odyssey that made us discover a determination and a tenacity we did not think we had.
There were moments tough enough to quit. The worst of all was not the lack of resources (which was obvious), but the little interest of some officials to support this heritage, for many of no value, and with no space within the music industry. I still wonder what went through their minds when 5-digit revenues in the so-called “American dollars” started coming in.
The international launching
During the recordings Manuel told me, very excited, that this album, a coproduction of Nubenegra and ICRT, had every chance to be sold really well. He had a clear intuition about how things would work out.
He suggested that I contacted the Madrilenian agency for artists’ representation Nox Productions. Its director, Gloria Parra, had already been informed about the details of this adventure, and she was willing to produce a tour to present the album. So, within a few days, we had a proposal for a short promotional concert tour through some cities of Spain during the summer of 1994. This tour, for us, was a big deal. Nubenegra decided to reinforce the cultural idea with a publicity hook: naming the album simply Vieja Trova Santiaguera.
We already had a name, an album and a tour. Anything else? The feeling of knowing we existed, that we began to be an entity with life of our own was extraordinary.
Mauricio Vicent, controversial and versatile, but always respected and professional, was correspondent for El País newspaper in Havana. At that time, he had the feeling that something big was about to happen. He visited “los viejitos” at the house, and got their first interview, the first of hundreds to come. At an article published by El País on Thursday, June 23rd, 1994 when they were having presentations in Madrid, Mauricio wrote the most beautiful and fair assessment of that madness.
Every wrinkle is an unstoppable passion, and in every mole you can discover either betrayal or contempt, and a black tear as well, like the one in the boleros of their album of Sones and Boleros of Santiago they just finished recording in Havana. They are a summary of grey hair, history and music…
A summary of grey hair, history and music
Quite right, those men that would dazzle the European stages could have written the history of poverty, hopelessness, part of the collective hunger and the infamous racial discrimination; for they lived those moments in which black men could not use the same sidewalks or parks as white men did.
Their aptitudes and multiple talents were not shaped by any conservatory or art school.
A mediocre mason, a baker (that could be a pastry maker or a bread delivery man), a fine cabinetmaker that was actually a good carpenter who would repair beat-up chairs, a painter, a train driver and even a servant used to meet, with maracas and guitars, at any bar or just about any place where people wanted to hear good trovadas (trova jam sessions). They learned on their own, from each other, and together they created names that today, in 2021, have not been placed yet at the top position they deserve. Some of them are: Cuarteto Patria, Estudiantina Invasora, Conjunto de Chepín, Los Compadres, Conjunto Caney…
The first tour and media expectations
On June 19th, 1994, La Vieja Trova Santiaguera traveled to Madrid to conquer an unknown world. I speak from experience here. Things had happened very quickly, but step by step, as consistent as film making, where one scene prepares you for the next, in such a way that there is not room for surprise. Everything flew smoothly, but the real dimension of this adventure was beyond our most enthusiastic speculations.
So, when we arrived to Casa de América in Madrid for the press conference organized by the representation agency and the record company and were received by dozens of journalists, flashes, microphones, IDs, TV cameras, we were really confused. I swear I had only seen that in press conferences with the most famous international artists. What was going on there? Were they expecting Michael Jackson, or Madonna, perhaps?
No, they expected five seniors that had only performed together once at a TV show. It was hard for these gentlemen to talk about that “artistic project” because, for them, it was just to sing the usual, as always, no albums or television, no press conferences. Something even worse was the fact that only three of the five arrived to Madrid due to an unpredictable overbooking. So, Aristóteles and Reinaldo Hierrezuelo, the right person to be the spokesman for the group for the reasons explained above, were left behind in Havana. That’s how Pancho, Creagh, Machado and I went out there, nervous and surprised, but certain that we had nothing to lose (we never had), and the wind was in our favor.
Well, there it was, all the specialized press of Madrid and some international media trying to get something amazing and novel from those trova players full of moles and experiences. On top of that, Fidel Castro’s Cubans. There were all kinds of questions and with different intentions. They replied using short, but accurate phrases, as blunt as the pride of their origins. Everything in its right place, as if it had been planned beforehand.
It must have been the magic of the moment; the first goal had been reached. From that day on, those gentlemen stopped being whoever they were and became an unprecedented artistic phenomenon. And they never lost their humbleness!
As it happened, some journalists claimed I was a security agent for the Cuban government. Hope their doubts were cleared because I’ve lived in Spain since 1998 and La Vieja Trova retired in 2002. I was with them all the way till the end.
After the press conference, each day was a new discovery for all. I was supposed to be ready. At least I knew names, regions, music genres and some important monuments of that old mother culture. But one thing is to know something and another is to run into it like if they were around the corner of your house. Even more, because I was not a Cuban looking for El Corte Inglés or la Puerta de Alcalá, like many others, but the guy in charge of something that generated the respect and curiosity of the people.
To my new friends, our venerable protagonists, it was quite a discovery.
We arrived thinking that the promotion of the album would take a couple of weeks, but more cities were added up to a tour that lasted over a month. I was always worried about their health and stamina. And there it was, standing-up applauding audiences, chicks asking for autographs, albums from hand to hand, and toasts a little bit after midnight with some tapas. Brandy is not rum, but it works pretty much the same way. Tempranillo, Rioja, Ribera del Duero are Spanish wines, surely more refined than the one getting to Cuba from Bulgaria, which was called Pancho el Bravo. Any city was Santiago de Cuba. Any place where anybody listened to their music was Casa de la Trova. And I kept torturing myself with an obsessed concern, until I found out they were more energetic and cheerful, as if life had slowed down the speed of their biological watches.
Every year, these experiences were repeated, corrected and augmented, like we would say of a new book edition. It was hard to find sponsors the first time. Later, sponsors would come to us. Important trademarks would put their names and logos in our concerts publicity, in newspapers advertisements and in numerous TV and radio shows where the group performed.
The following albums
“Gusto y Sabor” was the second album released in 1995.
In 1996 the third album called “Hotel Asturias” was released. It was a homage to that modest hotel located in Sevilla Street, No 2, downtown Madrid and 100 meters away from la Puerta del Sol. That was the Madrilenian home to “los viejitos” for years. They were so loved and spoiled there that they always refused to stay at 5-star hotels. At the Asturias, they would always be welcomed by their usual maître, the hall master Constantino, who suggested dishes from a “nearby galaxy”, the governess and the hotel director himself, proudly holding their album.
Amado Machado’s health wouldn’t allow him so much activity. He used to lose his sense of reality from time to time, so he did not understand what was happening or even know where he was, or why people applauded. Once in Dortmund, Germany, we were at the hotel waiting for the sound test and he told me: “Jorge, compay! I don’t feel like working today”. I was iced cold. If he had insisted on it for over two hours that would have been a problem. Trying to get him in a good mood, I told him to shower and get dressed because we had to go downstairs and try a Havana Club rum that was new to that country. I said no more and he did not reply with words. He left me with half a smile showing his golden tooth; half an hour later we were already with a drink in our hands, euphoric for that night’s gig.
But health refused to tag along, and for the recording of this album Amado was replaced by singer Ricardo Ortiz Verdecia, who had been the leader of the Taínos de Mayarí Orchestra. He was a “young man”, as he liked to clarify: “I am 62 years old, they are older, but I am old too!” His timbre was very similar to Amado’s and was remarkable in his stage performances. He retired with the rest.
In 1996 I received a phone call from Dutch films producers that were in Havana for a visit. They wanted to make a documentary about “los viejitos” and their experiences at the time. We met and agreed on a few things. The shooting would be in England, Holland, Spain, and Cuba, of course. I was supposed not to be surprised anymore at this point. I had to contain myself not to show my overwhelming enthusiasm, which is not good during certain negotiations. I couldn’t know what the boys’ skeptical expressions were hiding when they heard the news. It was a new and great gift.
- Dutch Academy Award, 1999.
- Audience Award, Chicago Latin Film Festival, 1999.
- Holland Film Award, 1999.
- Audience and Silver Spire Award, San Francisco, International Film Festival, 1998.
- Golden Plaque, Arts, Chicago International Film Festival, 1998.
- Dutch Film Award, Special Jury Award, Utrecht, 1998.
It premiered at the Palafox movie theater of Madrid, Spain. Unfortunately, a fiction film also entitled Lágrimas Negras had been released that same year. It was a real problem. Even though they were totally different products, in terms of promotion, it was very damaging. As a matter of fact, our film was not exhibited anymore in Spain. Nevertheless, it was quite successful in Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
The unfortunate fate of this documentary was sealed when, in 1999, the Buena Vista Social Club film, the story about Ry Cooder’s project directed by Wim Wender, was released with all fanfare. All the promotion around this film, including their nomination to the Oscars Award, buried a beautiful and important document that old and new fans of the Cuban music should have known.
The new record contract
Tours continued throughout 1997 and the success of the film started showing all over Europe. The quintet had reached such level to the eyes of all in the music and show industry that the narrow limits of previous engagements were no longer enough. It was obvious that the group needed a change of visibility, which led to renegotiating conditions, renewing some criteria and expanding our horizons.
Fortunately, I did not have to search for these new conditions. At a cultural and commercial event at the ICRT protocol house, two music producers from the record company “Caliente” in New York approached me. Their offer seemed to be the change we needed. Three albums would be recorded, with decent royalties and great prospects for promotion and advertising, which would be targeting, mainly, the American market (hands down the natural market for Cuban music). The big obstacle was that the recording and whole operation would take place in the United States.
Beyond contract commitments, our loyalty and other ethical considerations made us consult this with Manuel Dominguez, from Nubenegra. Regardless of his reaction, we also had to consider the tense relations between Cuba and the USA. That would definitely make it difficult to control important issues such as royalties, payment, etc.
The conversation with Manuel was of mutual respect. He could not offer anything similar to the proposal that would expand our horizons. In a gesture of chivalry, he released us from any future commitments to him and his company.
After that, I talked to Rubén Caravaca, from Nox Agency, and I told him about our separation from Nubenegra and about the American proposal.
As we are used to saying, you never know what’s going to happen. He advised me not to close any deal with “Caliente” and told me to get on the first plane to Madrid. He had just received a very solid proposal from the multinational Virgin Records. I wasted no time at all.
In December 1997, I was in Madrid negotiating with a multinational that offered far better conditions to those from the New York people. The economic offer was similar, theirs would add other two solo albums by the singers besides the three already agreed upon by the group. The decision was not hard to make. Operations would be directed from Madrid. Ironically, Spain was close to us, whereas the United States was very far away.
Despite some mistakes and disagreements, Virgin catapulted La Vieja Trova Santiaguera, taking them to the place they already deserved. Tours, success and excitement were multiplied. The dream reached levels we always thought unreachable.
Like the predictable future we would never want to face, the inevitable started happening. Old age and obvious ailments that come with it forced us to gradually replace the members of the quintet.
Just to mention an example, in a very short time, Pancho Cobas was replaced by guitarist Manuel Galbán. He was very well-known as a member of the vocal group Los Zafiros during their golden times in the 60s. After his experience in the Vieja Trova, he recorded an album featuring two electric guitars with the one and only Ry Cooder, which awarded him a Grammy in 2003. Galván was replaced by Rubén Betancourt. Then José Artemio Casañeda stepped in for Rubén. José was known as Maracaibo because of a song he wrote that became one of Benny Moré’s repertoire jewels.
With the same ease and speed they gave body and soul to that quintet, and with the decision of mature people who end up being wise, they retired in September 2002.
I still regret not being able to get into the American market. Maybe if I had accepted the New York record company offer, who knows?!
Every day, and with an increasing intensity, I feel life rewarded me with the chance to get to know these unforgettable artists up-close and personal, and learn their lessons of humanity, humbleness and honesty. It was an honor. It was a pleasure. Thank you…