San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Latin Music: More than Just Chiquita Banana

In 1990, I came to Costa Rica to take Spanish classes. The first time I heard the music of the old boleros on the radio, they evoked a strange nostalgia in me, as if I had grown up with them and they were carrying me back to a youth I had only dreamed.

Six weeks later, when I got off the airplane in Walla Walla, Washington, to greet my family in the United States, my suitcase was stuffed with cassette tapes of boleros. Back home, I eagerly put them on to play, expecting a big “Wow!” from my family. My ex-husband’s only remark was, “It all sounds like Chiquita Banana to me.” Perhaps many of you feel the same.

Bolero, tango, ranchera? If you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Salsa, merengue, cumbia? Same stuff – just a little jived up. If you feel this way, it’s a shame, for the Latin American musical heritage is both rich and rewarding. Moreover, music is a magic doorway to language, culture, tolerance and understanding. But what to do to change your minds, or rather your musical sensibilities?

Trying to explain in words about music is rather like tilting at windmills. If you don’t believe me, just try to explain to one of your Hispanic friends what country music is. Perhaps the best strategy is to give you a combination of information, translation and a place to go listen. Then the rest is up to you. Sometimes, music appreciation is a question of hanging in there until, as they say here, “entra la peseta” (the coin goes in). That is, until you get it.

All right. Let’s begin with the bolero. When you hear the word “bolero,” it may be Ravel’s majestic piece that comes to mind. But no. Ravel’s “Bolero” is based on the Spanish bolero. Introduced in the late 18th century, the Spanish bolero was a dance in three-four time, possibly of gypsy origin, possibly coming from the word volero, from volar, “to fly,” an apt description of its sharp, rapid movements.

It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that the Cuban bolero emerged. It was born of the Spanish bolero, but transformed by the great variety of musical cultures that inhabited Cuba in those days, most notably those of Africa. It changed its time to two-four and then to four-four, incorporated the cinquillo, or five-note cluster, brought from Haiti by way of Africa, and added to the traditional guitar a variety of native instruments such as maracas, bongos and congas.

The Latin American bolero lived its heyday from 1935 to 1965, but it is still popular today and possesses a remarkable cross section of fans. It began as, and remains to this day, a danceable, sometimes syncopated love song, usually a memory of sweet or bittersweet love. Occasionally, however, it expresses love with an acerbic and self-lacerating anger rarely found in North American music: Toma este puñal. Ábreme las venas. Quiero desangrarme hasta que me muero. (Take this dagger. Open my veins. I want to bleed to death.)

In the 1950s, the Cuban bolero evolved into a noteworthy form called filin, which comes from the word “feeling.” It is a blend of ballad, bolero and jazz, characterized by exaggerated gestures and free voice inflections. Its interpreter must be a combination of actor and singer capable of dramatizing the sentiments of the lyrics with expressive gestures and vocal pyrotechnics. Thus, filin is more than just music; it is a dramatic performance. As one source put it, “…to interpret a bolero with filin, one must be an actor before being a singer and must possess more soul and sentiment than voice. He who has not seen… this style interpreted has not been able to sense the soul that the executor puts into each interpretation.”

I could translate for you some bolero lyrics about unrequited love and abandonment, replete with that bittersweet masochism that we all love so much and, even, in the following case, a touch of Catholic martyrdom: Y si ya no puedo verte, es porque Dios me hizo quererte para hacerme sufrir más. (And if I can no longer see you, it is because God made me love you to make me suffer more.)

But you already know a lot about those kinds of lyrics, and besides, I know you want to hear the juicy stuff. Here, then, is a translation of “La copa rota” (“The Broken Wine Glass”), a bolero that, some years back, I dubbed “the pulp fiction of the bolero”:

Aturdido y abrumado

Por la duda de los celos

Se ve triste en la cantina,

A un bohemio sin fe,

Con los nervios destrozados

Y llorando sin remedio,

Como un loco atormentado,

Por la ingrata que se fue.

(Stunned and overwhelmed / By the doubt of jealousy, / In the tavern, he looks as sad / As a bohemian without faith, / With shattered nerves / And crying without hope, / Like a tormented crazy man / Because of the ungrateful woman who left.)

The song then goes on to explain that his concerned best friend often sits with him in the tavern. The story continues:

Una noche como un loco,

Mordió la copa del vino,

Y brilló un cortante filo,

Que su boca destrozó.

Y la sangre que brotaba

Confundióse con el vino,

Y en la cantina este grito

A todos estremeció:

“No te apures compañero,

Si me destrozo la boca.

No te apures que es que quiero

Con el filo de esta copa

Borrar la huella de un beso

Traicionero que me dio.

Mozo, sírvame la copa rota.

Sírvame que me destroza

Esta fiebre y obsesión.

Mozo, sírvame la copa rota.

Quiero sangrar gota a gota

El veneno de su amor.”

(One night like a crazy man, / He bit the wine glass, / And there shone a cutting edge, / Which tore open his mouth. / And the blood that flowed / Blended with the wine, / And in the tavern this cry / Made everyone tremble: / “Do not worry, my friend, / If I tear open my mouth. / Do not worry because I want / With the edge of this wine glass / To wipe away the trace of a / Treacherous kiss she gave me. / Waiter, serve me the broken glass. / Serve (it to) me, for it destroys / This fever and obsession. / Waiter, serve me the broken glass. / I want to bleed out drop by drop / The poison of her love.”)

That’s just a sample of the extremes the Latin bolero can offer up. And don’t go thinking this is all in the past, because I still hear this one on the radio, as well as others equally histrionic.

Speaking of the radio, I promised you a place to go listen to boleros. I have a real treat of a place, but, sorry, I can only provide it to you Costa Rican residents, as it is unavailable on the Internet. It is Radio Sinfonola, 90.3 FM on the radio dial.

Tune in, and stay with me. Next time, we’re going to do the tango.

Oh, yes.


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