Miguelito Valdés and the Cuban Music Craze in the United States: A Wolfsonian Tribute


In the wake of the rather late and surprising presidential election results of Tuesday, I must admit that sleep deprivation caught up with me and I lost track of an important anniversary I had intended to mark with a blog post: the death on November 9, 1978 of the Cuban singer Miguelito Valdés.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Although not himself of Afro-Cuban heritage, Valdés (red) was a close friend and associate of Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo (green), and regarding his singing style, the sonero was described “as black a white guy as you would meet in Havana.”



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Given that as a candidate, Donald Trump had promised to roll back the Obama warming of relations with Cuba, it seems worth marking the anniversary of Valdés’ passing in the context of U.S.-Cuban cultural collaboration—even if the post goes out a day late.


                                           The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Joseph K. Albertson Collection,                                            gift of the Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida

The destinies of the United States and Cuba have always been bound together by what U.S. President McKinley referred to as “the ties of singular intimacy.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

If one discards the political and economic paternalism implicit in his quote, and focuses instead on the cultural dimensions, it is absolutely true that Americans and Cubans have been—barring the last fifty years of Cold War isolation—intimately and inextricably interconnected. While on the one hand American jazz exerted a profound influence on Cuban musicians, on the other hand the music and dance scene in the United States were utterly transformed by the Cuban music craze from the 1920s through the 1950s.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

In the 1920s, wealthy North American tourists first began to flock to Havana to experience an “exotic” tropical adventure.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

According to Basil Woon, the author of Cocktail Time in Cuba, these visitors could expect to see on the Plaza roof of the Hotel Sevilla-Biltmore “the Cuban danzón danced as it should be danced, and even a wee suggestion of the forbidden rumba, that most suggestive of dances, reminiscent of the jungle, when instead of the woman trying to charm the man it’s the other way about, and the man by his gestures and his grace endeavors to seduce the woman.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Although travel to the island trailed off precipitously following the onset of the Great Depression and the political instability engendered by the Machado dictatorship, American tourists had already caught the Cuban “fever” and brought it back with them to the United States. The 1935 Hollywood film, Rumba,  starring George Raft and Carole Lombard, capitalized on and helped to further the popularity of Cuban music and dance in the U.S.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Americans became enthralled by the Cuban rumba, even if their own ballroom dance “fox trot” version of the same was far tamer than the sensual Afro-Cuban dance that inspired it.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The conga, another Cuban dance tradition with Afro-Cuban roots, was originally looked upon with hostility even on the island, as when the mayor of Santiago, Desiderio Arnaz—(the father of Cuban-American celebrity, Desi Arnaz)—penned an editorial in 1925 deploring its influence:

“But here, in our city, in one of those scientifically inexplicable regressions towards a dark past, certain elements of our commonwealth seem committed – under the pretext of carnaval – to the repugnant task of checking human progress and causing harm to Civilization with their excesses. I refer to the ‘conga,’ that strident group of drums, frying pans and shrieks, to whose sounds epileptic, ragged, semi-nude crowds run about the streets of our metropolis, and who, between lubricous contortions and abrupt movements, show a lack of respect to society, offend morality, discredit our customs, lower us in the eyes of people from other countries and, what is worse, by their example, contaminate schoolchildren, who I have seen carried away by the heat of the lesson, panting and sweaty, engaging in frenetic competitions in corporal flexibility in those shameful tourneys of licentiousness.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Even as some municipal officials railed against and tried (largely unsuccessfully) to ban Afro-Cuban drumming, music, and dance, the rumba and conga ultimately won over mainstream Cuban society. Not only did Cuban President Gerardo Machado invite son musicians to play at state affairs, but Americanized versions of Cuban musical traditions also spread to and became popular with their neighbors to the North.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

In the decades that followed, Cuban-themed nightclubs, dance halls, and music became all the rage in the United States.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gifts of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The Hollywood movie industry also continued to whet and feed the American appetite for Cuban-inspired music and dance with a variety of musical films.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Many Cuban performers traveled to, toured, or took up semi-permanent residency in major American cities.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Miguelito Valdés was no exception. In the early 1940s, he moved to New York City, where he performed with Alberto Iznaga’s Orquestra Siboney, Xavier Cugat’s orchestra, Noro Morales, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito, before becoming a band leader in his own right.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Leonard Finger Collection, gifted by Edwin Schloss

Miguelito reached a national American audience in 1942 when he sang a duet with Lina Romay, backed up by the Xavier Cugat band in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical film, You Were Never Lovelier.

Miguelito also provided a dramatic vocal performance of Margarita Lecuona’s hit song, Babalú in the Hollywood film Pan-Americana (1945).


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Babalú was Valdés’ signature song and earned him renown as “Mr. Babalu” after he recorded renditions with such internationally popular groups as the Casino de la Playa orchestra in Havana, with Xavier Cugat, and with Machito in New York, long before Desi Arnaz popularized the song again on the 1950s sitcom, I Love Lucy.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

At the age of 66, Miguelito Valdés was still singing, and, in fact, suffered and died of a heart-attack during a performance he was giving in Bogotá, Colombia.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Leonard Finger Collection, gifted by Edwin Schloss

~ by "The Chief" on November 10, 2016.

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