The city of Santiago de Cuba is synonymous with Trova music- the Casa de la Trova Pepe Sanchez venue is the heartbeat of traditional music in Santiago and a must-see for any visitor seeking the best music in town. The ‘house of trova’ emerged in the 1950s out of a small café and shop where trova, bolero and son musicians met to play together and share their songs. Once the revolution triumphed in 1959, Houses of Trova, along with houses of culture and others, were supported by the government and became a vital part of Cuban culture. Despite the influence of tourism and a smart redevelopment, the Casa de la Trova in Santiago still retains much of this original spirit. Although nowadays it is the infectious dance music of son (which adds drums and other rhythm instruments to the guitar sound) that is heard there, the trova still has its place, especially during the annual Pepe Sanchez Trova festival in March.
Jose ‘Pepe’ Sanchez (born 19 March 1856) was at his peak during the 1880s. He sang his brilliant songs in the ‘cancion’ style- romantic and patriotic songs, sung over a strumming guitar. The style was often associated with itinerant musicians who needed to add to their poverty wages in a country that was still a Spanish colony.
‘Pepe’ was a self-taught guitarist who had the bright idea of holding musical parties at his house in Santiago. Well-connected and with a rebellious spirit, he would often welcome the future revolutionary heroes Guillermon Moncada, Flor Crombet and Antonio Maceo (all of whom led troops in the wars of independence against Spain) to hear his music. His 1885 composition ‘Tristezas’ (sadnesses) was the first Cuban bolero – slow and romantic – and is still popular today. By the early 20th century, he was fronting a five-piece group with two guitars where he began to add second (‘segundo’) harmonies to the singing. This guitar and dual harmony sound became the classic Trova style (although the actual term trova was not coined until the 1930s). Pepe lived before the era of popular recording, so we have no idea of what he sounded like. Luckily for us, his legacy lived on in his songs and with the next generation.
Sindo Garay (born in Santiago in 1867) was a remarkable character who learned guitar from Pepe when he was a child. He wandered around Cuba for decades, firstly as a circus clown but also singing songs which were often revolutionary, criticising the American intervention in the war of independence. One day he fell asleep on a boat from the Dominican Republic and after six hours he arrived in Havana by mistake. Making the most of this new opportunity, Sindo walked around the city with his guitar, serenading passers-by in the parks, squares, and cafes for a peso or two. Later he was joined by his young son Guarionex, and as he developed his amazing ear for harmonies, the ‘segundo’ part became more complex with his classically-inspired vocal lines. By 1917 he was travelling all over the island with three of his children and within a year he had composed ‘La Bayamesa’, his most famous song (same title but a different song to the Cuban national anthem). He performed and recorded right up to the end of his long life – his voice finally fell silent at the age of 101. But before this he made it known that he was one of the few people in Cuba who had shaken the hand both of ‘El Apostol’ Jose Marti and Fidel Castro!
Amongst other famous trovadores (trova singers) who emerged during the early 20th century was Sindo’s great rival Manuel Corona. He composed thousands of songs, including the still popular ‘Mercedes’. Another was Rosendo Suarez who also learned guitar from Pepe and composed the evergreen ‘La Negra Tomasa’. Alberto Villalon (yet another of Pepe’s students) was an innovator who invented the picking style of guitar that brought lively rhythm to the trova. The trailblazing Maria Teresa Vera, alongside her musical partner Rafael Zequeira, reinvented trova harmonies to incorporate her powerful female voice. She had the distinction of being on the first recordings of Cuban son in 1918 alongside Manuel Corona.
Trova music maintained its strength throughout the 20th century, hitting a peak with the wonderful Santiago group Trio Matamoros. Formed in 1925, Miguel, Rafael and Siro perfected their sound over more than 30 years, and their innovative harmonies and brilliant guitar playing, coupled with some of the best songs in the repertoire – including the famous ‘Son de la Loma’ and ‘Lagrimas Negras’ – cemented them as one of the eternal sounds of old Santiago. The greatest of all Cuban singers – Benny More – cut his musical teeth as a young guest singer, touring with them around Mexico.
Maximo Repilado Telles, otherwise known as ‘Compay Segundo’, found worldwide fame with the Buena Vista Social Club during the 1990s but had already been making music in Cuba for 70 years. He too was born in Santiago province in nearby Siboney, and gained his nickname ‘segundo’ as he was a superb exponent of the second harmony in trova groups. He was influenced by the sound of the barber shop harmony singing which was so popular across the Americas in the 1920s. Thirty years later he became well known as part of the duo ‘Los Compadres’, the role of ‘Compay Primero’ being filled by Lorenzo Hierrezuelo who had been singing alongside Maria Teresa Vera. Company Segundo sang in many styles and his most famous composition, ‘Chan Chan’, is a slow son, but his harmonic skills, honed during his trova days, served him well on tours around the world.
The 1960s and 70s saw a revival in Cuba of trova in a new form. This ‘Nueva Trova’ (new trova) introduced artists such as Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés and Sara González, who took up the challenge of creating music with political themes sung to guitars, and in live performance they often combined with each other, singing the dual harmonies so recognisable from traditional trova. Their songs were white hot, perfectly expressing the revolutionary spirit that was sweeping the nation and making strong connections with the new song movement in Latin America.
Music that is influenced by trova continues to be popular today in Cuba – artists such as Gerardo Alfonso who had a big hit with ‘Sabanas Blancas’ and the group Buena Fe who maintain a core sound of guitar and voice are keeping the trova flame alive through fusion with pop.
An inventive response to lockdown by many artists was to revive the guitar and voice medium, giving new life to trova. Young duo ‘Duo Iris‘, already award-winning, became popular, touching a nerve with Cubans across the country during the pandemic with their songs such as ‘Nana para Despertar’, theme tune for the TV novela ‘Rostros de los dias’ in Cuba, and many others.
Also impressive are the La Trovuntivitis collective in Santa Clara, a group who have already had international success, having toured extensively across Latin America and Spain. Other initiatives include the Festival Trovandote held in Ciego de Avila during March of 2022, featuring new trovadores such as Eduardo Sosa and Rachid Lopez, Ariel Barreiro, Nelson Valdez and others, refreshing the power of trova to speak directly to and for the people.
With the simple sound of a guitar or two, a couple of singers, and hundreds of great songs, trova has come a long way without losing its roots. Listening to the old songs, alongside the new music from today’s trovadores, we can still hear the same joys and hopes that affect us all.
David Willetts for Cuba50.org.