It is generally acknowledged that the bolero is a musical genre
born in Cuba in the 19th century and a descendant from the Cuban
"canción", or song. Several other styles or genres are similarly related,
such as trovador songs and habaneras.
Although the bolero was also known in Spain, there are significant differences
between it and the version known throughout Latin America. One major difference
is in the form of dancing associated with the music of the Spanish bolero.
The Spanish version was danced by groups of couples that danced apart, in contrast
to the Latin American style of couple-centric pair dancing together.
Another major difference is that the Spanish version is written in 3/4 time while
the Latin American version is in 2/4 time. Of course, yet another and most important differentiator
is the influence of African-based rhythms at the foundation of the Latin-American
One of the first well known Latin-American bolero composers was José Pepe Sánchez, from Cuba.
It is known that he composed a song in 1885 called "Tristezas". The song had two phrases,
each of 16 measures. Between these phrases was an instrumental section where the
melody was carried by a guitar. A typical Cuban bolero is the following example, entitled
Famous Cuban musician Paquito D'Rivera once suggested that the modern
Latin-American bolero was
"a ballad with a little black beans on the side", perhaps in jest, but
suggesting the influence of the more energetic rhythms on
the lyricism of the Latin-American bolero.
The bolero quickly spread to Puerto Rico and throughout large parts of
Latin America. Particularly noted among the Puerto Rican composers in the
bolero genre are Rafael Hernández
and Pedro Flores. Several famous trios
sprang up to perform their works; eagerly consumed by a public that
yearned for the soulful songs on the universal theme of love in all its
variations: eternal love, unrequited love, love lost, and separation.
Some of the more reknown of these modern troubadours were
Trio Los Panchos and
(see Bolero artists page for more).
Of course, bolero artists were not limited to the trios, as soloists such
as Julita Ross and others would show.
Naturally, some of the best known exponents of the modern bolero in Latin-America
are from Cuba. The political situation in Cuba has unfortunately hidden
many of these talented composers and performers from large parts of the rest
of the world. Fortunately, the recent Ry Cooder project that resulted in the
hugely successful and Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club video and the
related recordings, have put the spotlight back on Cuba and figures such as
Ibrahim Ferrer. Cooder himself said of Ferrer" "..the last of the great bolero
singers. Everybody in Cuba can play good, but voices of this quality are much rarer".
But artists like Ferrer and the old trios, are not the only source of boleros.
Modern exponents include artists like Los Tri-O, a group of young bolero
singers who have sold millions of records in the United States and Latin America.
Their critics admire the effort but bemoan the lack of faithfulness to the genre.
Some say that Lucrecia, a sultry Cuban chanteuse who lives and records in Spain, has been one of
the few Latin performers of the ’90s able to resurrect the bolero instead of desecrating it.
In any case, many of the older works are available on the latest CD media, to satisfy
the demands of purists while others can take heart in the new generation of artists that
will not let the genre die. Keeping the bolero genre alive is not limited to artists in
Cuba and Puerto Rico. The sentiment is nearly universal across Latin-America, with
bolero artists such as Juan Luis Giménez, from Brazil, as well as other artists from
Mexico and elsewhere.
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