When Cuba Sang

Chico O'Farrill. Bebo Valds. Prez Prado. Cachao. A vibrant musical era was swallowed by the revolution, but not before the Panart record company put it on a platter.

One afternoon in 1944, a coed quartet of singers, the Cuarteto Vocal Siboney, was brought in to provide back-up vocals for Orquesta Cosmopolita, which was going to record a Spanish-language version of Stormy Weather. The song had become popular in Cuba when Lena Horne sang it in the 1943 film of the same name, and Ramon Sabat figured it would be hit in the audience's native language as well. Unfortunately the lead singer was out sick that day. Not inclined to reschedule the session, Sabat asked if anyone else might be able to take over. The leader of the quartet pointed to a young singer in the group. "A very, very young girl -- I remember she had on bobby socks," Julia Sabat recalls.

"I was just a little sprite then," agrees Olga Guillot. "I was nervous, but Mr. Sabat told me to come on up and sing."

The experiment was a success. Guillot subsequently recorded an entire Panart album and became one of the first popular female singers in a land where male voices dominated, famous throughout Latin America as a supreme interpreter of the bolero style. After the revolution she went into exile in Mexico and later moved to Miami, where she now lives.

"Panart had the best artists of the era because Ramon Sabat gave everyone a chance," asserts orchestra leader Bebo Valdes, who cut several albums on the Panart label. The long-time house piano player at the Tropicana and the inventor of an Afro-Cuban dance rhythm he called the batanga, Valdes has lived in Stockholm since 1964 but performed with other legendary Cuban artists in a comeback concert at the Gusman Center in October. "Mr. Sabat was a generous man and he knew about music -- he was a musician like we were."

Galo Sabat, Ramon's younger brother, came onboard as the company's manager in 1956. "My brother was very democratic," Galo asserts. "I remember one night when he came by the studio. He'd been fixing some equipment at the factory, and his pants were all full of grease. He asked the musicians if they were hungry, and he took down all their orders and went to the bar on the corner and came back with a tray. One of the musicians who was new to Panart asked who he was. Someone told him he was the owner of the company. The new guy thought he was kidding. But that was my brother Ramon. There was nothing aristocratic or standoffish about him. I think that helped in the business because musicians like to be treated well."

Many of the best artists, notably Beny More, stayed with RCA, but some of the unknowns Sabat was willing to gamble on would go on to be wildly successful. Mambo king Damaso Perez Prado recorded on Panart in the Forties, although that new rhythm would not become the rage until the next decade.

Julia Sabat remembers that groups of hopefuls always seemed to be waiting outside the studio door, instrument cases in hand. "We opened the doors," she says. "Anybody who wanted to make a record, we'd make it."

That was how the three carpenters who were working on the construction of the new second-floor studio got their chance in the mid-Fifties. They called themselves Trio La Rosa, and their Panart records were hugely popular throughout Latin America.

Sabat's human touch was what made possible one of the best-selling Spanish-language albums of all time. "The people at Capitol Records had been trying to get Nat King Cole to do a crossover album for the Latin American market," says Galo Sabat. "He wasn't interested. But on a trip to Los Angeles, Ramon met Cole, and he asked the people at Capitol if it was all right if he invited him to come and record in Havana. They told him to go ahead and try but that he'd never get Cole to agree. Well, he did, and he came with his whole production team to Cuba. He didn't speak any Spanish, so he worked it all out phonetically. Ramon coached him. They worked on it in the studio all night long." Nat King Cole en espanol, recorded in the Panart studios in 1956 and released on Capitol, became a standard in Latin America and Spain, and was followed by two other Spanish-language albums recorded in Mexico and Brazil.

Although romantic crooners like Barbarito Diez and big bands like the Orquesta Antonio Maria Romeu were the label's bread and butter, Panart captured a wide range of Cuban music on record, often exploring unchartered territory. Guajira (Cuban country music), instrumental Latin mood music, and even poetry were recorded on Panart. And the tribal rhythms of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion were performed in a recording studio for the first time for the album Santero, by a group of Santeria-practicing musicians and singers, including Celia Cruz.

Pedro Alvarez Cepero happened to visit the studio that day and was astounded by what he found. "The place stank," says the Miami record store owner. "They were burning sacrifices for the gods -- they had to do a whole ceremony in the studio before they could start to play." Forty years later, Santero stands as a consummate example of Afro-Cuban soul music.

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