Death of a Bandleader

Elio Reve was an obstinate man who refused to miss a beat. In more than 40 years as bandleader of Orquesta Reve, his celebrated troupe, Reve remained as consistent a presence on Cuban stages as the inevitable pair of timbales he banged on-stage. And he had no intention of abdicating his role as one of Cuba's most enduring musical figures. In the song, "Suave, Suavito," recorded in 1994, Reve dismissed rumors of his demise with typical gusto: "And they say that [Orquesta Reve] was breaking down, that it was disintegrating," the song begins. "It's all a lie."

Reve founded the orchestra in 1955 and used it as a means of revitalizing rural changYi music, the polyrhythmic song and dance style he had grown up listening to in his hometown of Guantanamo. In the Sixties, as songs by the Beatles and other Brit rockers invaded Havana, Reve added electric guitars to his fifteen-player lineup, creating a kind of Cuban go-go music that reverberated with Latin riffs.

More recently, he happily adopted the nickname "The Father of Salsa," and he looked upon his ever-growing progeny with pride. Young musicians were Reve's fountain of youth; dozens of Cuba's most talented and popular players passed through the ranks of his orchestra over the decades.

These musicians were among the mourners who packed Havana's Cristobal Colon cemetery the morning of July 25 for Reve's funeral. The 67-year-old bandleader was buried with medals he had earned in military service that included a stint in Angola. Wreaths of flowers sent by fellow bandleaders and friends covered the grave.

Spry as men half his age, Reve died suddenly in a horrific accident two days earlier, when the band was traveling by bus to play at a festival in the rural province of Villa Clara. The traveling party, which included Reve's wife and granddaughter, stopped at what was apparently a very rudimentary roadside restaurant for dinner. According to his manager, Richard Clenton Leonard, when nature called, Reve stepped outside. In the darkness, he misjudged where the shoulder of the road ended and the Havana-Matanzas highway began. A van struck and killed him.

For one of the best-known musicians in Cuban history, it was a bizarre way to go. In Elio Reve's case, the accident silenced a man unaccustomed to silence. A gregarious boaster, he seemed to revel in carrying on continuous, if mostly friendly, sparring sessions with his fellow musicians.

Reve's cantankerous spirit was very much in evidence this past May, when he offered what turned out to be one of his last interviews, at his home in Havana. Perched on a chair on the shady tiled porch of his colonial house, Reve shouted, "There's a revolution in Cuban music and that revolution's called Elio Reve! Ninety percent of what's being used in Latin music today was invented by Reve. People may try to rewrite history, but they all know the truth. It's Reve."

On this sweltering afternoon, the bandleader sported the look of a teenage hip-hopper: his gray hair cut in a fade, baggy pants, and a gold rope around his neck from which hung a thick medallion that screamed his name in diamond-flaked script. In his living room, he proudly pointed out the trophies he had been awarded for topping record sales, popularity polls, and festival competitions in Cuba.

Although he may end up being remembered for his titanic ego and a penchant for hyperbole, Reve's contributions to Cuban popular dance music have been significant. Claiming firsts is always a sticky business, especially in the hyperactive, incestuous, and largely undocumented sphere of Cuban music. But Orquesta Reve has been acknowledged as a pioneer inside and outside Cuba, expanding the basic charanga format (flute, violin, piano, bass, timbales, gYiro) to include four singers instead of three, bata drums, trombones, claves, and bongos, as well as electric guitar and bass.

Like other successful bandleaders, Reve was smart enough to keep himself surrounded by talent. The band's electronic innovations in the Sixties, for example, were the work of bassist and composer Juan Formell, who went on to form the wildly popular group Los Van Van.

Although he preferred to discuss the role he played in advancing Formell's career, Reve quietly noted the accomplishments of the younger musician and others who had left his fold. "All of the musicians who have played with me deserve my respect," Reve allowed.

Even with a long career behind him, it was not Reve's style to be content with performing standards or playing for nostalgic audiences. Up until the time of his death, the orchestra habitually shared bills in Havana with the most popular new bands, and Reve and his musicians were preparing new material, much of it written and arranged by the bandleader himself. His verses were short and simple, typically good-time songs about women and celebration, or odes to Cuban musicians and musical traditions. In recent years Reve rechristened his group Elio Reve y Su Charangon (a term meaning big band) because it sounded more modern.

"My father carved out a style for 40 years, and he evolved the orchestra according to the era," said his son Elio Reve Duverger, known as Elito, a keyboardist who will now take over leadership of the band. "But through it all my father gave the band a distinct personality. It's not like any other band. The harmony and the melody may change, but behind it all is the rhythm -- the rhythm of Reve's timbales."

Over the years, Reve and his orchestra toured Europe, Latin America, and Canada. There was only one big goal he had yet to accomplish: Reve wanted to perform in the United States, a country he had not performed in since before Castro's revolution.

He and his bandmates had hoped to tour here this summer, as other Cuban groups have done, but those plans fell through. Passing the midday hours on his porch, sipping a rum and Coke, Reve seemed obsessed with the idea. Most of all, he wanted to play in the United States with musicians whose artistry he had admired for years. He ticked off the names on his thick fingers: Willy Chirino, Andy Montanez, Cheo Feliciano, and, above all, the legendary salsa singer Celia Cruz, whom he had known since they were both young, struggling performers.

He credited these and other artists with keeping the rhythms of Cuba alive by playing salsa abroad. In one 1995 song, "Mi Salsa Tiene Sandunga," he payed homage to New York's salsa pioneers and their Cuban roots. Reve regarded the long separation of musicians in the United States and Cuba as a cultural rather than a political issue, and he spoke excitedly about the prospect of being able to join them on-stage.

"The problem now is to unite the ties between the Latin American musicians who are over there and the musicians in Cuba, so there's a brotherhood, an identification," he said soberly. "It's important that we see each other, that we know each other, even if it's just to have a cafe con leche in some corner cafeteria. The musicians aren't angry at each other. We just want to play our music."

Indeed, Reve was confident he would soon realize his dream.
"I think that any time now we'll be on one stage [in America] where we can all be together and share the honors of our music with theirs, each one with their style and their own rhythm but all on one stage. If someone would organize a concert in Miami with Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, El Canario [Jose Alberto], and Willy Chirino and Reve could be there, I wouldn't be interested in making a cent. What I want is to share my music, so that the people over there know my music. Because it's been lost to them for 35 years."

Reve leaned back in his chair and looked at the sky wistfully. Asked if he had ever thought of leaving Cuba altogether to join his colleagues in the States, he snapped to attention.

"I don't emigrate," he growled. "If you emigrate you're an immigrant. It's a great satisfaction for me to live in Cuba, to stay in my country and to be Cuban. Independent of the system that exists, I'm Cuban." He opened his arms dramatically, gesturing toward the lime trees in the yard, the door to his house, and the street, where some neighbors were leaning on a car, chatting. "Here I have my family, I have my house, I have my friends, I have a public that loves me. I've never wanted for anything." He leaned back again, smiling widely. "I'm going to die in Cuba. I want to be buried here in this little piece of the world.

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Judy Cantor