14. Maria Teresa Vera

Where is the “Embodiment of Cuban Song? In 2001, I made a startling discovery. In a music store in Amsterdam, when compact discs were not far past their peak, I came across the “Musica Latina Nostalgia” series, reissuing Latin American 78s from the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve long been suspicious of this kind of fare- enthusiastic liner notes quickly collapse amid what to my ears sounds like endless trite, formulaic material, with the vernacular hopelessly tangled up in the commercialized “Latin” sound of the period. But forever hopeful, I looked for the most promising item to buy.

Swayed by the duo format (vocals, guitar), age of the recordings (1916-1924) and mixed ethnicities of the protagonists, I went for “Maria Teresa Vera Y Rafael Zequeira- Me Parece Mentira”. I had no prior knowledge of the performers, and the opening strains of the first piece seemed to confirm my suspicions. Then I was stopped dead by the most beautiful array of bright, delicate melodies, shifting time signatures, multi-section song structures and bewitching interplay of solo, part and harmony, track after track. To this day, this boasts the highest score of any old world music album I’ve ever found, barring some compilations.

So commenced years of searching for Maria Teresa Vera. She is both well-known and elusive; acknowledged as a major force in Cuban music (“the embodiment of Cuban song”) but absent from the CD racks. Rafael Zequeira died in 1924, forcing Maria to seek a new path. Already something of a star, in 1925 she formed the Sexteto Occidente, one of the first purveyors of Son, the amalgam of Afro-Cuban religious and social music with the more Spanish Trova, the style of Maria’s earliest recordings.

Son retains elements of Trova, but relies most on musical features which, in my opinion, tend towards the bland and uneven, at least on recordings. The style is first rhythmic, including heavy use of call-and-response melody. Improvisation is also a key tenet, which by definition only works well occasionally. Histories suggest that Son arose out of the growing confidence and visibility of the Black population, following the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886. Shaky independence from the United States from 1902, and a steady opening up of the economy, fostered a stronger sense of nationhood and hybrid creativity. Son is characterized as the grandfather of Rhumba and Salsa among other subsequent trends.

But to me, at this distance and with only the recordings, Son sounds generally dull, languid and repetitive. No doubt in the 1920s, when to the wider public African musical derivatives were fresh, Son appeared exciting and innovative. Today, when the African contribution is taken for granted, it’s hard to look upon the development as our ancestors once did. It is also important to appreciate that the 78 rpm medium forced significant curtailment of the more expansive and meandering Son, which was really to be experienced live over hours of dancing, drinking and socializing. As always, not understanding the lyrics doesn’t help.

My bone of contention is my inability to find any post-1924 recordings featuring Maria Teresa Vera that bear any comparison to her acoustic period, either in style or quality. As the Internet gained traction, a few other CDs surfaced, but all from much later in Maria’s life, and with nothing like the fire of her vintage material. She engaged in another lengthy duo alliance, with Lorenzo Hierrezuela, but I’ve not uncovered any results from that. With Trova unfashionable until the somewhat politicized and hybrid Neuva Trova revival of the 1960s around the time of Maria’s death, perhaps she simply catered to demand or was engaged in creative exertions I can’t fathom or as yet unseen.

It is important to note that neither Maria nor Rafael are cited as authors of their acoustic songs. The composers are in fact among the giants of Trova, notably Manuel Corona and Rosendo Ruiz. Born long before the turn of the 20th century, these classic Trova composers appear to have made few recordings in their prime, but I have turned up a later CD from Sindo Garay, which I’ve yet to listen to. I am trying to find a copy of the CD Early Cuban Trova 1900-1940 released nearly 20 years ago on Alma Criolla Records.

In the final analysis, Maria may have been more performer than composer. In the twilight of Castro’s Cuba, perhaps new perspectives and reissues will emerge to address my lingering “outsider” questions about this enigmatic woman and the faint Trova legacy of a century ago.

Verdict: 2.675 out of 4 (top 1%). All the tracks are worth listening to, but Solitario Peregrino and El Triunfo de La Chancleta are the best. A couple of reissues of these sessions remain widely available, in both CD and digital form.