Bolero-Son | Cuban Con-Fusion

Bolero-Son | Xiomara-Vidal | Lagrimas Negras

So far, in my first Cuban guitar lesson with trovadora Xiomara Vidal, she has introduced me to the bolero and walked me through the son.

But it’s getting hot at the Casa del Queso. I take a moment to wipe the sweat from my brow and roll up my sleeves. It’s time to tackle a fusion forged with these two genre giants – you guessed it – it’s the bolero-son.

I’ve now got a feel for the more sedate bolero and the livelier son, but there are many ways we can craft a fusion. I’m curious as to how these two genres could be combined and what the end result would sound like?

Imagine a musician creating a new tone, mixing bolero with son, as an artist mixes blue with red to get purple.

Bolero-Son Palette

But what shade of purple will the bolero-son be?

How much red? How much blue?

The First Bolero-Son

'Lágrimas Negras'

Xiomara now proudly presents the first bolero-son, a song called ‘Lagrimas Negras’ (‘Black Tears’), which was written in 1924 by Miguel Matamoros of the Trío Matamoros.

As the son began to overtake the bolero in popularity on the dance-floors of Cuba, the Trio Matamoros set about merging the two. They explored ways to combine the romantic appeal of the bolero with the provocative pull of the son.

Still to this day, ‘Lágrimas Negras’ stands as the genre’s most famous song and is one of the most popular in the Cuban repertoire. If you visit the Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba for any significant amount of time, you’ll be sure to hear this number. And it may just be Xiomara behind the guitar, sounding a little something like this…

In fact, rather than fusing the genres into one new whole, Xiomara seems to weld them together, end-to-end.

Bolero-Son Back-to-Back

This change of genre and tempo, midway through, gives us a nice lift and injects excitement into the chorus.

Supercharged Bolero

Similar in style to Xiomara’s finger-picked ‘Amanecer de Ilusión‘, but faster.

Standard Son

Similar to the percussively-strummed ‘La Negra Tomasa‘, and around the same speed.

She bridges the difference in tempo between the genres by increasing the pace suddenly, just before the change (and makes it look effortless!). As she does so, I immediately sense a change in mood at the Casa. Whereas the bolero evoked more of a pensive, reflective atmosphere, now the intoxicating pull of the son compels people to connect with it physically.

Giving the Bolero-Son a Whirl

It’s time for me to get back in the saddle and have a go at taming this wild Cuban beast of genre.

Immediately, I’m lulled into a false sense of security by the easy-going and seductive filly called Bolero, only to be buckaroo’d around by the Afro-Cuban crossbreed stallion they call Son. The punters at the Casa del Queso are tripping over each other to place bets on the gringo going down at the first.

But look! No matter how white those knuckles are getting, he’s managing to cling on for dear life! Go, gringo, go! Once in the galloping flow of the son strumming pattern, even a rookie can look natural.

But then, just as I get settled, bracing myself for the next chord change, the rebellious mule turns early and throws me off balance. God only knows whether the chords are coming early or the lyrics are coming late!

Fortunately, there appears to be some kind of emergency response team in my fingers with extra-sensory perception. They grab the reins and override my western-trained musical impulses, sparing me a litany of potential blunders.

After a few laps, we screech to a halt and Xiomara kindly writes out the chords (opposite) and the lyrics.

I’ll have myself some Music and Spanish homework tonight, but actually, I don’t mind a bit. I find it a really enjoyable way to learn the language.

Trying to get to grips with pronunciation, speech patterns and accents can have you tripping over your tongue in no time. But learning through lyrics, you have music to support the rhythm of the words and vocals to practice pronunciation against. It also encourages you to forget your self-consciousness and enjoy the ride.

Chords for Lagrimas Negras

The chord sequence for ‘Lágrimas Negras’ written in the Solfége format used in Cuba.

And so our first lesson, and my grand introduction to Cuban music, comes to an end.

Xiomara gives me many kind words of encouragement, before turning her head slightly to one side, raising a pointed forefinger, and insisting that I practice… hard.

‘Si, si, Xiomara, claro’, I say, nodding innocently like a schoolchild.

I notice that she has a CD for sale so I grab myself a copy and zip up my guitar. As I turn to leave, the resident tres player grins widely and shakes my hand firmly. As I trot off with a spring in my step, exchanging smiles and hasta luegos, I think I catch myself doing a bit of dressage (ok, last horse joke, I promise).

Amanecer de Ilusion | Xiomara Vidal
Amanecer de Ilusion | Xiomara Vidal

Riding Adrenaline Home

I step back out onto the hot paving stones of Santiago de Cuba as a new man and make my way back to Hostal Girasol with the songs ringing in my ears.

I’m still full of adrenaline, feeling giddy, having started off my musical journey the right hoof. I try to steady myself, running back through the lesson in my head, trying to remember as much as possible. I think of how well it all flowed; how well it was planned.

When I first met Xiomara, I told her about the concept of Open Sauce Guitar; how I wanted to study Cuba’s traditional genres, some of her original material, and some fusions. It is clear that she listened intently because she has set all of those into motion in the very first lesson.

She is very knowledgeable of the history behind the styles and oozes pride in her country’s musical heritage. She’s a great ambassador for it too. Her lesson has amplified my enthusiasm and I am eager to dig deeper into these genres.

There was a great atmosphere and natural chemistry between us, with each of us taking turns to crack jokes and play up to the crowd. I already feel as if she believes in my journey and has faith in me.

This journey that I have embarked upon is certainly seat-of-the-pants stuff, but it feels great to be forging my own path. It’s all very surreal, and I wonder if I’m crazy to be doing this, but something tells me it could be the beginning of something very special.

Further Listening

The Original Bolero-Son

Here is the original version of Lágrimas Negras by the Trio Matamoros.

You can hear an increase in tempo again, albeit more gradual than Xiomara’s version. However, the mechanics and overall dynamics of the playing here remain relatively constant throughout.

Perhaps we have more of a ‘purple’ feel to this fusion? The bass sounds quite stable, as if it leans towards a bolero style, whereas the guitar strumming seems to pull more against the beat, as in son.

Hmmm. It deserves further investigation… this space!

Bolero-Son - The Dance

Check out this fantastic performance by a couple dancing the bolero-son.

Notice how the song progressively speeds up throughout, and the dance moves become riskier and flashier as it moves into the later son section with its call-and-response vocals (listen out for the cowbell coming in on 2:48).

This is the section that Xiomara referred to as the ‘expansivo son montuno’, on the chord sheet (above).

This bolero-son written and performed by Eliades Ochoa is called ‘Ella Si Va’ from the ‘Estoy Como Nunca’ album.

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  1. Amazing writing Kee , this is book / film material for sure . You have quite a unique style , and I’m sure that it’s the love of music that has released that almost hidden talent .
    Mum xx

    1. Thanks. I think it is the love of music and the deep connections that I’ve been able to make which transcend languages and cultural differences. Learning Spanish has solidified that even more. I’m really glad you’re enjoying it.

  2. Loving the Blog Ki! It continues to inform, challenge and excite the reader about the possibilities of musical fusions. I know that you’re developing your musical and language skills but, and here’s the big challenge, how’s the salsa coming on?
    Much love from your proud Fosters xx

    1. Thanks, Colette. Well, you’re laying out the gauntlet there aren’t you! I passed a dance studio the other day actually and have been trying to convince myself to go and take some lessons. It would be great to learn the dance moves in relation to the genres e.g. how do the movements relate to the structure of the rhythm etc. This appears to be how my brain works – make it into a project and motivation will follow. Dancing with lots of gorgeous latinas may not be such a drag either 🙂
      I hope my guitars aren’t feeling too lonely in your garret xx

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