La Sonora Matancera: Cuba's Immortal Group

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La Sonora Matancera with Celia Cruz circa the 1950s (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It was 90 years ago that Valentin Cane and Pablo Vazquez Gobim founded one of the greatest of all Cuban groups, La Sonora Matancera (The Sound of Matanzas). As the group’s name would suggest, it all started in Matanzas–the word means “slaughterhouse”. Probably because this was the bay and port where the slaves arrived after the miserable “middle passage” across the Atlantic. It’s also been said that the city’s name comes from a historical event: in the late 17th century a group of Spanish soldiers were massacred when they tried to cross one of the rivers to attack a tribe of native Taino Cubans. Getting back the La Sonora Matancera, the band got its name in 1935, building on the group’s evolution since its founding in 1924.

The nine-piece group was lead by bandleader Rogelio Martinez (1918-2001) throughout most of its career, but continues to perform. Though not from Oriente Province, birthplace and center of the Cuban style of dance music called Son, La Sonora Matancera nevertheless specialize in this most Cuban of musical styles. Called “The Dean of Cuban Bands”, the group plays primarily Son, and got most of its fame from backing Celia Cruz in her early days. I find those early albums with La Sonora Matancera to be some of the best she ever did.

Happy 90th La Sonora! You have created some of the hottest, most sublime music that Cuba ever produced.

Here is a video of the band with Celia Cruz, probably shot in Mexico during the late 1950s. Dig those fluffy sleeves on the mambo shirts!