Apr 22, 2020

The Private Canon, Vol. 1: Ven Bernabe y Lamento Jarocho

Cross-posted from my music blog Train My Ear

In my decades of listening to and thinking about, and occasionally making, music, I’ve had some widely shared crushes and obsessions (Beatles, Jimi, Eilish) and joined plenty of fervent cults (Yes, Costello, Sondheim). But I’ve also developed what I think of as my private canon—deep cuts or relative obscurities that I rank among my favorites but which don’t seem commensurately well known or highly acclaimed. Tunes like Peggy Lee’s “Sans Souci” or Dylan’s “No Time to Think,” or the Harry Belafonte/Miriam Makeba duet “Mbombela,” or a wild punk waltz called “Palindrome” by the Ophelias, or the entire catalogs of English guitar goddess Charlotte Hatherley or Texas gypsy jazz combo Café Noir...I could go on like this all day. These are the songs I loved putting on mixtapes for friends back in the day, songs I wish someone would make a hit by covering or dropping into a popular movie.

Or blog about. Many or most of the songs I love I couldn’t possibly get away with covering myself, and my moviemaking dreams were put out to pasture even before I finished film school 30 years ago. But I can apply my critical ear and pen to them here, as I’ve done for a series of formative album replays and other assorted music. As the hours of social isolation stretch ahead, I plan to do just that.

I’m going to start with a favorite I’ve taken for granted for 25 years and just recently made some new discoveries about—and how often can you say that about a beloved song?

I went through a Latin music phase in the early ’90s, inspired after a woman I briefly dated mentioned in passing that she liked salsa dancing. That was enough to send me to Ritmo Latino to snap up some cassettes (yes, cassettes), including some cherished Tito Puente joints and a Celia Cruz/Sonora Matancera hits collection, Tesoros Musicales. The woman and I soon parted ways, but I was left with some lifelong companions. I’ve already written about my love for Tito’s Tambo, but the Cruz/Matancera tape had a lot of great stuff on it too (“Pulpa de Tamarindo” is a particular favorite). For me the real keeper, by a long shot, is “Ven Bernabe,” three-and-a-half minutes of mysterious perfection, alternately sinuous and punchy, with the rhythmic equivalent of an earworm in its title phrase—a hard clave variation with its strongest accent on the 4—and a resolute refusal for much of the song to land on a strong downbeat. Though it has the horn blasts of classic son montuno and the angular piano filigree of Latin jazz, they don’t follow the usual patterns, to my ears at least; they keep eluding capture, even as they spin their own fascinating nets. This persists even after something curious happens exactly halfway through, at 1:45: The song shifts down to a slower gear for some ballad-like verses, only returning to the springy opening riff for the last 20 seconds or so. Before we go any further, here it is:

Until last week I hadn’t looked under the hood of the song or checked its lyrics. I discovered that it first appeared in 1959 on the album Cuba’s Foremost Rhythm Singer, and that it is not one song at all but a mashup of two: “Ven Bernabe,” by Santiago Ortego Gonzalez, a Cuban composer who also wrote another Cruz/Matancera song, “De Cuba A Mexico”; and “Lamento Jarocho,” a bolero by the legendary Mexican troubadour Agustín Lara.

Mexico is a relevant connection here, as well as what I would call a certain race consciousness. While “Ven Bernabe” seems to be about an ornery malcontent who’s broken up a “fiesta” of “los negros” (the “barracon” to which the singer calls him was a term for barracks holding Black slaves), “Lamento Jarocho” is an ode to the “bronze race” of Veracruz, who perhaps not coincidentally gave Mexico its preeminent folk music, son jarocho. Lara’s lament is far more sympathetic than the harsh street cry of “Bernabe,” lifting up an “an entire race full of bitterness” that is nevertheless “born brave” enough to “suffer all (their) misadventures.” While I’m not versed enough in Latin American colorism or the intra-racial dialogue around Celia Cruz’s Afro-Cuban heritage to speak of this authoritatively, there is clearly a Gulf-of-Mexico exchange, a bit of folkloric cross-representation, going on in the marriage of these two songs, and it goes deeper than its musical stylings. You can get some sense of it here, in a later concert Cruz did in Mexico with the Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco. When she breaks into “Lamento” (at 2:00), you can hear applause of recognition from the Mexican audience:

Throughout a career spent mostly in post-revolutionary exile from her native Cuba, Cruz was a kind of ambassador of the Americas—not only of music from Cuba, but of sounds circulating around the Gulf of Mexico from throughout and within the African Diaspora, fused with Indigenous and colonial musics—and in this sense she was clearly one of the great American artists. It turns out that “Ven Bernabe” isn’t just a banger that happened to catch my ear—it may be among the finest artifacts of that unique ambassadorship.

In my research I turned up this great broadcast version:

I was able to find only one recording of “Ven Bernabe” by itself, without “Lamento Jarocho” fused to it, from a 1981 record by Leo Soto:

This cover of the Cruz/Matanera arrangement, by Federic y Su Combo, embellishes both the piano and vocal parts, divertingly if with diminishing returns:

As for “Lamento Jarocho,” this is the lachrymose Lara original:

And a popular, big-bandish version by Toña La Negra:

Bringing it full circle, this “Lamento” by Orquesta Aragón is strongly in the Cruz/Matancera vein. "De Cuba A Mexico" indeed:

No comments: