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Septets The Perfect Formula for Cuban Son
There have been many son septets, some more famous than others. Thanks to septets, Cuban popular music had great figures that by the grace of septets are still there. Famous septets, apart from Habanero and Nacional, were, among others, Bolona, Juvenil, La Diana, Los Naranjos in Chenfuegos and El Típico de Sones. Septets were all the rage in the twenties, a rage that extended to the world. Septets were the soul of Cuban popular music until, one fine day, they were displaced by pop groups and dance bands. But son septets decided not to die.

Today, when the 21st century speedily advances down the path of technology, septets are again being heard. Few of them are survivors from those now forgotten years. At times the Nacional is heard on the radio, a CD of some of the many we have known at times is found in the stores. Today, by the grace and effort of Ire Productions, Los Naranjos and El Típico de Sones are again in the shelves with the support of all the promotional paraphernalia of these times. I suggest we focus on El Tipico de Sones, because of its musical and human uniqueness.

Early septets, those that played anew the son that came to Havana in 1906, used a botija to mark the high syncopation, which, together with the pluck of the tres (a lute with strings set in pairs plucked with a plectrum), gave the son its pristine cadence. A botija is the earthenware vessel used in the Cuban countryside to take water to those working in the fields. It has a hole that is covered and uncovered with the hand to obtain changes in the sound height.

In 1920 the botija was replaced by the marimbula, an instrument with the form of a wood box horizontally crossed by an iron or steel bar with slabs of different sizes that offers a very especial high sound. In 1926 marimbulas were replaced by double basses that, although more difficult to displace because of their large size, have a longer life, because many times, when the player became exhausted in the midst of a dance, the botija could break or the marimbula player could cut a finger with the vibration of the metal slabs.

Apart from giving rise to the first musical revolution in the genre, the double bass had an influence in the training of musicians: the change from musical empiricism to written scores. The new instrument allowed a written representation in the same way trumpets and at times guitars did

Today, almost ninety years later, El Tipico de Sones is the only septet in Cuba that still uses for syncopation the botija instead of the double bass. But there is more: it still uses the marimbula, thus maintaining the ancient cadence that our grandparents and their parents danced to in every dance hall in that Havana that in summer offered the visitors not only son, but the sound of jazz bands in Dixieland style.

El Tipico the Sones is a group mostly formed by rather elder men: two of them are more than eighty, three are more than fifty and only two were born in the years the Beatles began to change the face of popular music not only in the damp British coasts. They are three generations of Cubans, three different ways to live, to understand and to love music which, although different, do not exclude each other.

Los viejos te cantan (Old Men Sing to You), the title of the CD they have just produced with infinite passion and as painstakingly as medieval goldsmiths, still smells like fresh baked bread. I confess my initial distrust: the recent avalanche of traditional music had just about saturated me for this form of Cuban music, because its authenticity was disappearing in the name of tradition and of a supposedly disregarded old age.

Each number in the CD is a treatise on how to make good son, good music, without yielding an inch to the fickleness of fashion. Their son sounds original, very much their own, as it has always been the case in these groups since 1924 when Gerardo Martinez founded the Septeto Habanero and the group could be identified by the mere sound of the guitars and the difference among the singers could be perceived.

Carlos Embale, one of the best voices in Cuban son of all times, expressed in the eighties that he still had “voice and feeling for son.” Twenty years later, with the authority that being one of the few septets still in Cuba of those which started on this path, El Tipico de Sones announces his voice and invites us to “listen to it,” because it is the voice of son, the voice of Cuba.


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