In Cuba, there is a saying which applies to somebody who is unable to see something that’s quite obvious: Vive en el pueblo y no ve las casas (something like: He can’t see the forest for the trees!) That’s how I feel about popular Cuban dance music. Of course, after having lived on the Island for more than 31 years, I know there are more musicians than streets. I was aware of the international success of son, salsa and timba. But it wasn’t until I began this series of interviews with musicians and band directors that I started to appreciate the range in both quantity and quality of this sector of Cuban culture.
The musician we’re talking about today is a unique case since he is practically self-taught in a country where almost all the important contemporary musicians are graduates from the arts schools, which are free and broadly accessible in all the provinces of the country. This musician’s name is Manuel Perfecto Simonet Pérez. Few know him by this name because the one that has made him famous is Manolito Simonet.
He learned percussion in the streets of his native Camagüey even though almost all of his family came from Santiago de Cuba, Palma Soriano and the Sierra de Cristal in the eastern part of the country. He started playing the tres (an instrument with three double strings, similar to the guitar and very typical of Cuban country music and son) following his uncle, Ramón Hernández, who would play the tres at all family get-togethers. As a child he learned by himself and with a lot of effort because as a lefty, he had to invent his own technique. His uncle was tremendously surprised one day when he arrived at his house and saw his nephew playing. Throughout his life he had several teachers. As an adult he managed to finish the elementary level in music at the Professional Development School but he never really had any systematic academic music training. Even so, he became a drummer, pianist, tresero and bass player, and plays the guitar and the cello to boot. Such a variety of instruments provides him with an important advantage for arranging music and leading a band.
After graduating from basic secondary level school, he started studying at a technological school to learn the boilermaker trade. On a part-time basis, he joined the group of amateur musicians who played in bands at the Casa de Cultura (community cultural center). “All week long, I dedicated myself to schoolwork to please my folks who wanted to see their son have a trade and devoted my weekends to music,” says Manolito.
At 15, he was already sitting in for professional groups. While doing his mandatory military service, he was part of a military band. Upon his return to Camagüey, he was offered the chance to become member of the most important popular music band in the province, the Maravillas de Florida, which today is still considered as one of the most important in Cuba. This step was very important for Manolito and he speaks of the experience with great affection. For the first time, he had the opportunity to be band director because of his skill as a composer. But he also became an arranger and orchestrator. In this position, his important contribution was the use of chords that were typical of charanga bands in the style of Orquesta Aragón and the Maravillas de Florida. “I started thinking of strings as if they were brass, because the charanga doesn’t have them and I felt the need for this in my arrangements. This became a style and soon everybody was doing more or less the same thing, because people liked it,” Manolito commented to us as we sat in his cozy living-room in Víbora Park on the outskirts of Havana.
The band Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco was born in 1993. Manolito created it and has been at its head for 20 years. “I have a bit of the Maravillas de Florida in the Trabuco,” he tells us and then explains that his band has flute, violins and cellos besides trumpets and trombones, because, as he says, he “fell in love with the sound of strings.” The band was an almost immediate success. The TV show called Mi Salsa, which had huge audiences those days, became his natural promotional spot and it was there that the band was called Trabuco. In Cuba trabuco is a word used for strong, powerful things. The word itself comes from a medieval weapon used to topple walls: the trebuchet. Manolito explains further: “People started to make comments at rehearsals saying: ‘Did you see the trabuco Manolito had going?’ or ‘Hey, Manolito, your band is fantastic! What a trabuco!’ And so, trabuco stuck.” Manolito flashes us a broad dazzlingly white smile. His five-year-old daughter has been present during the interview and is now buzzing around us as we speak. She wants to be with her daddy who doesn’t have much free time between tours and recordings, but he manages to visit the city every week to touch base with the members of a huge family that he insists on maintaining very united.
In a few short years, Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco have become famous. In 1999 the band won the Cubadisco Grand Prize in Cuba, they received five nominations for the music awards in Spain that are so important for Latin musicians because they represent the springboard for the European market, and the ASCAP Award (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) in the US for being the composer of “El Águila” that was sung by Victor Manuel of Spain. Something that is not common knowledge is that from 2001 to 2004 Manolito was on the jury of the Latin Grammies in the United States.
The band has gone on many national and international tours. They played at the Royal Wedding of Prince William of Holland and at the birthday of Prince Felipe of Bourbon and Greece, the current heir to the Spanish Throne. In twenty years, he has recorded around one album every two years and always with resounding national and international accolades. Manolito’s tunes have gone on to make up the repertoires of important salsa bands, such as the Puerto Rican Latin Power and Andy Montañés, who has four great hits composed by Simonet. And in 2004, the album called Locos por mi Habana became the most sold Cuban disc in the world.
Besides working as a musician, Manolito is also a music producer, primarily of his band’s recordings but also for other musicians in the world. One of the principal problems of making an album is to decide which number is going to identify it, which number is going to be the one to catch on or “stick,” as the Cubans say. Manolito confesses that it is almost impossible to know this. “It happened to me with a song called “La parranda” that I used as a filler number. It was the last song we recorded; we didn’t even add the brass because everything else was ready to go and we were exhausted. It so happened that the number, which nobody thought much of, ended up being number one for six months on the Cuban radio popularity charts, and it still comes up now and again. Some say it is the number that has spent the most time on the charts here in Cuba. So, it’s hard, really hard to know the tune that will identify a record.”
At this point, Manolito’s wife interrupts with a snack for which we are all grateful because it’s getting late and the musician insists on showing us his recently finished kitchen. It’s comfortable and beautiful and has enough room for his friends and family to get together. There’s a small bar for mixing drinks using secret recipes that we failed to steal from him. Otherwise, there he is, laughing (he laughs a lot!) with his young daughter who has jumped into his arms and doesn’t want to let him go. He invites us to the upcoming inauguration of the studio he’s building and he wants to turn it into an important musical event. As I leave his home, I think about my unforgivable ignorance about Cuban music and musicians but with the steadfast aim of continuing to search them out and get to know them.