...This is a fabulous retro adventure from start to finish.
Jon Lusk 2007
Though Cuba was the original source of the bolero in the late 19th century – and synonymous with it since the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon – it was actually Mexican artists that made the bolero one of the first world music crazes. As the sleeve notes of this wonderful compilation explain, it all started in 1927 when the young composers Guty Cárdenas and Agustín Lara penned entries for a song contest in Mexico City. For much of the next three decades, Mexican boleros were popular throughout Latin America, fuelling the burgeoning cinema and radio industries and sound tracking the country’s nightlife until they were eclipsed by the mambo and cha cha cha – once again from Cuba.
Cárdenas was killed in a cantina shootout shortly after his debut Nunca, but the 1927 version by duetting opera singers Carlos Mejía and Margarita Cueto closes this twenty-song selection, and there are five compositions by Lara, who enjoyed a lengthy and highly successful career. The only two numbers he sings show he wasn’t a compelling vocalist, but the ‘discoveries’ who beat a path to his door and performed his songs and those of others certainly were, most notably Toña La Negra, the medical student turned diva, represented here by three tracks. Fans of Cuban vocal group Los Zafiros will enjoy the two contributions by Los Tres Ases, with their three-part harmonies and delicate requinto (Mexican guitar) playing. And Hermanas Aguila and Hermanas Landín show that Mexico had ‘girl groups’ way before the term was coined.
Another unexpected treat is “Vete De Mi” (recently a hit again for Bebo & Cigala) by Bola de Nieve, the camp Cuban expat who ironically came to Mexico to become a bolero star. And rags-to-riches matinee idol Pedro Infante is another unforgettable voice.
Although he doesn’t give recording dates (the songs range from 1927–1957) and skips some biographical information, Stefan Wimmer’s sleeve notes are colourful and highly entertaining. The often tragic and violent lives of the three-minute heroes and heroines of their day contrast almost comically with their genteel singing styles, mostly backed by swooning orchestras with tinkling pianos, swelling strings, muted trumpets and suggestive clarinets. Naturally, the earlier recordings can’t match the later ones for sound quality, but overall this is a fabulous retro adventure from start to finish.