An in-depth examination of the evolution of Latin American romantic music since the early 20th century involves more than a study of the rhythmic or harmonic patterns or melodic forms in which the verses of love and its misfortunes have been woven. It is, above all, a language through which the mosaic of theoretical and emotional statements and stories that emerge from love is expressed. The reading, in the form of the bolero, the tango or the ranchera, is as diverse as the person who receives it.

From a historical perspective, the romantic music that evolved into the genre of the bolero is wholly Latin American. It is a musical form whose creation can be traced in a triangle from Mexico to Cuba and Puerto Rico, although bolero music has also taken on influences from other countries, such as Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Argentina.

Its parentage has always been in dispute, though most scholars place its birth in the province of Santiago, in Cuba, with the creation in 1885 of Tristezas, a composition by singer José Viviano “Pepe” Sánchez. From then on, Caribbean romantic music began to take on a new tonal structure, with distinctive rhythmic and melodic features and styles that distinguished it from, for example, the old danzón of Spanish origin:

Woman, your complaints bring me sadness
the deep pain that now you doubt me
there is no test of love I cannot see 
when I suffer and ache for you

This fact was supported by historian Cristóbal Díaz Ayala when, in one of his many research efforts, he dated to the late 19th century the emergence of a “new (musical) genre, the bolero, that departed from its Spanish origins […] and was a phenomenon in the interior of the island (Cuba).”

Many researchers, however, believe it was not until the 20th century that the bolero in Cuba reached its full artistic and creative dimension. The work La tarde, which was dated to 1910, with music by Sindo Garay of Cuba and lyrics by Lola Rodríguez de Tío of Puerto Rico, is cited as one of the most significant pieces in the rise of the bolero because its harmonic structure and lyrics would set the standard for compositions in the genre from then on:

The light that burns in your eyes
Like sunrise when you open them
And when you close them it seems 
Like the dying of the evening 

In Mexico, the romantic verses of the past century were strongly influenced by Italian lyrical songs, as well explained by Jaime Rico Salazar in his book Cien años de boleros. Along these lines, the compositions by Manuel María Ponce Cuéllar in the first decade of the 1900s, followed by the works of Armando Villarreal Lozano and the musical work of Fernando Méndez Velázquez, were testimony to the starting points for this new form of musical expression that quickly spread from Mexico throughout the hemisphere. However, it was not until the pieces by Guty Cárdenas and Agustín Lara appeared in the 1920s that the Mexican bolero broke through and established itself, shortly thereafter, with works by Roberto Cantoral, Consuelo Velázquez, Vicente Garrido, álvaro Carrillo and Luis Demetrio.

In Puerto Rico, by comparison, the bolero has a single name: Rafael Hernández Marín, who in addition to being a sublime poet, was a rhythmic genius, creating enchanting interplay between the lyrics and music and contributing the most brilliant and romantic repertoire of the past century to Latin American music. Just listening to Perfume de gardenias, Desvelo de amorCampanitas de cristal, Diez años or Qué te importa is enough to confirm the greatness of the composer from Aguadilla, whose works have often been wrongly attributed because they are treated as part of the national heritage in Cuba and Mexico:

They can tell me I love you so much I will die,
they can say you are not worth the sacrifice,
that you don’t even want to know my name, that I know;
but I who truly love you, I don’t know what to say

(Qué te importa by Rafael Hernández)

Also foremost among the great Puerto Rico bolero artists is Pedro Flores, a master of the mournful song whose work, although not as prolific as that of El jibarito, measured the Esperanza inútil of an Amor perdido capable of carrying us to the most impetuous Obsesión. Also on this list of bolero artists are Bobby Capó, Plácido Acevedo, Edmundo Disdier, Héctor Flores Osuna, Sylvia Rexach – the worthiest representative of the Puerto Rican filin – Myrta Silva and Puchi Balseiro, among others.

A close look at the bolero goes beyond historical and technical aspects and involves following a fine line that leads to the soul, the conscience and “the dark side of the heart” in a phenomenological understanding that leads to deeper investigation of love songs and the experiences they evoke and cause. It involves appreciation of the lyrics and melodies of the bolero to examine their effects on human sentiment and how they borrow a sonorous voice to communicate desire, or to tell of the experience of the course of love through conquest, fantasy, despair, flight and loss.

Carlos Monsiváis said that to understand the bolero you have to understand the ways in which Latin American societies experience romanticism, longing for “the liberation of the sentiments, the nullification of the self in surrender to the other, the lay confession of the deification of the real or impossible couple.” In this, the bolero is the sigh of the soul or, to quote Monsiváis, “the eager promoter of loving relationships or the desire for one, the witness, the setting, the acoustic landscape.”

It is also clear that boleros are written precisely for the purpose of simplifying the language of sentiments that move in the endless circuit of passions, and without which life would squander its brilliance. That is why it is common to find those who feel catharsis in the bolero. In each measure, each chord and each verse in a bolero, a touch of anguish and misfortune can be found. They are, as Gilberto Monroig would sing, “the ravages of deep sorrows and a dead soul.”

But beyond the heartbreak, the bolero also encompasses a playful passion, the essence of subversion, adventures, fantasies, tenderness and even urban autobiography. This can be recognized by looking at – and listening to – the range of compositions that contribute to Latin American romantic music of the 20th century.

French linguist and semiologist Roland Barthes, who probably never heard or danced to a bolero by the trio Los Tres Ases, or much less enjoyed the work of the bard Gilberto Monroig, Cheíto González, Lucy Fabery, Olga Guillot or Rey Arroyo, saw the philosophical exploration that pours forth from a love affair as the same lines along which the romantic Latin American song is built: radical love. For Barthes, this radical love needs a constant stage, real or imagined, to put forth its words and desires and to serve as a registry of the many forms of the dynamic language of love.

One of the most popular story lines in the bolero is the lovesick character’s fear of facing the loneliness of solitude. “Clock, don’t count the hours because I will go insane” is a line from the bolero Reloj by Roberto Cantoral. The desire to stop time to bask in the experience of love has been one of the most common sentiments of the bolero since its beginnings. Thus with the bolero, and from the bolero, we learn to live and to free the suffering.

But all is not despair. In the construction of this radical love that is embraced between the seas of the Caribbean there is also the evocation of the tenderness of memory, of fantasy, as heard in songs such as Diez años by Rafael Hernández, Allí by Héctor Flores Osuna and En mis sueños by Sylvia Rexach.

The bolero, evangelized as the perfume of the heart, was created for conquest, however. In its immensity, it overflows with yearnings and promises. One of the most moving images of the bolero is the poetic way in which it handles and constructs the reproach that emerges after the loved one leaves and how it evokes despair, as can be seen in songs such as Como yo te amé by Armando Manzanero and Volverte a ver by Ray Girado and Amado Jaén.

In the reproach of the loved one who is leaving, the bolero can be felt as deeply heartbreaking in the melodic realm of the heart. This pitiful vision, one of the most common and popular signs of the bolero and one of the features that most define its unquestionable quality, though some may resist it, is one of the virtues unleashed from the pen of, for example, composer Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso when he wrote Carcajada final.

As Iris Zavala states, “in the bolero, there is nothing that is static or restrained by rigid rules. The lyrics may follow adventures in an effusion of intonations, inflections and whims.” What is sad is its absence.

The bolero long ago moved beyond the media to occupy more intimate settings. To understand it you must search for it, pursue it, find it and capture it. It is difficult to find the signs of where it survives, beyond record archives or videos stored in websites. This loss is the result of the way that the market has carved out a way of looking at sustained love within the context of suffocating advertising that usually tries to depict sexuality as simple, erotic and banal.

Few today try to rescue the essence of that radical and subversive love that, in the bolero, has immense depth that characterizes its nature and makes it something greater. It appears that songs, like love, suffer the effects of changing times and other perspectives and ways of feeling that lack a poetic sense and do not cultivate the romanticism that comes from the soul.

By contrast, those who understand the bolero begin to experience a new way of living a love affair in melodies that seal these feelings with eternal ties, even when the music is not there to be heard.


Author: Hiram Guadalupe Pérez 
Published: May 10, 2012.

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