In the neighbourhoods of La Marina, Simpson and Pueblo Nuevo in the 1920s, rumba and Guaguancó reigned in the dance halls and popular festivities.
At that time, in the town of Matanzas 62 miles east of Havana, a birthplace of important musicians, musical septets were born in patios and gardens to entertain afternoon gatherings and improvised dances in neighbours’ houses.
According to María Victoria Oliver, a researcher in this field, it is this environment that laid the groundwork for one of the least studied phenomena in Cuban music, and nevertheless, she affirms, one that has had significant international influence; ensembles in the style of the Cuban musical genre son.
This refers to the musical septet that established its own technique, style and sound that have survived for more than eighty years.
One of those original septets was La Lira Matancera, created by the guitarist Leoncio Soler and his children in the Pueblo Nuevo neighbourhood on 18 May 1924, Oliver highlights.
In 1927, the group arrived in the capital with the composer and tresero Felix Cárdenas, and its transformation into an ensemble consolidated an innovative format in popular music in the 1930s and 1940s.
From 1930 until 1937, Dámaso Pérez Prado, who would later become known as El Rey del Mambo and have a broad musical career in Mexico, collaborated with La Lira Matancera as pianist and musical arranger.
Among the members of La Lira was Esteban Lantriz, or ‘Saldiguera’, who at the time was very young but would many years later become one of the classic voices of rumba as a member of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.
After a long period in La Havana, La Lira returned to their hometown in 1958, where they had a secure audience and more stable work.
Oliver says that in this new era, led at the time by composer and pianist Ildefonso Marrero, they performed several times throughout the province and beyond.
They have shared the stage with Benny Moré, Fajardo y sus Estrellas, Pacho Alonso, Chapotín, Roberto Faz, Gloria Matancera, Conjunto Casino and Neno González, among others.
Oliver points out that in 1984, when celebrating the 60th anniversary of its creation, La Lira Matancera starred in an unprecedented event on the Cuban musical scene: the performance of a concert together with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Matanzas.
The Lira today
The Lira is the longest-lasting sonero ensemble in Cuba and around the world, but the group’s extensive career represents much more than just a strong tradition in Cuban music.
This is how Juan Francisco González describes it, the public relations and producer of the orchestra, for whom La Lira is “also a story of constant will to survive generational changes and passing fashions, and the poor tendencies of the odd insensitive manager.”
In González’s opinion, La Lira has taken over the music created by several generations of Matanzas composers, some less remembered than others, and has taken on the responsibility of maintaining its classic collection in the current musical environment.
At present, the group is in the hands of the third generation of members under the direction of trumpeter Carmelo Marrero, son of Matanzas pianist and composer Ildefonso Marrero, the man who returned La Lira to the city of Matanzas.
“The active repertoire of La Lira Mantacera is made up of more than 200 classic songs by the Cuban orchestras of the golden decades,” Carmelo told Prensa Latina.
Among those artists he mentions Pérez Prado, Felix Cárdenas, José Claro Fumero, Severino Ramos, Nilo Menéndez, Arsenio Rodríguez, Ernesto Duarte, Fernando Mulens, Rosendo Ruiz, Senén Suárez, among other local and internationally recognised musicians. “Producing versions of popular songs by Cuban and international artists in their own style has been another key feature of the work of Sonora Lira Matancera,” he explains.
The group, he adds, has been recognised and honoured by Cuban and international entities such as the Cuban Music Institute, the Sonora Matancera Social Club Corporation of Medellín, Colombia, and the Mexican Club of Tropical Music Collectors.
Carmelo argues that the secret of the collective’s style is to preserve its traditional repertoire and devote themselves completely to popular dance music. (PL)
(Translated by Lucy Daghorn)