Writing and reading about Cuban music is a fascinating subject. Rafael Lam, writer, journalist and music researcher, has resolved, and has managed, to write a history of this cultural expression in Cuba, which for good reason is referred to as “the island of music”.
A contributor to this publication for many years, Lam has been tireless in his passion for writing about Cuban music, and especially its history in Havana, whether in newspaper articles and chronicles or more ambitious books.
A member of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) and the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC), Lam has just added two titles to his collected works:El imperio de la música cubana (The Empire of Cuban Music, published by Editorial José Martí) and Juan Formell y los Van Van, la leyenda(Juan Formell and Los Van Van: The Legend, published by Ediciones Cubanas).
Of his previous books we can cite La Bodeguita del Medio, the history of the famous Havana restaurant; Tropicana, un paraíso bajo las estrellas (Tropicana: A Paradise under the Stars), on one of the most important cabarets in the world opened in the 1930s; El son y los soneros (Son and son musicians),an overview and summary of the most renowned soneros: Matamoros, Pineiro, Arsenio, Lili Martinez, Peruchín;Los Reyes de la salsa (The Kings of Salsa), on the great Cuban orchestras; and Van Van, NG La Banda,the iconic Buena Vista Social Club,and Polvo de estrellas (Stardust) on Cuban singers through different eras.
On this occasion, the conversation with our regular contributor did not revolve around what he was writing, but rather focused on personal aspects.
Who is Lam?
I am the son of a Chinese man. My father was from Canton and had businesses in Havana’s Chinatown, where I was born (1946). My father, as a foreigner in the end, wanted to see everything. He took me to the Teatro Martí. He inspired my love of show business. He took me to everything that came from China and elsewhere. When he died in 1968 and I finished military service, I followed that course.
Are you related to the great painter Wifredo Lam (Sagua La Grande, Cuba, 1902 - Paris, 1982)?
My dad travelled to Sagua a lot, I know he was related to the Chinese there. I also went once when a Chinese ship docked there, a real event. Lam (Wilfredo) recalled this in the last interview I did with him. I know that my dad was very familiar with him and that there weren’t many Lams here.
Havana’s Chinatown has always had something attractive about it and yet I believe you have never written about it...
It’s always the way. Others have written plenty. Now I’m at the final stage of a book on Chinatown. I have a lot of material, everything I experienced, my dad’s contacts. It was a world apart from Cuba, a little mystical. I am going to connect Wifredo Lam, who is the great figure of the Chinese in Cuba, with the town.
Are you going to write about the food?
Of course. I have the real recipe for fried rice, which as the chef Gilberto Smith told me, and I agree, is the only typical food invented in Cuba. Fried rice has ten ingredients, for me it is a spectacular meal, it's like ambrosia.
You’re saying it was invented in Cuba?
That’s right. I went to New York and California to investigate and none of that exists. I interviewed Chinese cooks at El Pacífico restaurantin Havana, when it was reopened, and they told me that it does not exist [in China] like that, at the most rice with a little egg.
You mentioned El Pacífico...
El Pacific was the most famous restaurant in the Americas. It was said that first thing in the morning people went to Varadero, to the beach, they lunched or dined in El Pacífico, and then went to the Tropicana. On the top floor was the restaurant Dos alas, the greatest I have found in terms of Chinese food. I have all the recipes and would like to publish them together with the story of El Pacifico.
You've devoted yourself to art criticism, to chronicles. Do you have an academic background?
Well, Argeliers León said that everything is based on a point of reference. I’ve been in the world of journalism, I took courses, I also studied at the art school. I’ve trained myself. The training you do yourself is what counts, not what you are given, that’s my theory. I have prepared very well for the reference point. I base myself on what Fernando Ortiz, Argeliers and Leonardo Acosta, my television colleague, did. They were very well trained people, very Cuban. They taught me a lot. That’s my school. To follow what I see daily.
Let's continue with the books. Which was the first?
The first were tourist books, but they have to do with music, La Bodeguita del Medio and Tropicana, then Esta es la música cubana (This is Cuban Music), followed by Cantantes Cubanos (Cuban Singers, in two volumes), then Los Reyes de la salsa, about orchestras and now Juan Formell y los Van Van, la leyenda and El imperio de la música cubana.
Let’s take a look at Juan Formell y los Van Van, la leyenda. How did you approach Formell?
I cover all dance music and was very involved in the Cuban salsa boom and there were Los Van Van. I was preparing a book about the boom that was never published, and I was asked to write one about Los Van Van more than 20 years ago, I gave it to Formell and he liked it.I kept adding things. It is a book that has been a long time in the making. I constantly saw Formell, for example in television, where I worked, sometimes on the radio. We always spoke, I had lots of information and Formell’s own words. I say that this book is not mine, what I did was to order, for musical thought, Formell’s concepts; it’s actually a book by Juan Formell and members of the orchestra.
Let’s talk about El imperio...
I attempt to answer the question - how is it possible that this small country has given rise to so many genres and so successful across the world? I also present the life and work of certain important figures that have made the island this musical empire. I include eighty names that are recognized immediately, from Esteban Salas in the 18th century; to Miguel Failde in the 19th, considered the creator of danzón; Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes, composer of the piece la habanera Tú; the dynasty of the Romeu, Compay Segundo; Pérez Prado and mambo, Benny Moré, Enrique Jorrín, Chucho Valdés, Adalberto Álvarez...
What are you working on now?
I have a book coming out next year called La Habana bohemia, Maravilla del mundo (Bohemian Havana: Wonder of the World). It is a tribute to Eusebio Leal and everything he has done for the historic center [of the city]. It is being made ready for the 500th anniversary of the city. It is the story of all the venues of the artistic life of elegant Havana. Marlon Brando dancing cha cha cha, Frank Sinatra with the mafia, Marianao beach, El Chori, the dance halls and academies, the cabarets. Everything that happened in the bohemian world. It is a history of the nightlife. Benny Moré, el rey (Benny Moré: The King)is also ready, about the legendary singer and songwriter, both with Ediciones Cubanas.
You’re a historian, a researcher of Cuban music. Who, for you, are the greatest?
I hate to say the indispensable ones, in Colombia they call them the indisputable. For me they are Benny Moré, the symbol; Pérez Prado, who created the bomb of mambo; Lecuona of course, in the melodic; Jorrín, who invented the cha cha cha; Ignacio Piñeiro, Arsenio Rodríguez, Miguel Matamoros, the López brothers, a constellation of stars. And then to salsa, Chucho Valdés and Irakere, Formell, Adalberto, César Pedroso, Manolito Simonet…
If we collect the books by Rafael Lam together, one understands that, in his own way, he has been shaping a history of Cuban popular music. Now we can also applaud El imperio de la música cubana and Juan Formell y los Van Van, la leyenda. Meanwhile, readers and music lovers alike eagerly await those announced - to mark the 500th anniversary of Havana and on “the king” of Cuban music, Benny Moré.