First came rumba, now punto, tomorrow it must be son: three aggregates - more than genres - of Cuban musical culture that distinguish us as a nation. The first two have been declared Intangible World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, an honor which is appreciated and implies a commitment, since it represents worldwide recognition.
But this commitment is and must be assumed on a daily basis, and above all, among ourselves. Without rumba, punto, and son, it is not possible to know what we are and what we want to continue being.
This is said because, in the journey from their origins to their current status, in their primordial formation, their lines of development, their respective evolutions, ramifications, tributaries, gains, and even alterations and losses, these art forms have been creating vocations and destinies.
In broad stokes, punto is defined as a group of tonadas, melodies performed by a singer who declaims verses, generally décimas, improvised or learned beforehand, who is accompanied by a guitar, tres, lute, tiple, clave, güiro or guayo, although we know that any of the first three will do for the tonada.
In other Ibero-American lands, décimas are also sung or improvised. There is a common trunk contributed by colonists and migrants from the Iberian peninsula, and especially the Canary Islands and Andalucía, but in Cuba this popular art acquired singular characteristics as a creolization of original sources occurred, in which rhythmic elements, and melodies to a lesser degree, from the musical culture of enslaved Africans, were incorporated.
In an insightful definition, Dr. María Teresa Linares, essential musicologist and student of the musical complex we are addressing, said, "Cuban punto is a genre of song created by our people and used in almost all situations in the cycle of life: as a lullaby, work song, religious chant before the altars and vigils for saints, at funerals, in laments and serenades of love. Also in moments of diversion, perhaps when its function emerges, its principal use to improvise décimas or epic narratives."
The investigator explains that "for these diversions, tonadas were used, adjusted to the tone of voice, in the range of an octave... one syllable per note, single or with a chorus, but generally the poet improvising is supported with tonadas free style, a piacere, with which they can direct their thinking without paying attention to the music."
The emergence and original establishment of punto, in a historic arch that begins in the 17th century and is crystallized in the 19th, was set in rural areas of the island, predominately in the central and western regions, although there were notable expressions in certain parts of the East.
For the elite of the colonial era, punto was a picturesque reference. In 1836, the lexicographer Esteban Pichardo recalled the cries, or ay-el-ay, to allude to punto, and described it as "vulgar singing and the favorite of campesinos whose little verses usually began with this interjection and in which enthusiastic balladeers compete, among shouts…"
In a valuable testament, Viaje a La Habana, published in 1844, María de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, Countess of Merlín, recorded the case of one
Pepe el Mocho, "tireless balladeer who harvested his corn two or three times a year, spending the rest of the time traveling the country with his mandolin in hand (surely a tiple) to sing his décimas, that everyone liked and wanted to hear. Décimas of jealousy, décimas of happy love, décimas of revenge and passion…"
But entertainment aside, the tonada found a place in the anti-colonial struggle. In
1893 José Martí wrote a prologue and published in his newspaper Patria the book Los poetas de la guerra, a collection of verses composed by Mambises during the War of 68. These were transcribed works using different structures, including the
espinela, a meter characteristically used in Cuba. Martí said of these poets: "Their literature was not within what they would write, but rather what they did. They rhymed poorly at times, but only pedants and the mischievous would throw it in their faces, because they died well. The rhymes were there as men, two who fell together, the sublime couplet: the clipped, cut short accent was inside the cavalry's helmets."
Reconstructing a common scene in the Liberation Army's camps during the War of 95, in the introduction to what is perhaps the most complete investigation of the improvisation of espinelas among Mambises, Música popular y nacionalismo en los campamentos insurgentes, Cuba, 1895 -1898, historian Jaddiel Díaz Frene states:
"When night fell on the camps, the silence of the bush was broken by the notes of Cuban punto that, emanating from guitars, lutes, guiros, and tiples, accompanied the voices of soldiers and officers singing décimas, either learned by heart or improvised. It was common for the bare-foot combatants, with torn clothes, exhausted from battle and hunger cramping their stomachs, far from resting would sit by the fire to enjoy these performances… Innumerable subjects were narrated: the details of a recent battle, the glorious events of the Ten Years War, the assassinations committed by a guerrilla, the retreat of a Spanish column, the longing for a loved one, the pain of an absent mother, the feats of a Mambi general, and stories of an unknown soldier. Such discources depicted the war from another point of view and contradicted, on many occasions, the reports published in newspapers tied to colonial interests."
With the arrival of the 20th century, we can talk about a true, irreversible nationalization of punto, that began to make the urban environment its own, in a process that had much to do with the advent of radio and later television.
There was no respectable radio station that did not include a live guateque in its programming. El guateque de Apolonio, on the small screen, gave the art form a decisive boost in the mid-1950s, with Indio Naborí and Adolfo Alfonso, among others, singing and improvising. Palmas y Cañas, has continued the tradition into our days, maintaining the tradition of a televised guateque. The duo of Adolfo and Justo Vega will long be remembered.
The "controversy of the century," in which Naborí and Angelito Valiente faced off in a friendly argument in San Antonio de los Baños and Campo Armada, in 1955, acquired mythical proportions, given the crowds that gathered and the passions unleashed.
Of equal renown were the improvised décimas of Joseíto Fernández with "La Guantanamera."
After the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the sung décima continued conquering the airwaves and communities. Although on more than one occasion, some may have thought it was declining in the popular taste, the truth is it is reborn and growing stronger, especially over the last 20 years. There is no shortage of iconic figures like Alexis Díaz Pimienta and Papillo, Tomasita Quiala and Emiliano Sardiñas, and many more.
Worthy of recognition is the work of the Ibero-American Center for the Décima and Improvised Verse in Las Tunas, and of the children's repentista workshops, as well as peñas campesinas across the island.
The Cucalambeana festival in Las Tunas, culminates with events around the province, that should be expanded and promoted much more.
At this time of celebration, there is no final point in sight for Cuban punto. It grows and is reasserted. One name cannot be forgotten, for his love of punto, of improvisation, of a culture born in the fields of Cuba and recognized by the entire nation. This name is that of Pepe Ramírez.