It was once said of Elena Burke that “Just like King Midas she turned everything she sang into gold.” Photo:

Romana Elena Burguez González (February 28 1928- June 9, 2002), whose stage name was Elena Burke, is one of the most famous and important voices in the history of Cuban music.

A singer with extraordinary charisma, Elena was a contralto with a great vocal range, laden with nuances; exceptional musicality and outstanding tonality.

During the celebrated singer’s funeral on June 11, 2002, poet and National Prize for Literature winner Nancy Morejón stated, “That voice and that presence full of Creole charm, genuine talent and mischief that only islanders of her lineage understand, will disappear from all stages forever.”

This year however, some of Cuba’s most popular contemporary musicians offered a tribute concert in honor of the 90th anniversary of her birth, in the National Theater’s Covarrubias Hall, during which they performed some of Elena’s most popular and well-known songs.

Lady Feeling - as she was also known – had a broad repertory which also included works by Latin American and Cuban composers such as José Antonio Méndez, César Portillo de la Luz, Ñico Rojas, Frank Domínguez, Piloto y Vera, Marta Valdés, Meme Solís, Adolfo Guzmán, Orlando de la Rosa, Candito Ruiz, Sindo Garay, Vicente Garrido, and Arturo Castro.

Among her biggest hits are: “Sin ir más lejos” and “En la imaginación” (Marta Valdés); De mis recuerdos,” “Y ya lo sé,” “Lo material” (Juan Formell); “Duele” (Piloto y Vera); “Ámame como soy” and “Mis 22 Años” (Pablo Milanés); “Te doy una canción” (Silvio Rodríguez); “Me faltabas tú” (José Antonio Méndez); “Alma con alma,” (Juanito Márquez); “Persistiré” (Rubén Rodríguez); “Si te contara” (Félix Reyna) and “Me encontrarás” (Tania Castellanos).

In every show, Elena would demonstrate her versatility with songs ranging from filin, boleros, pop, son, romantic ballads, son montuno, and even lullabies. Meanwhile, present during the tribute concert was one of Elena’s oldest friends Omara Portuondo, the Diva of Buena Vista Social Club; as well as Vania Borges, who sang “Duele,” “Me contaron de ti” and “Palabras;” contralto Yaima Sáez, who performed “Lo material;” popular singer Ivette Cepeda and Trova musician and composer Raúl Torres, among other renowned artists.

Likewise, guitarist Nelson Díaz, who played alongside Elena for a while (following on from Froilán Amézaga who accompanied the singer for almost two decades), recalled some personal anecdotes for our readers, noting that he met Elena and all the founders of the filin (feeling) movement at his house in Havana’s Callejón de Hamel “Where my father (Angelito Díaz) lived his entire life.”

Regarding filin, a musical movement that developed in Havana during the 1950s, Díaz explained that “The song ‘La rosa mustia’ (by Angelito Díaz) always started and ended the almost daily sessions in the Callejón. Later in the 90s they also took place in my mother, Lina Ramírez’s (a member of Musical Theater of Havana) house and Elena would come every Monday to jam. All the big names would be there on Monday because it was the day the Cabarets closed.

“At the Callejón, Elena learned the new songs by the filin musicians,” added Nelson Díaz, “and while others would get scared when they had to sing a song by a different composer, she wasn’t afraid of singing anyone’s songs, not César or José Antonio’s, because they were her lifelong friends, or Formell and Pablo’s. She adapted everything to her personal style, her way of singing. Elena was very daring and attempted things which life has shown no one else could do like her.”

Today, it seems inconceivable that Burke’s discography is so limited: Gemas de Navidad; Elena Burke canta a Marta Valdés; La Burke canta (featuring Meme Solís on piano); Elena Burke canta a Juan Formell and Elena Burke canta a Vicente Garrido,as well as one or two other titles.

What is more, in honor of what would have been her 90th birthday, Marta Valdés recorded a compilation of songs written by Elena, comprising a very necessary and welcome tribute.

The concert at the National Theater was directed by filmmaker Lester Hamlet (Casa Vieja and Ya no es antes,as well as dozens of prize winning music videos) who, speaking to GI before the show, described the event as a duty and opportunity. “Images are the center of my life, but for me the soundtrack is like another character. I love songs, which are like monologues to me. I’m going to stage a show, but I don’t want the spectacle to be the protagonist, but rather the memory of Elena. As such there will be some powerful images on stage and projected on a set of screens, to revive that memory; and I will use photos that Santos Toledo has given to me and others from the archives.”

Meanwhile the artist Santos Toledo himself noted that an exposition of his works will be on display in the lobby of the Covarrubias Hall, featuring ten 80 x 60cm digital color photographs, which capture different sides to Elena, “Her time with the D´Aida quartet, as a soloist and personal moments.”

A brief glance at this well-documented musical career reveals that Elena appeared on CMQ radio station’s La Corte Suprema del Arte program; as well as the Ensoñaciónradio show on the Mil Diez station, where the orchestra was directed by maestros Enrique González Mántici and Adolfo Guzmán; worked with Dámaso Pérez Prado; and as part of the famous show Mulatas de fuego; Elena as a member of the Facundo Rivero, Orlando de la Rosa and D’Aida quartets; until she launched what would soon become a successful solo career in 1958.

When it came to singing, Burke always gave her all and showed, through her talent and voice, with its deep timbre, perfect pitch and personality, the power of song.

Thus we celebrate the 90th anniversary of Elena’s birth with joy because, as poet Nancy Morejón said, “Her memory is now part of a beautiful tale which nourishes her legacy as an artist and person. A voice from the deepest depths of the Antillean rivers, now flows forever like an unstoppable fountain of the history of our song in any of its modalities.”

Elena Burke, “the soul of song,” forms part of the exclusive group of the greatest Cuban voices of all time.