Le Grand Kallé

“Lágrimas Negras” and the Afro-Cuban Conversation

A classic song from Cuba interpreted by one of Africa’s great singers shows the interplay of Cuban and African musics.

Many musical styles in Cuba and countries in Africa developed out of this ongoing musical exchange. Recordings of Afro-Cuban music were imported into African countries and began gaining radio play in the first half of the twentieth century, influencing contemporary African sounds.

In the Congo, small combos began playing this new and familiar sound as Congolese rumba. Vocalist and bandleader Joseph Kabaselleh, known as Le Grande Kallé, formed L’African Jazz in 1953, in what might be called the second wave of Congolese rumba, playing rumba, cha cha cha, and other Afro-Cuban styles.

Even in this context, the Grande Kallé et L’African Jazz version of “Lágrimas Negras” can come as something of a surprise. Recorded somewhere between 1953 and 1963, the unusual arrangement includes female voice, violin, timbales, and flute. The lyrics were sung in Spanish, while Latin styles in Congo tended to be sung in locally spoken languages like Lingala.

Miguel Matamoros and Trio Matamoros

Trio MatamorosMiguel Matamoros (1894-1971) composed “Lágrimas Negras,” performing and recording it with his Trio Matamoros, including Rafael Cueto (guitar and voice) and Siro Rodriguez (maracas, claves and voice). Born in Santiago de Cuba, Matamoros continued the tradition of the trovadors, traveling musicians who made their living writing their own compositions and singing them and accompanying themselves on guitar.

Lágrimas Negras

In 1930, Miguelito Matamoros traveled to Santo Domingo. He stayed at a guest house owned by a lady named Luz Sardaña. One day, arriving at the house, the musician heard the moans of a woman. The cries came from one of the adjoining rooms. Miguel thought that surely there had been a death of a family member of the inconsolable lady, so he asked Luz the reasons for the painful cries. He learned that the crying of women was due to the fact that her ungrateful companion had decided, the night before, to leave her for the love of another woman. Matamoros was thinking all day and listening to the suffering of the abandoned, reflections that led him to compose the theme…” —Perdicado

In “Lágrimas Negras,” Matamoros combines the romantic bolero with a lively son montuno. The Cuban bolero, not to be confused with the Spanish bolero, is a style originating among the trovadores of Santiago de Cuba. The semi-improvisational son montuno, a sub-genre of son, is also from Santiago de Cuba and the surrounding Oriente province. Matamoros is credited by some with being the first composer to combine son and bolero, in “Lágrimas Negras” and other songs.

Many cover versions of “Lágrimas Negras” have been recorded over the years. Some arrangements brings the tempo down and emphasize the emotion of the lyrics, while others bring the tempo up for a joyful, even celebratory feel. Instrumentation can run from more traditional guitar/tres-based simplicity to full-blown big band style. Many artists have parted from tradition and performed “Lágrimas Negras” with their own particular style.

Check out this playlist for a few favorite examples.

Click through to preview and buy on iTunes:
Grande Kallé et L’African Jazz
Trio Matamoros
Bebo Valdes & Chucho Valdes
Septeto Santiaguero feat. Rubén Blades
Raya Real

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