Bienvenido Rosendo Granda Aguilera was born August 30, 1915 in the Jesús María neighborhood of Havana, Cuba. Known as “El bigote que canta” (The Singing Mustache) because of the huge bristle of facial hair that obscured his upper lip, Bienvenido (which means “Welcome” in Spanish) was one of those classic, delightful voices of the Golden Age of Cuban dance music that helped put Cuba’s music on the map in the first part of the 20th century. Aside from his distinctive whiskers and wide smile, Granda was a charismatic singer equally as adept at interpreting the slow-paced bolero in gentle or sultry tones as he was the hot, up-tempo guaracha, for which his slightly nasal sonero vocal style was a perfect match and would lead the group to be characterized in the 1940s as “white” or “mulatto” in comparison to others like the conjunto of Arsenio Rodríguez that was considered more “black.” In the 1940s and 1950s this racialized categorization was a distinction that did not pertain so much to audiences as it did to its effect on which clubs the groups could play in, what pay scale they could demand and what sort of access to record production and distribution they would be allowed.
One of Bienvenido’s most important skills was his impeccable sense of timing, which stood him in good stead no matter what the pace and emotion of a song may have been, making him a favorite of musicians who could always count on him for integrating himself perfectly within the overall dynamics of the band. An orphan since he was six years old, he began singing in Havana’s municipal guaguas (buses in Cuba) in order just to stay alive. From these humble beginnings as a street urchin singing for tips in public, he soon progressed to singing on Cuban radio stations, and by the age of twelve he was already considered a “professional singer” with a growing reputation. He gained further prestige by performing with the famous Los Hermanos Castro, El Conjunto Caney and La Orquesta Riverside orchestras, accompanying them on the weekly radio programs with live music, a very popular form of entertainment in the 1930s and 40s in Cuba.
At 20 he became the vocalist for the Sexteto Carabina de Ases, gaining praise and attention along with fellow bandmate and soon to be famous trumpeter, Félix Chappottín, appearing in nightclubs and radio stations in Havana to great acclaim. The following year Granda moved up a notch, joining El Septeto Nacional, the extremely important son conjunto founded by Ignacio Piñeiro, recording his first numbers and sharing the stage with the Septeto’s other accomplished vocalists, Marcelino Guerra, Alfredito Valdés and José ‘Cheo’ Marquetti. In 1941 Granda traveled to Puerto Rico where he made two recordings with the famous Marcano Quartet, led by guitarist Pedro ‘Piquito’ Marcano. In his early years Granda also worked with many other outfits including the Le Batard Brothers, Sexteto Oriental, and the great orchestras of Electo ‘Chepín’ Rosell and Mariano Mercerón, before finding the platform that would make him known internationally, La Sonora Matancera.
La Sonora Matancera was experiencing one of its many cyclical moments of fame when Bienvenido Granda, the first truly important sonero to perform and record with the conjunto, joined in 1940 (some sources say ’42, others ’44), eventually replacing the band’s tres player, main singer and leader Humberto Cané, when the former left in 1944 to pursue a solo career. By the time Humberto Cané recruited Granda, the long-lived and influential group had been on the extremely competitive Afro-Cuban sexteto, septeto and conjunto scene in Havana for more than a decade. The cooperative, where every member received equal pay, was founded in Matanzas in 1924 by Humberto Cané’s father, vocalist, conga and tres player Valentín Cané and the elder Cané’s childhood friend, bassist Pablo ‘Bubú’ Vázquez. The organization went through several personnel and name changes before formally becoming Conjunto Sonora Matancera in 1935, shortened soon after to just La Sonora Matancera (The Matanzas Sound). By the time Humberto Cané left and Granda took over on lead vocal, the band was distinguished by its bright sound and jaunty style, combining trumpets and piano with a lively rhythm section that showcased the ‘timbalitos’ (small timbales), ‘cencerro’ (cowbell) and bongos played with sticks. Over the decades La Sonora has had many lead singers who have been famous in their own right, from Miguelito Valdés, Daniel Santos and Myrta Silva to Vicentico Valdés, Nelson Pinedo, and Celia Cruz, not to mention Celio González, Alberto Beltran and Justo Betancourt. What makes La Sonora Matancera such a unique institution is it spans just about every era and phase of Latin music in the 20th century, from the age of the Cuban son in the 1920s to the New York salsa boom and beyond. With leader Rogelio Martínez’s death in 2001, the original La Sonora Matancera was laid to rest, though long time band member, arranger, and pianist Javier Vázquez (son of co-founder Bubú Vázquez) has continued to lead the group from his home base in Las Vegas. At any rate, despite all the fantastic singers and musicians who passed through La Sonora’s ranks over the years (including pianists Lino Frías and Dámaso Pérez Prado), Bienvenido Granda, who also played clave, was certainly one of its more popular, prolific and long-lasting members. On tunes without a lead, Granda joined the classic Matancera coro (chorus), with its highly influential, patented harmony, consisting of Rogelio Martínez and Caíto (Carlos Manuel Díaz Alonso), whose distinctive falsetto delivery was derived from a traditional ‘old lady’ Afro-Cuban singing style of the earliest soneros (called in Cuba voz de vieja). This combination, the bright, bouncy two trumpet-led sound of La Sonora Matancera and its inimitable coro, soon made Granda the most sought-after singer of the moment.
Bienvenido’s first recordings with La Sonora Matancera were for the recently founded Panart label in 1945. Granda’s pleasant personality and his melodious nasal voice became the main attraction of the ensemble wherever they would perform, from the most popular radio programs to the best nightclubs and theaters. It was during one of the group’s many gigs on Radio Progreso that the announcer Gustavo Pimentel Medina of the show “Ondas De La Alegría” affectionately bestowed him with his nickname “El Bigote Que Canta,” becoming the handle by which the singer was known forever after. In 1947 and again 1950 the Sonora Matancera recorded a total of eighty numbers for the Stinson label, owned by José Granados who was a huge fan of the band, with the voices of Bienvenido Granda, Rogelio, Caíto and Miguel De Gonzálo, but using the names Conjunto Tropicavana and Sonora Cubana in order to avoid legal contractual issues with Panart and other labels. It is during this time of intense activity with La Sonora Matancera that Granda met and married Cruz María Acosta, a renowned beauty from Havana who would be his one and only spouse for life and the mother of his children (though he did already have a first-born son from a previous relationship). In 1948, with guitarist Rogelio Martínez as its newly appointed director, La Sonora Matancera began performing and recording with Puerto Rican ‘bohemian’ Daniel Santos as guest singer, with Bienvenido, Rogelio and Caíto doing the backing vocals. The following year another Puerto Rican rebel crooner, Myrta Silva, would join as guest female vocalist, recording various singles until early 1950. Later that same year Bienvenido would ‘welcome’ Celia Cruz into the fold as co-lead singer, where she would remain until 1965, helping to make the band’s sound “more black” according to historian Ned Sublette. It is well documented that Granda did not hold any grudges against Daniel Santos, Myrta Silva or Celia Cruz for joining the spotlight with him; on the contrary, they all became good friends, forging personal and professional relationships that Granda would value for the rest of his life.
It is precisely during this period of popularity and ever-shifting lead singers that La Sonora Matancera would sign a contract to record several 78 RPM singles with New York’s Ansonia Records (for their “Serie Hispana” line), from the summer of 1949 until the winter of 1950. These recordings, totaling 22 in all and consisting exclusively of boleros and guarachas, would later be compiled into a two volume LP set, the first dozen released in 1957 and the second volume with the rest in 1975. Unlike the band’s recordings for other labels, all of these sides featured Bienvenido, Rogelio and Caíto on vocals, with Granda singing lead on the majority. The arranger for the Ansonia dates was the noted composer, orchestrator, arranger and pianist Severino ‘Refresquito’ Ramos (1903-1969), who had also been the band’s pianist from 1939 to 1944 but then limited himself to arranging and composing, and as such became the architect of the group’s instantly recognizable, patented sound. ‘Refresquito’ also ran his own orchestra in later years and served as musical director for Radio Progreso. The actual pianist on the dates was Ezequiel ‘Lino’ Frías, who had joined the band in 1944 along with Pedro Knight, Celia Cruz’s future husband, after the two had left Arsenio Rodríguez’s conjunto. Some of the up-tempo tunes from the Ansonia sessions like “Donde Están Los Rumberos,” “Ya Se Peino María,” “Qué Cinturita,” “La Chiquibamba,” and “Tumba Y Quinto” were extremely popular in their time, and when reissued on LP became Latin dance “standards” for a new generation, a few being covered by contemporary 1970s artists like Roberto Angleró, Ismael Quintana, Oscar D’León, Sexteto Juventud and Linda Leida.
When you listen to these tunes, despite their age, you can see how they form the template for the Fania salsa sound, especially that of Johnny Pacheco, who employed several members of La Sonora Matancera in his own group Pacheco Y Su Nuevo Tumbao in 1966. What’s more, Pacheco and Fania also revived Celia Cruz’s career after she left La Sonora, bringing her into the salsa era with a string of hit albums that helped her reach an even wider audience than before. Additionally, Fania released four Sonera Matancera records in the early 1980s on its Bárbaro imprint, further cementing the association.
Both Ansonia volumes also contain some spectacular boleros like “Allí Donde Sabes,” “Mi Dulce Amante,” “Pasión Extraña” and “Callejera,” where Bienvenido Granda’s talent for expressing the pain and passion of romance is showcased to great effect. Indeed, the second volume was titled “En Tu Busca” after one of the album’s most wrenching boleros. Though the LPs were made from the original 78s and there is some surface noise, the essential high quality of the music shines through, especially the beautiful piano stylings of Lino Frías. Coupled with the crucial fact that these two volumes document a lesser-known period in one of the most important, influential and long-lived groups in Cuban music history, these 22 numbers cut more than 50 years ago are a lasting testament to the supposition that Ralph Pérez’s Ansonia Records seemed to be always at the right place at the right time, serving the Latin community with a generous helping of the ‘real music of the people’ and capturing a special moment for posterity to share with future generations. Interestingly, at the same time they were involved in the Ansonia sessions, La Sonora Matancera would embark on their most enduring and prosperous contract with any record label, signing with Sidney Siegel’s Seeco imprint in November of 1949 and remaining there during their most successful period of the 1950s until 1966.
Four years after the successful Ansonia recording dates, in March of 1954, Bienvenido Granda would leave La Sonora Matancera under a cloud. Some say it was due to economic differences with director Rogelio Martínez while others affirm that Granda was fired as a disciplinary measure for traveling and performing in Colombia without the express permission of Martínez. Still others contend that Rogelio was an exploiter who never treated his lead singers well, while Martínez himself complained of Bienvenido’s drinking and unreliability. At the same time, it must be noted that the director had brought in other replacement singers for various concerts, which no doubt left Granda feeling disrespected and hurt. Indeed, the singer, in various interviews, claimed that by that point the best pay and gigs were reserved for the band and other soneros so he felt he “couldn’t take it any more” and “went elsewhere with [his] music.” Probably closer to the truth is that based on his wild popularity, Granda felt he deserved higher pay than his colleagues, but in the way the band was run, as a collective organization, all members received the same salary, so that was not possible. As it turned out, once he left La Sonora to go solo, Bienvenido started getting far more pay than Martínez had ever offered him during all his years with the band, and he was also free to travel wherever his best offers would take him, leading to more popularity in Colombia (where he settled in 1955 and recorded for the Tropical label), Venezuela and Mexico over the ensuing years.
One of the lesser-known facts about his career is that Granda made a huge impact in Brazil, where he was probably the most popular interpreter of the bolero and traveled extensively spreading a newfound taste for the genre. In his later years, Bienvenido landed, like many Cuban musicians and dancers, in Mexico City, where he decided to settle down. Despite this subsequent solo success, no one can deny he made his reputation during his ten-plus busy years with the Sonora Matancera, where he ended up being the singer who made the most recordings with the outfit. Indeed, Granda probably did his best (and most iconic) work with Rogelio, Caíto, Severino and the Sonora, recording 217 sides, many of them becoming true anthems in the Americas, where they are still revered to this day.
Despite the acrimonious separation of Granda from the band that had made his reputation, and the seemingly intractable accusations and claims thrown about on both sides, plus the fact that most fans agreed the two would never perform together again, Bienvenido, Rogelio, Caíto and La Sonora Matancera would defy expectations and reunite for some joyous televised concerts performed in Mexico’s capital city in 1975, proving the skeptics wrong and delighting audiences everywhere. And although Granda would return two years later for an extensive tour of his beloved Colombia, the country where his actions had caused the initial rift with La Sonora, his voice was no longer the same supple yet sinewy force it had been in previous decades. Sadly, “El Bigote Que Canta” would soon have to stop performing due to a persistent lung condition, which resulted from his inveterate smoking habit, making it difficult to sing for prolonged periods of time. The great Bienvenido Granda, probably one of Cuba’s best loved boleristas and guaracheros, died at dawn on July 9, 1983 in Mexico City at the relatively young age of 68, due to gastrointestinal complications compounded by his deteriorating pulmonary ailments, leaving behind a recorded legacy of some 400 songs and a reputation as of one of La Sonora Matancera’s most iconic and accomplished lead singers. The 22 tracks he waxed with La Sonora for Ansonia Records remain a vital yet undeservedly obscure part of that oeuvre and deserve to be rediscovered and enjoyed by today’s digital audience to become popular again as they once were over 70 years ago.