Trio Matamoros is one of the most important trova (acoustic troubadour) groups in the history of Cuban music. Their recordings and compositions were extremely popular, and their influence is evident not only in Cuba, but in other Latin countries as well. Their integration of certain structural elements of son, guaracha and bolero into the more lyrical trova would in turn spur the development of the bolero-son and of immensely popular romantic trios like Mexico’s Los Panchos. Trio Matamoros’ sound was traditional yet effortlessly refreshing, intuitive and without affectation; it was infused with unique regional flavors and was very Cuban as a whole, while simultaneously maintaining an international appeal, which made them true ambassadors of Cuban culture across the globe. Their popularity can also be attributed to their simple and catchy melodies, clear and natural harmonies, and poetic yet comprehensible lyrics drawing on everyday subject matter that was relatable to a variety of audiences around the world.
Miguel Matamoros (1894-1971) founded the Trio Oriental, a trova and son group, in 1922 in his hometown of Santiago de Cuba, in the island’s southeastern region (what was referred to as Oriente Province). This first iteration of the trio included Matamoros’ cousin Alfonso Del Rio as guitar accompanist and Miguel Bisbé on second voice and maracas. After an argument, Del Rio was replaced, at a friend’s suggestion, by Rafael Cueto (1900-1991). On Matamoros’ birthday, May 8, 1925, Cueto brought his friend Siro (aka Ciro) Rodríguez (1899-1981) to the party and Siro joined Matamoros and Cueto on a song during the festivities. Matamoros and Cueto were impressed with Siro’s vocal and percussion accompaniment, and asked that he join them as a member of their group. The classic configuration of what would become Trio Matamoros was solidified, with Miguel Matamoros as director, first voice (tenor) and lead guitarist, Rafael Cueto on second guitar and chorus, and Siro Rodríguez as second (baritone) voice and maracas (or claves, depending on the arrangement). The interplay between first and second guitar and two voices was full of complementary harmony and rhythm, Cueto often holding down the lower end with a steady “tumbao” (repeating rhythmic pattern) played with the thumb and forefingers on the bass strings of his guitar, while Matamoros introduced each song with a little flourish and strummed rhythmic arpeggios on top of the tumbaos. All the while, the ever-reliable Siro marked steady time on the maracas and claves, making the dancers sway and turn with the sabor criollo (Creole flavor) of the compás (beat). Neither Matamoros nor Cueto used a pick, fingernails, or amplification, and since Matamoros was left-handed and originally played the guitar upside down (he switched later to right-handed and right side up), their tunings were fresh and the timbre was unique, combining an interesting harmonic interplay with a forceful yet “sweet” attack on the strings.
In May of 1928 the group made its first trip to the Victor Talking Machine Studios in Camden, New Jersey and recorded a marathon session of 21 “sides” (two-sided 78 RPM singles) over three days. For the releases, they changed their name to Trio Matamoros at the suggestion of the Victor studio boss who recommended they use Miguel Matamoros’ name since there was already a Trio Oriental. The trio had their first success with their debut 78: two Miguel Matamoros compositions, the bolero “Olvido” and the son “El que siembra su maíz,” which sold 64,000 copies in 90 days, allowing the band to quit their day jobs and go on tour. That same session yielded “Son de la loma,” which is by far their biggest hit and most well known composition (written in 1922 as “Mamá, son de la loma”). The song served as a manifesto of sorts, explaining that their music came from Oriente but was enjoyed in Havana (and, they were soon to discover, everywhere else!). From their new base in Havana they continued to have hits and tour the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe and New York (where they were very popular). Their compositions became part of the classic Cuban songbook and were covered by other artists worldwide, while their innovative approach integrating trova with son, bolero, conga and other genres would become a model for many groups to come. Over their 35-year career, Trio Matamoros would always maintain the core founding trifecta of Matamoros, Cueto and Rodríguez, but would expand and change configuration from a cuarteto to a sexteto, septeto or the larger conjunto and orchestra, depending on the situation, sometimes bringing in other singers such as Guillermo Portabales, Carlos Embale, and Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré. In fact it was Miguel Matamoros who advised Moré to change his first name from Bartolomé to Benny (sometimes spelled Beny) for professional use during their trip to Mexico in 1945. Bartolomé was a common name for a donkey in Mexico, and thus was born Benny Moré. Some of the trio’s hits in their first decades included “El paralítico,” “Lágrimas negras,” “Que siga el tren,” “Hueso na’ ma’,” “Coco seco,” “Guajira ven a gozar,” “Comentario en el solar,” “Nadie se salva de la rumba,” “Mariposita de primavera” and “Juramento,” all of which have been covered countless times, including in later versions by the trio, and help form an essential foundation for what would become known (and marketed) as salsa in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Over the years, Trio Matamoros recorded in Barcelona, Spain and San Juan, Puerto Rico, and made one last visit to New York for some concerts in 1960. An LP claiming to be the trio’s “final album” was released in 1961, however, it featured only earlier recordings. Several scholars argue that the trio’s actual final sessions were recorded for Ansonia Records in 1960. By the end of 1961, the trio had disbanded, perhaps prematurely, never fully realizing any impact they could have had during the 1960s had they continued performing and recording. Yet, their music and reputation would live on through the coming decades and is still felt today. Unlike many of their compatriots, all three members remained in Cuba after the Revolution, where they would spend their remaining years in semi-retirement.
Ralph Pérez, A&R director of Ansonia Records, was undoubtedly a fan of Trio Matamoros, and on November 24, 1949, at the very dawn of the label, he recorded four sides with the trio. It is unknown where the songs were recorded (possibly Beltone Studios), or why they were not released immediately, but they were eventually put out as two 45-RPM singles in 1957. A decade later, on June 2, 1959, Pérez would reunite with the trio and record a dozen tunes that would be released as an LP soon after. Unlike the bulk of Ansonia recordings, the sessions did not take place in New York at Beltone Studios (though they were mastered and cut there the following year); instead, they were recorded in the trio’s home of Havana, just six months after the successful conclusion of the Cuban Revolution, soon after which the doors between the US and Cuba would close. Pérez made sure the album would have a little something for everyone, from the mid-tempo, minor key and very intense “Ven para la loma” that expresses a profound, patriotic love of the Cuban countryside (with the mountains “breathing freedom,” in a nod to both previous and contemporary liberation struggles on the island) to the lighthearted upbeat carnival tune “Oye mi conga” and the slower, more romantic strains of “Mi única boca” on the other end of the spectrum. The record is simply titled Trio Matamoros and features a postcard type photograph of the General Máximo Gómez Monument, located in a small circular park atop the roundabout of the Havana Tunnel by the harbor, which every Cuban would recognize as a typical scene of the capitol city. At the time the record was released in the U.S., the swinging Latin big bands of Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez held sway in New York with their tough brassy mambo and cha-cha-chá charts where the crossover appeal of midtown venues like the Palladium meant everybody was learning to be a mambonik. To top it off, the era of popularity for the flute and violin charanga orchestras, with the pachanga dance craze taking hold in The Bronx, was not far behind. For Pérez to record an album of brass-less traditional acoustic Cuban son and trova with only three band members flew in the face of conventional commercial wisdom and prevailing urban tastes, or so it would seem.
The timeless appeal of this beautiful, lyrical, infectious roots music definitely had an audience in New York City (as well as other places), especially among older, working-class immigrant communities and the soon to be expatriate Cuban refugee demographic that would swell the populations of the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Pérez knew that nostalgia for the homeland, especially for those who could not go home, had its own niche market, and that was a specialty of Ansonia. Interestingly, at the same time Ansonia was serving that more folksy demographic, some of the recordings on this LP, and a second volume that would be released several years later, would help serve as an inspiration for the younger, more assimilated ‘Nuyorican’ audience of Johnny Pacheco when he changed his sound and ditched the flute and violins for timbales and trumpets, switching from the charanga to conjunto format during the early years of Fania Records. The Ansonia releases would also influence Nuyorican salsa orchestras in the next decade like those of Willie Colón and Ray Barretto that were looking back to the music of their parents’ generation as part of a movement to reclaim their Latino identity after the cross-cultural hybridization of the boogaloo in the late 1960s. In fact, Trio Matamoros and their seminal songbook served as a touchstone for the Cuban son revival in the 1980s with Roberto Torres’ SAR Records. Trio Matamoros recordings were also highly influential in Africa, being part of the Cuban arsenal in the repertoire of Congolese rumba bands and by extension soukous and Afro Pop.
As mentioned, Pérez was not finished with Trio Matamoros; another session was booked, this time in July of 1960 in Havana, right before the fledgling revolutionary government would nationalize all U.S. property in Cuba the following month. For the CD reissue of Trio Matamoros, two tracks from Pérez’s initial session with the trio in 1949 would be remastered and added to the album. Both were pristine sounding re-recordings of excellent earlier hits, “Que siga el tren” and “El vendedor de todo.” What would become Trio Matamoros Volume 2 from the Havana 1960 session would serve as the band’s final recording and be an equally valuable bookend for the trio’s brief but significant tenure with Ansonia, bringing another dozen gems into the light. As with all Ansonia releases, the recording fidelity of the Matamoros material is very high, the repertoire top notch (all classics associated with the trio from their early years) and the fact that Pérez was able to capture the original members (they are announced in a familiar, casual fashion on the back cover as simply “Ciro, Cueto y Miguel”) while still at the height of their abilities is nothing short of a miracle. It’s an achievement that we are lucky enough to be able to enjoy now in this fantastic sounding remastered treasure, a gem from the vaults that serves as part of the fundamental cultural inheritance of Cubans and lovers of Latin music alike the world over.