The charanga is one of Cuba’s most long-lived, delightful and singular musical inventions with roots in Haiti and France as well as in the domestic traditions of danza and danzón. Distinguishable from contemporary Cuban orchestral configurations -- the smaller sextet and septet configurations of the 1920s that played the son with stringed instruments (featuring guitar and tres and the trumpet), or the big brass sections of the “jazz” and mambo orchestras that became popular in the 1940 -- charanga features the flute (traditionally a five-key wooden one), a string section led by violins, and duet vocals. Among the Cuban-born greats that characterize this venerable type of group are the legendary charanga orchestras of Arcaño Y Sus Maravillas, Aragon, América, and Fajardo Y Sus Estrellas, who shine brightly through the decades. Belisario López Y Su Orquesta must surely claim its place among this firmament, for not only were López’s contemporaries in awe of his musicianship, professionalism, knowledge and friendly personality, but his fans were legion and many of his recordings are deemed among the best of the genre.
Belisario López Rossi was born on October 7, 1903 in the city of Cárdenas in the Matanzas province of Cuba. As a child he began to study music with the help of his mother. At the beginning of the 1920s, the López family moved to the city of Havana where Belisario continued his musical studies, choosing the five-key flute as an instrument. A few years later, López entered the University of Havana and studied law, graduating as a lawyer specializing in tax law. From that moment on, his life was split between practicing law and playing music, dual careers that he carried out with admirable skill, tenacity and a capacity for plenty of hard work. It can certainly be said that he triumphed in both; however, he is of course most widely remembered for his music.
López’s debut as a flutist was with the then newly formed Orquesta de Neno González, a soon to be well-known pianist with whom he stayed for about two or three years. In 1928, he decided to form his own charanga orchestra and founded a high-level group with the celebrated danzón composer and violinist Juan Quevedo, with Raúl Valdespi on piano, Guillermo Malherve on double bass and Gerardo Cabrera on timbales. Some time later, the violinist and composer Humberto Trigo joined his orchestra. In the mid-1930s, the later famous sonero Joseito Núñez and the great composer and pianist Facundo Rivero joined the group replacing Valdespi on piano.
By 1937, the Belisario López Orchestra began to record 78-RPM records with RCA Victor, a US label that opened a studio in Havana and with whom he remained for the next twenty years. By the 1950s he was releasing popular 45s with RCA and his hits were heard all over the island in jukeboxes and on the radio. López and his orchestra played for seventeen consecutive years (1940-1957) in the dance festivals of the famous Gardens of the Cervecería La Tropical in Marianao, as well as at many luxurious and famous night spots in Havana and elsewhere on the island. During this time, his orchestra performed approximately 325 gigs a year and were constantly in demand. Because the violinist and composer Juan Quevedo was a founding member of the orchestra, several of his famous classic danzones were premiered and recorded for the first time by López’s charanga, providing a direct link between the charanga’s ancestor, the genteel, classical and formal sounding danzón, and the more energetic, modern repertoire that López’s orchestra usually played like the cha-danzón, cha cha chá, guaracha, son montuno and mambo. In fact, though he is more associated with the modern rhythms of the charanga, it can be said that Belisario López was, along with Cheo Belén Puig and Antonio Maria Romeu, one of the “great three” (‘el gran tres’) of “pure” Cuban danzón without influences from foreign rhythms and melodies -- these influences were later added to other danzones from their repertoires by popular demand, traces of which could still be heard decades later in modern charangas like those of López and others. Over the decades in Cuba many other important musicians and singers would pass through López’s orchestra, such as Rogelio Martínez, who would go on to direct La Sonora Matancera. All the while, López would also practice law and be involved in politics, something that no doubt led to him deciding to leave Cuba once Fidel Castro came to power.
In 1960, after having recorded a successful danzón album live in concert on Havana’s famous Radio Progreso, Belisario López left for the US to seek opportunities he felt were not open to him in Cuba. Soon after settling in New York, he founded an orchestra similar to the one he had conducted in Havana. Some of the members of his then new orchestra were musicians and vocalists who would go on to establish reputations on their own merit in the coming decades. The prolific composer and talented vocalist Rudy Calzado was lead voice; Javier Dulzaides, Vicente Consuegra and Osvaldo Basora were the coro (chorus) and Otto B. López was the pianist. Elpidio Vázquez manned the double bass and Francisco Bastar (aka “Kako”) was on the timbal, while Mike Martinez and Manuel Acosta led the violin section. Almost all of these sidemen would go on to be involved in what would become the salsa boom of the late 1960s and 70s, and López’s charanga orchestra would continue to extend an influence that would long outlast the pachanga craze that launched its New York career, with the Ansonia recordings of Belisario López’s orchestra becoming one of the founding pillars of the city’s charanga rebirth and resurgence of the late 1970s and 80s.
Though today Belisario López may not be a household name like Johnny Pacheco -- another New York-based immigrant musician who first came to prominence during the pachanga fad of the early 1960s with a charanga -- López’s orchestra, during its active period in New York, was extremely popular and played all the top nightclubs, theaters and society balls, from the Palladium and Carnegie Hall to the Waldorf Astoria, as well as for more strictly downhome Latin audiences at barrio venues like El Teatro Puerto Rico and The Cuban Inter-American Club in The Bronx. Belisario López and his orchestra also successfully toured many other American cities as well as Puerto Rico. Probably his biggest self-penned hit during the 1960s in New York was “El Camarón” (The Shrimp) from 1961, a catchy and popular tune he had previously recorded in Cuba as well. Some of his other well-loved hits were “En Casa De Estanislao,” composed by Arsenio Rodríguez, a cover of Electo “Chepín” Rosell’s son montuno “El Platanal de Bartolo” and “El Sucu Cucu,” while the entertainingly funky rhythm & blues influenced “Pachanga Bum Bum” by the band’s Rudy Calzado anticipates the boogaloo movement, much like Ray Barretto’s better known “El Watusi” of 1963.
Between 1957 and 1966, Belisario López and his orchestra recorded five albums for Ansonia Records. The first record consisted purely of danzónes with one side instrumental and the other with vocals, and was released while Belisario López Y Su Orquesta were still based in Havana. Perhaps it is because of this previous connection that López began to work again with Ansonia almost as soon as he had established a new home base and band in New York. The first record with his new charanga orchestra, while technically his second for the label, is listed as the first volume of Belisario López Y Su Charanga, and, along with the second, third and fourth volumes, featured only pachangas, while the fifth and final LP reflected the changes happening in the New York Latin music scene when the pachanga rhythm and dance craze, and even charanga orchestration, was beginning to fall out of favor, being replaced by the ‘conjunto’ sound of brass, especially trumpets and trombone, and various genres and rhythms like boogaloo, guaracha, son montuno and guaguancó that would later be called salsa.
One thing should be noted at this juncture: though the original ‘charangas’ in northern Spain were small amateur holiday brass and percussion bands, in terms of Cuban music (and salsa in general), the charanga is traditionally flute and strings, though plenty of musicians like Eddie Palmieri and bands like Orquesta Broadway became popular substituting in other instruments including brass such as trombone and trumpet and eventually psychedelic effects would be utilized on the violin as with Alfredo de la Fé. So, although a literal Spanish translation may give the impression that a Latin charanga is a brass band, generally this is not the case, certainly not with Belisario López’s outfit, even as tastes changed and playing the flute became more difficult for Belisario in his later years.
During this period of the 1960s in New York, while Cuba was off-limits due to the Cold War and especially during the pachanga craze (roughly 1959-63), competition between Latin orchestras was fierce, particularly among the charangas. In addition, the general modern stresses of the city, not to mention the Latin immigrants’ second-class citizen status there, had a tremendous influence on Latin music made in New York. Consequently, López’s sound was much harder and more muscular compared to that of the previous decades in Cuba; indeed, the band played with a driving urban “swing” akin to that of early rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm & blues, an irresistible quality that must have been thrilling for its adoring, predominantly young Puerto Rican and African-American audiences. It’s no exaggeration to say the superior recording conditions and production values of Ansonia and Beltone studios faithfully captured this intensity with a fidelity that fairly leaps out of the grooves.
Thankfully, the first two volumes of pachangas by Belisario López Y Su Charanga, originally released February 24 and August 28 of 1961, have been lovingly remastered by Ansonia and are full to bursting with exuberant rhythms and entertaining lyrics. Though the focus is on the pachanga rhythm inspired by the song of the same name (“La Pachanga,” recently imported from Cuba via José Fajardo’s hit interpretation of Eduardo Davidson’s composition), and the attendant dance moves developed by Puerto Rican youth in The Bronx (danced like the cover model, Ansonia’s own Mercedes Perez Glass, seen on Volume 2, done in a hopping fashion with the left hand held aloft swinging a handkerchief in a circular motion), there are plenty of other aspects from the Ansonia years to catch the listener’s ear, not least of which is the incredible artistry of the all-star quality musicians backing the genre’s most famous Cuban expat vocalist and composer, Rudy Calzado. It’s a sped-up, citified sound anchored in authentic Caribbean roots that hits the listener with a stunning ferocity belying the inherent sweetness of the genre’s flute and violin orchestration. And leading that vigorous New York Cuban sound for one great decade with Ansonia Records was Don Belisario López, Esquire, an accomplished, intelligent yet modest soul who sadly did not live out the 1960s to see the salsa boom or the resurgence of the charanga, passing away on November 19, 1969 in his adopted Gotham home, gone but never forgotten, adored to this day by fans in Colombia, Peru and Venezuela as well as in the danzón’s adopted home of Veracruz, Mexico.
Though he may not be remembered as well by today’s American salsa fans, the old-guard New York charanga musicians that came up in Belisario’s shadow certainly recall him with fondness. As one of López’s musical inheritors and great friends, Cuban flutist Eddie Zervigón of New York’s Orchestra Broadway once explained, “I admired Belisario a lot as a flutist and as a person, because he was very educated and you never got tired of talking to him because of how much he knew and the extensive knowledge he had in all branches, from politics to music.” Zervigon went on to say that Belisario “had a very fruitful musical life and was greatly admired as a conductor and flutist throughout Cuba. He had an impeccable sound on the flute, despite the fact that when he arrived in NYC, he only had one lung, smoked a lot and had retired from playing the flute for many years, since he had dedicated himself to the profession of attorney.” In Zervigon’s estimation, to play the flute again, and in New York during the pachanga craze when there was so much competition, was not an easy choice, because “in fact the five-key flute is a very hard, complex instrument and even more so for someone in his poor health condition.” It is heartfelt recollections like these, as well as the five brilliant volumes of music recorded for Ansonia Records, that form the most fitting epitaph for the cheerful, always formidable and brave Belisario López, the danzón and charanga king from the golden era of Cuban music.