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.
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.
- Pablo Yglesias