The Calle Ocho Festival has come and gone, and sidewalk life has returned to its usual rhythms and melodies. One popular local singer, however, has left us for Las Vegas.
Early this month, I was saddened to learn that one of my favorite local soneros, “El Gallito del Son,” had been offered a lucrative contract in Las Vegas and was leaving us.
How I will miss listening to him on Friday nights at CubaOcho. As a master of Cuban son music, El Gallito (Jorge Alberto) knew how to both improvise lines and keep them in rhyme, mixing in wit and humor and social commentary all the while. When he recognized people in the audience (like a famous dancer, perhaps) he would adapt his improvisation to include them, and all of us audience members delighted in the joy of this inclusion.
Jorge, whose nickname literally translates to “The Little Rooster of Son,” also had this entertaining habit of flitting his fingers around the microphone as he was composing new lyrics in his head. Short in stature, he would dress in notes of red or white or black, sometimes with a hat, sometimes not, but always with his hands zipping around like birds.
Although he has left Little Havana, his caricature remains part of a mural on a wall just outside of CubaOcho: a “Soneros” mural by Aristide. When I spoke to Jorge at his final concert at CubaOcho, he said he hoped to someday return.
I would argue that most of the singers represented in the “Soneros” mural are not genuine soneros, however.
True son is the style of traditional Cuban music that started among the country people of eastern Cuba as far back as 1750. Cuban son music combines plucked strings (guitar, tres and later the stringed bass) and African-derived percussion instruments (bongos, congas, maracas, claves and the guiro) with the structure and elements of Spanish canción. Its oldest genres include the son montuno and the changui. There are many different genres of son.
Son (and the Afro-Cuban folkloric music, rumba) are both considered predecessors to what you might know of as “salsa”.
Although I don’t believe El Gallito was born in Santiago de Cuba, considered the birthplace of son, I would count him as a true sonero.
The sonero needs to have not only the gift of improvisation and rhyming, but a distinct charisma on the stage: the ability to move people to dance and to feel collective joy. He (or she) must know how to relate to and interact with listeners, even bringing us to laughter. He must entice us to let go of our inhibitions.
The true sonero is a magician who knows the alchemy and magic words of our soul, and can transport us to a world far away from any present troubles or concerns.
Below is a badly filmed video clip of Jorge Alberto performing at CubaOcho. The footage is blurry but still you can hear the way his lines weave a rapport with the audience. Perhaps you heard him before he left?
Fortunately, CubaOcho (at 1465 SW 8th St., Miami) will continue featuring outstanding son and Afro-Cuban jazz groups on most Friday and Saturday nights.
Yes, I will miss El Gallito del Son, but I wish him well with his new adventure. And I hope he comes back.