Sue Miller – Cuban Flute Improviser, Writer & Academic

Interview with Melquiades FundoraAugust 25th, 2009

Melquides Fundora

Melquides Fundora

The following interview took place in Havana in 2001.

SM: Interview:
MF: My name is Melquiades Fundora Dina. I was born in Nueva Paz, a village just outside Havana, on 20 March 1926. My first teachers were my parents. My mother played the double bass and my father the trumpet. I learnt to read and write music and play by ear through listening and playing. It was difficult to study music formally if you lived in the countryside before the revolution so I went to Havana and asked for tips from maestros like Arcaño. I learnt a lot from Orquesta América, José Fajardo y sus Estrellas and Aragón.

SM: I love the names of these Charangas: ‘Arcaño y sus Maravillas’ (Arcaño and his Marvels). Fajardo y sus Estrellas (Fajardo and his Stars), Orquesta Sensación. (Sensational Orchestra) and La Sublime (the Sublime)! No false modesty there! At present you play with Orquesta Sublime – could you tell us a little about the history of this group?
MF: Orquesta Sublime began on 21 January 1956. We were a group of young men who at that time had no intention of making a living from music – we just wanted to enjoy ourselves. Our first recording was of ‘El Peletero’ (the cobbler) and ‘El Cartero’ (the postman), two chachachas. ‘El Peletero’ was written by Iladio Alisa and ‘El Cartero’ by Victor Lay. From the moment we recorded these numbers we became a hit with the public and we went on to record ‘Union Cienfueguera’, a danzón by Enrique Jorrín, and ‘Seis Perlas Cubanas’. In less than four months, the band became a national name.
More recordings followed. At that time, there were three record companies in Cuba, including Panart and Puchito records. We were signed to Panart and were busy recording and playing at dances. At the end of 1959 we played at the ‘Breyford Pie’ in Miami where we met with huge success. At this time, Orquesta Aragón was also recording and playing dances. We were younger than Aragón’s musicians but we always got on well together. In fact, in 1956 we played ‘Pare Cochero’ and ‘Cachita’ with Aragón at a concert. Later on, we began to compose our own numbers.

SM: Has Sublime toured abroad much?
MF: We spent six months touring Mexico. In 2002 and 2003, we’re touring the Cayman Islands, Spain and Germany. Envidia records launched our new CD, Que Viva la charanga, in January so we’re touring Germany after it comes out.

SM: La Sublime is best known for playing pachangas, isn’t it?

MF: Yes, we are known as the ‘Pachanguera’ of Cuba. Let me tell you a little about the development of the Charanga. To begin with, you had Charangas like those led by Chapotín, ‘el Chocolate’, then Arcaño, then América, Aragón and la Sublime. These days, modem Cuban bands all sound like each other – there’s nothing to distinguish between them. We in the charangas however all had our own sound: you could listen and say, ‘Oh, that’s Aragón’ or, ‘Oh, that’s Ia Sublime’.

Melquides Fundora
Melquides Fundora

SM: Yes, the flute playing of Richard Egües is unmistakeable. His sound and improvisation are so distinctive.
MF: Also, the 5-key wooden flute is very powerful and very difficult to play. You have to battle with it to get the right sound. Friends often ask me, ‘How do you get the sound you want with that flute?’ It is difficult to stretch and cover the holes, as there are only five keys. The problem now is that younger musicians are too scared to learn the 5-key flute. They are no longer being manufactured and it’s not taught any more at music colleges. There’s only a handful of 5-key flute players in Cuba at present.

SM: Were there a lot of Charangas in the 1940s?

MF: Oh yes: Fajardo, Siglo XX, La Mélodia 40, Arcaño, Orquesta Union, Orquesta Joseito Femandez, Orquesta Paulin Alvarez. The most famous flautists were Fajardo, Arcaño, Juan Pablo Miranda. Richard Egües has been my main inspiration.

SM: Can you tell us more about the Cuban flute style?

MF: Yes, I’m often asked about this. A flute player from the US came to see me, wanting to jam, and he confused jazz with the Cuban style of playing. In jazz, you improvise on a theme; but it’s different in Cuban music. For us, music is much more of a rhythm thing – we play to lift our spirits, while we walk, talk, smile… we feel the syncopation and play from the heart. Jazz is freer, in that there is less structure to the arrangements. Cuban music has sections such as the mambo and the estribillo. All the instruments (violins, congas, piano, bass and so on) have a specific function. The piano keeps the montuno going, the percussion maintains the rhythm, the flute improvises… In Cuban music, you have to know the particular sections of an arrangement and when to play an ‘efecto’ (break) together, for example.

SM: Does Cuban music generally have more sophisticated arrangements than jazz?
MF: Yes, but it is spontaneous too; there is a lot of improvisation. In rehearsal, musicians read the music (except the percussionists), rather than learning arrangements by ear. All danzones, chachachas and son styles have written arrangements.

SM: Can you tell us about the particular styles of music associated with charanga?
MF: Over the years, charanga has undergone many changes. Arcaño and Romero played danzones, then there was the new rhythm movement. Then Orquesta América entered into musical life, and when they went to Mexico, Aragón came to the fore with the chachacha craze and we followed on with the pachanga. We played a lot of pachangas: a faster kind of chachacha. But we played lots of others styles too, like bolero, son, guaracha and afro. The charanga sound is created by the line-up itself – one flute, two or three violins, güiro, congas, timbales, singers.

SM: What hopes do you have for the future?
MF: To play music, music and more music!
© Sue Miller, Leeds, March 2003