Elio Delgado Legon
HAVANA TIMES– The work of the late Cuban-born musician, conductor and composer Isidro Benitez is better known in South America than in Cuba, whence the artist was forced to emigrate, in 1926, owing to the widespread and deeply-rooted racism of the time. As a black man, Benitez was denied the possibility of performing in venues that should have welcomed an artist of his stature.
Though we were born in the same town (Santo Domingo, in Cuba’s province of Villa Clara), I didn’t get to meet Benitez until 1973, when, for study-related reasons, I had to travel to Santiago de Chile, where he resided at the time.
He greeted me as one does an old friend and showered me with questions about his family, his native town and Cuba’s situation – in short, he wanted to know everything.
I paid him only two visits, always in something of a rush, and was unable to interview him about his career and music. We left it for another occasion. Then, the fascist coup and Salvador Allende’s death took us by surprise, and I had to leave the country in a rush. In our brief conversations, however, he spoke to me of many things that I still recall.
He showed me a number of diplomas and certificates, some of which referred to him as the “Duke Ellington of South America”, in acknowledgement of his masterful renditions of jazz numbers by that virtuoso American artist, with whom he maintained a very close friendship and a long professional relationship. He had also received recognition for “introducing Cuban music into South America.”
One of the things he would proudly showcase was an award he had received from the Cuban government in 1950, when he was decorated with the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Order and appointed “knight”, in acknowledgment of his merits and services to the country as a brilliant composer and conductor.
He was an ardent admirer and defender of President Salvador Allende and showed much enthusiasm on hearing of the changes that had taken place in Cuba after 1959, particularly about what had been achieved since 1958, when he travelled to the island and left with a profound sense of disappointment, owing to the widespread racism he ran into and the country’s political and economic situation.
Benitez’ story is too long to be told in its entirety in this post. I will thus limit myself to some important moments in his life.
Isidro Benitez was born on May 15, 1900. At the early age of eight, he showed an exceptional talent for music, prompting his mother to enroll him at the arts academy that had been recently founded in their native town.
Months later, he joined the first all-children band of the municipality. In no time, he was already masterfully playing the recorder, flute, clarinet and saxophone, something completely unheard-of at the time.
In 1923, when he was already a professional musician (at the tender age of 23), he moved to Havana in search of work and opportunities to get ahead professionally, such that he would be able to support his family.
In Havana, he completed his high school studies and made a living as a tailor, playing in different bands and orchestras (popular between 1924 and 1926) at night and on weekends.
On November 22, 1926, Benitez left Havana for Santiago de Chile, the director of the band Los Negros Cubanos (“Cuban Black Men”), which had been hired for the official opening of the Roof Garden recreational center located at the summit of the San Cristobal hill in the Chilean capital.
Under Benitez’ direction, Los Negros Cubanos played in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay and other South American countries.
In the 1930s, he temporarily settled in Buenos Aires to fulfill a number of commitments with some of the most important theaters in the city, as the director of Josephine Baker and the renowned Mistinguett and her company, the Great Paris Casino.
The radio also called on the talents of Benitez and his superb orchestra. It was the golden age of jazz and critics had nicknamed Benitez the “Duke Ellington of South America”, in recognition of his masterful and tasteful renditions of many pieces by the legendary American jazz musician.
A popular show-man, Isidoro Benitez delighted audiences for nearly 60 years. To the day of his death, however, he was assailed by the same nostalgia he felt ever since leaving Cuba, his family and friends from his childhood and youth.
In a letter to his brother, he once wrote: “though it would be a bit ungrateful of me not to say I’ve had a marvelous time throughout my many years as a “nomad”, I am sorry I had to stay away from my country for so long. There isn’t a moment I don’t think about my dear people, and what pains me the most is not having been able to get ahead there, as I’ve done here in South America, because of “the whites” (cursed a thousand times by me) who, today, wander the world, longing to return to our beautiful Cuba, as I do.”
On August 25, 1985, this brilliant composer and conductor passed away in Santiago, Chile, his adoptive homeland, still dreaming about returning to the land of his birth, the country he had to leave because of racial prejudices, which, fortunately, no longer exist in Cuba.