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Cuba's famous female vocal group.

Profile: El Original Cuarteto D'Aida

by Luis Lichtman with Bruce Polin

BP Tell me about Cuarteto D’Aida. When did you first hear this group? Was it in Cuba?

LL Oh yes. Cuarteto D’Aida was formed during the golden era of music in Cuba. Their first television appearance was in a show called Carosel De Sorpresas (The Carousel of Surprises). This was in the ‘50s. What got everybody going was that this group had not only singing, but also their own choreography.

BP Who was Aida Diestro. What was her background.

LL Aida had quite a long history in music. She began singing religious church music — similar to gospel here. Like accomplished soul singers here in the U.S. who had their background and training singing gospel, Aida did the same thing in Cuba. She became an accomplished pianist, wrote some songs and became very active. But her main strength was in harmonizing voices. She found these four girls — Elena Burke, Omara Portuando, Haydee Portuando, and Moraima (La Mora) Secada.

BP Were they already known at that time?

LL No. These four beautiful girls were so poor when they started that when they appeared for the first time on television you could see their dresses were home-made. But, let me tell you, everybody loved this group. They exuded such an air of happiness — in their singing and demeanor. Even in the recording studio, the technicians, the musicians, and the band-leader were tickled to death to accompany this new group that had such an impact in Cuba.

BP Cuba had no shortage of quartets, though, right?

LL Correct. Cuba at that time was saturated with quartets. We had the Facundo Rivero quartet (a mixed quartet with two girls and two guys), the Dulzaides Quartet amongst others. But Aida’s became number one from the moment they started. They were offered work on television and nightclub offers started to come in. Then had been offered a contract to work the Sans Souci. This elegant club was on the outskirts of Havana and was patronized by the Cuban high society. They worked there for quite some some time. Then they did some work at the the Tropicana. Alberto Aldura (the Tropicana’s entertainment director) who booked the really big acts — Nat King Cole, Carmen Miranda, and Buddy Rich — was responsible for bringing them in. Before long, they began working Venezuela and throughout Latin America.

BP What would you say was the highlight of their career as a group?

LL In my humble opinion, the highlight was the record that they did with Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill. It really brought out the finest in this quartet. The album was Chico’s idea. He picked the musicians. You know when he was younger his family — who were very well off— sent him to the United States to study something academic. I think they sent him to Georgia. He studied trumpet instead. He came home and told his father “I have no degree, but I can play the trumpet”. And he really could play. He incorporated a very jazzy element in his playing. He worked all over Cuba and was with the Armando Romeu Jr. Band at the Tropicana. One day Chico said “I’m quitting” and nobody saw him in Havana for two years. What do you think he did? He studied composition. He studied arrangement. He went to study everything he could to better himself. He emerged the number-one arranger in Cuba (and Cuba was loaded with good arrangers). When he came to this country he worked in Hollywood and New York. His association with Marío Bauzá and Machito was very tight. One good aspect of those times was that everybody in the Latin music circles taught and enriched each other. Bauzá gave him something to learn, and he in turn did the same for others. And Chico O’Farrill brought his talents and knowledge back to Cuba — and this is one reason I am so proud of him.

BP Can you elaborate?

LL. He brought back what he had learned from the United States. This is in no way a derogatory statement, but the fact is very few of the Cuban musicians who left to become successes returned to Cuba. I never saw Panchito Riset. I never saw Machito. I never saw Marío Bauzá. This is what I like about O’Farrill. He came back to Cuba and poured all that knowledge into our folklore.

BP TeLL me more about the O’Farrill-Aida project.

LL For me, this was the culmination, and perfect example, of the quartet’s talents. It was done in the CMQ radio station in Havana. The Aida Cuartet was unique in their harmonies and they had a sound that was distinctly different the sound of other quartets. They had subtle fluctuations in their singing that would appear as if their voices were floating. They could go from a bolero to a cha-cha to a guaracha to a són- montuno effortlessly. You could tell the individual voices apart, yet they worked together as a perfect instrument. The opening title Profecia, a bolero-beguine, flows easily into Las Mulatas Del Cha-Cha-Cha. They then go into Cuanto Me Alegro, a very moving cha-cha-cha, which takes you into No Se Que Voy A Hacer, a beautiful bolero. They organized the program order with such good taste and smartness. Oye Mi Ritmo is an Afro with a hell of an arrangement which exemplifies Chico’s jazzy sound unifying of the American music with the Cuban rhythms. Then they go into a beautiful ballad by Julio Gutierrez — Nocturno Antillano. They do Cachita, a rumba by Rafael Hernandez, the greatest Puerto Rican composer. The Mexican composer María Grever’s Ya No Me Quieres, a beautiful bolero is also interpreted here.

BP I noticed that they added two additional titles to the CD.

LL That’s right — there are two bonus tracks added to the CD version of this release. They were recorded in Mexico also in 1957. Mexico was known for having high quality recording facilities at that time, and RCA had studios there. One of the additional tracks is a second version of No Se Que Voy Hacer. The other bonus song is Cariñito Azucarado, a cha-cha-chá by Enriquillo Cerón. I must add that Aida Diestro was so sharp in her selection of these singers that they all became stars in their own right.

BP Thank you so much Luis.

(Luis Lichtman was born Havana in 1935. In May of 1960 he landed in Las Vegas. Nevada. He befriended Chico O’Farrill, Tata Güines, Walfredo De Los Reyes Sr. and many other musicians with whom he spent many enjoyable late hours. Luis works at the Mirage Hotel in the capacity of Executive Casino Host in International Marketing, Latin American Division. He brings in the high rollers. Thank you, Luis, for your generous assistance with this article.)

El Original Cuarteto D'Aida

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