Profile of the much respected and influencial Cuban dance band.
by Luis de Quesada (Luis_de_Quesada@descarga.com)
The Orquesta America was founded in the spring of 1942 by singer/songwriter Ninon Mondejar. Ninon was born in the province of Mantanzas and, as an adolescent during the early 30s, he relocated to the Havana province town of Bauta (aka "Hoyo Colorao"). In Bauta he started showing interest in music and joined a town choral group. He also joined the Young Communist League and became a political activist.
In the early 40s he moved to the capital city of Havana and, after brief stints as a singer with several local groups, he decided to form his own "charanga," perhaps influenced by the successes of the charanga orchestras of Antonio Arcaño, Melodias del 40, Belisario Lopez, Antonio Maria Romeu and others. He named his new orchestra "Orquesta America de Ninon Mondejar" and recruited several professional musicians and percussionists. Among them were Wilfredo Meneses, flute; Augusto Barcia, timbal; Julio Salas on congas, etc. Barcia would remain as Ninon Mondejar's timbalero for the rest of his career in Cuban music. By the late 40s several of Arcaño's musicians joined Orquesta America. They were violinist/songwriters Enrique Jorrin, Antonio Sanchez "Musiquita" and guiro player Gustavo Tamayo. Also, Juanito Ramos substituted for Meneses on flute. These new additions and substitutions gave Orquesta America a new influx of talent which would take it to the top of Cuba's musical charts in less than five years.
Around 1951 America's violinist, Enrique Jorrin, introduced a new rhythm which quickly won the hearts and minds of Cuba's choosy dancers. He named it "cha cha cha." Shortly after, as the Jorrin/America cha cha chas became increasingly popular, Cuba's Discos Panart became interested in them and signed them to a recording contract. In March of 1953 Orquesta America's first hit single, Jorrin's "La Engañadora" with "Silver Star" on its flip side, was released on 78 and 45 rpm singles formats and both songs became smash hits charting all the way to the top, thus toppling Perez Prado's mambo and all the jazz bands on his coattails from the top charts in Havana. Numerous top charting hits followed, such as "Yo Sabia Que Un Dia," "Me Lo Dijo Adela," "Nada Para Ti," "El Tunel," "El Alardoso," "Negrito de Sociedad," "Nunca," and "Yo No Camino Mas," the latter featuring sonero Laito Sureda on the lead vocals.
At that time Orquesta America's personnel was as follows: Ninon Mondejar, singer and administrator; Enrique Jorrin, lead violinist and musical director; Antonio Sanchez, violinist; Juanito Ramos, flute; Manuel Montejo "Camaguey," bass and chorus singer; Julio Salas on congas, Alex Sosa on piano and Gustavo Tamayo on güiro. In midsummer of 1953, former Arcaño violinist/songwriter Felix Reyna and singer Leo Soto also joined Orquesta America, elevating this group to an all-star status, in my opinion.
The members of Orquesta America were referred to as the "Creators of the Cha Cha Cha" and they certainly lived up to their nickname as they turned any song, new or old, into a brand new vibrant cha cha cha. Such was the case with the haunting Brazilian "baion" entitled "Anna" and also known as "El Negro Zumbon." This new baion was used by the famed Cinecita Film Studios in Rome as the musical theme for its then new film Bitter Rice( Arroz Amargo) starring the young and sultry Italian actress Silvana Mangano (wife of Italian and international film producer Dino De Laurentis) and well known dramatic actor Raf Vallone (who more recently starred as Cardinal Lamberto in the Godfather, Part 3). As this great film opened in Havana, Orquesta America quickly adapted its "baion" musical score, sung in the film by Mangano herself, turned it into a smashing cha cha cha and recorded it rendering all other versions, including the film's musical score, corny and obsolete! In Cuba, the year 1953 ended on a stratospheric note for Orquesta America as their new releases for Christmas, Jorrin's "Alegre Navidad" and its flip side, Agustin Lara's "Rival," instantly charted all the way to the top, as had most of their predecessors in Orquesta America's long hit parade list. Everywhere in Havana it seemed as though it was Orquesta America, and not Fulgencio Batista, who ruled Cuba during the holidays and new year!
However, the new year, 1954, would unfortunately bring dissension, departures and change for Orquesta America. A disagreement between administrator Ninon Mondejar and musical director Enrique Jorrin emerged as they differed as to whom should receive credit for the creation and introduction of the cha cha cha. A purely academic and inconsequential difference of opinion was allowed to escalate into a profound disagreement between the two. The facts indicate that Jorrin was the creator of the new and contagious rhythm, but Mondejar maintained that his orchestra was the purveyor of the rhythm so he must also receive credit--something that Jorrin totally rejected. The internal feud continued without either side yielding an inch. Finally, Jorrin left around August of 1954 forming his own group with Orquesta Almendra's master flutist Miguel O'Farrill, singer Yeyo Estrada and others and departed for Mexico with a contract to record for the legendary A&R man Mariano Rivera Conde (musical mentor of Beny More, Perez Prado and Mariano Merceron) in Mexico City.
Upon Jorrin's departure, Mondejar recruited violininst Ignacio Berroa and gave Jorrin's spot as musical director to violinist/songwriter Felix Reyna. It should be noted that since 1953 Orquesta America had been conducting brief musical tours to Mexico City, appearing there in nightclubs, theaters and on television, mainly on the internationally famous network TV station XEW. After a few of these memorable and profitable tours, both Mondejar and Jorrin seemed to greatly enjoy performing on Mexican stages. The idea of relocating there on a protracted or more permanent basis entered their minds. I think that because of Jorrin's departure to Mexico, Mondejar felt compelled to follow suit and eventually did in November of 1954. He left behind not only legions of disappointed fans, but a void on the "Cuban musical throne" which several contenders scrambled to occupy. A front-running contender was Rafael Lay's Orquesta Aragon de Cienfuegos, RCA Victor recording artists, which at the time of Orquesta America's departure for Mexico had ten recorded hit singles. Their latest one, "Pare Cochero" and flip side "Baila Vicente," had been being played relentlessly on radio stations and jukeboxes throughout the island since its release in midsummer.
However, for legions of saddened Orquesta America fans, help was on the way from Mexico City as news of a split in the ranks of Orquesta America in Mexico reached Havana in December of 1954. It was learned that several members were returning to Cuba for the holidays and staying to form a new musical group! Finally, in January of 1955 a group of Orquesta America's musicians and percussionists led by flutist Juanito Ramos returned to Havana. The group included violinists Antonio Sanchez and Ignacio Berroa, bass player/singer Manuel Montejo "Camaguey," conga player Julio Salas and güiro player Gustavo Tamayo. In Havana, the new group teamed with veteran Orquesta Hermanos Castro member Arsenio Rodriguez and Cabaret Sans Souci pianist Ruben Gonzalez (now of Buena Vista Social Club fame) and formed a new group which Ramos named Orquesta America del 55.
The departure of 50% of Orquesta America's personnel left Ninon Mondejar without much of a musical group to lead. He immediately traveled to Cuba for replacements and came back with none other than competitor Orquesta Aragon's flutist Rolando Lozano, a notable Arcaño disciple. Rolando Lozano also brought his brother Clemente with him and a beautiful and unprecedented flute duet era started for Orquesta America--a move by Mondejar both praised and criticized by critics, experts and fans. Mondejar also brought conga player Julian Cabrera from Havana to replace the departed Orquesta America founding member Julio Salas.
In 1955 things stabilized for the refurbished Orquesta America de Ninon Mondejar as they started a series of hit recordings there for RCA. In 1955 and 1956 the additions of Mexico City based Cuban singer Elizardo Aroche and Mexican singer/songwriter Luis Demetrio enhanced the orchestra's chorus. In fact, America's singing duets featuring Leo Soto and Luis Demetrio were well received and charted to top spots in Mexico and elsewhere. Again, things seemed to go their way as the only competition they faced in Mexico was from Enrique Jorrin and His Orchestra who seemed to be content with their part of the "loot" yielded by the Mexican impresarios.
But during the fall of 1957 the departures which had plagued Orquesta America since Jorrin left in 1954 returned as singers Leo Soto and Luis Demetrio left to join a local conjunto led by Luis Gonzalez, who was also on the RCA label. A few months later in 1958 "the floodgates opened" as a homesick Felix Reyna left for Havana to join Fajardo y Sus Estrellas. Shortly after his arrival, Reyna's presence in Fajardo's monster charanga was felt as they recorded Reyna's milestone bolero-cha classic "Si Te Contara," which charted right to the top. Flutist Rolando Lozano also departed, going to New York City to join Mongo Santamaria's ensemble and also the newly formed Orquesta Nuevo Ritmo, directed by Armando Sanchez (later of Conjunto Son de La Loma fame). Lozano's brother Clemente also left, for an undisclosed location, and so did conga player Julian Cabrera. Mondejar replaced Cabrera with Rolando Maceo on congas and Lozano with flutist Gonzalo Fernandez, but these new departures seemed to halt Orquesta America's recording with RCA Victor Mexicana and they spent their final year (1958) of their four year tour in Mexico totally recordless.
Mondejar could have gone to Discos Orfeon, as Jorrin did when RCA gave him the boot, but failed to do so and, after a couple of unsuccessful tours, one of them in the Dominican Republic, Orquesta America returned to Cuba in January of 1959. From there they toured Europe and the Soviet Union. Ninon Mondejar remained as director of Orquesta America until his semi-retirement in the 1970s. Since then the orchestra has had several directors, including former senior member Felix Reyna. During the late 90s bass player Jorge Machado Duran, former Son 14 and Adalberto Alvarez y su Son member, became the current director of Orquesta America, bringing into it a new roster of excellent musicians who, with their skills and expertise, deserve to carry on Orquesta America's tradition of musical excellence. One particularly outstanding member of the current group is skilled flutist Manuel Sanchez Wanbrug.
Sixty years after its creation Orquesta America is still going strong thanks, I think, to the resilience and the never say die and strong will to survive attitude of its founder Ninon Mondejar, "the King of the Cha Cha Cha."