Arts, Culture & Media

Global Hit Queens of Havana

Orquesta Anacaona was Cuba's first all-girl dance band. I say girls because they were mostly teenagers. That was back in the early 1930's. Now one of the surviving members, Alicia Castro has recently published a memoir. By the way she's not related to Fidel Castro. The book is called the Queens of Havana, The Amazing Adventures of Anancaona, Cuba's Legendary All-Girl Dance Band. The World's Ann Lopez tells us more.
See photos and read an excerpt from the book

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It begins with Happy Hour. That's the name of the first chapter in Alicia Castro's memoir, The Queens of Havana. It's a daily ritual she shares with her 3 surviving sisters, Ada, Ziomara and Ondina.

At noon they gather together, eat their meal and top it off with a little rum. Alicia Castro writes, "Without rum, how could we cope with life." These days life is slow. Alicia is 87. She doesn't play much music any more:

�Well, not now. Not now because my health isn't good. I use to play the guitar with my sisters. With a lot of passion. I play a little piano, because it doesn't take much to play the piano.�

But 70 years ago, her days and nights were filled with music...

Algo Bueno:

On a balmy night in Havana, Alicia made her debut with her sister's band. The year was 1932. She was 12 years old.

Orquesta Anacaona began as a Septet. But eventually it grew to include all 11 Castro sisters. They played in open air cafes in Havana. It was no place for good girls. Back then Cuba was still very traditional.

Respectable women didn't even walk the streets alone in broad daylight. And they definitely didn't play Son.

�Well Son is a...it's a very rural thing. It was born with the country people. It's a very catchy and enjoyable because it's natural. At first the more refined people didn't tolerate it. But the music was so flavorful, everyone embraced it.�

Besame Aqui:

The rhythms of Son are enticing. The lyrics suggestive. This song is called Bessa Me Aqui or Kiss Me, Right Here! Right Now!

You get the idea. The girls' father loved Son. But he didn't approve of his daughters playing it in public. Finally Alica's older sister Cuchita persuaded him to let them perform. They called themselves Orquesta Anacaona. After a legendary Indian princess who resisted the Spanish conquest.

�Her name means golden flower. So one girl told my sister you all have dark Indian skin and long straight hair. You should have an Indian name. Also, there was already a male band called The Brother's Castro and we didn't want people to think we were related to them. So that's how we got the name Anacaona.�

Playing the cafes made them popular. They moved up to the more exclusive clubs of Havana. Clubs they would not be allowed to patronize because of their skin color.

In 1937 they got a contract with RCA to perform in New York at the Havana-Madrid nightclub. They were on the bill with some of the top Jazz stars of the decade.

Famous musicians would go to see them perform too. They went on to tour Europe.

Here's where Alicia's memory gets a bit fuzzy. She can't remember the name of the famous guitarist they played with in Paris. So her niece, Ingrid Kummels helps her out.

{El famoso�..audame�.Django Reinhardt�.que? Django Reinhardt�.Ah! Si! Django Reinhardt. }

Ingrid worked with Alicia to collect her stories. Ingrid says she wanted to document the contribution women made to Cuban music.

�The importance of women in Cuban music is great but it has not been recognized appropriately. Even I did not recognize it as a youth. After my mother died, I for the first time as an adult came to Cuba and still saw my aunts playing here in Havana. I got to know they had a very important role. I'm so glad I was able to record it because I think it's just in time. My aunt Alicia is 87 now and my other aunts are very old too. So probably we got this story just on time.�

After the Cuban Revolution in 1959 things changed for the orchestra. Fidel Castro's government, put an end to the decedent clubs and cafes. Work dried up. Musicians defected. And touring abroad became difficult.

Anacaona continued to perform into the 1980's. At home and in parts of Latin America.

When the sisters finally hung up their instruments, they'd been playing together for 57 years. Years filled with dazzling music, dictators, revolution, and a little bit of rum.

For The World I'm Ann Lopez.

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