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It turns out that in 1930, a Cuban poet and activist wrote a book of poems to highlight social & racial oppression against blacks. It was the first of several books we wrote as part of a literary revolution, (something like the “Black Lives Matter” of a century ago) which eventually got him jailed.
Then, a white pianist who liked to play black-themed songs, musicalized one of the poems from that book. And yes, the pianist was chased out of Cuba by the government.
Finally, 40 years later, the song was recorded by a Salsa music star struggling to get his life back in control.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of “Songoro Cosongo”, and here’s how it happened!
The Origins of “Songoro Cosongo”
In the early 20th century, the economies of the islands of the Caribbean were largely based on the commerce of sugar, tobacco, and coffee. These products required the labor of blacks for the hard work of cutting sugar cane or collecting tobacco and coffee from the fields.
Although slavery had been abolished by Spain in the Caribbean between the 1870’s and 1880’s, blacks were still treated as 2nd class people.
Nicolas Guillen, a dark-skinned Cuban mulato, began writing essays and poems in the late 1920’s highlighting the ordinary life of blacks. In doing this, he joined a white Puerto Rican poet named Luis Pales Matos as the originators of black poetry (“poesía negroide”). Guillen liked to call it “versos mulatos” (mulato verses).
Back in those days, writing about blacks was avoided as it was not considered a worthy topics for high literature by the intellectuals of the time. Yet, Pales and Guillen broke ground by going against this practice. Their intent was to elevate the social status of blacks to be even with whites, by writing about their daily life experiences.
Note: if you’ve seen the movie “The Help”, this strategy is similar to the one the protagonists used for a similar purpose.)
In Puerto Rico, Luis Pales Matos began publishing black-themed poems and essays during the early 1920’s. Pales’ poem “Pueblo Negro” (Black Village), published in 1926, was considered the first known Afro-Antillano poem.
Following Pales footsteps very closely, Guillen did the same in Cuba. “Songoro Cosongo” (an onomatopoeia for the sound of a drum) was Nicolas Guillen’s second collection of “versos mulatos“. He named this book, published in 1931, from a onomatopoeia he used in one of the poems from his first book of poems, titled “Motivos del Son” (1930). In “Motivos del Son” Guillen had a poem titled “Si Tu Supiera” where he uses the phrase “songoro cosongo“.
Si Tu Supiera
si tú supiera!
Anoche te bi pasá
y no quise que me biera.
A é tú le hará como a mí,
que cuando no tube plata
te corrite de bachata,
sin acoddadte de mí.
sóngoro, la negra
sóngoro de uno
sóngoro de tre.
bengan a be;
bamo pa be;
bengan, sóngoro cosongo,
sóngoro cosongo de mamey!”
As you can see, the poem is written to phonetically emulate the way black Cubans talked. Luis Pales Matos had done the same with his “poesía negroide” in Puerto Rico.
First Versions & Hector Lavoe
In Part 2 we’ll see the first versions of the song “Songoro Cosongo”, and will deep dive into Hector Lavoe’s version of it.