Early classical guitar recording in Cuba

NB This is the second of a series of taster excerpts from my book, Recording the Classical Guitar (Routledge 2021)

In Latin America the earliest guitar recordings that can be recognized as soloistic in nature were undertaken by Edison and Victor in Cuba and Mexico. These occurred in the context of the global expansion of the American recording industry in the early twentieth century, and at a time of significant American influence in these territories. One of the earliest preserved of these recordings features a Cuban guitarist named Sebastián Hidalgo, and was made by the Edison company in Havana in late 1905/early 1906. An article in Edison Phonograph Monthly of April 1906 gives some information regarding the circumstances, referring to a “temporary Edison laboratory” (i.e. recording studio) overseen by Rafael Cubanas, which opened in the center of Havana at 146 Industria. The laboratory’s installation “was brought about by the demand for typical Cuban music and songs of this republic” (1906: 10) and regarding the sourcing of musicians for the recording the writer comments that,

After visiting all the places of amusement and hearing the vocal and instrumental artists, selections were made from the best to typify them Phonographically. Contracts were made with bands, orchestras, instrumental quartettes, trios, duettists and soloists. The schedule of recording engagements was made up and the work of taking the Records started. About 300 selections were secured, among these being the Banda Municipal de la Habana, under the direction of the well known band master, Sr. G. M. Tomas, the Banda de Artilleria, the orchestras of Pablo Valenzuela and Enrique Pena, sextette of Antonio Torroella, the Ramos instrumental trio, and vocal solos, duets, trios and quartettes by the best theatrical talent in Havana and the rest of the island. A large number of selections of typical Cuban country songs, “Puntos Guarjiros”, were made, as well as a number of typical Spanish songs which are popular in Cuba. All of these Records will be shipped to the Edison laboratory, where the permanent master Records will be made.

Very little is known about Hidalgo himself although he was obviously of some significance on the local Havana scene to have been approached by the Edison company. Hidalgo’s session yielded two cylinders (catalogue entry numbers 18941 and 19062) which were advertised as “Solos de Guitarra” in the July 1907 edition of the Edison Phonograph Monthly, in a list of over 200 Cuban records made by Edison for its Foreign Record Catalogue to be marketed in the United States. Cylinder 18941 contains a recording of an arrangement, perhaps by the guitarist himself, of the Miserere from Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore, the other a piece entitled “Selva Negra”, a lightweight polka composed by a certain J. Castro. Relative to the classical guitar culture of Cuba at this time, Hidalgo’s recording pre-dates the influence of the Spanish/Tárrega school, which did not become established in Cuba until the 1910s via Pascual Roch (Molina 1988b). However, the nature of the repertoire suggests the influence of these traditions given that Verdi’s Miserere was a popular choice of solo guitar arrangement for classical guitarists and may have been influenced by a similar version made by Spanish guitarist Julián Arcas. Verdi’s operas had also been highly popular in Havana during the nineteenth century when the influence of European musical culture was at a peak (Carpentier 2001), making this piece a natural choice for a commercially oriented recording. The accompanying polka, like the vals, was a popular European musical import and therefore also a likely choice for a recording reflecting the musical interests of consumers at this time.

Hidalgo’s cylinders, which have in recent years been made available in digitized form by Belfer Cylinders Digital Connection at Syracuse University, constitute a valuable sonic document of acoustically recorded solo guitar music. In particular they highlight the aforementioned problems of recording music of a more dynamically changeable nature and in which a certain interpretative nuance is required. For example, Hidalgo’s performance of the Verdi arrangement has an exaggerated quality with little subtlety in dynamic range, which was clearly a necessity in this instance to sustain the sound at an acceptable level for the recording horn. The polka, with its more rhythmically persistent character, comes across the most effectively in these circumstances. Hidalgo’s performances on the whole are somewhat un-refined and lack fluency, perhaps indicating an informal “home made”, as opposed to a trained, guitar technique.