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The musician we’re talking about today is a unique case since he is practically self-taught in a country where almost all the important contemporary musicians are graduates from the arts schools, which are free and broadly accessible in all the provinces of the country. This musician’s name is Manuel Perfecto Simonet Pérez, or as he is better known, Manolito Simonet.
He learned percussion in the streets of his native Camagüey and started playing the tres (an instrument with three double strings, similar to the guitar and very typical of Cuban country music and son) following his uncle, Ramón Hernández. As a child, he learned by himself and with a lot of effort because, as a lefty, he had to invent his own technique. His uncle was tremendously surprised one day when he arrived at his house and saw his nephew playing.
Throughout his life he had several teachers. As an adult he managed to finish the elementary level in music at the Professional Development School, but he never really had any systematic academic music training. Even so, he became a drummer, pianist, tresero and bass player. He also plays the guitar and the cello to boot. Such a variety of instruments provides him with an important advantage for arranging music and leading a band.
At 15, he was already sitting in for professional groups. While doing his mandatory military service, he was part of a military band. Upon his return to Camagüey, he was offered the chance to become member of the most important popular music band in the province, the Maravillas de Florida, which today is still considered as one of the most important in Cuba. For the first time, he had the opportunity to be band director because of his skill as a composer. But he also became an arranger and orchestrator.
The band Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco was born in 1993. “I have a bit of the Maravillas de Florida in the Trabuco,” he tells us and then explains that his band has flutes, violins and cellos besides trumpets and trombones because, as he says, he “fell in love with the sound of strings.” The band was an almost immediate success. The TV show called Mi Salsa, which had huge audiences those days, became his natural promotional spot, and it was there that the band was called first Trabuco. In Cuba, trabuco is a word used for strong, powerful things. The word itself comes from a medieval weapon used to topple walls: the trebuchet. Manolito explains further: “People started to make comments at rehearsals saying, ‘Did you see the trabuco Manolito had going?’ or ‘Hey, Manolito, your band is fantastic! What a trabuco!’ And so, trabuco stuck.”
In a few short years, Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco have become famous. In 1999, the band won the Cubadisco Grand Prize in Cuba and received five nominations for the music awards in Spain. From 2001 to 2004, Manolito was even on the jury of the Latin Grammies in the United States.
The band has gone on many national and international tours. They played at the Royal Wedding of Prince William of Holland and at the birthday of Felipe, Prince of Asturias, Spain’s brand new King Felipe VI. In twenty years, he has recorded around one album every two years and always with resounding national and international accolades. Manolito’s tunes have gone on to make up the repertoires of important salsa bands, such as the Puerto Rican Latin Power and Andy Montañés, who has four great hits composed by Simonet. And in 2004, the album called Locos por mi Habana became the most sold Cuban album in the world.
At this point, Manolito’s wife interrupts with a snack for which we are all grateful because it’s getting late and the musician insists on showing us his recently finished kitchen. It’s comfortable and beautiful and has enough room for his friends and family to get together. There’s a small bar for mixing drinks using secret recipes that we failed to steal from him. Otherwise, there he is, laughing (he laughs a lot!) with his young daughter who has jumped into his arms and doesn’t want to let him go. He invites us to the upcoming inauguration of the studio he’s building and he wants to turn it into an important musical event. As I leave his home, I think about my unforgivable ignorance about Cuban music and musicians but with the steadfast aim of continuing to search them out and get to know them.
July 2014 This article formed part of the july 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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