Trova, Bolero & Cancion



In the 19th century here grew up in Santiago de Cuba a group of itinerant musicians, troubadors, who moved around earning their living by singing and playing the guitar. They were of great importance as composers, and their songs have been transcribed for all genres of Cuban music

Pepe Sánchez, born José Sánchez (1856–1918), is known as the father of the trova style and the creator of the Cuban bolero. He had no formal training in music. With remarkable natural talent, he composed numbers in his head and never wrote them down. As a result, most of these numbers are now lost for ever, though some two dozen or so survive because friends and disciples transcribed them. His first bolero, Tristezas, is still remembered today. He also created advertisement jingles before radio was born. He was the model and teacher for the great trovadores who followed him.

The first, and one of the longest-lived, was Sindo Garay (1867–1968). He was an outstanding composer of trova songs, and his best have been sung and recorded many times. Garay was also musically illiterate – in fact, he only taught himself the alphabet at 16 – but in his case not only were scores recorded by others, but there are recordings. Garay settled in Havana in 1906, and in 1926 joined Rita Montaner and others to visit Paris, spending three months there. He broadcast on radio, made recordings and survived into modern times. He used to say “Not many men have shaken hands with both José Martí and Fidel Castro!”

José ‘Chicho’ Ibáñez (1875–1981)was even longer-lived than Garay. Ibáñez was the first trovador to specialize in the son; he also sung guaguancós and pieces from the abakuá.

The composer Rosendo Ruiz (1885–1983) was another long-lived trovador. He was the author of a well-known guitar manual. Alberto Villalón (1882–1955), and Manuel Corona (1880–1950) were of similar stature. Garay, Ruiz, Villalón and Corona are known as the four greats of the trova, though the following trovadores are also highly regarded.

Patricio Ballagas (1879–1920); María Teresa Vera (1895–1965), Lorenzo Hierrezuelo (1907–1993), Ñico Saquito (Antonio Fernandez: 1901–1982), Carlos Puebla (1917–1989) and Compay Segundo (Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz: 1907–2003) were all great trova musicians. El Guayabero (Faustino Oramas: 1911–2007) was the last of the old trova.

Trova musicians often worked in pairs and trios, some of them exclusively so (Compay Segundo). As the sexteto/septeto/conjunto genre grew many of them joined in the larger groups. And let’s not forget the Trio Matamoros, who worked together for most of their lives. Matamoros was one of the greats.





This is a song and dance form quite different from its Spanish namesake. It originated in the last quarter of the 19th century with the founder of the traditional trova, Pepe Sánchez. He wrote the first bolero, Tristezas, which is still sung today. The bolero has always been a staple part of the trova musician’s repertoire.


Originally, there were two sections of 16 bars in 2/4 time separated by an instrumental section on the Spanish guitar called the pasacalle. The bolero proved to be exceptionally adaptable, and led to many variants. Typical was the introduction of sychopation leading to the bolero-montuno, bolero-beguine, bolero-mambo, bolero-cha. The bolero-son became for several decades the most popular rhythm for dancing in Cuba, and it was this rhythm that the international dance community picked up and taught as the wrongly-named ‘rumba’.


The Cuban bolero was exported all over the world, and is still popular. Leading composers of the bolero were Sindo Garay, Rosendo Ruiz, Carlos Puebla, and Agustín Lara (Mexico).





Canción means ‘song’ in Spanish. It is a popular genre of Latin American music, particularly in Cuba, where many of the compositions originate. Its roots lie in Spanish, French and Italian popular song forms. Originally highly stylized, with “intricate melodies and dark, enigmatic and elaborate lyrics”. The canción was democratized by the trova movement in the latter part of the 19th century, when it became a vehicle for the aspirations and feelings of the population. Canción gradually fused with other forms of Cuban music, such as the bolero.