When Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer launched themselves at the world with Buena Vista Social Club, “And What Have You Done?” by Eusebio Delfín, it was already one of the favorite traditional ballads. It is among the top 100 best ballads of the twentieth century in Cuba.
In Yucatán, Mexico, they know it by another title: “In the Trunk of a Tree“. It is so popular there that the people believe its author is from Yucatán. It is said that Delfín wrote it in 1924 and its source of inspiration was some verses found on a calendar.
Anecdotes aside, “And What Have You Done?” was my grandfather Quintero’s favorite song. He used to delight in listening to it on his old RCA Victor radio sung by María Teresa Vera, “the First Lady of Cuban Song”.
It is most probable that my maternal grandfather loved it because Eusebio Delfín Figueroa was a neighbour of his. He was also born in Palmira, a town in Cienfuegos some 300 kilometers to the southeast of Havana. Sixteen years separated them: Delfín was born in 1893 and my grandfather in 1909.
Different from the great majority of Cuban musicians of the era, Delfín was white and came from a moneyed family. He went to the best schools and graduated as an accountant. He combined his profession with studies of the guitar and voice. He made his public debut in 1916, at the Terry, the most important theater in Cienfuegos and one of the country’s principal stages.
His love for music didn’t impede his work as director of the Commercial Bank of Cuba. Nor did marrying Amalia Bacardí Cape, daughter of Emilio Bacardí Moreau, industrialist, politician and writer, son of Don Facundo, the Catalan who in 1862 would found the House of Bacardí in Santiago de Cuba. Amalia, a very educated native of Santiago, was the editor-in-chief of her father’s most important work: Chronicles of Santiago de Cuba, published in 1972 by Gráf. Breogán, Madrid.
I didn’t have the chance to hear him sing. Eusebio Delfín died in Havana 45 years ago, on 28th April 1965, four months before my birth. Thanks to Isadoro, age 80, self-taught investigator, I learnt that Delfín was the first Cuban to record a record, in 1923. It was a 78 RPM and of the 10 included tracks, there were three sung as duos with Rita Montaner, “The Unique”, as they called that mulata who came to the world from Guanabacoa, the hometown of Ernesto Lecuona and Bola de Nieve.
According to the guitarist and professor of harmony, Vicente González Rubiera (1908-1987), known in the artistic world as Guyún, despite being a fairly poor guitarist, Delfín was an innovator, replacing the scratch guitar strum playing used until then for accompaniments with a more Bolero-style method. This novel sound captivated the public at once and began to be imitated.
“He had a baritone voice, but his natural interpretation style was widely accepted in the 1920s, among rich and poor, who invited him to sing in their family parties. Eusebio made the guitar fashionable, an instrument that was under-appreciated. As he didn’t need money to live, what he was paid for his performances he donated to charitable works in his province”, Isodoro tells me.
Eusebio Delfín belonged to the Creole aristocracy, but he was nevertheless involved in popular music concerts, along with prominent artists of the time, as the versatile Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes (1874-1944), author of works as diverse as La Habanera Tú, the Yumurí opera, the Dioné ballet and the Anacaona cantata, and a dozen books.
On several occasions, Delfin organized musical raffles to raise charitable funds, collecting more than 200 thousand pesos. A lot of money, given that since 1915, when the Cuban peso was first set as the national currency, it had the same value as the dollar. In addition, from 1955 to 1959, the peso was trading a penny above the dollar.
Under the label Tumbao, in 2004, a CD was released with 20 tracks composed by Eusebio Delfin between 1924 and 1928: And You What Have you Done?, With Broken Wings, What a Mouth You Have, The Cherry, Past Brides, That Mouth, Poor Adam, God Wanted it, Already You’ve Forgotten, Of Course, Far From You, Foreboding, Love Is That All, Heart of Stone, With The Soul, Marisa, Your Blue Eyes, Guajiras, Isabelita Doesn’t Love Me, and Little Blonde, interpreted by the famous Italian tenor Tito Schipa during his visit to Cuba in 1924. It includes two Spanish poets’ poems set to music: With Broken Wings, by Mariano Albaladejo, and The Cherry, by Pedro Mata.
The famous Palmireño is today remembered on the island in song festivals and music composition competitions. One of the three recording studios created by Silvio Rodriguez bears his name and is in Cienfuegos – the other two, Abdala and Ojalá, are in the capital.
For his last song, composed in 1936, Eusebio Delfin gave it a prescient title: Never Again. Two decades later, in 1956, he sang in public for the last time, accompanied by the Sisters Marti. The last tribute he received in his lifetime was on September 18, 1964, seven months before his death.
October 6, 2010