Authors: Oscar Hijuelos
These musicians never made any money, but one day when they were playing at a dance in a small town called Jiguaní, his youthful exuberance and looks had impressed someone in the crowd who passed his name to Julián García. At the time he was looking for a new crooner and wrote a letter simply addressed “Cesar Castillo, Las Piñas, Oriente.” Cesar was nineteen then, and not yet jaded. He took the invitation to heart and made the journey down to Santiago the week after he’d received it.
He’d always remember the steep hills of Santiago de Cuba, a city reminiscent in its hilliness, he would think years later, of San Francisco, California. Julián lived in an apartment over a dance hall which he owned. The sun radiating against the cobblestone streets and cool doorways from which one could smell the afternoon lunches and hear the comforting sounds of families dining at their tables. Brooms sweeping out a hallway, salamanders skulking along the arabesque tiles. García’s dance hall was a refuge of shady arcades and a long, cool inner hallway. The place was deserted except for García, who sat in the middle of a colonnaded dance floor tinkling at the piano, stout, sweaty, and with a head damp with running hair dye.
“I’m Cesar Castillo, and you told me to come and sing for you one day.”
For his audition he opened with Ernesto Lecuona’s
“María la O.
Nervous about performing for Julián García, Cesar sang his heart out in a flamboyant style, using extended high notes and long, slow phrasing, arms flailing dramatically. When he’d finished, Julián nodded encouragingly and kept him there, singing, until ten o’clock that night.
“You come back here tomorrow. The other musicians will be here, okay?”
And in a friendly, paternal manner, his hand on Cesar’s shoulder, Julián led him out of the hall.
Cesar had a few dollars in his pocket. He was planning to wander around the harbor and have some fun, fall asleep on one of the piers by the ocean, as he had so many times before, arms thrown over his face, in fields in the countryside, in the plazas, on church steps. He was so used to looking out for himself that it surprised him to hear García ask, “And do you have a place to sleep tonight?”
“No.” And he shrugged.
you can stay with me upstairs. Huh? I should have told you that in the letter.”
Remaining that night, the future Mambo King basked in Julián’s kindness. High on that hill and overlooking the harbor, that apartment was a pleasant change for him. He had his own room, which opened up to a balcony, and all the food he could eat. That was the order of the household: all of García’s family, his wife and four sons, lived for their evening meals. His sons, who performed with him, were immense, overfed, with cheerful, angelic dispositions. That was because Julián was so loving, an affectionate man who even challenged Cesar’s macho resolve to need or want no one.
He began to sing with Julián’s outfit, a twenty-piece orchestra, in 1937. They had a pleasant “tropical” sound, depending heavily on violins and sonorous flutes, and their rhythm section dragged as in the style of fox-trotters of the twenties, and Julián, who conducted and played the piano, had a penchant for dreamlike orchestrations, clouds of music that seemed to float upward on waves of tremolo-choked piano. The Mambo King would have one photograph of that orchestra—and this sat in that envelope in the Hotel Splendour—of himself in a formal black suit, wearing white gloves, sitting in a row with the others. Behind them, a backdrop of Havana Harbor and El Morro Castle, flanked by pedestals on which Julián had placed small statues of antique themes—a wingèd victory and a bust of Julius Caesar, and large ostrich-plume-filled vases. What was that look on Cesar’s face? With his black hair combed back and parted in the middle, he was pleasantly smiling, in commemoration of that happy time in his life.
Julián’s orchestra packed dance halls all over Oriente and Camagüey. He had conservative tastes, never playing original compositions but relying on the songs of the popular Cuban composers of the day: Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes, Manuel Luna, Moisés Simón, Miguel Matamoros, Eliseo Grenet, Lecuona. He was the warmest human being Cesar Castillo would ever meet in his life. That portly orchestra leader exuded pure love for his fellowman—“A family and love, that’s what makes a man happy”—and showed this affection to his musicians. That was a time when the Mambo King was close to becoming a different kind of human being.
Cesar never let go of his liking for women. He maintained his king-cock strut and manly arrogance, but around Julián and his family, he felt so peaceful that he calmed down. And it showed in his singing. He gained more control, became more lilting, and developed an affectionate tone in his songs, which people liked and responded to. He had not yet found a way of transforming that into the world-weariness of his records in the mid-fifties. (And if you heard the wrecked voice of Cesar in 1978 and compared it to the golden-toned voice of the 1930s and 1940s, you would have a hard time believing they came from the same singer.) They played all over the provinces in towns with names like Bayamo, Jobabo, Minas, Morón, Miranda, Yara, El Cobre, and in the larger cities of Camagüey, Holguín, and Santiago. They traveled in three trucks and they would make their way down dirt roads, struggling through the brush and forests of the countryside, and into the mountains. They played for
soldiers, bureaucrats, businessmen. They played for people who lived in houses with palm-thatch roofs, for those who lived in grand-style Spanish villas, and in the plantations and sugar mills, and in beautiful citrus groves, for the Americans who had constructed New England frame clapboard houses, with little back gardens and front porches. They played in towns without modern plumbing or electricity where people hardly knew the name of Hitler, in countryside so dark that the stars were a veil of light and where the thready luminescence of spirits moved through the streets and over walls at night and where the arrival of Julián’s orchestra was greeted like the Second Coming of Christ, with children and dogs and crowds of teenagers following behind it, clapping and whistling wherever they went. They played weddings, baptisms, and confirmation parties,
fiestas de quince,
where the participants dressed in white from head to toe. They’d perform waltzes and
for the old people, and floor-sliding tangos and steamy rumbas for the young.
Julián was a good orchestra leader and a good man. Cesar would have thought of Julián as a “second father” if the word “father” did not make him want to punch a wall. In that time, he learned much about putting together an orchestra and singing from Julián, and enjoyed the glory of performance. He used to throw himself completely into his songs and lived for the moment when the entire ballroom would be on its feet either dancing or applauding.
“Just make them feel that you care for them. You don’t have to overdo it, because they know that, but let them know all the same.”
While singing with Julián’s orchestra the Mambo King became well known. He could walk down the street of many a small town and there would always be someone to come up to him and say, “Aren’t you Cesar Castillo the singer?” He started to acquire a lordly bearing, though one that fell apart when it came to chasing women. Returning to the farm in Las Piñas for his monthly visits, he would feel as if he had come home to a haunted house, the site of many of his fights with his father and the sadness of his mother’s weeping that filled the halls. He would return with presents and advice and with a desire for peace that always erupted, after a day or so, into another fight with his father, Don Pedro, who considered musicians effeminate, doomed men. He’d return and give Nestor music lessons, take Nestor to town. Always impressed with his brother’s musicianship, he had plans to take Nestor into Julián’s orchestra when he was of age and the family would let him leave the house.
Now he remembers and sighs: the long approach to the farm along the riverbank and forest, the dirt road past the houses and over the water, the sun bursting through the treetops. The Mambo King riding on a borrowed mule, a guitar slung over his shoulders . . .
He had been in the orchestra for four years when he attended a weekend party at Julián’s apartment in Santiago and there made the acquaintance of his niece, Luisa García. He was the handsome young crooner at the end of the table, reveling in the friendship of this older man, guzzling Spanish brandy all night and feeling light-headed enough to easily fall in love. And there she was, Luisa. Sitting across from her during the meal, he smiled and kept staring into her eyes, but she would turn away. Shy and thin, with a plain face, Luisa had a large beaked nose, pretty eyes, and a kindly expression. She liked to wear simple dresses. Although her body was not spectacular, her skin gave off a nice scent of oils and perfume, and when he stood beside her, filling a glass from a punch bowl, he knew she would turn out to be a passionate lover.
She was a schoolteacher and, at twenty-six, three years older than the Mambo King. No one in her family held out much hope that she would get married, but that night the way Cesar kept looking at her became a subject of family gossip. Julián could not have been more delighted. He would call them together and speak to them jointly. “I wanted to show you both the view from this window. Isn’t that something there, the sun’s rays spreading everywhere.
¿Qué bueno, eh?”
Who knew what she felt? She had the downcast look of a woman who was in the habit of taking nervous sidelong glances into mirrors, a woman who was used to taking care of herself. But Cesar? Sitting at that happy table in the company of the first man who had ever really looked out for him, he felt that he wanted to be a part of that family. So he began the most dogged courtship. She’d seen the way he had looked at her cousin Vivian, his eyes looping around the curvaceousness of her rear end, and she had told herself, “No, no, no, no matter what he says to me.” But she gave in to Cesar and started to take walks with him along the streets of Santiago. Always gentlemanly, he held doors open for her, and never cursed in his conversation. Around her, he would make flamboyant gestures with his hands and always dressed neatly, usually in a white linen jacket and clean trousers, and his cane hat, the brim pinched in, pulled low over his brow.
They had their picture taken in front of a movie poster advertising the Betty Grable film
Moon Over Miami.
Sometimes he’d get her alone, the two of them sitting in a little deserted park among the flowers. Her iron resistance amused the Mambo King. She’d allow him a few kisses and embraces and one evening he unbuttoned the four left-sided pearly buttons of her blouse and got his hands inside, touching her tender breasts, but she never let him go any further, and he’d laugh out, telling her, “Don’t you know, it’ll happen sooner or later—even if I have to marry you!” There was something funny about this man who’d bedded down many women being foiled by this girl who used to blow air into his mouth and who’d lock her legs tight whenever his long musician’s fingers prowled under her skirt, searching out her most precious “treasure.” How this courtship turned into marriage, no one would be able to explain.
For a time he trusted Luisa in a way he had never trusted anyone. She was an unlikely partner for the Mambo King, especially when put next to the cheap floozies he usually preferred, but Cesar, who had been seeking peace since the days of his childhood, wanted to marry her.
Privately, in her company, shut away from the rest of the world, he was content. But as soon as he stepped out into the street he became a different man. When other women walked by, he would look, his penis would get stiff in his trousers, and Luisa would know it. Quickening her pace, she would march off and leave him behind. His macho temperament never knew how to deal with this, and it would be days before loneliness and his affection for the family brought them back together again.
When he asked her to marry him, Luisa had her doubts, but fearing old-maidhood, and because Julián had sworn by Cesar, she said yes. This was in 1943 and they went to live in a small apartment in Santiago (another beautiful memory: their little home on a cobblestone street, sunny from morning until night and busy with merchants and children). When he brought her home to the family in Las Piñas, his mother, María, liked her very much, and so did Nestor: everyone, including the irascible Pedro, treated her civilly.
What happened? He did as he pleased. It took about a year for the elation of joining García’s family to wear off. The Mambo King found himself sitting at these meals in García’s house, daydreaming about some of the women he had seen on the streets. He even behaved in an annoyed fashion at García’s, because García had placed at his feet a woman who seemed to weep if you offended her! Because she knew well her uncle’s schedule in advance, it became difficult for Cesar to disappear for two or three days at a time, and this bothered him. So he developed the excuse of returning home to Las Piñas, where he would hole up with some country girl, resentful and angry over his situation. He would return from these sojourns maintaining a silence for a week at a time. He would walk through rooms muttering phrases like “Why have I allowed myself to become a captive,” and “What am I doing with my youth,” in clear earshot of Luisa. For a long time she did what she could to make him feel better . . . She would beg him to come around, and he would leave the house, her question “Why are you so cruel to me?” circling his head like a summer mosquito.
One day in 1944, Luisa happily told Cesar that she was pregnant, as if the birth of a child later that year would shore up their crumbling marriage. They would turn up at Julián’s house for weekly meals, and as a family they seemed content. But then one night Julián, who was not made of sawdust and had heard about and seen the way this crooner was treating his niece, called Cesar out onto his balcony and as he looked into the distance over Santiago Bay said, “I feel very close to you, my boy, but no matter what, I expect you to treat my family with respect. And I’ll tell you now, if you don’t like what I’m saying,
you can walk out the door.”