Wednesday, 29 January 2014

El Manisero (the peanut vendor) - a Cuban classic


El Manisero, or the Peanut Vendor will be familiar to many people of my age who were taken to the cinema as a child. It was used as the jingle to advertise, well, peanuts before the film began. It was one of a number of adverts that included Kia-ora orange juice and Frankie's hamburgers (the biggest burger under the bun). It was usually followed by those terribly old fashioned adverts for the local taxi company, the undertakers (!) and my home town's only Indian restaurant.

There are more than 160 known recordings of the song which originates from Cuba and is based on the cry of a street seller. Hugely popular over several decades, El Manisero was the first million selling 78rpm recording of Cuban music and also sold over one million copies of sheet music. Both words and music were written by Moises Simon, the Havana born son of a Basque musician. He started early in the music industry, becoming both organist and choirmaster at his church at the age of nine. At 15 he undertook more technical studies, later becoming a concert pianist and director of musical theatre. Establishing a band, playing piano himself and recruiting several leading Cuban musicians, he toured Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Central America during the 1920's. He formed his own jazz band in 1924 and played in the roof garden of Havana's Plaza Hotel. Simons played piano and Julio Cueva was hired to play trumpet whilst the drummer, Enrique Santiesteban also covered vocals. In the 1930's he lived and worked in France, returning to Cuba in 1942 and then moving to Spain  where he died in 1945 aged just 55.

First recorded by Rita Montaner at the end of the 1920's and you can hear her perform the song by clicking on the panel at the top of this post. The lyrics are based on the Cuban street vendor calling style known as pregon with a son rhythm, incorrectly identified on the record label as a rhumba-foxtrot(!), rhumba becoming a general label for Cuban music during the 1930's. Although officially credited to Simons, there are stories that identify one Gonzalo G. de Mello of Havana as the lyricist , although these are generally discounted.

The 160 plus recordings of the song include two versions by iconic jazz musician and band leader Stan Kenton, first in 1947 with his band and later as a piano solo. El Manisero has featured in several films including Duck Soup in 1933 where Groucho Marx whistled the tune. Cary Grant sang it in Only Angels Have Wings in 1935 and Judy Garland sang a catch from the song in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born.

As well as bringing back childhood memories of going to the cinema, listening to El Manisero transports listeners to Havana in the 1920's with its bars, clubs and wonderful music and the heyday of the Afrocubanismo cultural movement. You can find many versions of the song on CD, vinyl or on-line but listen to the very cool Anita O'Day giving it her take in the panel below. And if you want to sing along you can find the English lyrics here.


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