History of Bolero

A Century of Romantic Music from "Tristezas" to "Romance"

Luigi Dei durante la Notte del Bolero al Teatro Dell'Opera di Firenze
Luigi Dei durante la Notte del Bolero al Teatro Dell'Opera di Firenze. Wikimedia Commons

The history of Bolero in Latin America is traditionally introduced with the homonymous style that was developed in Spain during the 18th century. This article, however, provides an overview of the main elements that shaped Bolero music between 1885 and 1991. From its original birth in Cuba to its second birth with Luis Miguel's album Romance, the following is an introduction to the history behind the most romantic genre ever invented in Latin music.

Born in Cuba

The history of Bolero can be traced to the traditions of the Cuban trova, a musical style that was popular in the eastern part of the country during the 19th century. The trova style evolved in the city of Santiago and some of its features, such as the guitar playing and the romantic way of singing, were later incorporated into the making of Bolero music.

Around 1885 (there are some discrepancies about the exact year), the popular trova artist Jose 'Pepe' Sanchez wrote "Tristezas," a song considered by many experts the first ever Bolero written in history. This track, which defined the classic Bolero style, was made of two sections of 16 bars each, separated by an instrumental segment played with guitars.

Little by little, the new genre started to gain followers around Cuba thanks to the romantic melodies written by other trova artists such as Manuel Corona, Sindo Garay, and Alberto Villalon.

Bolero Son

The history of Bolero in Cuba was influenced by the popularity of the traditional Cuban Son. Both musical expressions came from the east side of the country, and they soon were mixed into a new, popular style that was known as Bolero Son.

A leading name in that field was the legendary Trio Matamoros, a famous group formed in 1925 by musicians Miguel Matamoros, Rafael Cueto and Siro Rodriguez. The trio was able to move beyond the Cuban borders thanks to their music and the ability to produce and play Cuban Son and Bolero.

Mexico and the Rising of Bolero

Although Bolero is considered the first musical expression from Cuba that gained international exposure, the real popularity of this genre was built in Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s. This wonderful chapter in the history of Bolero music was the result of various factors that interacted together.

First, the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, where famous actors were also famous singers, allowed Bolero to enter the mainstream scene. Second, the incorporation of Bolero into the framework of the big band movement of the time provided Bolero with a sophisticated sound. Third, there was a boom of local songwriters and singers such as Agustin Lara, Pedro Vargas, and Javier Solis, who enhanced the general appeal of the rhythm.

Mexico was also responsible for consolidating one of the most important traditions in the history of Bolero: The Trio. In 1944, three guitarists (two from Mexico and one from Puerto Rico) created the legendary Trio Los Panchos, one of an essential Bolero names in the history of this genre.

Thriving on Simplicity and Romanticism

For a long time, Bolero was defined by the popularity of trios such as Los Panchos and Los Tres Diamantes and by the unforgettable voices of artists like Benny More, Tito Rodriguez and all the singers from the legendary Cuban band La Sonora Matancera including Daniel Santos, Bienvenido Granda, Celia Cruz, and Celio Gonzalez, among many more.

This line was maintained during the 1950s and 1960s. However, by the 1970s there was a new boom of romantic singers across the Latin music world who were largely influenced by foreign sounds and the emerging notes of Latin Pop. Little by little, Bolero was being confined to the adult crowd that grew up listening to the music produced during the 1940s and 1950s.

Luis Miguel and the Rebirth of Bolero

The development of Latin music genres such as Salsa, Latin Pop, and Latin Rock affected the popularity of Bolero music during the 1980s. Younger generations did not feel that connected with the music of old Bolero trios or romantic singers such as Julio Iglesias, Jose Jose, or Jose Feliciano.

In 1991, however, Latin Pop superstar Luis Miguel decided to make an album of classic Boleros. This production was entitled Romance and became a worldwide sensation soon after it hit the market. This album represented the rebirth of Bolero music across Latin America driving younger generations into the sounds of one of the most important genres in the history of Latin music.

Since the late 19th century the history of Bolero has been defined by the never-ending topic of love. Today, there are several artists who continue to bring this rhythm into their different productions. Bolero is a timeless style that defines like no other the essence of the romanticism we find in Latin music.