In the Cuba of 1940’s, a group of young musicians began meeting to experiment with ways to expand the range of expressions they could use in the Cuban “bolero”. They were seeking a way to add more freedom in how to perform this genre. From those meetings, a new Latin music genre called the “Bolero Filin” was born.
In this series of blogs, I’ll walk through the development and spread of the “Bolero Filin”. While I researched this Cuban music genre, I found interesting connections to more contemporary Latin music genres and artists in several countries.
The Start of the “Filin” Movement
The “Filin” is a derivative of the Cuban “Bolero” that was influenced by American music. It has also been characterized as an evolution from “Trova” and the “Cancion”. Although sometimes it is complicated to describe what the “filin” is, its name comes from the word in english “feeling”. This is due to the high degree of emotion that singers and songwriters add to their songs.
The “filin” started in the late 1940’s, developed into the 1950’s, and continued to enjoy great popularity until the 1960’s and beyond. Its roots are traced to the “Cayo Hueso” neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, where singers and songwriters met at the house of trovador Tirso Diaz to help shape an innovative style of performing the “bolero”.
This new style was influenced by American artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and even Nat King Cole (who used to visit Cuba). Some of its roots are said to come from the “blues”, but keeping the Cuban music essence.
The “filin” is characterized by compact harmonies and songs with more complicated melodies, with each singer giving his/her own sentimental “brand” to the song (therefore the use the English word for “feeling”). It differentiates from the “bolero” in that the “bolero” is more danceable.
The two artists most directly linked to the start of the “filin” movement were singer songwriters Jose Antonio Mendez and Cesar Portillo de la Luz. Olga Rivero was also an early popular singer of the “filin”, but moved to Mexico and married, and retired soon after.
In the video below, Jose Antonio Mendez sings his classic “Si Me Comprendieras”, showcasing the “filin” style elements in his performance.
Popularity of the “Filin”
The “filin” movement quickly spread from Cuba to Mexico, New York, and Puerto Rico. Jose Antonio Mendez went to Mexico en 1949 and stayed until 1959, popularizing the “filin” by playing in night clubs, in the radio, and recording 5 LPs during that time. Cesar Portillo de la Luz also visited Mexico often, as well as Martha Valdes and Elena Burke.
Cuban singer Pepe Reyes spread the “filin” movement to South America. Initially Reyes stayed various years in Colombia and later he has performing stays in Argentina and Chile. He also left recordings along the way.
Vicentico Valdes, the great Cuban crooner, worked in Mexico during the 1940’s, having absorbed some of the “filin” characteristics to his style in Cuba, and continuing to develop them in Mexico. He then moved to New York to sing with Tito Puente’s band, helping to spread the “filin” there. Vicentico’s singing style earned him the nickname “La Voz Elastica de Cuba” and he always maintained songs from Jose Antonio Mendez and Martha Valdez in his repertoire.
In Puerto Rico the “filin” movement was started by Cuban singer Felo Bohr. However, it was Cuban singer-songwriter Renee Barrios who made a big dent with the movement in Puerto Rico. She had formed the duet Nely-Renee in Cuba and after the revolution moved to San Juan where she energized the “bohemia” scene.
Puerto Rico quickly developed its own “filin” movement. Songwriter Puchi Balseiro became popular among the island crooners with her compositions. Mayaguez native Santos Colon had learned the “filin” from Vicentico Valdes when both where band mates in Tito Puente’s band in New York. When Santos Colon relocated to Puerto Rico, he brought the “filin” with him. Gilberto Monroig, another great crooner, also worked in Tito Puente’s band and had elements of the “filin” in his singing style.
Closing of “Bolero Filin” Part 1
So far we’ve talked about what is the “Filin”, how and where it started, and how it popularized outside of Cuba into other countries. On the next parts we’ll take a deeper look at some of the artists that made this genre popular. Among them are Jose Antonio Mendez, Frank Emilio, and Elena Burke.