César Portillo de la Luz

Music, Cuba

César Portillo of the Luz (1922-2013). Composer, guitarist and singer. One of the great exponents of the Cuban song history and founder of the “Feeling” movement.

Portillo was born in Havana on October 31, 1922 and he began his artistic career as a singer of a trio composed of guitar and tres. In those first years, he was very linked to the composition of a Cuban song form known as son, which decisively influenced his interest in the guitar, an instrument that he played in public for the first time in 1939. In that environment, he learned the first positions of the instrument; later he enlarged his technical knowledge and he put on the guitar his first chords and intervals that generate the triad, the most elementary chord that one can produce. From that moment on, he tried very hard, not only to look for an appropriate fingering, but a logical explanation in producing chords to be struck later. By the end of the 1930s, he was very attentive to everything going on in music in his context, in the spectrum both at home and abroad.

By means of the phonographic record, he followed very closely the aesthetic trends developed in the best song in Mexico and Puerto Rico and he devoted special attention to the sound tracks of the U.S. cinema, very particularly to the orchestral work devised for the movies of that film resource. Listening a lot to sound tracks and phonographic records, led him cultivate and sediment wide appreciations of artistic character, up to the extent of thinking about punctual mechanisms able to select, in that music, the melodies that in fact he needed to elaborate his own aesthetic codes. He consumed the best in music from the Broadway musicals (he was captivated by the wonderful dancing style of the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire couple). Thanks to the records he also consumed the fruitful musical displacement of the wonderful and contagious swing the Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller’s way, through the perfect rhythmics experienced by such great bop musicians like Charlie Parker, Russell, Dizzie Gillespie, permeated by Carlos Vidal and Luciano «Chano» Pozo´s Afro-Cuban percussion. Those tones did not prevent him from appreciating the best of the potentialities of everything played at that time in the United States, until he reached experiences that framed a singular underlining of unquestionable emotion for a later discourse and melodic dialogue in the elaboration of the texts of his future songs. But, in fact, he received the biggest influence from Glenn Miller who, in his musical thinking, left a transcendental imprint, especially regarding tone and harmony. At the same time, the U.S. musical cinema stimulated him to undertake an approach to the impressionist current. He preferred Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, so he immediately devoted himself to listen to a lot of records like Debussy’s suite La mer, while at the same time he consumed Brahms, Chopin and Liszt, in a strange and voracious way.

As time went by, he discovered in the background music of U.S. musicals and its use in musical films the existence of impressionist encouragements the Gershwin and Handy way, to a greater extent than Debussy and Ravel´s impressionism, strictly speaking; although this music was not exempt from the impressionist codes in its application. Then he went into studying and listening to in order to reaffirm many of his appreciations, which up to that moment were submerged in the empiric and intuitive knowledge. This took him to be decisively convinced that, although he had not reached the systematic study of music, it was indispensable for him to develop his immense galaxy of interests, and that the solution to so complex problems was reached through work, the only way for an artist. Listening to music, he went into the creative world of classic and romantic composers. From each of these styles he configured his preferences from a rigorous selection.

During the 1940s, he approached for the first time the records with Manuel de Falla´s work, whose compositions he would enjoy in the company of guitarist and composer Ñico Rojas and pianist Frank Emilio Flyn, who encouraged him to mature as a creator. However, only when he made contact with professor Vicente González Rubiera, he was completely aware of the importance and complexity of the guitar.

For the feeling composers, the lyrics of his songs were a crop of emotions lived everyday, with lyrics (contrary to the songs of that time) close to life, close to the need of existing and facing realities. This did not mean the divorce of poetry, feeling and love for life; as a contrast, these emotions were contemplated from a different view, from a more concrete, although plethoric poetic universe of a lyricism far from the morbid and sentimental, beyond the intimate conflict of the customary. In many occasions he said: «I’m not a slave of circumstances, but if amid my habitual work a situational song comes up, I make it and then I continue with the usual. I don't stop in the situation, I continue.

Everyday there are more things one can sing to». Not by chance he matured the ideas before composing, and he didn't write a song until he was convinced it reflected an event or was near a truth. His work, like that of all the feeling composers, found resistance to be interpreted at the beginning. Regarding artistic expressions, some singers cited the complexity of their harmony, or the nudity of their images, or how counterproductive they were for the pleasure to use. But finally, they were accepted and disseminated on the musical media by the end of 1940s, mainly when the composer, arranger and tres player Andrés Echevarria, artistically known as «Niño Rivera», incorporated it with his arrangements to the repertoire of the Conjunto Casino (a musical ensemble), recreated by the voices of Roberto Faz, Orlando Vallejo, Roberto Espí and Nelo Sosa. On the Cuban radio, records began to be broadcast with pieces such as Quiéreme y verás (Love me and you’ll see), Realidad y Fantasía (Reality and fantasy), Perdido amor (Lost love), Es nuestra canción (It´s our song), Tú, mi delirio (You, my delirium), Contigo en la distancia (With you in the distance), Concierto gris (Gray concert) and many others, which enriched the Cuban musical firmament.

The 1950s brought to his compositions a successful space. Important vocalists, especially from Mexico, included many of Portillo´s compositions in their repertoires and recording programs. During those years, he wrote Canto a Rita (Song to Rita), Dime si eres tú (Tell me if it’s you), Vuelve a vivir (Live again), and Chachachá de las pepillas (Chachachá of the young girls). After the triumph of the Cuban revolution, his work became more reflexive, maybe more philosophical. New songs were made known, such as Canción de un festival (Song for a festival), Al hombre nuevo (To the new man), Canción a la canción (A song to the song), La hora de todos (The hour of all), ¡Oh valeroso Viet Nam! (Oh brave Vietnam!), Interludio (Interlude), Arenga para continuar una batalla (Harangue to continue a battle), En esa fecha (On that date) and Canto, luego existo (I sing, therefore I am). His work, always plethoric of authentic Cuban pride, is closer to the poetic divertimento, as it is appreciated in Son al son (A son to son) and Son de la verdad (The truth son). For more than six decades he has received the recognition of the most demanding generations. The Academia de las Artes y las Letras de la Música (Academy of the arts and lyrics of music), of Spain, awarded him, in its 8th Edition, the Premio Latino a Toda Una Vida 2004 (the 2004 Latin life achievement award), in a ceremony held at the Palacio Municipal de los Congresos (Municipal congress palace) in Madrid.

César Portillo died on May 4, 2013, at ninety.