Latin Music

Xavier Cugat, King of the Rumbas

Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingall de Bru y Denlofeo's career was long and influential, touching every generation in the twentieth century. And why not? He was born on the first of January, 1900 in Gerona, Spain. He brought Latin music into the North American household via records, radio, milestone films (the first to incorporate sound), and television programs. His sixteen-year reign over New York's prestigious Waldorf-Astoria hotel was unprecedented and unduplicated.

Cugat received a boost from Enrico Caruso in Cuba, where the Cugats had moved and Caruso was performing. When old enough, the young violin prodigy headed for New York but failed at Carnegie. Moving to California, he developed a life-long hobby as a caricaturist, while Hollywood gradually changed his musical milieu (and he, its). A tentative offer from the Waldorf brought Cugat back to New York and launched his rise to international fame as "King of the Rumbas."

The Cugat recording legacy was much more than introducing the conga and rumba. He became the chief exponent of every Spanish-influenced music, from the mambo and cha cha cha to Spanish classical and tango, not to mention calypso and Brasilian rhythms. Throughout his career he championed the music of Ernesto Lecuona. Under the Cugat baton, countless stars were made and discovered: Desi Arnaz, Miguelito Valdes, Tito Rodriguez, Luis del Campo, and Yma Sumac. Even his wives were singers and co-performers, most notably the great Abbe Lane.

"Cugi's" music has long been dismissed as too commercial, but the generalization is unfair. Some of his Columbia records are exotic, Afro-Cuban splendors of the first order. And his Mercury and Decca albums are beautifully recorded, masterful productions. But the greatest of his achievements was cultivating a massive North American audience for authentic Latin music. "All Latin-American musicians owe a great debt to Xavier Cugat," said Perez Prado in 1951. Cugat deserves appreciation from all fans of Latin music.

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