Category Archives: Music

The Spanish Cuplé: from rogue to bourgeois

 

Fumando Espero‘ by Tragan, Viladomat & Felix Garzo, published by Ildefonso Alier (Madrid, s.d.)

At the beginning of the 20th century a lot of popular music genres were created, all over the world. Spain saw the birth of a characteristic genre, influenced by French cabaret songs: the cuplé, coming from the French word couplet.

El baile y el amor – Couplets‘ by Clifton Worsley and Margarit, published by Manuel Villar (Valencia, 1917) and illustrated by Pouo.

Augusta Berges is said to have started this genre: with La Pulga (The Flea), in 1893 in Madrid. While singing, Augusta was looking for fleas in her clothes as an excuse for a bit of demure stripping. It was a huge success. Other singers followed suit with their own versions, frantically searching a flea, an ant or a spider under their frock, to the lascivious excitement of the whole male audience. Sara Montiel, a Spanish actress who achieved Hollywood-stardom, re-enacts such a Pulga song in the sixties film ‘La reina del Chantecler’. Chantecler being a Madrilenean theatre before the first World War.

La Pulga was the starting point for a profusion of more or less erotically explicit songs with simple, short and repetitive lyrics. But always with a lot of gesture. The performers, almost exclusively women and transvestites, told a story in three or four minutes with a large dose of theatricality and a load of double entendre and erotic allusions. An ample and voluptuous body was sometimes a better key to success than a good singing voice. Showing their ankles and clad in tulles that left little to the imagination, the cupletistas became sexual objects in seedy variety theatres.

‘Sicaliptico’, Spanish erotic magazine (1904)

The cuplé was part of the sicalipsis, a Spanish neologism of unclear origin to designate the trend of erotic manifestations in literature and the press, as well as in the visual arts, and in variety shows. Being part of this sicalipsis certainly added to the popularity of the cuplé, at least in its beginning.

Postcards of Cupletistas to promote their career.

The profession of cupletista was popular among women, many of them illiterate, trying to escape poverty. It was also frequently a stepping stone to the world of prostitution. A trigger to that was that the cupletista had to perform in ever smaller and cheaper salones, bringing the woman teasingly close to the male public.

While at first the cuplé was a frivolous, provocative and even erotic song with a lot of humour and spice, from 1910 on it became more ‘decent’ and sentimental. It became even considered as a higher quality art form. The cuplé reached a larger middle class public with an increasingly female audience. It became more of a sentimental love song. The singers abandoned their playful outfits and tended to dress in black and to wear a Mantilla.

La Goya (Aurora Jauffret)

The first one to bring this new kind of cuplé was La Goya (Aurora Jauffret, 1891-1950). She performed in well reputed theatres and changed her dress with each song to match the lyrics, taking care of the theatrical part of her performance.

‘Por tus caricias’ by E. Burrull & Pedro Puche, published by Ildefonso Alier (Madrid, sd) and illustrated by Pol, with a picture insert of La Goya.

In the Twenties, the cuplé had become a sentimental song mentioning contemporary social, cultural or political issues. Gone was the flea and the spider, no more bawdy undertones. The most famous cupletista was Raquel Meller, an international star who launched world hits like La Violetera and El relicario, both written by José Padilla Sánchez.

Left: ‘La Violetera’ by José Padilla & Eduardo Montesinos; Right: ‘El Relicario’ by José Padillia. Both published by Salabert (Paris, 1918) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

The cuplé was forbidden during Franco’s reign until it resurged in a nostalgic way, with the boom of Sara Montiel in the cinema. In the film El ultimo cuple, she plays the role of a cupletista struggling with her rise to fame and her subsequent downfall. Let’s listen to Sara Montiel —in real life a passionate cigar smoker— singing Fumando espero. This tantalizing cuplé by Joan Viladomat is the song we started with.
Now, enjoy Montiel reclining on her chaise longue, just like the lady on the sheet music cover.

Fumar es un placer
genial, sensual.
Fumando espero
al hombre a quien yo quiero

Smoking is a wonderful,
sensuous pleasure.
Smoking, I wait
for the man I love
behind the glasses
of gaily-colored windows.
And as I smoke,
my life does not burn away
because, on the drifting smoke
I tend to get sleepy…
Lying on the chaise-longue
smoking and loving…

Chocolate Soldiers

‘Der tapfere Soldat’ (El Soldado de Chocolate – Tiralala !) by Oscar Straus, published by Casa Dotesio (sd, Madrid).

Der tapfere Soldat is an operetta composed in 1908 by Oscar Straus. It was an adaptation or parody of George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 play Arms and the Man. In this anti-war comedy the hero, a soldier who mocks war, uses his ammunition pouches to carry chocolates rather than cartridges. Therefore, the heroine of the play calls him her chocolate-cream soldier. This has inspired the pejorative use of the term ‘chocolate soldier’ for someone in the military who does not (want to) fight.

The English version of the operetta, The Chocolate Soldier, went on to international success on Broadway and in London.

‘The Chocolate Soldier’ by Oscar Straus & Stanislaus Stange, published by Feldman & Co (London, sd).

The operetta was adapted for film in 1915 and in 1941. For the 1941 movie only the score by Oscar Straus was kept. The screenplay was based on another comedy because Bernard Shaw did not want to sell the rights, having disapproved of the first version of the operetta which he called “a putrid opéra bouffe in the worst taste of 1860″.

You can hear a medley from Straus’ songs in the fragment hereunder.

The cover for Kwatta soldaten suggests that the Dutch had their own term for chocolate soldiers. In the Netherlands, the first packaged chocolate bar was launched in 1891 under the brand name Kwatta. This bar was so popular among the soldiers that the army became its largest buyer.

Kwatta Soldaten‘ by Louis Noiret & Ferry, published by Hakkert (Rotterdam, sd). Source: Stadsarchief Rotterdam)

The Netherlands had declared themselves neutral during World War I. Nevertheless the Dutch army mobilised its troops. Of course, the men under arms kept in their kitbag the oh-so nutritious and long-lasting Kwatta bars. From then on the bars were also called Manoeuvre Chocolaad.

‘Kwatta’s Manoeuvre Chocolate. The best peacemaker.’ Advertisement from World War I. (source Wikimedia Commons)

The pink wrapper of the chocolate bar carried the pictures of a soldier and a sailor encouraging to collect the coupons which could be traded for a tin soldier or some other premium, like tableware. The bars were for sale in these beautiful carton boxes.

Carton box for Kwatta chocolate bars. Illustrator unknown.

The Kwatta bars were not only popular with Dutch soldiers. Also Belgian soldiers must have loved the candy, as evidenced by this Belgian military booklet from the twenties, sponsored by Kwatta.

Belgian soldier booklet, around 1924 (source: kamp-vogelsang.be)

Godfried Bomans, a popular Dutch author, remembered in the late sixties that his father, a former captain in the Dutch army, filled the case of his binoculars with Kwatta bars during the First World War before returning home for the weekend leave (just like Shaw’s character). On one of these occasions he received an unexpected visit from Queen Wilhelmina. At one point she requested his binoculars and realising that the case had been given an improper destination, she would have said: “Captain Bomans, I hope you realise that the country’s neutrality is not guaranteed by Kwatta soldiers.”

In the fifties Godfried Bomans would himself write a book commissioned by Kwatta. The illustrations with funny moving eyes were made by his friend Harry Prenen.

‘Het ogenboek’ by Godfried Bomans, illustrations by Harry Prenen, published by Kwatta (Breda, 1951).

We end this post with a few politically incorrect covers. They illustrate that the term chocolate soldiers was also regularly used to refer to the soldier’s colour of skin.

Left: March of the Chocolate Soldiers by John Ashton, published by Montgomery (London, 1929). Right: ‘Goodbye my Chocolate Soldier Boy’ by James Whyte & Roger Graham, published by Roger Graham (Chicago, 1918)
‘Choc’late Soldier from the USA’ by Elton Box, Sonny Cox & Lewis Ilda, published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1945).

The Kinkajou, one of the many dance crazes of the Twenties

A kinkajou is a small mammal native to Central and South America with nocturnal habits and related to raccoons.

kinkajou
Kinkajou

The name of this cute little animal was used for a dance novelty in the late 1920s. An article of the Examiner in 1927 explained how to dance the Kinkajou: ‘You must sway the shoulders, tango like a sailor manipulating a gangway, and then change from one foot to the other as though in pain, lifting each foot well off the ground.’

While the dance originated in the 1927 Broadway musical Rio Rita, there was a serious disagreement in Paris on who created the original dance routine: the dance teacher Jean Mesnard, the beautiful Irvin Sisters or Albertina Rasch? In fact, all three of them contributed to the pseudo-craze.

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Music by Harry Tierney, lyrics by Joseph McCarthy, cover by Würth
The Albertina Rasch Girls illustrated by Würth
The Albertina Rasch Girls, as illustrated by Würth
rasch girls
The Albertina Rasch Dancers in costume for Rio Rita (1927).

It was Albertina Rasch,  leader of her own troupe The Albertina Rasch Girls, who choreographed the Kinkajou for the original Ziegfeld production on Broadway. The Albertina Rasch Girls also performed the Kinkajou dance routine at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, together with Harry Pilcer.

Strangely, at exactly the same period Publications Francis-Day edited another version of the Kinkajou sheet music, also by Würth. This time Würth chose not the stage of the Moulin Rouge as the central theme, but drew a highly stylised close-up portrait of the two main actors.

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Also in 1927 Paddy & Zez Confrey composed The Black Kinkajou. Although the manager of the Irvin Sisters insisted they had nothing to learn from a dance teacher and that they could very well invent their dance routines themselves, it was Jean Mesnard who choreographed the dance moves that were presented by the Irvin Sisters at the Concert Mayol in Paris.

A lot of quarreling for nothing, because the Kinkajou was never really succesful…

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The Black Kinkajou, illustrated by Pigeot

Pigeot, the illustrator of The Black Kinkajou had presumably never heard of a kinkajou and thought a drawing of a cat might do as well.

In 1929 the stage musical Rio Rita was made into a film. A rare excerpt with the Kinkajou dance routine made it to YouTube: