by SARAH VENTRE (NPR Music) – 04:41 pm – September 16, 2010
The Lost Cuban Trios of Casa Marina is the sultry soundtrack to the backrooms and secret lives of pre-Castro Cuba. The songs were produced and pressed on CD earlier this year, but were recorded in 1958 by Harry Schrage, a Polish Jew who resettled in Cuba after his family fled Europe when he was a boy, in 1939. He and his brother Morrie came from a wealthy family, and among the Havana luxuries that the self-proclaimed "playboys" indulged in was the Casa Marina — perhaps the most unusual and high-end bordello in the country at that time.
According to a copy of Stag, a men’s magazine from 1950, it offered amenities like plush décor, waiters in white who refused tips, and even two nurses on hand at all times for the health concerns of both the staff and the customers. It also made available musicians who would play love songs for $1, providing the desired ambiance for patrons.
Harry Schrage conceived of the idea to record this music, and did so with a makeshift home studio, complete with self-corked walls. Trio Zamora and Trio Melodicos recorded the son music, which includes more than 50 boleros, cha chas, cumbias, and huapangos that belong to the musical traditions of Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
Schrage died in 1973, but his brother Morrie explains that the music itself was not unique. Rather, it was the caliber of musicians that stood out.
"That music was all over town. There were probably 1,000 trios in Havana," he says. "These were the ones that I thought were worth recording, because they were especially good."
Though the music is similar in style to that of the Buena Vista Social Club, what’s interesting is that the social context is so different. Many of the songs are standards, but in a bordello they begin to take on different meanings. It’s easy to notice double entendres in titles and lyrics, and the love songs have more of a seductive feel than a sincere and sensual one.
The gentle guitar is layered with deep, sweet and honest vocals, often in three-part harmonies, and the result is a genuine and kind recoding that provides a glimpse into a lifestyle that most people could never know. "No Me Importa" (It Doesn’t Matter to Me") is the opening track, and sets a nice tone for the rest of the record. It’s an original piece that allows you to hear the lavishness and indulgence of the wealthiest class without resenting it. The entire album is soaked with much of the same mystique left behind by the legacy of the Casa Marina.