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Bolero refers to two distinct genres of slow-tempoLatin music and their associated dances. The oldest type of bolero originated in Spain during the late 18th century as a form of ballroom music, which influenced art music composers around the world, most famously Maurice Ravel's Boléro, as well as a flamenco style known as boleras. An unrelated genre of sung music originated in eastern Cuba in the late 19th century as part of the trova tradition. This genre gained widespread popularity around Latin America throughout the 20th century and continues to thrive.
The original Spanish bolero is a 3 4 dance that originated in Spain in the late 18th century, a combination of the contradanza and the sevillana.
There are many so-called boleros in art music (i.e., classical music), which are primarily inspired in the original Spanish genre of the same name.
Ravel's Boléro is one of his most famous works, originally written as a ballet score commissioned by Ida Rubinstein, but now usually played as a concert piece. It was originally called Fandango but has rhythmic similarities with the Spanish dance form as described in this article, being in a constant 3 4 time with a prominent triplet on the second beat of every bar.
Richard Aaker Trythall wrote a bolero for four percussionists based on the rhythm and structure of the traditional bolero dance. Trythall imagined the four percussionists as four dancers, intertwining their solos, duets, and trios with moments of group ensemble work in the same way a choreographer might have done.
English banjo composer Joe Morley wrote a bolero titled "El Contrabandista" after noted banjoist and composer Alfred Cammeyer published a bolero in 4 4 time for banjo. Morley composed his as a true bolero in 3 4 time.
John Serry Sr. composed his African Bolero for accordion and flute in 1950.
Keith Emerson composed his Abaddon's Bolero for Orchestra and Synthesizer in 1972.
In some art music boleros, the root lies not in the bolero but in the habanera, a Cuban precursor of the tango, which was a favourite dance rhythm in the mid-19th century, and occurs often in French opera and Spanish zarzuela of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Pepe Sánchez (guitar, left) and Emiliano Blez (tres) with three singers (standing)
In Cuba, the bolero was perhaps the first great Cuban musical and vocal synthesis to win universal recognition. In 2 4 time, this dance music spread to other countries, leaving behind what Ed Morales has called the "most popular lyric tradition in Latin America".
The Cuban bolero tradition originated in Santiago de Cuba in the last quarter of the 19th century; it does not owe its origin to the Spanish music and song of the same name. In the 19th century there grew up in Santiago de Cuba a group of itinerant musicians who moved around earning their living by singing and playing the guitar.
Pepe Sanchez is known as the father of the trova style and the creator of the Cuban bolero. Untrained, but with remarkable natural talent, he composed numbers in his head and never wrote them down. As a result, most of these numbers are now lost, but two dozen or so survive because friends and students wrote them down. He was the model and teacher for the great trovadores who followed.
The Cuban bolero has traveled to Puerto Rico and the rest of Latin America after its conception, where it became part of their repertoires. Some of the bolero's leading composers have come from nearby countries, as in the case of the prolific Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández and the Mexican Agustín Lara. Some Cuban composers of the bolero are primarily considered trovadores. Several lyric tenors also contributed to the popularization of the bolero throughout North and South America during the 1930s and the 1940s trhough live concerts and performances on international radio networks. Included in this group were the Mexican operatic tenors: Juan Arvizu and Nestor Mesta Chayres. Boleros saw a resurgence in popularity during the 1990s when Mexican singer Luis Miguel was credited for reviving interest in the bolero genre following the release Romance.
José Loyola comments that the frequent fusions of the bolero with other Cuban rhythms is one of the reasons it has been so fertile for such a long period of time:
"La adaptación y fusión del bolero con otros géneros de la música popular bailable ha contribuido al desarrollo del mismo, y a su vigencia y contemporaneidad."
(The adaptation and fusion of the bolero with other types of popular dance music has contributed to their development, and to its endurance and timelessness.)
This adaptability was largely achieved by dispensing with limitations in format or instrumentation, and by an increase in syncopation (so producing a more afrocuban sound). Examples would be:
Bolero in the danzón: the advent of lyrics in the danzón to produce the danzonete.
The bolero-son: long-time favourite dance music in Cuba, captured abroad under the misnomer 'rumba'.
The bolero-mambo in which slow and beautiful lyrics were added to the sophisticated big-band arrangements of the mambo.
The bolero-cha: many cha-cha-cha lyrics come from boleros.
The lyrics of the bolero can be found throughout popular music, especially Latin dance music.
Bolero music has also spread to Vietnam. In the 1930s, the nation grew fond of modern music, which combined Western elements with traditional music. Vietnamese bolero is generally slower tempo compared to Latin bolero. Such music was romantic, expressing concepts of feelings, love, and life in a poetic language; this predisposition was hated by Viet Minh, who strived towards shaping the working class at the time.
This genre became colloquially known as yellow music, in opposition to the red music endorsed by the Communist government of Hanoi during the era of the Vietnam War. As a result of North Vietnam winning the war, the music was banned in 1975. Those caught listening to yellow music would be punished, and their music confiscated. After the Fall of Saigon, many Vietnamese migrated to the United States, taking their music with them. The ban was lightened in 1986, when love songs could be written again, but by then the music industry was killed.
The government of Vietnam also prohibited the sale of overseas Vietnamese music, including variety shows like Asia and Paris by Night. In recent years however, bolero had grown popular again, as more overseas singers performed in Vietnam. Additionally, singing competition television series like Boléro Idol have grown popular, with singers performing songs, including those formerly banned.
A version of the Cuban bolero is danced throughout the Latin dance world (supervised by the World Dance Council) under the misnomer 'rumba'. This came about in the early 1930s when a simple overall term was needed to market Cuban music to audiences unfamiliar with the various Cuban musical terms. The famous Peanut Vendor was so labelled, and the label stuck for other types of Cuban music.
In Cuba, the bolero is usually written in 2 4 time, elsewhere often 4 4. The tempo for dance is about 120 beats per minute. The music has a gentle Cuban rhythm related to a slow son, which is the reason it may be best described as a bolero-son. Like some other Cuban dances, there are three steps to four beats, with the first step of a figure on the second beat, not the first. The slow (over the two beats four and one) is executed with a hip movement over the standing foot, with no foot-flick.
The dance known as bolero is one of the competition dances in American Rhythm ballroom dance category. The first step is typically taken on the first beat, held during the second beat with two more steps falling on beats three and four (cued as "slow-quick-quick"). In competitive dance the music is in 4 4 time and will range between 96 and 104 bpm. This dance is quite different from the other American Rhythm dances in that it not only requires cuban motion but rises and falls such as found in waltz and contra body movement. Popular music for this dance style need not be Latin in origin. Lists of music used in competitions for American Rhythm Bolero are available.
^Cristobal Diaz offers 1885: "el bolero, creado aproximadamente para 1885". Diaz Ayala, Cristobal 1999. Cuando sali de la Habana 1898-1997: cien anos de musica cubana por el mundo. 3rd ed, Cubanacan, San Juan P.R. p24-25
^Orovio, Helio 2004. Cuban music from A to Z. p195.