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Richard Egues, 82; Cuban Flutist Wrote Catchy, Playful Songs

September 07, 2006|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Richard Egues, a Cuban musician whose distinctive flute playing and catchy songwriting left an indelible imprint on the island's dance music during the cha-cha craze of the 1950s, died Friday in Havana. He was 82.

Reports in Cuba's official media said Egues had a long illness but gave no cause of death. The Spanish news service EFE reported that the musician had a brain lesion.

During a memorial service Friday in the Cuban capital, the man nicknamed la flauta magica (the magic flute) was remembered as an influential instrumentalist and arranger with the fabled Aragon orchestra, whose style was studied by peers and proteges alike.

Original versions of Egues' light-hearted hits were played at the service, including his most famous composition, "El Bodeguero," about the neighborhood grocer whose playful chorus remains part of the pop music lexicon throughout the Spanish-speaking world: Toma chocolate/ Paga lo que debes (Drink chocolate/Pay what you owe).

"He had a very sweet sound," recalled Raul A. Fernandez, a professor of social studies at UC Irvine and a Cuban music scholar. "He was really the first person in all of Cuban popular music who was an upfront soloist, replacing the vocalists who had been the stars until then.

"They even had to advertise the Aragon 'with Richard Egues on the flute.' That was really a transformation because for the first time, there was a band that featured an instrumental soloist as its main attraction."

Yet the flute was not Egues' first instrument. He started playing cymbals in a municipal band led by his father, who gave him his first music lessons, on clarinet and piano. Eventually, Egues learned a stunning array of instruments, including saxophone and types of percussion.

Eduardo Egues Martinez was born Oct. 26, 1923, in Cruces, a town in the province of Cienfuegos in central Cuba. Interviewed in 1999 at his home in Havana for the Smithsonian Institution's Jazz and Latino Music Oral History Program, Egues told Fernandez that lifelong confusion about his real age stemmed from a mistake on his birth certificate.

At 14, he joined his father's group, the Banda Monterrey.

By the mid-1940s, as Egues once recalled, he was playing piano in a cabaret and noticed that the flute player was able to take breaks but he wasn't. That's when he decided to take up the instrument that would define his career.

He soon filled an opening for a flute player with the municipal band of Santa Clara, near his hometown. Around that time, he started substituting for fellow flutist Efrain Loyola of the Aragon orchestra, a charanga band (featuring flute, violin and light percussion) founded in Cienfuegos in 1939.

In the early 1950s, Egues became the Aragon's permanent flute player, replacing Rolando Lozano, who had followed Loyola.

By then, the band was under the direction of the late Rafael Lay. Together, Lay and Egues would lead it to international fame, making it Cuba's premier cha-cha band of the 1950s.

Egues stayed with the band for 31 years, departing in 1984. After that, he pursued a solo career, performing both popular and classical music. In 1999, he led a group of top contemporary Cuban musicians in remaking some Aragon classics.

The album, "Richard Egues and Friends: Cuban Sessions," includes the Egues composition "Tan Sabrosona," which, like several others, has become a salsa standard, recorded many times by artists in and out of Cuba.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Egues remained loyal to the Cuban revolution, which coincided with the end of the cha-cha era. When Fidel Castro had surgery this summer, the ailing musician was quoted in the Cuban press offering support to the communist leader, saying, "If it's necessary to give him life, I will offer mine."

Egues was buried at Havana's Colon Cemetery.

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