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Bolero is a form of slow-tempo latin music and its associated dance and song. There are Spanish, and Cuban forms, which are both significant, and which have separate origins.
The term is also used for some art music. In all its forms, the bolero has been popular for over a century, and still is today. Spain
The bolero is a 3/4 dance that originated in Spain in the late 18th century, a combination of the contradanza and the sevillana. Dancer Sebastiano Carezo is credited with inventing the dance in 1780. It is danced by either a soloist or a couple. It is in a moderately slow tempo and is performed to music which is sung and accompanied by castanets and guitars with lyrics of five to seven syllables in each of four lines per verse. It is in triple time and usually has a triplet on the second beat of each bar.
In Cuba, the bolero is 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. Probably, this kind of life had been going on for some time; but it comes into focus when we learn about named individuals who left their marks on Cuban popular music.
"Pepe" Sanchez (born José Sánchez at Santiago de Cuba, 1856–1918) 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 disciples wrote them down. He was the model and teacher for the great trovadores who followed.
The Cuban bolero traveled to Mexico 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, most especially the great and prolific Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández; another example being Mexico's Agustín Lara. Some Cuban composers of the bolero are listed under Trova.
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:
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:
The lyrics of the bolero can be found throughout popular music, especially Latin dance music. This gives the creations of a former time a kind of perpetual life. The old trovadores lived close to their people, and their songs reflected the loves, lives and concerns of the people. It has proved surprisingly difficult for present-day musicians to do better. The bolero is a great survivor.
If the bolero does have limitations for non-Latin audiences (for whom the lyrics are mostly unappreciated), its place in Latin music and dance is more or less permanent.
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.
In 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 to 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.
There are many so-called boleros in art music (e.g. classical music) which may not conform to either of the above types.
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.