Then there are some who have names: Poor Severa and her godmother Latuá, José Nasario who doesn't know where the sun comes up, Maria las Nieves with her strange fear, our friend Arturo and his watch.
But there is one name that appears more than all the others: that of María la O.
Has there ever been a rumba at which her name hasn't come up at least once? Despite the many references, there is scarcely a hint of any personality behind the name. No guaguancó dedicated to her, no details of her life, nothing but a name.
She was destined to be given an honored place in rumba, in one of those "never fails" coros; later in the montuno, whenever the energy starts to drag a little bit, someone will inevitably call out:
And time after time, the rumba obeys the bantú command "kuenda" (to go, get a move on, ¡camina!), and suddenly the spirit lifts, the tempo picks up again, and the rumba continues even stronger than before.
There is another refrain heard once in a while, as in the song that goes
Iba coqueta, iba por allí
Iba cantando bajito
Un dulce canto que decía así:
María de la O,
María de la O,
María de la O...
But none of these tell us anything about a particular person with that name. So who was she? Is it possible to know?
The Story of (de la) O
"Maria la O" is a shortened form of "Maria de la O," is a surname, not uncommon in Spain.
The origins of the surname are somewhat obscure. There are basically two theories, that it came from the Catholic feast S. Maria de la O or is a Spanish corruption of the French, "de l'eau."
In a discussion on the blog languagehat.com, commenter Roger Depledge writes:
The Catholic Encyclopedia, under Feast of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, says "The feast of 18 December was commonly called, even in the liturgical books, "S. Maria de la O", because on that day the clerics in the choir after Vespers used to utter a loud and protracted "O", to express the longing of the universe for the coming of the Redeemer (Tamayo, Mart. Hisp., VI, 485). The Roman "O" antiphons have nothing to do with this term, because they are unknown in the Mozarabic Rite. This feast and its octave were very popular in Spain, where the people still call it "Nuestra Señora de la O". [Juan Tamayo de Salazar, Martyrologium Hispanum (Lyon, 1651-59)]
Daniel de la O, writing at http://cafedelao.blogspot.com/ says:
Finally, my research has pointed one of the origins of the surname in France, in the region of la Vierge de l'eau. Which means Virgin of the Water, this place is famous because the Virgin Mary apeared over a water spring. Someone took the surname De l'eau, -probably happened around the 1485 by orders of the Vatican (long story)- and consequently when he or she moved to Spain the name changed from eau to O, because the word eau is pronounced exactly like the letter "O" in spanish. I'm sure that the ones of you who speak spanish will understand it better. After one or two generations the name became De La O, hiding it's relation to the virgin. This may be the origin of De La O and it would say that your surname actually means: of the Water...
Our resident francophile Patrice finds this last explanation a bit dubious, and I do as well, mostly because I haven't been able to turn up a single person with the last name "de L'eau."
But none of this probably matters anyway. Although "de la O" is a surname, there is some evidence to suggest that when combined with "María" it's always a given name.
An immigration database at BYU has a link to a document (downloadable here) on Spanish combined given names (such as Juan de la Cruz, Miguel Angel, María (del) Carmen and María de la O) and states:
"Extensive research and study of naming customs indicate that when any of the combinations of names on this list appear in a record they are given names. Some of the names, such as de la Cruz are also used as surnames but not in the combinations listed here."
So it seems safe to assume that whoever our subject was, "María la O" was merely her given name and not her full name.
The name "María de la O," so strange to anglo ears, is not as uncommon as it seems, and has appeared in Cuban music, particularly in references to blacks or mulatas, since probably well before the 1860's. María Teresa Linares writes:
The composer Sebastián Iradier [(January 20, 1809 – December 6, 1865) ] made the Habanera universally famous when he wrote La Paloma, and many others, among them La Nenguita, which has as its refrain an old Cuban guaracha:“Me llaman María La O
y no hay negra como yo
más bonita sí la habrá
pero más graciosa no."
Está mi china que me espera.
Se llama María la O
Ay no, ay no.
Y esta china tiene rabia, por Dios.
Esta china tiene miedo
Que yo al muelle la llevara
Y la metiera en el barco
Y en el barco la dejara
Y esta es la china
De quien te hablo
A mí me gusta El anís del diablo."
Researcher Huib Buillet provides more detail on the origins of the reference:
The source: “Rosendo Ruiz Suárez”, in the magazine Música, Serie Nuestros Autores, n° 3, Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, La Habana (1985).
The article has an interview with Rosendo Ruiz, here is the excerpt:
Sí, el Cangrejito es una rumbita mía que yo no inscribí y que luego este músico respetable, Alejandro García Catarla, hizo un danzón con él y lo inscribió a su nombre… Enumerar todas mis composiciones sería muy difícil porque tengo más de trescientas. Esas rumbitas yo las hacía por embullo, pero no soy sonero, ni guarachero, soy trovador. El Maine sí fue un son muy popular:
Hay una china que me espera,
se llama María la O
esa china tiene rabia por Dios…
Los Papines recorded a guaguancó called "María la O," but that song, a Spanish zambra written in the 1930's by Salvador Valverde, Rafael de León y Manuel López Quiroga enjoyed great popularity, having inspired at least two film versions in Spain by the time Los Papines recorded it, and still quite popular in the repertoire there.
Que desgraciaíta, gitana, tu eres
Tu quieres reir
hasta los ojitos los tienes morados de tanto sufrir
que por su culpita dejaste al gitano
que fue tu querer ¡Castigo de Dios!
¡Castigo de Dios!
Es la crucecita que llevas a cuestas
María de la O
Lecuona's María la O
Probably the most famous María la O is that of Ernesto Lecuona's zarzuela, which premiered in Havana on March 1, 1930.
In his thesis on the zarzuela, Henry MaCarthy writes:
There are two sources for the libretto of María La O. The first is based on a real
mulata that allegedly lived in Santiago de Cuba sometime during the mid nineteenth
century. Edwin Tolón, a theater impresario and close friend of Lecuona, who presented the original production in La Habana, relates an anecdote, in turn taken from oral narratives collected in the Annals of Santiago de Cuba:
[…] en esos años residía en esa ciudad un notable músico catalán llamado Juan Casamitjana. Estaba él recostado en la baranda de la ventana de la casa en que vivía cuando vio venir una numerosa comparsa que dirigían dos famosas mulatas de rumbo, una era María La O y la otra María de la Luz, que cantaban y bailaban una música electrizante. Impresionado el compositor por su baile fue al piano y repitió de memoria los compases de dicha música anónima pasándolos después al papel pautado (49).
[…] around those years in that city, there lived a Catalan musician named Juan Casamitjana. While leaning in the window of his house, he saw a large comparsa directed by two famous mulatas de rumbo, María La O and María de la Luz, singing and dancing an electrifying music. The composer was impressed by the dance and repeated the anonymous melody by memory in his piano, later transcribing it to music paper.
Yet despite this tantalizing reference to a real-life Mariá la O, given that Casamitjana was writing the music for himself and that the incident occurred in 1836, 59 years before Lecuona was born, and nearly one hundred years before his operetta's premiere, it seems likely that the only definite "inspiration" the María la O from Santiago provided was in the use of her name for Lecuona's leading lady.
I also found one other curious reference by colonial music scholar Zolia Lapique. Speaking about the recurring popularity of the conga santiaguera, she says:
Algo similar a este fenómeno contemporáneo de la conga santiaguera ocurrió en 1852 cuando vino a La Habana la comparsa del Cocoyé con sus dos guías, las mulatas María de la O Soguendo y María de la Luz, junto al enanito Manuel que bailaba con el Anaquillé, muñeco de carnaval."Soguendo" is indeed a surname, if rather uncommon. Further research is needed to determine if the the surname of María la O from Santiago is known or has been lost to history. If it turns out to be Soguendo, I think a case could be made that the chorus "María la O, kuenda" is a corruption of her name. Until then though I believe the reverse is more likely to be true, as seen here.)
This article was inspired when I was trying to confirm the words to the coro in the video clip at the beginning, which contains another occurence of María la O that I was unfamiliar with, sung by Juan de Dios:
María la O
María la O, ¿quién es?
During the course of the discussion, a Cuban friend of ours, José Luís Gomez, made a great remark, which we will use to close for now (since topics like this are never truly finished):
"In the folklore and general music world in Cuba it has been a tradition to get inspired by personalities and characters that gave and still give color to our way of living... So maybe she existed or not and at the end of the day I don't think that it's that important. The rumba María la O is a killer, the coro is fantastic and Juan really brings it in con chambo y mucho ibiano and that is what counts."