Radamés Giro

RIP Radamés Giro


Radamés Giro, musician, author, editor, and self-taught researcher and musicologist was a central figure of Cuban music over the last 50 years.

Perhaps his most striking work was the publication in 2007 of the monumental Diccionario enciclopédico de la música en Cuba (DEMC), four volumes in the original edition, which covers 1169 pages, more than 2,000 entries and 600 photos and scores. The fruit of 40 years of study and compilation, the “Diccionario de Radamés”, as it came to be called, is of enormous use for writers, music and literature critics, researchers, journalists, record companies, disc jockeys, and all those who, being specialists or not, need references, ideas, and solid data about music in Cuba.

Born in Santiago de Cuba, Radamés grew up in musical surroundings par excellence. His house provided rehearsal space for the Conjunto Hermanos Giro, in which his father played tres and his uncles Carmelo and Claro guitar and conga respectively.  One of Radamés’ first mentors was his maternal grandfather, the legendary sonero and guitarist Ángel Almenares. The young Radamés then studied formal guitar with Professor Esteban Castillo. In the end, Radamés put aside his potential as a concert musician, and for several years served as guitarist in several local musical ensembles, such as the group Avances del 56, the trio Los Románticos, the combo of Conrado Wilson, and as an accompanist of popular singers like bolerista Orlando Contreras.

As a result of an unfortunate incident in his adolescence, Radamés completely lost vision in one eye and suffered from limited vision in the other for the rest of his life. And yet this was no obstacle to the work he later developed as a researcher, author, and editor. In addition to the Diccionario, Radamés wrote several major studies of capital importance for the study of Cuban and Latin American music. Worth mentioning are his monographs on the history of the guitar in Cuba, the bolerista César Portillo del Luz, the Brazilian composer Heitor Villalobos, and the renowned guitarist, composer and conductor Leo Brouwer. Another work of great relevance is Cincuenta canciones en años de revolución, a selection made in collaboration with his wife Isabel González Sauto, which contains biographical notes and the scores of fifty songs that can represent as the authors say, “a chronicle of those fifty years”, from 1959. The biographical notes, succinct but dense, constitute a small dictionary of 27 composers. The songs chosen by Giro and González Sauto range from the tearful to the erotic without skipping the political.

Radamés authored more than thirty articles for journals specializing in musical topics. As editor, beginning in the 1970s, Radamés oversaw the editing and publication of more than 100 titles dedicated to and/or including reissues of authors and composers such as Ignacio Cervantes, Leonardo Acosta, Argeliers León, Alejandro García Caturla, and Fernando Ortiz. Of particular significance was Radamés’ work in the search, edition, compilation, and dissemination of the totality of the work that Alejo Carpentier dedicated to music before and after the publication of Carpentier’s La Música en Cuba in 1946. The Museo Nacional de la Música published Radames’ comprehensive edition of Carpentier’s musical studies and commentary on it by several musicologists in La música en Cuba/Temas de la lira y del bongó.

Of notable importance too was the edition of a series of volumes based on interviews with dozens of Cuban musicians that make up an expansive oral history of Cuban popular music in the voice of its composers and performers, material of extraordinary value for the student of popular music, for example La música en persona by Erena Hernández, Ellos hacen la música by Raúl Martínez Rodríguez, y Cubanos en la música by Mayra Martínez. Two collections deserve particular note, El mambo, in which Giro makes a careful selection of texts aimed at differentiating between the various meanings of the word, and to find out who was its ‘inventor’ attributed, depending on the time and place, to Arsenio Rodríguez, Pérez Prado, Arcaño, and Cachao López, among others; and the edited volume Panorama de la música popular cubana, with chapters dedicated to the history and character of every major genre of Cuban popular music. Finally, Giro supervised the translation and publication in 1973 of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, an essential reference for scholars of universal music. For his labors Radamés received the Distinción por la Cultura Nacional, the Raúl Gómez García and the Adolfo Guzmán Medals, and the Premio Nacional de Edición in 1999.

Of special interest is an interview conducted with him by writer Leonardo Padura which appears as a chapter in Padura’s Los rostros de la salsa. In his interventions Radamés establishes with safe and astute criteria the historical and technical relationship between salsa, as it was developed mostly by Nuyorican musicians, and the son and other genres of Cuban music.

During his lifetime Radamés shared his expertise with great generously with scholars inside and outside the country. There are numerous researchers in Cuba who sought his good advice. It is rare for an international researcher not to have consulted Radamés on matters related to Cuban music. Several foreign experts subsequently published notable studies on the subject. Radamés was a consultant for the Smithsonian Institution Latin Music Oral History Program lending his support for interviews with Richard Egües, Frank Emilio Flynn, Luis Carbonell, Celina González, Félix Guerrero, Enrique Bonne, Rodulfo Vaillant, Tata Güines and other artists in Havana and Santiago de Cuba in 1998-2004.

Given the well-deserved fame of Radamés Giro as a ‘detective’ of music in Cuba, we should not be surprised that the writer of ‘detective’ novels Leonardo Padura, himself an enthusiast of popular music, brilliantly incorporated the musicologist in his work La neblina del ayer, in which the character “Rafael” Giro, a faithful portrait of the Radamés Giro of real life, assists as a musical specialist to homicide detective Mario Conde.

With Radamés Giro’s death, Cuban musicology loses one of its great figures, a talented, generous, and collegial person. A great friend in the Cuban music family of his friends.


Raúl Fernández, Professor Emeritus,

University of California Irvine