Obituary: Alicia Parl

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The Independent Culture
ALICIA PARLA'S brief spell of international fame occurred as "Queen of the Rumba", at the centre of the first world vogue for Cuban music in the 1930s.

Parl was born in 1914 in Havana to a well-off middle-class family - her father was an ophthalmologist, her uncle Agustn was the first Cuban aviator. Socially, she was far removed from the world of rumba, a percussion and dance style peculiar to Cuba's black underclass, a good part of which had arrived relatively recently from Africa, as slavery persisted in Cuba much later than elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Alicia Parl, escorted by her mother and sister, was sent to convent school in Key West, Florida, and from there to New York, where she arrived to study typing aged 16. Sharing the house where the Parls lodged was a dance school, which Alicia attended enthusiastically, and whose proprietor brought to her attention an audition for dancers being held by a newly arrived Cuban bandleader. Parl, a strikingly elegant girl with green eyes, went along and was chosen from 150 applicants.

The bandleader was Modesto "Don" Azpiazu, whose orchestra had been one of the principal attractions of Havana's Casino Nacional for half a dozen years, and who was about to unleash on New York, in the wake of the success of the Argentinean tango, authentic Cuban music for the first time.

Don Azpiazu's Havana Casino Orchestra took the stage of the Palace Theatre on Broadway for the first time on 26 April 1930 attired in white ruffled shirts and red peasant neckerchiefs, equipped with a full range of Latin percussion and playing a repertoire primarily consisting of Cuban sones, danzones and congas, plus the occasional tango. Certain numbers featured an exhibition dance interlude based on the rumba - a glamorised version, by contrast with the packing case percussion-backed street version of Cuba's black dockers, but startlingly new, raw and sexy to American theatre audiences.

Halfway through the set the Azpiazu band introduced a catchy number based on a pregon - a Cuban street-seller's cry - called "El Manicero", ("The Peanut Vendor"), which was to become, and remains today, one of the most famous pieces of Latin popular music.

Azpiazu's reputation, and "The Peanut Vendor"'s, spread rapidly, aided by the interest of New York's growing Latino population, and by the end of the year the song was being covered by a clutch of newly assembled Cuban bands, the Havana Royal Orchestra, Havana Novelty Orchestra, as well as all the top dance bands, and a full-scale Cuban craze was under way, with even George Gershwin writing a Cuban Overture. The journalist Walter Winchell, after initial scepticism - he claimed wrongly that "The Peanut Vendor" was based on Ravel's Bolero - was soon a convert, describing Parl as a "lovely Havana torso flipper".

After a tour of the United States, the Azpiazu band hit Europe in 1932, arriving in Paris via Monte Carlo, where the Prince of Wales asked Parl for a rumba lesson. On Bastille Day, 14 July, Alicia Parl descended a stairway on stage at La Plantation club on the Champs-Elysee for her Paris debut, trailing a long ruffled bata de cola train to tumultuous applause.

The following day the papers dubbed her the "Marianne of Cuba", after the French Republic's mythical figurehead, and "Mariana de Cuba" became her European nickname, and the brand name of a series of perfumes and soaps launched within months to cash in on the Cuban craze.

By the end of the year, the original Azpiazu band had shed half its members, who stayed to found a generation of Paris-based Cuban bands. Azpiazu himself continued to tour Europe and the United States and died in 1943, by which time the mambo craze, Cuba's next musical export, was about to unfurl.

Alicia Parl bowed out of the spotlight as abruptly as she had entered it, giving up the stage to return to Havana and become a housewife and mother. After divorcing her first husband she returned briefly to showbusiness, making two films in Mexico in the 1950s, before marrying twice more, her second husband being the pelota (Basque hand-ball) star Guillermo Amuchastequi, known as "The Monarch of the Courts".

In 1959, when Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, Parl moved to Miami, where she worked as a hospital administrator for 20 years before retiring.

At her funeral mass in the Little Havana church of St Raymond, Miami, last week , among the music played was the great Trio Matamoros song "Aquellos Ojos Verdes" ("Those Green Eyes"), which, after her triumphant return to her home city in the 1940s, they used to play to her when she walked into Havana's smart Floridita cocktail bar.

Alicia Parl, dancer: born Havana 1914; married first Antonio Fuello (one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Guillermo Amuchastequi (marriage dissolved), third Armando Gali-Menendez (deceased); died Miami, Florida 6 October 1998.