Pio Leyva

Buena Vista singer


Wilfredo Pascual (Pío Leyva), singer and songwriter: born Morón, Cuba 5 May 1917; married (one daughter); died Havana 23 March 2006.

The Cuban sonero Pío Leyva was best known to international audiences as a member of the group of veteran musicians who performed as the Buena Vista Social Club. Although he wasn't involved in Ry Cooder's multi-million-selling-album project of that name, the diminutive Leyva did feature prominently in Wim Wenders's companion documentary some two years later, and was memorably seen exploring the streets of New York alongside Manuel "Puntillita" Licea.

Known to his fans as "El Montunero de Cuba" in tribute to his improvisational skills - a montunero sonero specialises in extemporisation - he was an accomplished vocalist and songwriter who cut over 25 albums and worked successfully alongside seminal figures such as Beny Moré, Compay Segundo and Bebo Valdés.

Born in Morón, Cuba, in 1917, he played the bongos as a child before eventually finding work as a singer, in 1932, with Juanito Blez's band Conjunto Caribe. Over the next few years he performed with a succession of bands, including the Orquesta de Jesús Montago, the Orquesta Raqueteros del Swing, Orquesta del Paseiro and the Sexteto Colón. He formed a trio sponsored by a local brand of coffee, Café El Angel, and became a popular fixture on the radio.

By the late 1950s he was based in Havana, signed to RCA Victor, and working alongside major acts such as the pianist Bebo Valdés and Compay Segundo. In March 1957 he was recording with Segundo when rebels attacked Fulgencio Batista's presidential palace in Havana. With the sound of street fighting clearly audible in the studio the session inevitably came to a halt, though not before several sides were completed, allegedly with gunshots echoing faintly in the background.

Over the ensuing decades his discs continued to sell well and he saw a number of his songs emerge as son classics, including "Un Jardinero de Amor", "Chapaleando" and, especially, "Francisco Guayabal", which is now indelibly associated with the great Beny Moré. He appeared frequently on television variety shows and toured regularly in Spanish-speaking countries such as Panama, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. When, in 1991, he visited West Africa, he was surprised to discover a substantial fan-base there, too.

In 1996 he contributed "El Mentiroso" to Juan De Marcos' Afro-Cuban All Stars project and a year later was reunited with Segundo as they revisited their old classics "La Ternera" and "La Juma del Ayer" on the album Lo Mejor de la Vida. Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club (1997) became something of a phenomenon in introducing the world to the likes of Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Omara Portuondo and Compay Segundo. It was followed, in 1999, by Wim Wenders's Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name that depicted the recording of Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer.

Paul Wadey

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