That Saturday afternoon I left from Benny Billy’s place, which was close to Trocha Street, and I found him like three blocks away. He was walking in the opposite direction; I blocked his way and kindly explained him the purpose of my interview. For the first time I could analyze him from close. He is a guy that definitely gets people’s attention. It seems to come from the set of a movie from the 50’s, wandering around downtown in Santiago de Cuba in the 21st century. He doesn’t care if the sun is really hot, over 30 degrees Celsius.
While everyone wears the latest fashions, light clothes, he always wears a suit, two- color shoes, a hat and a cane. Benny el Santiaguero, as people also refer to him, is one of the characters that, as well as Rita la Caimana in Bayamo or El Caballero de Paris in Havana, distinguishes the city streets and becomes their eternal icon. As the others, he may have a touch of insanity or some addiction; however, unlike the rest, he owns a unique talent. For days I wandered around the streets with my camera looking for his whereabouts in Plaza Dolores, in bars close to Enramadas and Heredia streets and on the nearby area of the Cespedes Park.
I interviewed waiters, minstrels and doormen. Many of them had recently seen him. Yet, he was hard to find until that afternoon. When we met on that Saturday, his crushing words were a slap on the face for me. My interviews are valuable, he said and continued walking and never looked back. José Manuel Villa Carbonell, a 52 year old man from Santiago, former boxer and amateur singer gifted with a vocal tessitura quite similar to Benny More’s, claims to be a reincarnation of Beny. For years Benny Billy has walked downtown, showing off his melodic voice and interpreting anthological songs by Beny More. Thanks to that gift, he got to the cinema in 2006, when he put his voice to every song included in the movie El Beny, co-written and directed by Jorge Luis Sánchez.
He knew about Benny el Santiaguero and invited him to join the cast for the film. The directors of the movie didn’t want to use the existing records of the original songs by Beny More considering that they didn’t comply with certain technical requirements. For that reason, they decided that Beny Billy would record the songs. Truth be told, the movie would not be the same if he hadn’t take part in the soundtrack.
According to musical producer Juan Manuel Ceruto, José Manuel’s voice is so similar to Beny More’s, that during the postproduction stages of the film, they invited Hilda More, Benny More’s only child living in Cuba, to listen to the recordings and she mixed Benny Billy’s voice with her father’s. Benny More’s film somehow contributed with greater recognition for Benny Billy’s voice, generally unknown for those who haven’t heard him on Santiago streets. Nonetheless, it is worth highlighting that he was already famous, at least abroad, years before the premiere of the movie in Cuba. In February 2002, businessmen and musical producer Peter A. Scott along with singer Natty Bo, both of them British, arrived in Santiago de Cuba, with the main objective of looking for an interpreter to join them in their musical project called Cuban Ska.
As soon as Natty Bo heard him singing while playing the tres in a bar in town, she realized he was the voice she needed for her project. Ska is a Jamaican musical genre prior to reggae. The Cuban Ska project combined that rhythm with son, mambo and other Caribbean musical genres like cumbia and calypso. Part of the recordings was made at EGREM Siboney de Santiago de Cubarecording studios and was then mixed in London. The album was released to the international market that same year under Casino Sounds Label.
The project brought together real musical talents such as legendary Jamaican trumpet player Eddy “Tan Tan” Thornton, a living legend of reggae and ska, who has worked with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Boney M and Jimi Hendrix. “Babalú”, “Changó” and “YiryYiri Bon” are some of the tracks included in the album in a ska version where people can appreciate Beny Billy’s great talent. For the promotion of the album, the members of the band made a tour and performed in different stages in England, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Spain, France, Greece and Japan. Destiny conspired so that we ran into each other once again near Plaza Dolores, a few weeks after our first meeting. This time he just agreed to pose for a picture in exchange for a favor. When did you find out that Beny had reincarnated in you? If you were given the opportunity to record an album to pay homage to Beny More, which song would you include? Why do you think the Cuban Ska Project has succeeded in Europe and is barely known in Santiago? Who came up with the idea of your first official concert at the Marti Theater in Santiago, accompanied by the provincial orchestra?
The possible answers for these and other questions would have changed the course of this chronicle if Benny Billy would have agreed to listen to me. His calculating actions, his selfish behavior, sometimes unsociable, is the armor that protects this bohemian gentleman as a result of the disappointment and disillusion accumulated perhaps due to some figures from the media, journalists, filmmakers and even tourists who would have somehow used his image and his voice for making profits and breach the agreements made and not handing in his share.
Despite his controverted personality and reminding me that it is not easy to reach some popular or famous characters, this is probably the time for Cuban producers or musicians to take into account his desire of paying homage to Beny More with his voice, before we find out one day that there is a wax statue or a bronze sculpture in one of the streets where he used to hang out.
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