The news of the death of Cuban singer Polo Montañez on November 26, 2002, as a result of an automobile accident shocked and grieved fans of Latin music around the world. In Havana, where fans of the self-proclaimed "Guajiro Natural" -- a Homegrown Country Boy -- had been listening anxiously to hourly radio bulletins updating his condition, the loss registered as a national tragedy.
Born Fernando Borrego Linares in the rural province of Pinar del Rio, Cuba, on June 5, 1955, his nickname -- adopted when Montañez was still a coal worker and truck driver playing music as an off-hours escape -- reflects the green hills southeast of Havana where Montañez lived all of his life. Those same hills also formed the backdrop for his infectious brand of guajiro music, marked by what he called "clean, bright, precise" lyrics about love and friendship; a freewheeling mix of traditional island dance rhythms, including bachata, son, bolero, and guaracha; catchy tunes and arpeggiated interludes played on the Cuban tres; and soaring above it all, Montañez's raspy, sun-splotched tenor, frequently compared to that of the legendary Beny Moré.
Discovery by José da Silva of the French label Lusafrica transformed Montañez from just another musically inclined hayseed playing at a tourist resort into an international superstar almost overnight. "Un Montón de Estrellas," the first single from his 2000 release, Guajiro Natural, was the bittersweet lament of a man who had been so far gone that he'd have flown up to heaven to bring down "a mountain of stars" if that's what his fickle love had wanted. Those who weren't singing along to the call-and-response choral finale were simply too busy dancing, and in the end a great many converts to guajiro music were won.
Guajiro Natural went platinum almost immediately in Colombia and was met with similar success in Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and Mexico. By 2002, Montañez and his band were selling out shows from one tip of Cuba to the other, including a performance in Havana to 100,000 screaming fans. That summer, the follow-up album, Guitarra Mía, was released. Montañez was about to go to Mexico to promote it when the accident occurred, which also gravely wounded his wife and killed her son.
A posthumous album called Memoria, made up mostly of new material, was released in June of 2004. ~ Jenny Gage