Music: Through the ages

Music| Through the ages: Jazz player by Kevin Levit

As the 1930s approached, Ignacio Piñero formed his Septeto Nacional. (A septeto is a seven-piece band, including guitars, percussion, brass, vocals, playing traditional Cuban music.) Their sones not only featured his exceptional vocal improvisations (honed in the large choral societies called Coros de Clave), but added a hot trumpet to the central rhythm of the clave. Nicolás Guillén busied himself composing sones and son was now recognized as the sound of Cuba (to stand alonside such ‘exotic’ names as samba, conga and tango, in Europe and the USA it wasmarketed as the ‘rhumba’). The septeto style is still heard today in

the popular music bars and Casas de la Trova. Piñero continued to innovate by mixing styles, creating guajira son, bolero son (also popularized by Santiago’s Miguel Matamoros) and even son pregón son which used Havana street cries, including the famous echalé salsita.

A new development in the 1930s was Arsenio Rodriguez’ conjunto style, which marked the beginning of modern salsa. To the traditional septeto came conga drums, timbales (or ‘paila’ – optional), piano and more trumpets. This ‘big band’ son made much of the final, wild call-and-response or montuno section of the song. The later Descargas were improvised jam sessions over strong paila, conga and bongo rhythms, which had major influences on US jazz. The tumbao played by the tumbadoras is derived from rumba, so salsa combines elements of the three most prominent musical traditions: son, danzón and rumba.

During the 1950s, Beny Moré emerged as Sonero Mayor (meaning greatest singer and lyric improviser more than interpreter of son) and he remains one of the most revered figures in Cuban music history. Beny and his Banda Gigante were as adept with the newer styles,mambo and cha cha cha, as with son and its variations. Of equal importance, the size of his orchestra allowed the introduction of American Big Band Jazz to the Cuban melting pot. The era also saw the arrival of such artists as La Sonora Matancera and Celia Cruz, both

ofwhomfound famein exile. There, in the USA, Celia (died 2003)wonworld wide acclaim as the Queen of Salsa. Back in Cuba, Miguel Cuní, Félix Chapottín and Lilí forged a somewhat harder edged urban son to serenade the arrival of Castro’s nationalist Revolution.

If Cuba of the sixties is remembered more in connection with Russian nuclear missiles than for earth-shattering music, the foundations were being laid for future musical revolutions. It’s hard to find any virtue in the frankly awful experiments with pop music by Elio Revé and Juan Formell, but both talents went on to lead bands of enormous importance and popularity through the 1970s and 1980s.

Formell’s band, Los Van Van, have undergone a number of reinventions and remain very much at the cutting edge of today’s music. No less than the development of a popular education system on the island following the Revolution, US policy towards Cuba has had a powerful effect on the subsequent

unfolding of popular Latin music in both countries, actually creating something of a schism. Cut off from its source, the music of Cuban exile and Puerto Rican communities has tended to become bogged in old musical language in the way of ex-pats, at the same time absorbing the economic ethos of the host nation. Polished and manicured and formularised, salsa has become a multi-million dollar industry in the USA and its southern sphere of influence, its product as personal as any other factory-produced commodity. Cubans on the other hand have never ceased to import, fuse and re-fuse ideas from their rich musical larder and from elsewhere and, less driven bymarket trends, their bands tend to develop distinctive sounds.

Through the 1970s and 1980s the distinctions between genres such as son and charanga blurred somewhat, however, while economic pressure forced the replacement of acoustic with electric bass guitar. The Baby Bass (a substitute

electric upright electric bass) which is de rigueur in salsa bands was almost unheard of in Cuba. This reality alone sent Cuban music off on its own path. Some bands began to borrow heavily from funk and other urban black American styles, but overall the feel of music from this era is quite rustic. As well as the bands mentioned above, Orquesta 440 (not to be confused with Juan Luis Guerra) stands out, as do Son 14, and Adalberto Alvarez y su Son, both the latter two being led by the same Adalberto. Not for the first time, the new generation has continued the tradition of innovation to the point of creating a new music, timba. That a prominent pioneer such as Giraldo Piloto should protest hismusic to be merely progressive son alludes to the power of this revered

tradition, the strength in Cuban culture of lineage principles as against individuation and, within this, the dependence of urban culture on its rural roots. Timba and Cuban rap were born not in the hills, but in the cities. They incorporate musical ideas from the outside urban world that resonate with city dwellers and certainly timba is the product of musicians who have enjoyed a technical training their predecessors could not have imagined. This is undamentally urban music which perhaps has yet to become fully self aware, and you will hear little of it outside La Habana.

While son was appearing in Cuba’s countryside, an African rhythm known as the yuka, which had survived on the sugar plantations, was joining forces with the Spanish decimal and livening up the ports of Havana and Matanzas. This style soon came to be known as rumba. African rhythms were played on whatever came to and: boxes used to pack fish or candles gave a good tone. Characters such as Mama’buela were created in mime and singers commented on current events or battled with each other for honours. This rumbaed cajón also involved the stately yambú dance, where following the vocal section, a couple would mime courtship. Soon the rhythms passed onto drums, the large tumba providing a

solid bass, the conga a repeated cross rhythm which was accompanied by brilliant improvisations on the small quinto. There are other terms like llamador, trabajador, tres dos, and tres golpes to describe the deeper-sounding drums, which seem to be named after their role in the rumba. To this was added a pair of claves and a struck length of bamboo known as the guagua or cata. The more sexual dance form known as guaguancó (still the main rumba style) demanded more rapid playing. Great rumberos emerged, such as Florencio Calle, Chano Pozo, Estéban Latrí and Celeste Mendoza, as well as groups who specialized

in rumba, such as Los Papines, Conjunto de Clave y Guaguancó and the well-travelled Muñequitos de Matanzas, who used the rhythms of the Abakuá religion in their rumbas. The Muñequitos also play theMatanzas style known as Columbia. This rumba echoes African solo dancing, involving an element of danger such as the use of knives. Even faster playing underpins a singing style whichmakes use of Bantu phrases and ends in a call-and-response.

Rumba is a playfully competitive art form, although sometimes the competitiveness is not always so playful. The men, particularly the ‘guapos’, or ‘hard guys’, take it very seriously and people do get hurt, sometimes even killed. The rhythms have got faster, break dancing and karatemoves have been incorporated into the dance, rumberos sing about the special period; in this way, rumba survives as a true reflection of Cuban street life. Matanzas is also the birthplace of the danzón. The popular Típica orchestras, influenced by the great cornettist Miguel Faílde, added subtle African rhythms to the European Contradanza, along with a call-and-response montuno section, creating a

balance between formal dance and syncopated rhythm, almost a Cuban ragtime. The Orquesta Típica slowly changed, adding piano and further percussion, while the 1920s saw a new arrival, the charanga francesa. Of French Haitian descent, this was another development of the típica, featuring wooden flute and strings as well as pailas. It is in this format, so different from its origins, that danzón is generally remembered and occasionally interpreted. It was the beginning of the Charanga style developed by contemporary Cuban groups such as Orquesta Aragón and Los Van Van.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Orestes López (Cachao) and the violinist Enrique Jorrín created the new mambo and cha cha cha styles directly from danzón. These driving rhythms are still popular all over Cuba, and were fundamental to the explosion of Latin music and dance worldwide

The canción habanera is regarded as the first truly Cuban vocal style. Emerging in the 1830s as a mixture of the so-called tongo congo rhythm and Spanish melodies, it had its greatest exponent in Eduardo Sánchez. Habaneras were also composed by Eduardo Lecuona, a pianist who was internationally feted during the 1930s and 1940s.

Another canción style, involving simply a singer and a guitar, was developed during the 19th century in Oriente by Pepe Sánchez. His simple, beautiful songs, such as Rosa No 1 and Rosa No 2, inspired others such as María Teresa Vera and the remarkable Sindo Garay, who claimed to be the only man who had shaken the hand of both JoseMartí and Fidel Castro! The romantic style known as bolero soon developed from canción.

Realizing the potential for expression offered by canción, young musicians like Silvio Rodríguez, Sara González and Pablo Milanés created the nueva trova. Their songs reflect the path of the Revolution, Silvio’s ‘Playa Girón’ telling its own story. ‘Pablito’ is an exceptional composer and interpreter, especially of Guillén’s poetry.

Cuban jazz is exceptionally healthy. Orquesta Irakere continue to renew themselves, inspired by the pianistic genius of Jesús ‘Chucho’ Valdéz, while Grupo Afro-Cuba fuse jazz with traditional Cuban rhythms, including the bata drums of Santería. Among the generation of the 1980s and 1990s the incredible pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is supreme, composing pieces using danzón rhythms amongst others. The annual Jazz Festival in Havana was for years attended by Dizzy Gillespie, whose influence is evident in the playing of Cubans such as Arturo Sandóval and has recently heard British jazzers giving their all. Less well known but of no less virtue as the above are Los Terry, a family-based band which plays an unusually rural form of Latin jazz. Lacking the polish of its New York equivalent that tends to struggle self-consciously to integrate Afro-Cuban elements, Los Terry have nothing to prove. If their jazz is elementally powerful, it is also totally absorbing in its complexity, dipping into Afro-Cuban folklore intuitively and naturally, rather than to make a point.

The rhythms and songs of Santería remain strong across the island. The three African bata drums are regarded as the most complex of all to master and the rhythms, each assigned to a particular deity, accompany the singing in old Yoruba. Merceditas Valdés is loved throughout Cuba for her interpretation of these songs. Meanwhile, ‘bembe’ parties on Saints’ days are accompanied by singing and drumming. The singer Lázaro Ros has developed a band, Síntesis, who combine traditional Santería music effectively with jazz rock.

The music of the Cuban carnival, recently revived following the debilitating effects of the special period, is truly exhilarating. Both Havana and Santiago have their own styles of conga, the thunderous music which drives on the parade. During August in Havana, the conga drums, bells and bass drums of groups such as Los Dandy La Jardinera, support brass players as they belt out popular melodies, the lanterns spinning in the dancers’ hands. In Santiago, each barrio is represented by massed ranks of bocué drums, bass drums and brake drums. The cloaked andmasked revellers of Los Hoyos and San Agustín

sing in response to the wailing corneta china, a remnant of Cuba’s Chinese communities. Other bands’ paseos combine brass players with the usual barrage of percussion during the late July festivities.The carnival procession usually features the old Cabildos, whose drums keep alive the rhythms of Africa. In Oriente, the Tumbas Francesas parade the rhythms and dances developed by Africans in Haiti, before the 18th-century Revolution forced yet another move across the ocean.

All of this music can be heard in Cuba now: at the Casas de La Trova, at the Focos Culturales, in the theatres and the cafés, in the parks, the backyards and on the streets. From changüí to cha cha cha, from rumba to bolero, from son to Santería, the music of Cuba is gloriously, vibrantly alive.


This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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