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Roll Over, Beethoven

MUSIC IN CUBA By Alejo Carpentier Translated from the Spanish by Alan West-Duran Edited by Timothy Brennan; University of Minnesota Press: 320 pp., $34.95

July 29, 2001|JOHN RYLE | John Ryle is the anthropology and ecology editor of the (London) Times Literary Supplement

"There is nothing more contemporary, nothing more now in Paris these days than the abrupt and unexpected triumph of Cuban music," wrote Alejo Carpentier in 1922. And later, "Even the pallid daughters of Albion forget for a moment their Pre-Raphaelite poses by burying themselves in the sonorous sortilege of the Antilles."

The youthful Carpentier, later the begetter of magical realism, was a journalist and radio producer from Havana, reporting on life in the metropolis for an audience at home. Behind the arch tone in which he reported the pre-eminence of Cuban musicians in Parisian night clubs lies the complex response of a classically trained pianist, learned in European musical history, for whom Cuban cultural nationalism was defined by negrismo, the avant-gardiste movement which, though composed mainly of white intellectuals like himself, stressed blackness and Africanism, rather than European traditions, as the principal source of Cuban national identity. "Music in Cuba," written almost two decades later, is, as Timothy Brennan explains in his lucid and comprehensive introduction, Carpentier's pioneering attempt to chronicle the historical confluence of the two musical streams, from Europe and Africa, that produced the special richness of the Cuban musical tradition.

In Cuba, more surely than anywhere else in the New World, the percussive genius of Africa flowed out of the slave barracoons to embrace and subvert the melodic themes and harmonic motifs of the Western canon that had been brought by slave-owners from Europe. "We still remember," Carpentier writes, "the marvelous stupor with which the people of our generation greeted, one fine day, the instruments that came from the eastern provinces, and that are heard today, poorly played, in all of the world's cabarets."

He describes the marimbula, derived from the African mbira, a metal-pronged thumb-piano with a wooden resonator, and the quijada, a rattle made from the jawbone of an ass, with bells added to the teeth. Next he turns to the bongo drum, a small, wooden double drum, with the two heads turned away from each other and tuned a fifth apart, "on whose hide were heard the most sonorous glissandi with the palm of the hand"; then the botijuela, "a pot-bellied clay jar from whose lips pours forth a sound analogous to the pizzicatto [sic] of a bass"; and finally the claves, the two short wooden sticks that keep the beat in Cuban music, striking on each other with a sound as clear and penetrating as a hammer on an anvil.

To this list one could add the tall wooden conga drum, the small steel-sided timbales and those African rattles made of gourds and seeds--threaded on the outside in the case of the shekere, loose on the inside in the case of maracas. In Cuban music, drums merge with the instruments of the orchestra and the latter may be lured away completely from their melodic function to become part of the rhythm section. Thus the tres, a three-double-stringed guitar, provides a key rhythmic element in some genres (as the ukulele-like bandolim does in Brazilian samba). And with salsa, as played by big bands outside Cuba, the piano itself becomes a percussion instrument.

The incorporation of African polyrhythm and antiphonal chanting into Cuban dance music took place over centuries, as the population of free blacks expanded, the races became mixed and slaves and their descendants embraced aspects of European culture and adapted European musical instrumentation to their own purposes. With the rise of nationalism, as Brennan explains, the rigid racial hierarchy of colonial Cuba learned to accommodate and attach value to the resultant hybrid musical style. Cuba also had a long tradition of formal music in the Western tradition, though it was not always to the standards expected by its leading practitioners: In the midst of a dry account of researches in 19th century church archives, Carpentier uncovers this exasperated outburst in the report of a choir-master in Havana.

"Second contralto," writes the choir-master, "terrible voice, no expressiveness. Almost blind. When he [sic] sings, everyone starts laughing and the dogs run from the church."

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