Roll Over, Beethoven

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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.”

The early chapters of “Music in Cuba” are given over largely to ecclesiastical music in the 18th century and concert hall music in the early 19th. (This was a time when the slave system was still intact, when the cost of a clavichord, as reported in a bill of sale, was just twice that of a boy slave.) Carpentier credits a Louisiana-born pianist and composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who arrived in Havana in the 1850s, with first incorporating Afro-Cuban percussion into a formal work, his symphony, “A Night in the Tropics.” Gottschalk was an unabashed sensualist, for whom Cuba was an interracial playground. “Our ideas on dance,” he wrote in a letter to his publisher, “evoke but memories of a sickly gymnastics performed in the company of beautiful women.” “On the other hand,” he adds, “the dancing of blacks encompasses an entire poetic realm ... love, suffering, all linked up into a tumultuous and inflexible rhythm.”

“Una noche en el tropico” was performed in Havana in 1861. On this occasion, Carpentier tells us--and here we may discern the touch of the future magical realist--40 pianos competed with the complete drumming arsenal of a cabildo, one of the self-help associations central to Afro-Cuban society. Later figures such as Ignacio Cervantes, a pupil of Gottschalk, and, in the 20th century, Alejandro Garcia Caturla continued this process of assimilation. Garcia Caturla, a provincial judge and musical prodigy, who died at 34 in 1940, was the closest to a Villa Lobos or Gershwin to come out of Cuba. His works include an orchestral piece, “La Rumba,” and settings of a number of Carpentier’s own Afro-Cuban poems. He would doubtless be better known if he had not died young.

The African influence in Cuba also helped erode the distinction between elite and popular music. By the early 19th century urban growth in Havana meant that 50 or more public dances were held every day. The dance halls were the site of maximum hybridity, mixing genres equally derived from European and Afro-Cuban traditions--minuets, contradanzas brought by the French from Haiti, congos, boleros, polkas and guarachas. This was world music avant la lettre. Yet the location of the most variegated and elaborate African drumming, the trance-dance rituals of regla de ocho, or Santeria, were still rarely observed by non-blacks. Carpentier, though aware of the source of polyrhythm in the temples of Afro-Cuban religion, delved nowhere as deeply into them as he did into the archives of Cathedral choirs.


Here one can sense the hesitancy of a Cuban intellectual so cosmopolitan, so Europeanized that the waspish exiled writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante has referred to him as a “pretender with a French lisp.” Polyrhythm has its own history, largely unwritten, hard to reconstruct. Carpentier’s detailed knowledge of the European sources of musical genres is not matched here by an understanding of the sacred origins of particular African rhythms (a knowledge that is preserved in the liturgy of Afro-Cuban religion) nor by a historical analysis of the African points of origin of the slaves who brought this music to Cuba. So we hear of lucumi, the Cuban version of Yoruba religious ritual, but we do not learn anything of Yorubaland, where it comes from, even though the title of Carpentier’s first novel, “Ecue-Yamba-O” (1933), written some years before “Music in Cuba,” is actually a Yoruba phrase.

It is partly a technical problem. When “Music in Cuba” was written, the tools and even the vocabulary for a musicological analysis of African polyrhythm were still at an experimental stage. Carpentier mentions a turn-of-the-century composer, Amadeo Roldan, who conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time in Havana; the same Roldan, he notes, also devised the earliest system of notation for the range of percussive, frictive, shaking and caressing sounds that are found in Afro-Cuban percussion. Carpentier also makes respectful mention of his contemporary Fernando Ortiz, a pioneer in the field of Afro-Cuban ethnology, explaining that Ortiz lacked the musicological knowledge to record the drumming patterns he observed. Readers who are hoping to get closer to a technical understanding of, say, the deceptive combination of regular pulses and offbeat accents that constitutes the beat in rumba or son or to deepen their understanding of the layering of rhythm in Afro-Cuban ensemble music may be disappointed. “Music in Cuba” is, nevertheless, a remarkable and groundbreaking book, indispensable for those with a serious interest in the subject. This first English edition is elegantly produced, and Brennan’s introduction situates Carpentier most effectively in the historical matrix of race and class in Cuba and the debates of today’s theorists of cultural globalization. It’s a pity the book can’t be accompanied by a sampling of the radio programs that Carpentier was making during the same period, all presumably now lost.

The book appears just as another craze for Cuban music grips the world. For 1930s Paris was not, of course, the first or last time that Cuba was to be fashionable. Carpentier traces the earliest of Havana’s musical exports to the early 19th century: This was the contradanza, a term that turns out to be a corruption, via Italian and French, of the English “country dance” (the favored recreation of the great-grandmothers of the daughters of Albion that Carpentier encountered in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s). Today albums and global tours by venerable musicians such as the Afro-Cuban All Stars and the Buena Vista Social Club are finding new audiences for music that Cubans have been dancing to since before the Revolution. (For example, a recent Hollywood Bowl concert of the Buena Vista Social Club played to an adoring sell-out crowd of some 17,000.)

Meanwhile, the echoes of previous Cuban invasions still resound: rumba in the 1930s, mambo in the 1940s, salsa in the 1950s. Of all the countries of the Americas, Cuba has been the most consistent source of new music and dance styles. It is rivaled only by Brazil: on the world stage rumba, mambo and cha-cha-cha vie, one after another, with samba and bossa nova. (Salsa, the most ubiquitous of Cuban musical genres, is, strictly speaking, extraterritorial: It was developed by Cubans in New York from the autochthonous son --a genre now made familiar in its own right by the Buena Vista Social Club--with added touches of American swing and Puerto Rican dance music.) Finally, rumba, the most percussive of Cuban styles, has been exported back to Africa, engendering the dominant form of Congolese pop, soukous, a new hybrid in the birthplace of rhythmicity. Today these global exchanges of culture are turbocharged by a transnational music industry hungry for new product. Cuba shows no sign of running out of this endlessly renewable resource. *