December 29, 1998

A Brief Overview of Cuban Music

By Aurelio De La Vega, Contacto Magazine

The history of Cuban music is a vast, intriguing, exciting and occasionally overwhelming fresco. From its nebulous origins to today's universal recognition, Cuban music has grown in stature, and its folkloric and popular aspects have progressively influenced the music-making of other cultures. After its inception in the mid-eighteenth century, and its formalization and development during the nineteenth, Cuban music first burst upon the international scene with great force in the 1920's. As with the music of other countries,Cuban music clearly offers two sides of a coin: one directly nurtured by folkloric elements and popular (and subsequently commercial) forms of expression, and another, more abstract and complex, where composers from Cuba have followed the difficult route of art music. This last form of communication, variably labeled as art music, classical music, serious music, or concert music, is the one less recognized in the international market-usually for lack of exposure-and often has been almost totally ignored by the Cubans themselves, from the writer to the laborer, from the politician to the industrialist, from the rich classes to the poor, from historians to avid lover of popular music. In many ways, as is usually the case with countries possessing a very rich folklore (and consequently voracious producers of dance and pop vocal music), Cuban popular music has vastly overshadowed Cuban art music.

The first music actually composed on Cuban soil, such as the works of Esteban Salas (1725-1803) or Juan París (1759-1845), is mostly sacred and vocal, along with some simple examples of symphonic and chamber music. It is a music totally rooted in European musical traditions, from minor doses of polyphonic forms, derived from Palestrina, di Lasso, Victoria or Handel, to homophonic examples, arising from Haydn and Telemann. One must wait until the early years of the nineteenth century to finally find the first utterances of a music which sounds different from its European origins, primarily in its rhythmic aspects. From the contradanza San Pascual Bailón (Anonymous, 1803) to the contradanzas of Manuel Saumell (1817-1870), which are the first and often exquisite accents of a truly Cuban music, a whole autochthonous sound finally takes shape within a few years. From then on the development, fertility and influence of Cuban music is assured.

The richness of Cuban music, mainly in the instrumental color and in the overpowering opulence of the rhythmic patterns, makes it contagious. Historically, many injustices and omissions have been committed regarding the recognition of the influence of Cuban music on the music of the United States. For example, forgetting that the proto-forms of ragtime music were brought from the Caribbean through New Orleans by the American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), many do not realize the extent of Cuban musical influence on the development of jazz, and often Afro-Cuban rhythmic formulas are mistakenly labeled as jazzy patterns of rhythmic activity. During the twenties and thirties, the Cuban bolero, the son, the rumba and the conga traveled throughout the world, often commercialized in the cheapest and most vulgar manner by Hollywood and by American music publishers, who produced a vast amount of dance sheet music for an eve growing and voracious public. At the same time, however, many so called "serious" American composers, from Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein, passing through Gershwin, were attracted by the luminosity and the catchy aspects of the rhythmic inventiveness of Cuban music and, accordingly, wrote works based on danzon and rumba patterns.

Cuban music is born from the rich amalgamation of Spanish folk music formulas and African rhythms, the latter brought to Cuba by the black slaves. (A very minor French influence -mainly Rameau-like dance patterns- brought by Haitian slaves and subsequently by white French plantation owners fleeing the slave revolt in Haiti, emerged in Santiago de Cuba, but was soon diluted and amounted to nothing). The phenomenal richness of Spanish folklore, mixed with the vigor of African music, created and explosive and exuberant musical tapestry. If harmonically or formally Cuban music has not invented anything original, melodically and rhythmically it has produced a staggering collection of easily recognizable patterns, which, as stated before, have traveled throughout the planet.

By the end of the eighteenth century, this Spanish-African musical concoction produces a dance music with strong popular roots that slowly erode the European court dances which had been, within the secular orbit, the entertainment of the emerging Creole upper classes. Carlo Borbolla (1902-1990) affirms that the basic, seminal, ever present Cuban tresillo (a sixteenth note, an eighth note and another sixteenth note), which is in reality the first beat in a two-four bar, followed by two eighth notes, appeared when popular musicians rhythmically misspelled the European triplet-a formula of two versus three in equal counting. The Cuban nineteenth century witnesses the quick evolution of a dance music rhythmically different from European models, which will rapidly influence the sophisticated piano compositions of Saumell and of Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905), as well as the heavily romantic works of Nicolás Ruiz Espadero (1832-1890). During this century Cuba produces its first internationally renowned instrumentalists, from pianist José Manuel ("Lico") Jiménez (1855-1917) and pianist-composer Cecilia Aritzi (1856-1930) to violinists Claudio José Domingo Brindis de Salas (1852-1911) and José White (1836-1912). Jiménez, after many world tours, settled in Germany. Active at the Weimar court, he was befriended by Liszt, married a German woman and died in Hamburg.

White also wrote works for piano, for harpsichord and orchestra, and for string quartet, his fame as a composer resting on a notable violin concerto and on the ever popular La Bella Cubana for violin and piano (later for voice and piano).

Of sociological-artistic relevance is the fact that Jiménez, Brindis de Salas and White were mulatto and black musicians who enjoyed singularly triumphant national and international careers, pointing to the recognition and importance of their music-making.

Other composers of the 1800's still heavily attached to European models include Gaspar Villate (1851-1891) and Laureano Fuentes Matons (1825-1898), both authors of operas which followed the French and Italian models (some of them premiered in Paris and Madrid); José Mauri (1855-1937), author of numerous zarzuelas and various symphonic pieces, and Guillermo Tomás (1868-1937).

Tomás was the only Cuban composer of that time to be heavily influenced by German music. As conductor, he introduced Cuba to not only the music of Wagner, but that of Richard Strauss (whose Thus Spake Zarathustra was heard in Havana only thirteen years after its premiere in Frankfurt) and of Max Reger.

But it is in the twentieth century that Cuban music fully blooms. Up to the Second World War, a full phalanx of composers of popular music create whole collections of canciones, danzones, sones, boleros, guajiras, guarachas, pregones, sones montunos, guaguancós, cha-cha-chás, mambos, rumbas, congas and tangos congos. From Jorge Ankermann (1877-1941), María Cervantes (1885-1981), Manuel Corona (1880-1950), Osvaldo Farrés (1902-1985), Sindo Garay (1887-1968), Eliseo and Emilio Grenet (1893-1950 and 1901-1941 respectively), Miguel Matamoros (1894-1971), Benny Moré (1920-1963), Dámaso Pérez Prado (b.1922), Rodrigo Prats (1910-1980), Antonio María Romeu (1876-1955), Moisés Simons (1844-1944) and René Touzet (b.1916) to Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino, Paquito D'Rivera, Chano Pozo, Israel López ("Cachao") and Gloria Estefan, the amount, variety, success and influence of the myriad of works they have composed and the stylistic tendencies they havecreated with their singing and playing, is truly outstanding.

Before turning to the realm of art music we should mention two composers who, although mainly operating within the boundaries of popular music, ventured into the bigger musical forms and thus occasionally partook of the characteristics of classical Cuban music.

They are Gonzalo Roig (1890-1970), whose Cuban operetta Cecilia Valdés (1932) and whose song Quiéreme mucho (1911) have circumnavigated the globe; and Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), whose lyrical theater works created an important collection of Cuban zarzuelas and whose best piano pieces have become world famous.

It is also in the tweentieth century that Cuban art music fully develops into a major contribution to Cuban history. The first two fully classical Cuban composers to embrace contemporary techniques (from Stranvinsky to Bartok) are Amadeo Roldán (1900-1939) and Alejandro García Caturla (1906-1940), whose rich and daring harmonic palette, embrace of the big symphonic forms, and magnificent use of orchestral forces catapult Cuban music into the international contemporary art music scene.

Roldán's two ballets La Rebambaramba (1928) and El Milagro de Anaquillé (1929), and Caturla's symphonic poem La Rumba (1933), remain imposing documents of Cuban art music.

From the historical pair of Roldán and Caturla to the present, Cuban art music has continued to grow in power and imagination, increasingly commanding respect and admiration. After these two composers, Cuban art music moves through the years of José Ardévol (1911-1981), a composer from Catalonia who settled in Cuba in the 30's and who was the founder and mentor of the first integral group of Cuban art music composers. Ardévol and these young composers shared common aesthetic and technical creeds, thus creating a true school of composition under the name Grupo de Renovación Musical. The Renovation Group included some of the composers who today are the elders of Cuban art music: Edgardo Martín (b.1915); Harold Gramatges (b.1918), recently the recipient of a new prestigious international composition prize created by the Spanish Sociedad General de Autores y Editores; Gisela Hernández (1912-1971); Hilario González (b.1920); and Argeliers León (1918-1988), who became an important Cuban musicologist and researcher.

Two composers who created their music independently from the aesthetic tenets of Ardevol's group are Julián Orbón (1925-1991), who lived in Mexico City and in New York, and Aurelio de la Vega (b.1925), who has resided in Los Angeles since 1959. Both are, according to musicologist Gerard Behague, the two best known Cuban art music composers of the latter part of the twentieth century.

Orbón, most interestingly and effectively, mixed Gregorian chant, old Spanish forms and modality, contemporary advanced harmonies and Cuban melo-rhythms to create a most poweful music framed by refined technical excellence. He was elected as a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters. De la Vega wrote the first atonal and then dodecaphonic Cuban works, and has composed electronic music pieces and major symphonic works widely played by orchestras throughout the world. He was twice the recipient of the coveted Friedheim Award of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Another composer whose activities mainly took place outside of Cuba is Joaquín Nin-Culmell (b.1908), classified by many as a Cuban-Spanish composer. A prolific composer, his works include ballet, opera, choral music, chamber music, vocal music and compositions for guitar and organ.

A most valuable and multifaceted younger group of Cuban art composers continues to expand the scope and importance of this type of music. It includes Sergio Fernández Barroso (b.1946), a resident of Canada for many years, whose computer music has brought him many accolades; Tania León (b.1943), based in New York, advisor to many American symphony orchestras and institutions, and very active as a conductor. She will premiere a new opera in Geneva in 1998; and Raúl Murciano, Orlando Jacinto García, Julio Roloff, Armando Tranquilino and Viviana Ruiz, all living in Miami.

Those residing in Cuba include Leo Brouwer (b.1939), who lives for long periods of time in Córdoba, Spain, where he founded and conducts that city's symphony orchestra, and whose international career as guitarist and as conductor equals his fame as a composer; Alfredo Diez Nieto (b.1918), whose compositions encompass symphonic, chamber and vocal music, Carlos Fariñas (b.1934), whose orchestral works are powerful, beautifully realized pieces, and Roberto Valera (b.1938), author of impressive choral works.

Stylistically, all those multifaceted art music composers, from Roldán to the present, have pushed Cuba into the forefront of universal music composition, employing polytonality, atonality, serial procedures, aleatoric elements, electronic media, open forms, graphic and proportional notation and post-serial modernist means of expression.

All in all, in both the realms of popular and art music, Cuban music remains vigorous, active, weighty, important and consequential. If one considers the physical dimensions of Cuba and its population, both inside and outside the island, the number of musical ensembles it has produced is truly remarkable. It is to be expected that the intensity of Cuban musical expression and the prestige it enjoys worldwide will continue to grow in the coming years. Suffice it to say that, at present, Cuban music, in all of its manifestations, constitutes a poweful revelation of the uniqueness of Cuban culture.

(De la Vega (b. 1925) is one of the most respected Cuban composers today. Living and working in California since 1959, his compositions have earned him numerous awards. His mini-bio may be found at the Contemporary Composers and The New Grove Dictionary of American Music.)

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