Afro-Cuban music, next to Marxism, has been one of the abiding passions of my life. I attended a concert at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center last night that featured two outstanding performances by Israel "Cachao" Lopez and Africando. While listening to these superlative musicians, I began to think about the socio-economic dimensions of this music of the African Diaspora and decided to write to the list on the subject this morning. My only regret is that the Zavarzadeh-Morton gang has fled. I'm sure this would have been just their cup of tea.
While I'm sure just about everybody is aware of the phenomenon of Afro-Cuban music, or the derivative "salsa", some words are in order about the origins of this music. Afro-Cuban music is distinguished by a rhythm known as "clave", the Spanish word for key. This is a one-two-THREE, one-two beat that underlies all the various forms, from Mambo to Rumba to Charanga (what evolved into the 1950s dance craze, the cha-cha.) The music is characterized by improvisations on a repeated theme that grow in intensity. Imagine Ravel's Bolero with a driving bongo beat and passionate lead singer and you get the idea.
The music is a marriage of African percussion and Spanish dance music that originated on the island of Cuba in the 1920s. A typical Afro-Cuban conjuto (band) consisted of African percussion instruments--bongo, timbale, conga--and some combination of brass, piano and strings. A key component was a coro (chorus) or lead singer who sang in a nasal, high-pitched style that evoked the folk singers of the countryside. Some musicologists speculate that this singing style was derived from the slaves' attempt to vocally imitate the sounds of the guitar that they heard being played inside the plantation.
Two of the great pioneers of the style were the blind guitar player Arsenio Rodriguez and bandleader Benny More. Rodriguez adopted the polite danzon style of the predominantly white middle-class Cuban society and adapted it for performance in working-class African dance-halls in the 1930s. His driving guitar and the tight percussion ensembles that accompanied him captured the imagination of Cuban society. More's band adapted the swing style of contemporaries like Count Basie and he performed before huge audiences in Havana throughout the 1940s and 50s. His music in turn influenced American Jazz, especially Dizzy Gillespie's Afro-Cuban Jazz orchestras of the 1940s and 50s. Gillespie hired the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo and the arranger Machito to help him incorporate the distinctive style.
The cross-fertilization of various forms of African Diaspora music eventually had an impact on Africa itself. In the 1950s merchant seamen arrived in Africa with phonograph records of the popular Afro-Cuban bands and African musicians were captivated by the sound. In the Belgian Congo and Senegal, local bands began to copy the style to the extent of featuring vocalists who sang the Spanish words phonetically. Eventually the African musicians blended the original Afro-Cuban style with their own indigenous styles and the result was Zaire's soukous or Ghana's high-life. The band named Africando that performed last night was distinctive in that it remained completely faithful to the Afro-Cuban style. The band was formed in 1992 by a Senegalese producer named Ibrahima Sylla and an arranger from Malin named Boncana Maiga. The lead singers are from Senegal and Benin. They have performed before adoring audiences in Cuba.
Cachao, the other performer was born in 1918. He plays bass and was a member of the Havana Symphony orchestra for 30 years. He invented the Mambo in the 1940s. He arrived in the United States in 1963 and has never performed in Cuba since the revolution. Along with the singer Celia Cruz, Cachao is a symbol of the generation of Afro-Cuban musicians who felt more comfortable as expatriates. Cruz is an outspoken enemy of the Cuban revolution, while Cachao keeps his beliefs to himself for the most part.
It is difficult, however, in the age of radio and records to isolate Cuban musicians from the mainland and vice versa. Cuban bands perform frequently in New York and continue to influence local musicians, while American bands heard over the radio have an impact on the Cubans. The latest sensation in Cuba is NG La Banda that has adapted elements of hip-hop.
Afro-Cuban music is the lingua franca of most of Spanish-speaking Latin and Central America. While each country has its own particular dance form such as the Colombian cumbia, the distinctive clave one-two-THREE, one-two can be heard everywhere.
What can also be heard everywhere are strongly nationalist and progressive song lyrics. For example, Puerto Rican Eddie Palmieri has written a number of songs that evoke the desire for independence. Ruben Blades, who made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency of Panama a few years ago, writes deeply political songs such as "El Tiburon" (the shark) which is a metaphor for American imperialism prowling in the waters of the Caribbean.
One of the most interesting Afro-Cuban performers to appear lately is the notorious Albita, an androgynous female singer who is about as close to an out-of-closet lesbian as one can be before Spanish-speaking audiences in Miami and New York where machismo still reigns. Albita often attracts personalities such as Madonna and Sandra Bernhardt to her performances. Albita, a recent arrival from Cuba, has also challenged the political prejudices of the exile community. She has refused to get on the anti-Castro bandwagon. This and her sexual ambiguity leaves an uneasy feeling with older Cubans but her powerful renditions of traditional Afro-Cuban melodies gives her a lot of authority. Her uneasy relationship to the island and to Cuban-American audiences is an apt expression for the tenuous political relations that exist as well. As is so often the case, it is music that offers the possibility of extending a bridge across these troubled waters.