From polka to polyrhythm
Alejo Carpentier and the triumphant hybridity of Cuban musicBy John Ryle • 6 July 2001 • The Times Literary Supplement • Los Angeles Times ("Roll over, Beethoven" ) • Music in Cuba by Alejo Carpentier, translated by Alan West-Durán and edited by Timothy Brennan • Revised with afterword • Posted 2016 • 2,615 words
In 1922, in a dispatch from France, the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier noted a new fashion there for the music of his home country. “There is nothing more contemporary,” he wrote, “nothing more now in Paris these days than the abrupt and unexpected triumph of Cuban music.”
It was a sentiment he was to return to a year or so afterwards, this time with an ironic tip of the hat to the women of England.
“Even the pallid daughters of Albion,” he wrote on this occasion, “forget for a moment their Pre-Raphaelite poses by burying themselves in the sonorous sortilege of the Antilles.”
The youthful Carpentier, later one of the begetters of magical realism in fiction, was a journalist and radio producer from Havana, reporting on life in the European metropolis for an audience back in Cuba. Behind the arch tone in which he described the pre-eminence of Cuban musicians in Parisian night clubs lies a complex response on the part of a classically trained pianist, one who was learned in European musical history, to this effervescence of popular music. For Carpentier, his Europhile background was in permanent tension with his conviction that Cuban cultural nationalism must be defined by negrismo, an avant-gardiste movement which—though it was composed mainly of white intellectuals like himself—stressed blackness and Africanity, rather than European traditions, as the principal source of Cuban national identity.
Music in Cuba, written almost two decades after Carpentier’s first sojourn in Paris, is, as Timothy Brennan explains in his introduction, a pioneering attempt to resolve this contradiction, to chronicle the historical confluence of the two musical streams—from Europe and Africa—which produced the special richness of the Cuban musical tradition. In Cuba, to a greater extent 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 musical canon brought by slave-owners from Europe.
“We still remember the marvellous stupor,” writes Carpentier (the translation may be over-literal here), “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 marímbula, a bass instrument derived from the central and southern 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. Then 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” and the botijuela, “a pot-bellied clay jar from whose lips pours forth a sound analogous to the pizzicatto [sic] of a bass”.
Finally, in Carpentier’s catalogue raisonnée of percussive instruments, come the claves, the two short wooden sticks that keep the beat in Cuban music, striking on each other with a sound as penetrating as a hammer on an anvil.
To this list of the armamentarium of a Cuban musical ensemble one could add the tall wooden conga drum, the small steel-sided timbales, and a range of 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 the more familiar maraca. 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 ukelele-like bandolim does in Brazilian samba). And in the case of salsa, as played by big bands outside Cuba, the piano itself becomes, effectively, a percussion instrument.
“When he sings, everyone starts laughing and the dogs run from the church”
The incorporation of African polyrhythm and antiphonal chanting into Cuban dance music was a process that took place over centuries, as the population of free blacks expanded and the population 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 Timothy 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. This, however, was not always to the standards expected by its leading practitioners. Thus, in the midst of a dry account of researches in nineteenth-century church archives, Carpentier uncovers the following 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 eighteenth century and concert hall music in the early nineteenth. At this time in the West Indies the slave system was still intact. The cost of a clavichord, as reported in a bill of sale, was just twice that of a boy slave.
Towards the end of this period, it seems, a critical moment of fusion occurs. Carpentier credits a Lousiana-born pianist and composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who arrived in Havana in the 1850s, with being the first to incorporate Afro-Cuban percussion into a formal composition, in his symphonic work, A Night in the Tropics. Gottschalk, in Carpentier’s account, was an unabashed sensualist for whom Cuba was an interracial playground.
“Our ideas on dance,” Gottschalk wrote of the European dance tradition in a letter to his publisher, “evoke but memories of a sickly gymnastics performed in the company of a beautiful woman.”
“On the other hand,” he continued, “the dancing of blacks encompasses an entire poetic realm… love, suffering, all linked up into a tumultuous and inflexible rhythm.”
Gottschalk’s Una noche en el trópico was first performed in Havana in 1861. On this occasion, Carpentier tells us, forty pianos competed with the complete drumming arsenal of a cabildo, one of the self-help associations central to Afrocuban culture. Here, in the picture of a multitude of pianos and drums, we can discern the touch of the future magical realist (unless, as is possible, “forty pianos” is a mistranscription of “forte piano”, the precursor of the piano forte).
Later figures such as Ignacio Cervantes, a pupil of Gottschalk, and, in the twentieth century, Alejandro García Caturla, continued this process of assimilation. García Caturla, a provincial judge and musical prodigy, who died aged 34 in 1940, seems to have been the closest thing 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 be better known, no doubt, if he had not died young.
A site of maximum hybridity
The African influence in Cuba also helped erode the distinction between elite and popular music. By the early nineteenth century urban growth in Havana meant, according to Carpentier, that fifty or more public dances were held every day. (Perhaps there is a touch of magical realism here also.) The dance halls were the site of maximum hybridity, mixing genres equally derived from European and Afrocuban traditions—contradanzas brought by the French from Haiti, congós, minuets, boleros, polkas and guarachas. It was world music avant la lettre.
Even so, the most variegated and elaborate examples of African drumming, as found in the trance-dance religious rituals of regla de ochó, or Santeria, which is the most prominent of the West African belief systems of Cuba, occupied a realm still rarely entered by non-blacks. Carpentier himself, though he was aware of the source of polyrhythm in the temples of Afrocuban religion, delved nowhere near as deeply into such places as he did into the archives of Cathedral choirs.
In this respect one can sense the hesitancy of a cosmopolitan Cuban intellectual, one who was europeanized to such an extent that the waspish exiled Cuban writer Gulliermo Cabrera Infante, writing half a century later, dismissed him as a “pretender with a French lisp”. African polyrhythm has its own history, largely unwritten, hard to reconstruct, and Carpentier’s detailed knowledge of the European sources of musical genres is not matched by an understanding of the sacred origins of particular African rhythms (the knowledge that is preserved in the liturgy of Afrocuban religion). Nor does Carpentier offer any historical analysis of the African points of origin of the slaves who brought this music to Cuba. Thus we hear of lucumí, the Cuban version of Yoruba religious ritual, but we do not learn anything of Yorubaland itself, that is the area of West Africa, part of present-day Nigeria and Dahomey (or Benin), where it originates. And this is despite the fact that Carpentier, in the spirit of negrismo, had previously borrowed a Yoruba phrase for the title of his first novel, ¡Écue–Yamba–ó! (Praised Be God! 1933), which was written well before Music in Cuba.
It is partly a technical problem. When Music in Cuba was written, the tools and vocabulary for a musicological analysis of African polyrythm were still at an experimental stage. Carpentier mentions a turn-of-the-century composer, Amadeo Roldán, who conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time in Havana; the same Roldán, 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 own contemporary Fernando Ortiz, a pioneer in the field of Afrocuban ethnology. He explains, though, that Ortiz lacked the musicological knowledge to record the drumming patterns that he observed.
Thus readers of this book may be disappointed if they are hoping to deepen their technical understanding of Afrocuban ensemble music and its distinctive layering of rhythm—if they are seeking, say, an analysis of the deceptive combination of regular pulses and offbeat accents that constitutes the beat in rumba or son. Yet Music in Cuba is a remarkable and ground-breaking work, still indispensable for those with an interest in this subject. This, the first English edition, is elegantly produced (though the English translation is shaky), with an introduction that situates Carpentier effectively in the historical matrix of race and class in Cuba and in 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 programmes that Carpentier was making during the same period, all of which are now presumably lost to posterity.
A new craze for Cuban music
The translation of Music in Cuba appears, not coincidentally, just as a new craze for Cuban music grips the world. Paris in the 1930s was neither the first nor the last time that Cuba was to be hip. Carpentier traces the earliest of Havana’s musical exports back to the early nineteenth century: this was the Haitian-derived contradanza, a term that despite its air of Latinate precision, turns out to be a corruption, via Italian and French, of the English “country dance” (that is to say the favoured recreation, as previously noted, of the great-grandmothers of those pallid, bedazzled daughters of Albion that Carpentier encountered in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s). Today albums and global tours by venerable popular musicians from Cuba—such as the Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro-Cuban All Stars—are finding new audiences for music that Cubans were dancing to well before the Revolution. The Buena Vista Social Club, already successful in Europe, recently played to a sell-out crowd of 17,000 at the Hollywood Bowl.
And 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 rivalled in this only by Brazil. On the world stage, rumba, mambo and cha-cha-cha vie historically with Brazilian samba and bossa nova. On the Cuban side there is also salsa, the best-known and most ubiquitous of Cuban musical genres. Salsa, though, is, strictly speaking, extraterritorial. Developed by Cubans in New York, it builds on the autochthonous Cuban son—the rhythm that has now been made familiar in its own right by the Buena Vista Social Club—with added touches of American swing and Puerto Rican dance rhythm.
Finally rumba, the most percussive and rootsy of Cuban styles, has been exported back to Africa, engendering the dominant form of Congolese pop, soukous. Thus another hybrid strain is formed in the birthplace of rhythmicity. Today, rumba and son feature increasingly in West African pop music as well. These global exchanges of culture are turbo-charged by a transnational music industry hungry for new product. Cuba shows no sign of running out of this endlessly renewable resource. ★
The quotations that open this review—Carpentier’s pronouncement that “There is nothing more contemporary, nothing more now in Paris… than the unexpected triumph of Cuban music…” and the sentence beginning “Even the pallid daughters of Albion…”—were taken, in their English translation, from the editor’s introduction to Music in Cuba.
In the book they are dated 1922 and sourced, in a footnote, as “‘Sóngoro Cosongo…. en París,’ Obras Completas (Coyoacán: Siglo veintiuno, 1985), 8:32”. (This cited article by Carpentier is one of the cronicás, or commentaries, that he wrote from Paris for the Havana monthly Carteles, a magazine that took its name from an Afro-Cuban poem by Nicolás Guillén.)
The attribution, however, is not quite correct. Neither passage is found in “Sóngoro Cosongo…”, which was written and published in 1934 (Obras Completas VIII, pages 320 to 324). The first sentence is found elsewhere, in an earlier cronicá written for Carteles, “La Consagracion de nuestros ritmos” (Obras Completas VIII, pages 211 to 216, dated 10 April 1922. In the Spanish the passage quoted is phrased as a rhetorical question: “¿Y habrá algo más actual en París, por los días que corren, que el auge repentino, casi inesperado de la musica Cubana ?”). The second sentence quoted, the “pallid daughters of Albion” is a passage from a third article, “Las nuevas ofensivas del cubanismo” (1929, Obras Completas VIII, p. 251).
“Las pálidas hijas de Albión,” runs the original, “olvidan por un instante sus poses prerrafaelistas, al enterarse del sortilegio sonoro que viene de las Antillas.”
Thanks to Timothy Brennan, editor of the English translation of Music in Cuba, for his assistance in correcting the misattribution in the book.
Carpentier, Dr Brennan points out in a further e-mail, went to Paris quite young, attending the Lycée Jeanson de Sailly before he was 16, and he remained, like many Cubans, constantly in contact with French tastes and fashion, translating French authors and reviewing their books while still in his early 20s (hence Cabrera Infante’s taunt about “the French pretender” quoted above).
Dr Brennan also provides elucidation of the reference to a male contralto in the remark from the nineteenth-century Havana choirmaster that was cited by Carpentier and quoted in the review above.
“It appears,” Dr Brennan writes, “that a contralto can either be male or female. If male, it can simply be the term used for the highest male voices of the choir (above an alto) or, more specifically, a vocalist trained in the techniques of falsetto. It can also mean a castrato.”