Alfredo Triff 21 broken melodies at once. (Harmonies From Small to Large Nation).
No Spanish-speaking nation currently enjoys such widespread global appreciation of its music as does Cuba. In part, this unfaltering adulation can be attributed to the ease with which such elemental Cuban forms as bolero, mambo, and cha-cha were integrated into the music culture of many nations decades ago. The small island country's adroitness at assimilating a broad range of sacred and popular music idioms from African and European classical and popular sources and rendering them into expressive new hybrids is also a significant factor. Perhaps most importantly, a wide variety of Cuban styles appeal to non-Cuban audiences on a visceral level few non-Cuban idioms have been able to match.
A perfect example is Amistad 404, a long overdue survey of the artistry of Cuban composer Gonzalo Roig. In 1922 the Havana native founded the Havana Symphony Orchestra, but just five years later took over direction of the city's Municipal Band. Such versatility, says the album's producer, Roberto Fontanillas-Roig, the composer's grandson, served to emphasize Roig's often-voiced opinion that "music is one, each gender has its own dignity." Indeed, Roig was one of the first in his land to present the Creole side of Cuba's national culture to the country's middle and upper social classes. He made, as one observer at the time put it, "maracas, clave, and guiro ... respectable instruments."
Roig composed such popular classics as the beloved "Quiereme Mucho," his best known work, as well as operettas and suites. Pianist and arranger Reinaldo Casas, trumpeter Adalberto Lara, saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, and half a dozen vocalists are featured on this loving, meticulously crafted tribute to the late maestro in a program that explores both the popular and classical side of his craft. Roig passed away in 1970, just before the Cuban music entered its latest renaissance. The thirty-six-page bilingual booklet, replete with historic photos of the cigar-chomping musician and detailed biographical information, sheds new light on the personal and professional life of this important composer.
Cuban violinist Alfredo Triff creates a haunting, dramatic vision of Cuban music in the new century on his absorbing 21 Broken Melodies at Once. The album's broad aural palette, which ranges from elemental Afro-Cuban percussion to unstructured, free-flowing soloing, splashes of electronic effects, and deftly appropriated snippets of old-style Cuban dance music, represents a true break from the overly reverential approach to the tradition that continues to place even Cuba's most creative musicians in something of a stylistic straightjacket.
For instance, on the tune "Sitiera," vocalist Xiomara Lougart and Triff alone shape the nostalgic form of a classic danzon in an entrancing exercise of minimalist art. Bassist Andy Gonzalez, saxophonist Yosvany Terry Cabrera, and drummer Horacio Hernandez are among the small cast of supporting musicians who respond to the leader's unconventional whims, but it is Triffs shimmering violin and free-spirited concepts that make the release so rewarding.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings makes available for the first time to a wide audience rare field recordings captured in Havana and Matanzas, Cuba, in 1957 by ethnographer Lydia Cabrera and photographer Josefina Tarafa on two complementary releases. The tracks were taken from fourteen LPs originally released in 1958. The ritual drumming and chanting captured here, central to the practice of santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion, is a bridge to more fully understanding and appreciating aspects of complex West African cultural influences that remain especially fertile in Cuba to this day.
A regular contributor to Americas, Mark Holston is a musician and journalist.