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Cuba has diverse origins for its music. Both Spanish and African influences are readily apparent to the casual listeners of Cuban songs and music.

A great Colorado based Cuban band: Me and Julio

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A History of Cuban Concert Music
by Aurelio de la Vega


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-18th century, and its formalization and development during the 19th century, Cuban music first burst upon the international scene with great force in the 1920s. 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, concert music, is the one less recognized in the international market-usually for lack of exposure-and often is ignored by Cubans themselves. 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 19th 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 Mañuel Saumell (1817-1870), which are the first exquisite accents of a truly Cuban music, a whole autonomous sound finally takes shape within a few years.

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. The phenomenal richness of Spanish folklore, mixed with the vigor of African music, created an 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 have traveled throughout the planet.

By the end of the 18th century, this Spanish-African musical concoction produced a dance music with strong popular roots that slowly eroded the European court dances which had been, within the secular orbit, the entertainment of the emerging Creole upper classes. Carlo Borbolla (1902-1990) affirmed that the basic and ever-present Cuban tresillo (a sixteenth note, an eighth note and another sixteenth note, followed by two eighth notes), appeared when popular musicians rhythmically misinterpreted the European triplet-formula of two versus three in equal counting.

The Cuban 19th century witnessed the quick evolution of a dance music rhythmically different from European models, which rapidly influenced 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 produced its first internationally renowned instrumentalists: from pianist José Manuel ("Lico") Jiménez (1855-1917) and pianist-composer Cecilia Aritzi (1856-1930), to violinists Claudio José Dominongo Brindis de Salas (1852-1911) and José White (1836-1912).

White 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.

Other composers of the 1800s 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 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 not only to the music of Wagner, but that of Richard Strauss and of Max Reger.

But it is in the 20th 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, danzóns, sons, boleros, guajiras, guarachas, pregones, sones montunos, guaguancós cha-cha-chás, mambos, rumbas, congas and tangos congos.

Many do not realize the extent of Cuban musical influence on the music of the United States and the development of jazz. During the '20s and '30s, the Cuban bolero, son, rumba and conga traveled throughout the world, often commercialized by Hollywood and by American music publishers, who produced a vast amount of dance music for an ever growing and voracious public. At the same time, however, many "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 danzón and rumba patterns.

We should mention two Cuban 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 in the 20th 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 Stravinsky to Bartók) are Amadeo Roldán (1900-1939) and Alejandro Garcia Caturla (1906-1940), whose rich and daring harmonic palette, embracing 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.

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 '30s 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), Gisela Hernández (1912-1971); Hilario Gonzalez (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 Ardévol'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. Orbón most interestingly and effectively, mixed Gregorian chant, old Spanish forms and modality, contemporary advanced harmonies and Cuban rhythms to create a most powerful music framed by refined technical excellence. De la Vega wrote the first atonal and dodecaphonic Cuban works, and has composed electronic music pieces and major symphonic works. Another composer whose activities mainly took place outside of Cuba is Joaquin Nin-Culmell (b.1908), classified by many as Cuban-Spanish. 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 symphony orchestras and institutions and very active as a conductor; and Raúl Murciano, Orlando Jacinto García, Julio Roloff, Armando Tranquilino and Viviana Ruiz, all living in Miami.

Those residing in Cuba include Leo Brouwer (1939), who divides his time between Havana and Córdoba, 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 modernist means of expression.

In both the realms of popular and art music Cuban music remains vigorous, important, and consequential. If one considers the physical dimensions of Cuba and its population, both inside and outside the island, the number of musical creators and performers 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 powerful revelation of the uniqueness of Cuban culture.


--Cuban-born composer and Los Angeles resident Aurelio de la Vega is emeritus professor of music at California State University, Northridge, California.

 

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