Tuesday, November 14, 2006

From Afro-Cuban Rhythms

From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz
By Raul A. Fernandez
University of California Press

There are few artists who can guarantee sold out shows in jazz these days, but Chucho Valdés is one of them. Latin Jazz has become the great new hope for the music, providing artistic and commercial impetus. Raul Fernandez traces the development of Latin Jazz from its rhythmic roots in Cuban musical forms, like the danzón, son, rumba, and mambo, and profiles some of its leading innovators in From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz.

Latin rhythms have influenced jazz from the beginning. What Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish Tinge” Fernandez refers to as “sabor,” or flavor. He refers to a “gustatory imperative” in Cuban music that frequently references food, and likens Cuban musicians to chefs:

“The aesthetic of sabor is central to the ability of Cuban musicians to constantly mix formerly separate Cuban genres and to readily incorporate musical elements from other cultures, which are then re-elaborated and flavored to produce newer forms of Cuban music.” (p. 52-53)

Not surprisingly, percussionists have a prominent place in the development of Afro-Cuban Jazz. Mongo Santamaría pioneered a sabor blend: “his own particular fusion of jazz, soul, and Cuban sounds,” as exemplified by his hit recording of “Watermelon Man.” (p. 95) Armando Peraza, Patato Valdés, and Francisco Aguabella are given credit for bringing their particular drums to prominence in jazz. According to Fernandez: “What Peraza did for the bongos and Patato did for the congas, Aguabella did for the sacred bata drums in the United States.” (p. 124)

Valdés’ innovations even extended to the very design of his instrument with the “Patato-style” conga, featuring “tunable metal keys.” Fernandez describes the conditions percussionists faced prior to his invention:

“Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaría, and others, had used congas with the skins mailed on the head of the drum. This required them to light small fires or to hold candles under the open end of the drum in order to tune the sound upward. Patato’s idea eliminated what was a cumbersome and even dangerous practice.” (p. 113)

Other instrumentalists get their due as well. Bassist Israel "Cachao" López is credited for his role in the jam session descargas. In a development analogous to the Bebop revolution in America, Fernandez describes the significance of the sessions as: “for the first time, the hottest Cuban music was played in a manner designed less for dancing (although it is possible to dance to the tunes) than for listening.” (p. 78)

Fernandez is clearly a passionate devotee of Cuban music and Latin Jazz. Oddly though, in reading From Afro-Cuban one would hardly get the sense that any significant happened in Cuba around 1959. Separating artistic considerations from politics is not necessarily a bad thing—commendable even. However, when so many of the profiled artists are living or lived away from their Cuban homeland, it starts to beg the question.

Fernandez’s reluctance to address the realities of the Castro regime is particularly conspicuous in the discussion of Celia Cruz, who became a revered symbol for Cubans living in exile. Admittedly not a jazz artist rather shoe-horned in, Fernandez argues Cruz popularized Cuban musical forms throughout Latin America. He also gives props to her savvy career management:

“She personally selected each of the songs that became successful commercially, often against the advice of composers and promoters who wanted her to record something else. Celia studied the lyrics and music of tunes brought to her attention, sang them to herself, and decided which to record as well as which to discard.” (p. 151)

Latin Jazz may well be the most vital current in the music today. Fernandez has done much to document and popularize the music, curating the Smithsonian’s Latin Jazz exhibition. From Afro-Cuban is scholarly authoritative, but admittedly incomplete. He is clearly most comfortable addressing pre-revolutionary developments. By keeping the blinders on and ignoring the implications of Castro’s rule, which lead to the defection of many prominent jazz musicians like Bebo Valdés and Paquito D’Rivera, Fernandez misses a considerable part of the story of jazz in Cuba.