From Havana, a Snapshot of Cuban Music
On a recent visit to Havana, Cuba’s capital, my wife and I encountered music everywhere we turned. At breakfast in our hotel, we were surprised to find chamber music groups playing Bach and Chopin, and at all times of day, Cuban trios and quartets played and sang everything from Lecuona to Piazzola. Three young music students whom I spotted in the street expressed their worries about obtaining good-quality reeds for their bassoons, clarinets and oboes. At the Callejon de Hamel we heard the sound of Batá drummers playing rhythms intrinsic to the Santería religion—rhythms that push the limits of human music-making. I remember at one point turning to my wife and saying, “Did you hear what I just heard?” as an untutored female drummer began to play a two-against-three pattern in counterpoint to her colleagues, who somehow figured out what she was up to.
One of the trip’s high points was a mid-day concert at the Teatro Lírico Nacional de Cuba by Vocal Leo, the group founded by Corina Campos, the most significant figure in Cuban choral music. The selections ranged from traditional favorites such as Eliseo Grenet’s El Manisero (“The Peanut Vendor”) through a group of songs for chamber choir from De Rondas, refranes y trabalenguas (“Roaming, Refrains and Tongue-Twisters”) by Leo Brower, Cuba’s most important contemporary composer. Brower has embraced his Cuban roots in his use of complex polyrhythms, and dabbled in 20th-century atonality with equal success.
Trained in the Cuban Music Conservatory system, the young people of Vocal Leo handled the composer’s harmonic asperities and laid-back syncopations with flair and a sense of fun. Their chameleonic vocal production is a thing of wonder itself, as they switch from the kind of sound that would befit 17th-century Italian madrigals to the trademark belt voice of the great Cuban pop singers of the 20th century, notably María Teresa Vera and Benny Moré. The sopranos sit in their upper range endlessly floating high notes, the basses anchor things with a nice plummy tone, and the altos and tenors blend with an unfailingly generous and full sound.
Further listening to their recording titled Colibrí (which we received a as parting gift), reinforced our impression that music is alive and well and thriving in the pretty island ninety miles from our shores. The final three tracks feature solo turns by the group’s members, in three different spirituals arranged by Moses Hogan. Their perfectly-idiomatic English and their low–down swing reinforced my conviction that Afro-American and Afro-Cuban music are but two wings of the same bird.
Music-related encounters were everywhere. A lady from whom I bought a couple of photographs in an open-air market shared with me her excitement about her son, who was just able to buy a Canadian lute from a Toronto instrument-maker on a visit to Havana. During a visit to Estudios Abdala, one of the city’s famous famous sound recording destinations, I met Douglas Vistel and Almuth Krausser, a Cuban cello player and his German wife on an extended visit to record and play all six Bach cello suites. They were deep in the editing process, but they let me have a moment to listen to one of their takes. In a word: superb.
On a walking tour of the old city we glanced at the outside of the Teatro Nacional, where the Ballet Nacional of Cuba performs often during the winter. The immaculately-renovated 17th- century Basilica Menor del Convento de San Francisco de Asis is a stunner, and hosts chamber music concerts several times a month. Elsewhere in town, in the Vedado neighborhood, the jewelbox Amadeo Roldán Auditorium has seen a host of musical luminaries since its opening in 1939, and is now home to the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba.
On our last night, we watched a Las Vegas-style revue in which an older black gentleman demonstrated that all it takes to steal the show is a pair of leathery hands beating mind-bending cross-rhythms on a plain set of timbales.
Rafael de Acha