‘Tradicional Cubano’ Bring Sunshine to a Decidedly Autumnal Day in South Wales

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Zalba, Hernandez, Lecduona, Fernandez, Maztamoros: Tradicional Cubano [Jose Zalba-Smith (flutes, piano), Rubert Orue (tres), Peter Komor (double bass), Zands Duggan (percussion)] with guest Javier Zalba (flute, alto saxophone), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 23.9.2016. (GPu)

Javier Zalba (b.1955): Son
Rafael Hernandez (1892-1965): Capullito de Aleli*
Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963): La Comparsa*
Javier Zalba (b.1955): Allegro moderato from Suite Exposiciones
Joseito Fernandez (1908-1979) Guantanamera*
Miguel Maztamoros (1894-1971) Son de la Loma*
*arranged by Jose Zalba-Smith

Tradicional Cubano is at the ‘chamber music’ end of the spectrum of Cuban music. The group is essentially a quartet made up of flute, tres (a specifically Cuban instrument of the guitar family, which has three courses of strings), double bass and percussion. Not for them the blazing trumpet of an Arturo Sandoval, or the fiercely virtuosic piano of a Gonzalo Rubalcabo. As the programme listed above suggests, their focus, in terms of repertoire, is largely on the music of Cuban composers active in the 1930s and 40s (though, to be strictly accurate, Hernandez was from Puerto Rico, rather than Cuba). A number of the composers whose music was played in this concert, such as Lecuona, Javier Zalba and (I think) Miguel Matamoros, were classically trained. So too was the founder and director of Tradicional Cubano, Jose Zalba-Smith, whose studies included spells at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory in Havana (the city of his birth in 1984) and later at London’s Guildhall School. He has worked with a number of British orchestras including the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the orchestra of Welsh National Opera and the Southbank Sinfonia. As a soloist his performances of works by composers such as Bach, Vivaldi, Hindemith and Vasks have been widely praised.

None of this makes the music of Tradicional Cubano any less ‘Cuban’ than that of, say, Irakere or the Buena Vista Social Club, but it does give it a particular temper, in which the ‘European’ element in the complex synthesis that is Cuban music has greater prominence than the ‘African’ and other elements. Jose Zalba-Smith was steeped in the traditions of Cuban music from a very early age. He tells the story of how, when still a young boy, his father would, without his mother’s knowledge, take the boy from his bed “at stupid o’clock” and take him along to whichever club he was working in, usually placing him amongst the musicians! That father, Javier Zalba, having originally studied clarinet and flute in Havana at the National School of Art and the Ignacio Cervantes Conservatoire, worked in the legendary Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna and, later, in other bands of legendary status, such as Irakere, Cubanismo, the Cabaret Tropicana Orchestra, the Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro Cuban All Stars. Like his son, he also works regularly as a classical soloist.

Zalba senior had joined his son’s ensemble for their present tour, and his presence added significantly to the value of the occasion, On some numbers, such as ‘La Comparsa’ the two flutes of father and son made for some exciting music, whether when playing in absolute (or near) unison or developing musical dialogues. Jose Zalba-Smith switched to the piano to accompany his father in the first movement of his Suite Exposiciones, a striking piece which, while obviously having Cuban elements and a certain amount of jazz phrasing, reminded one, as much as anything, twentieth century French ‘classical’ music for saxophone.

The programme had begun with another composition by Javier Zalba (played before he had come on stage), called simply ‘Son’. Son, of course, was a distinctively Cuban style (one might call it a genre) of song and dance, blending elements of Spanish popular dance with Afro Cuban rhythms, in the quintessentially syncretic manner of Cuban music. It was particularly popular in the 1930s and 40s and was treasured long after that by many of the older musicians still playing (though one or two also found it rather restrictive). Zalba’s piece, in its decorous classicising of the genre had a somewhat nostalgic air to it and made an attractive opening to the concert. Tradicional Cubano continued with their version of ‘Capullito de Aleli’, one of the most enduringly popular of Rafael Hernandez’s songs (its popularity spread well beyond the shores of Cuba – it was in Nat King Cole’s repertoire in the 1950s and I am old enough to remember it being performed, not all that well, by Edmundo Ros and his Orchestra!). The aromatic (aptly!) quality of its melody was finely articulated by Jose Zalba-Smith, in his attractive arrangement. So too were the changing emotions of Lecuona’s ‘La Comparsa’ (which has been recorded by no less a figure than Placido Domingo, amongst many lesser artists), a song which starts quietly but percussively, and speaks both of drums and maracas and of “an intensely emotional sad song”, “que invita a soñar / al amoroso corazón” (“encourages the loving heart to dream”). The audience were invited to join in on the vocal chorus of the most familiar piece on the programme, ‘Guantanamera’ by Joseito Fernandez. However, the response from those of us in the audience was very poor and, on this occasion, at least, Wales was very much the muted Land of Song! The concert came to a more successful conclusion with an evocative performance of ‘Son de la Loma’, a tune made famous by the Trio Matamoros, a group whose popularity endured from the mid 1920s until 1969, with very few changes of personnel.

The work of percussionist Zands Duggan, using his hands far more than sticks, was a joy throughout and bassist Peter Komor (returning to familiar territory, since he is a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama) was harmonically sophisticated and propulsive at all times. I found, I confess, the playing of Rubert Orue a little on the colourless side.

In playing, in their own distinctively relaxed fashion, such classics of Cuban music from the first half of the twentieth century (plus two compositions by the happily still active Javier Zalba), Tradicional Cubano enchanted a large audience (the auditorium was almost full), who were constantly swaying to the rhythms of the music (even if they – and I include myself here – couldn’t find their voices when invited to sing!). The effect was to be bathed (aurally speaking) in Cuban sunshine at odds with the autumnal weather outside.

Glyn Pursglove

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