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Project: Cuban Music

Havana, Cuba.

In the Burkina Faso project, I learned the key to understanding the African music is “clave” (rhythmic pattern used for temporal organization). My destination this time was Cuba, where clave was introduced and developed.

In Cuba, one pianist may play with an orchestra in the morning, in an electronic music group in the afternoon, and in a salsa bar at night. Cuban musicians seem to savor the art and freedom of music, with the constant beat of clave like the heart of all music.

Cuban Music – Introduction

In Burkina Faso I discovered the key to understanding the African music is “clave” (a rhythmic pattern used for temporal organization). In Cuba where clave was introduced from Africa, I found that music had developed further, creating a Cuban style with African influence as well as incorporating other various musical genres. Cuban musicians are so skilled that they can savor the art and freedom of music whatever the style.

For this Cuban music project I went to Havana to meet Aldo López Gavilan, one of the most prominent young pianists and composers in Cuba. Prior to my trip I saw his performances on YouTube and was impressed by his dynamic playing – incredible for one man show. But Aldo is even more powerful in person – his existence itself seems musical, his body is like an extension of his instrument, and his playing, though unaccompanied, is as if listening to a whole orchestra. He has the ability to create a refreshing world no matter what he plays – classical, jazz, fusion music.

Aldo was surrounded by many first class musicians. He introduced me to the master of percussion, Ruy López-Nussa, so that I could learn about clave and Cuban rhythm. Ruy teaches at the Havana Conservatory and he enjoys teaching, playing and listening to others play percussion. It was obvious from his attitude how much he loves everything about percussion.

I ended making a number of trips to Havana. The first time, I was totally overwhelmed by the variety and depth of Cuban music while being fascinated by my introduction to the world of such masters as Aldo and Ruy. At the time, I was only able to understand that Cuban music is not simple enough to be explained by clave alone. However, through a few return trips to Havana – meeting more musicians, taking more lessons, and learning to converse better in their language each time – I came closer to understanding what makes Cuban music so powerful.

Cuban Music Lessons – Salsa, Rumba and Clave

Cuban music lessons by the master of percussion Ruy López-Nussa started with the “son”. The music of “son” may seem familiar to Latin American music fans since it’s the music for Salsa dancing. The rhythm of son’s clave, played by a pair of wooden sticks (the claves), accompanied by percussions makes the base of son music. The basic set of percussion in son music includes conga, a staved wooden shell with animal skin drumhead, and bongo, a pair of single-headed, open-ended drums attached to each other. We chose to concentrate on the claves and conga for me to learn the basics.

First, the conga. It gives different notes depending on the way we hit, like the African drum djembe. With this kind of percussion that we hit with our bear hands, it is very important to get the right sound, which tends to require patience at the beginning. The animal skin on top seems thicker than that of djembe and its sound seems more round. Learning Cuban rhythm is not like in Africa where we learn by imitation without writing or counting. Here, Ruy explained by a musical score and by demonstration. Until the body can remember the rhythm, the score is our best friend.

Once we can play the rhythms of “son” with a conga, we move on to playing it with the claves (an instrument made from wooden sticks). There is a specific way to hold the claves to produce the proper sound we expect. Although clave’s rhythm in son is simple in itself, it becomes difficult when we mix in the complex rhythms of other instruments. It is said that “the difference between Cuban professional musicians and foreign musicians is whether they can play freely with clave on top of the beat”. Cuban musicians have the ability to repeat clave even if they are interrupted by something else, appearing to me almost intrinsic skill.

While learning the basics of “son” music with Ruy, I started learning Salsa dancing, which cannot be separated from “son” itself. Again, at the core is son’s clave. With the beat and clave in mind, I practiced the steps and the movements. Once the son’s clave became familiar to me in the music and through dance, I started to learn the clave rhythm of rumba. It seems there is only a small difference – the last sound of the clave is slightly later for rumba – but it creates a totally different atmosphere in the music. When rumba dancing we have to use back and hip mustles that we do not use every day. The many corrections from my teacher, “no, it’s not Salsa!”, gave me a deep appreciation for how different they truly are.

Cuban music has beat and score, originating from European music. Cuban music also has clave, with roots in Africa. The combined base of beat and clave makes it possible, for example, for a good percussionist to play off-beat, giving a magical twist to his/her improvisation. I have seen a Cuban jazz pianist playing the piano while at the same time tapping out the rhythm of clave with his feet, giving dance like effects to his music and performance. It seems to me that this marriage of European and African music is what makes Cuban music so technically rich.

Cuban Music – Love and Life

Cuban music seems so bright and joyful; full of love and happiness. Clave beats continuously at heart while percussion repeats complex rhythms, then piano, singing, and other instruments get together with certain chemistry to create harmony and powerful energy. Through my fascination with Cuban music, I was drawn to understand their world. I started by studying Spanish, then flew to Havana to meet Aldo López Gavilan and learn Cuban percussion, and to partake in private lessons of Salsa and Rumba. In doing all this, I came to understand that Cuban music has a multitude of genres with much more complexity and depth than I realized at the start. I kept thinking, however, that there should be some underlying key theme that makes their music “Cuban”.

Then, what is their key theme – the secret that makes Cuban music so powerful – and where to look? In search for a meaningful answer, I went back to Havana to meet prominent musicians and ask them directly:

What is Cuban music for you? What is important in Cuban music?

Although each musician had a different way to express it, it all came down to a common set of equations: music = love = life. They love music unconditionally. Their music is about love and life, and their life is about music. I was deeply touched by hearing their voices explain the strong feelings toward their music.

Below are their answers, with my translations:

I love Cuban music like I love life. It is really is rich. – Maykel Blanco (director, pianist of Maykel Blanco y Salsa Mayor)

So diverse as is life, so necessary as the air, so refreshing as a smile, so intoxicating as a mojito.. It [Cuban music] is the reason why I feel proud to be Cuban. – David Torrens (guitarist, Singer song writer)

The most important part is the harmony. Without music I wouldn’t be able to live. – Karel (pianist of Bamboleo)

The most important thing in Cuban music is the richness of the rhythms. Music is my life. – Ruy López-Nussa (professor at Havana Conservatory, percussionist)

Energy and the Truth. Music and nothing more. Music, my life. The scene, my home. – Rele (singer of Los Van Van)

The power of Cuban Music comes from a mix of their technical strength based on clave, the artistic talents of each musician, and the Cubans’ unconditional love for music and life. I’d like to sincerely thank the musicians who spared time for me and shared with me the heart of their world.