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It All Started with Ma’ Teodora: Alejo Carpentier’s Music in Cuba

Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) is well known for his novels The Lost Steps, Explosion in a Cathedral, The Harp and the Shadow, and, most notably, The Kingdom of This World, which opens with the phrase that allegedly launched the Latin American fiction boom: “for what is the history of Latin America but a chronicle of magical realism?” Yet before all this, one of Carpentier’s most important achievements was his pioneering ethno-musicological work published in 1946 under the title Music in Cuba. Available only in Spanish until now, literary scholar Timothy Brennan (who writes a fascinating introduction), translator Alan West-Durán, and the University of Minnesota Press have joined forces to publish Carpentier’s masterpiece in English.

Building on the fieldwork of sociologist Fernando Ortiz (who did groundbreaking studies on Afro-Cuban music) and others, Carpentier provides a straightforward, sometimes technical history that begins in the 16th century and continues through the 1920s work of composers Amadeo Roldán and Alejandro García Caturla. Throughout, Carpentier ably discusses the origins and developments of the music, simultaneously showing how popular African forms increasingly influenced elite composition while also demonstrating the central role Cuban music has played in the history of popular music throughout the Americas and Europe.

After growing up in Havana, where his father was a French architect and capable cellist in his own right, Carpentier launched his writing career at the age of 18 when he began doing reviews of literary works for a weekly newspaper called La Discusión. In 1927, the young journalist—who had also managed to become a responsible pianist during his early years—was also writing for a small Havana publication dedicated entirely to music. Throughout this period he was inspired by the intellectual/political movement of negrismo sweeping Cuba, as well as left-wing organizing against the governments of Alfredo Zayas and later Machado. Carpentier, though, spent his formative years not only in Havana, but also Mexico, before moving to Paris in 1928. Circulating among various bohemian and politico groups during the heyday of the Jazz Age, while writing about life in France to readers back home, Carpentier began to fully appreciate the history of Cuba and its music. As Brennan writes of this change in perspective, Carpentier’s role now became one of “explaining to the French public what made Cuba artistically matter.”

During a trip to Haiti in 1943, Carpentier began writing Music in Cuba after Mexican historian Daniel Cosío Villegas commissioned him to write a piece on Cuban music for an encyclopedia project he was editing. “How much time do I have?” asked Carpentier, to which Cosío Villegas replied: “eleven months.” Returning to Cuba after more than a decade living in Europe, Carpentier set about his task:

There are so many jobs waiting to be done… I, for example, set about writing music criticism when I saw that the young Cuban composers of my generation—Amadeo Roldán, Alejandro García Caturla—staged their innovative works before an uncomprehending public. They had to suffer the hostility of critics who still hadn’t gotten past Wagner… Seeing that no one had decided (to write a history of Cuban music) I took the burden on my own shoulders. I turned myself into a scholar, a library rat, a paleographer, a midget historian and, in 1946, the book was published.

Carpentier’s efforts indeed paid off. Traveling from one end of the island to the other, he collected a variety of sources, including a number of music scores by 18th century composer Esteban Salas y Castro found in the cathedral of the Santiago. Eager to discuss the important African influence in shaping Cuban national identity, Carpentier then tells an intriguing story of musical styles coming increasingly into contact and subsequently developing into various hybrid forms not only in Cuba but throughout the Americas. Considering the African influence, Carpentier quotes writer Émile Vuillermoz on the wide array of Afro-Cuban percussion:

Cubans have especially discovered a certain quality of wood that produces a clear and metallic sound of an anvil (the claves). With them they obtain notes that have the luminescent and melancholic purity of the frog’s nocturnal song. Add this to a series of mysterious whisperings, produced by friction, humming's, percussive sounds, hand clapping of fingers over small timbales, the rubbing of a little stick over hollowed-gourds, and the silky palpitating of pellets (actually small stones or seeds) inside a dried fruit. With them, an orchestration close to the life source is obtained, evoking the universal consent of things moving to the rhythm of the dancing…

Based on such descriptions Carpentier details the ways in which European and Caribbean musics have influenced each other. Generally, this process followed the same route that earlier commodities did. As Brennan notes: “In Music in Cuba, Carpentier...[substitutes] the son and clave for the insidious pleasures of smoking and sweetened tea [brought to Europe from the Americas]. Afro-“American” (i.e. Afro-Caribbean and African American) music had forced its way into every aspect of European culture, becoming a source of pleasure that was also a lesson.” Here, the “lesson” available to Carpentier’s readers is one that explains the intriguing combination of Spanish and African music cultures in this Caribbean crossroads, while also clarifying the important role Cuba has played in the development of modern music. One example of such musical hybridity is the story of the contradanza. Initially developed in the English countryside and then adopted by the French and Dutch middle classes at the end of the 17th century, the contradanza eventually found its way to Saint-Domingue (soon to become Haiti). There, Carpentier informs us, “black musicians adopted it with enthusiasm, imbuing it with a rhythmic vivacity overlooked by the original model.” In part, the growing dynamism of the form came through an infusion of African cinquillo rhythm—often associated with the percussive rituals of voodoo and later to be evident in the Haitian merengue, among other musics.

With the Haitian Revolution of 1791, many fled to either New Orleans or the Eastern Cuban coast. There, particularly in the city of Santiago, the French fugitives (both black and white) gradually established themselves and began to perform the contradanza. Hearing the powerful cinquillo at the heart of this music, the Cubans took and reshaped it to the point where in the 19th century it became one of the island’s main musical exports. While regional differences concerning the particular form that this music would take n Santiago as compared to Havana, the larger inter-American development of the European/African hybrid contradanza proved remarkably influential. As Carpentier writes: “the genres known today as the clave, the criolla, and the guajira were born from the considerably Cubanized contradanza in 6/8. And from the 2/4 contradanza came the danza, the habanera and the danzon with its ensuing more or less hybrid offshoots.” Not only did Cuban composers Amadeo Roldán and Alejandro García Caturla get in on the action, but so, too, would North American musicians such as Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Jelly Roll Morton, and many others.

As can be seen since its initial publication in 1946, Carpentier’s classic text helped lay the foundation for wider appreciation of the rich Cuban musical heritage throughout the Spanish speaking world. Now available in English, Music in Cuba will certainly send a new generation of salseros (many of them currently digging the music of contemporary artists such as Israel “Cachao” López, Los Van Van, and the Buena Vista crew) on a historical quest. From the Cuban perspective this ultimately means going all the way back to a 16th century song Carpentier initially considers about a freed slave and songstress named “Ma' Teodora.” Taking the popular Son de la Ma' Teodora as the “starting point” for Cuban music, Carpentier finds the earliest expressions of “a process of transculturation destined to amalgamate meters, melodies, Hispanic instruments, with clear traces of old African oral traditions.” From this begins a magical journey tracing the complex development and fascinating history of Cuban music.


Andrew Grant Wood

ANDREW GRANT WOOD, the author of Revolution is the Street: Women, Workers, and Protests in Veracruz, 1870 - 1927 (Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2001), is writing a biography of Agustín Lara. He teaches Latin American history at the University of Tulsa.


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