The importance of the guitar in the development of Cuban music is immense but its role as a solo instrument has often been overlooked, particularly outside of Cuba, for a number of reasons. Firstly its presence in popular music has usually been as an accompaniment to singers - from early trova stars such as Miguel Matamoros to the singer-songwriters of nueva trova - while Cuban classical guitar music is rarely performed or recorded in Europe. Secondly it has often been overshadowed by the instrumental virtuosity displayed by performers of other Cuban plucked string instruments, such as the laud in guiajira music or the tres in son montuno. However, on the island itself the annual guitar festival and competition gives the instrument a much higher profile.
This album by Marco Tamayo on the Naxos label is therefore a welcome addition to the increasingly extensive selection of Cuban recordings available in Europe. The selection of composers is wide - from the self taught guitarist, composer and leading figure in the filin (feeling) movement, Nico Rojas, to the prolific and much respected classical composer Harold Gramatges. And from Moisés Simons, the composer of the popular son montuno El Manicero (credited here to Edward Simons, presumably the arranger) to Leo Brouwer, in other contexts an avant-garde experimentalist. Likewise the pieces range from the traditional dance genres such as zapateo, guiajira and son pregón, through the jazz-influenced harmonies of Rojas to the neo-classical miniatures of Gramatges. Some pieces, such as El Manicero or the Preludio and Canción Triste by Carlos Fariñas stand alone but the majority function as part of short suites, whether written with that intention or not, giving a structure to otherwise disparate musical styles.
The least successful part of the recording is the adaptation of Yoruba religious music by Hector Angulo. These short pieces convey none of the rhythmic drive and complexity of the originals and without the call and response in the voices or improvisational intensification of the sacred batá drums, become just short statements of melody with little development or tension. Other attempts at adaptation of this repertoire, such as that by the Cuban rock band Sintesis, have been more successful in retaining its character; this is simply too gentle.
As a whole though, the album reveals a repertoire of music little-known in Europe and well worth discovering. Tamayo beautifully conveys the gentle relaxed quality of these works, and the recording presents a much-needed alternative to the twin stereotypes of Cuban popular music- elderly Buena Vista vocalists and frantic tropical dance.
© Juliet Hill, 2004
ED. NOTE: Juliet Hill, the composer and music director, is also one of the leading British experts on 20th century Cuban music. I am delighted to welcome her first contribution to zarzuela.net (CW)