Experiential Immersion: Latin Jazz

Paul Andreas Fischer
Latin Jazz
7/2013
Steven Ferraris


Experiential Immersion: Latin Jazz


Modern latin jazz is clearly a breathing organism. Entering this immersion class, I had little idea of what to expect. Over the weeks, holding solo rumba parties to get acquainted with the forty selected listening pieces and other latin jazz classics, this genre was moved from the periphery of my base of knowledge to become a clear and important influence on many music forms that I have enjoyed in the past and continue to enjoy to this day. Now I can hear the customary clave beat in hip hop, reggaeton and even some popular music that is mainstream in a contemporary sense. In class, discussion ranged from the proper way to get a slap sound just right on the conga drums to the essence of the music, whether there was something intrinsically interesting about Latin Jazz or if there are only different instruments and rhythms. Personally I believe that in this music form the cultural experience and surrounding is an integral part of the music, allowing other culture groups to fuse with the dynamic template created out of necessity that is the hip-shaking music of the caribbean and the Latin world.
The Afro-Cuban narrative is a narrative that truly starts in Africa. In the Spanish dominated island of Cuba, slave imports continued until the American civil war decades after other european nations and even the American South had ended the importation trade. As a result Africans were more expendable, with worse diets and living conditions than in the United States. However, due to the religious nature of the Spanish colonial system and the different approach to the practice of slavery, Africans in Cuba were accommodated with greater freedoms and opportunity to purchase their own freedom, for example being able to work on Sundays for pay. This resulted in a large somewhat autonomous free population of native and african descent. Finally the drums and language that was brought from Africa meant that Afro-Cubans retained a hereditary sense of musical tradition that was for many all that was left of their homeland.
Some American musicians do not see the hardships placed on them culturally in the US as necessarily a bad thing, pointing out that this led to the invention of the steel drums, blues and jazz that became part of an entirely new form of cultural expansion. Jelly Roll Morton, the self proclaimed inventor of modern jazz emphasized fusion from the beginning of his career, encouraging musicians and fellow composers alike to seek that “Spanish Tinge” with the habanera rhythm and tresillo which he popularized exceedingly well in The Peanut Vendor, recognized as the first true Latin Jazz track to gain widespread national appeal in America. Indeed it was among the first times Latin music had been given any real notice by the rest of the world. Over the years Latin Jazz has coagulated many different cultural expressions into a distinct art form with international recognition by the 1920’s and the swing craze in the United States. This is an ironic departure from the caribbean and the traditional beats that periodically collide and combine with Afro-American music.
By nature a mixture, the Afro-Cuban 3-2 or 2-3 beat of the clave and accompanying instruments have since incorporated rhumba son, Haitian, classic jazz of New Orleans and New York, tango of the Rio de la Plata, salsa, and by the 70’s the group Ikera even includes rock elements with screeching guitars. With the beginnings of successful Latin Jazz record labels such as Fania in New York and megastars in the Latin Jazz world breaking milestones of 40,000 and later 160,000 record sales, the path to mainstream music was paved. Even later, the most successful Latin Jazz artists only comprise a relatively small portion of the music industry compared to the massive impact culturally and musically that is made on dance halls and living rooms alike across the world.
An excellent example of the diverging and converging paths of Latin and Jazz music is the career of Ray Barretto, a grammy-award winning artist who managed to explode dance halls with hot salsa tracks as well as composing sophisticated jazz albums such as The Other Road. In his work the best of Cuban investment in their unique and powerful musical performance is apparent, though there are many others who made massive contributions to the genre under Communist rule, some defecting as Castro’s Cuban government took paychecks and civil liberties necessary to nurture a healthy cultural climate in the same strokes.
In this Latin Jazz class we not only became acquainted with the historical context of Latin Jazz and the artists involved, but became intimately involved with the creative process itself, working with Arturo O’Farrell, the son of the legendary Arturo “Chico” O’Farrell who composed and performed the definitive Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite with legends Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Ironically we performed a secular guaguanco rhythm with religious Afro-Cuban deity ritualistic vocals, but this only added to the breadth of our immersive experience. By singing African words meaning “I have been healed!” and praise to a main deity, we theoretically summoned a spirit which possessed dancers as they dance to a pitched frenzy to the pounding of the conga drums. All of the students had the opportunity to learn various rhythms and instruments typical of Afro-Cuban music and become acquainted with other more exotic local instruments such as the Cuban tres and the Haitian cuatro. To have this opportunity as a class was unique, and the performance and listening to a new music genre in earnest for the first time was truly mind expanding, in the words of Arturo O’Farrell: “music is really a drug, and once you start listening to it, the way you think about the world about sounds and experiences is going to change, so enjoy!”

Skip to toolbar