From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz

Article excerpt

Fernández, Raúl A. From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz, Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 2006. 199 pp.

Much of the research behind Raul A. Fernández's From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz comes from the author's participation as a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution's Jazz Oral History Program from 1994 to 2000. While working in this capacity, Fernández interviewed Afro-Cuban musicians in the United States and throughout the world. His access to these musicians-Celia Cruz, Mongo Santamaria, and Israel "Cachao" López, to name just a few-is both the greatest asset to his short book and, unfortunately, underscores its most significant weakness. While the study tries to assess the influence of Afro-Cuban music over the course of the twentieth century, and Cuban son in particular, the result is an unevenly divided introduction to Cuban dance music: one third historical and theoretical analysis, two thirds biographical sketches with rich anecdotal testimony.

As Fernández organizes the book, chapters one, two, and three are devoted to the roots of Cuban son, undeniably, and unquestionably, the foundation of Cuban popular music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Fernández seems to feel it necessary to prove this point, along with others like the importance of dancing in Cuban music, as if there were ever a debate over the subject. Nonetheless, the historical information provided is accurate, if not new, and does offer a concise overview of the genealogy of Cuban dance music from African drumming traditions through the rumba, culminating in the son of the early 1900s. What is presented, however, has already been explored in greater detail in works by Cristobal Díaz Ayala, Helio Orovio, Natalio Galán, Leonardo Acosta, Peter Manuel and John Storm Roberts. This shortfall could be mitigated significantly if the book were clearly geared toward a popular, that is, non-academic, audience. Unfortunately, Fernández embraces terminology such as "transculturation," and "imagined communities" without explanation or even acknowledgment of Fernando Ortiz or Benedict Anderson, a move that likely alienates the popular reader.

After the historical background of son, the remainder of the first part focuses on the what Fernández calls, following the lead of Willie Colón, "the salsa concept." While there is room for such a discussion-one that distinguishes a unique attitude and point of view identifiable with salsa-the author never really gets there, instead referring vaguely to ethnic identity and "Latino pan-ethnic music" without coming any closer to a definition of salsa than his predecessors (17). Salsa has always been a slippery term, and for good reasons that at least initially were more political and economic than aesthetic. In fact, the cornerstone of any attempt at a definition of salsa must begin with its development in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s, a period after the Cuban Revolution when this permutation of Cuban son, performed by Cuban, Dominican, and Puerto Rican émigrés, was distanced from its Cuban roots and guilt-by-association with Fidel Castro in order to sell records during the Cold War. An argument can be made that two unique strands of dance music based in the Cuban son developed soon after 1959. One remained on the island and is typified by Los Van Van, Irakere, and, recently, NG la Banda. Likewise, another strand developed in exile, mostly in the United States, and is performed by Cubans and Cuban-Americans, as well as other Latin American immigrants and their children. This music, saka, is represented by Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamarfa, Willie Colón, Rubén Blades, Johnny Pacheco, and many others associated with the Fania record label. Fernández, however, elects not to address this important historical and cultural development. Except for a few cursory references, the book barely mentions the 1959 revolution and its impact on Cuban dance music on and off the island. …