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Reviews of Cuban Music

“The recent deaths of singers Celia Cruz, also known as La Guarachera de Oriente, and Maximo Francisco Repilado Mufioz, better known as Compay Segundo in the Buena Vista Social Club film, point to the end of a cultural period in the history of Cuban music. Although together they represent the ‘commercial Golden Age’ of Cuban music before the 1959 revolution, individually they represent antagonistic political views regarding the future of their Caribbean nation and their musical expressions. Until his death, Compay Segundo toured the world as a cultural ambassador of the Cuban government, while Celia Cruz joined the Miami-based Cuban exile movement becoming its spokeswoman in the popular music field. Therefore, the following question remains: apart from creating the musical genres songo and timba, what has the Cuban Revolution accomplished in terms of musical evolution?

“This is precisely one of the strong points of this English edition of Maya Roy’s Cuban Music (translated from the French by Denise Asfar and Gabriel Asfar). Politically objective, devoid of racial and class prejudices, and written in clear and simple language, the book reviews the history of Cuban music from its sixteenth-century origins to the present, including Amerindian, African, and Spanish influences in the formation of a national Cuban music at the end of the nineteenth century. A brief look at its table of contents indicates that Roy employs a modern approach, beginning with the social significance of music and following with brief descriptions of their musical characteristics and typical instrumentation. Her information and analysis is based on personal interviews with musicians and modern musico-logical and historical studies by Cuban scholars; Alejo Carpentier, Fernando Ortiz, Leonardo Acosta, Maria Teresa Linares are among those she cites most frequently.

“The book is divided into nine chapters with a complete, up-to-date bibliography of primary sources and a selected discography of Cuban music. It also includes a handy glossary of terms.

“Roy establishes her theoretical framework in the introduction. The study of Cuban music evolves from the study of the general history of the island, ‘a history marked by colonization, the almost complete eradication of its indigenous peoples and slavery.’ The next eight chapters are dedicated to the description of the different musical genres, styles, and forms, their typical instrumentation, and their musical history, always rooted on the historical, economic, political, and cultural history of Cuba. These are: ritual music, rumba, punto y tonadas, danzon, three variants of The Song (trova, bolero, and ‘Feeling’), and the national music known internationally as son, which has spread to the whole Caribbean region. The important influence of French-Haitian music in the formation of national forms and the development of the famous rhythmic pattern that identified the Cuban national forms known by specialists as the cinquillo cubano are also included. Chapter 8 is dedicated to a description of the history of music in Cuba since the 1959 revolution and the emergence of two new musical forms: songo and timba. It also contains an excellent description and an objective analysis of the present Cuban government’s policies regarding all aspects of musical phenomena (creation, production, and distribution) and its continuous support of popular and classical music research and education. The last chapter deals with the disjunction of two traditions in Cuban music: music before the Revolution, exemplified by The Buena Vista Social Club, and music after the Revolution, mainly songo and timba. Roy concludes in a conciliatory tone:

“‘It is becoming clear that the call for reconciliation between Cubans on the island and those outside, which is clearly transmitted through the music, is in fact being heard. For music, no matter where it originates, has neither borders nor color, as long as it is good music and comes from the heart — and this, without question, is true of the vast majority of Cuban musical expressions'” (p. 204).

“We have to thank the Office of the French Ministry of Culture for sponsoring the translation of this excellent book. I would also recommend a Spanish translation of the book for the benefit of Hispanophone scholars, students, and music lovers.”
New West Indian Guide

“With the thawing of the Cold War and the popularity of The Buena Vista Social Club record and film, Cuban music has been enjoying a resurgence around the world. This book helps explain the many musical threads that fused to form the rich musical heritage of Cuba. Roy (musicology, Univ. of Paris) traces the music’s development from its roots as ritual music for the original slave population to music since the Cuban revolution and post-Buena Vista Social Club directions. Intervening chapters cover the rumba, cha-cha, jazz, and many lesser-known styles such as comparsas, congas, and the son. The writing style is a bit dry, so it’s somewhat difficult to imagine what the early music may have sounded like. There are also numerous mentions of esoteric percussion instruments that few readers will recognize. On the plus side, there is a bibliography, a fairly extensive discography, and a helpful glossary that describes many of the unfamiliar terms. As very few popular histories of Cuban music are available, this slim volume would be a good addition to any music collection or public library serving a Cuban-American population.”
Library Journal

“From rumba to rap, Paris-based writer Maya Roy surveys the history of Cuban music, showing how the island’s colonial history led to a unique fusion of musical influences from around the world. Cuban music examines the ritual music of slaves: popular songs and the impact of Catholic liturgies, the roots of dances like the mambo and the cha-cha-cha; and the fate of music after the Communist revolution, when many musicians emigrated and new experimental groups formed by Cubans on and off the island. Roy also discusses The Buena Vista Social Club and the controversies stirred by the film’s nostalgic view of Cuba’s 1950’s ‘golden age.”
Publishers Weekly

“Roy’s book is an introduction to Cuban music, stressing its deep historical background, concentrating on a few crucial artists, and drawing a line at the borders of Cuba itself. Roy’s strength lies in her explanation of musical structure and in the excerpts she provides from interviews with Cuban musicians, ranging from vaunted composers to local buskers. She provides an insightful description of the major typologies of rumba, ably sketching their common threads and linking their differences to contextual factors such as contrasting practices of urban and rural leisure. In addition, in letting the musicians speak for themselves, she comes closest to translating both the joy and the intricacy of the music. She transcribes the words of a Havana rumbero, who recalls unlocking the secret of a local refrain, ‘Rabo de mono amarra a Ramon [the monkey’s tail wraps up Ramon]’ (p.56). The phrase, nearly an aural palindrome, reveals the foundational influence of both medieval Spanish verse, with its complex verbal doublings, and central African tales of trickster deities in the guise of animals. The requisite musical response, discovered by the rumbero in the midst of improvisation — ‘Por que rabo de mono no me amarra a mi? [Why doesn’t the monkey’s tail wrap up me?]’ — adds the elements of thinly veiled sexuality and gamesmanship, completing the rumba palette. On one hand, Roy asserts that in the early decades of the twentieth century in Cuba, ‘everything African was considered by the dominant elite to be lowly, vulgar and uncultured’ (p. 30). But she provides ample evidence of Cuban elites of the period enjoying Afro-Cuban music, in contexts ranging from carnival street processions to their own salons and concert halls. Exploring the coexistence of a rhetoric of disdain and repression with everyday practices of sponsorship and participation would help to illuminate not only Cuban music but also the knotty issues of race on the island.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“An excellent introduction.”
Le Nouveau Politis

“[W]ell conceived and enlightening.”

“The best survey of Cuban music available.”
— Juan Flores, professor at Hunter College in the City University of New York and author of many books and articles, including From Bomba to Hip-Hop [2000]