The Spanish Cultural Center showcases Latin music’s global roots
When Columbus first landed in what would become known as the Dominican Republic, he was looking for a shortcut to the East Indies, access to the lucrative spice trade. And it wouldn’t be bad if he found some gold and silver along the way.
In the meanwhile, his compatriots back in Europe were trying to literally cook up such riches in alchemy labs, mixing up various raw materials with mystical beliefs and rituals.
It turns out that Columbus might have been one of the most successful alchemists of all. When he “discovered” the New World, he inadvertently began a process of combing the various instruments, tonalities, vocal varieties, and rhythms of three world cultures -- that of the Iberian peninsula and Europe, of the indigenous populations of the Americas, and of Africa.
The music that evolved is one of history’s cultural highlights. At times complex, romantic, danceable, religious, and spiritual, Latin American music is the ultimate hybrid of genres and influences. It also remains, at the same time, regional and unique to particular countries and eras.
That’s what you discover when visiting the Spanish Cultural Center Miami (Centro Cultural Español, or CCE) and its traveling exhibit “A Tres Bandas: Syncretism and Hybridization in the Music of Latin America, 16th-20th Centuries.”
Don’t let the title scare you. The “A Tres Bandas” part might loosely be translated as “Three Bands” (musically) or “Trialogue” (a three-part conversation).
To start, this is simply a gorgeous show. The subtle lighting that bathes the space makes it feel like a stage set, which is intentional. When you enter, guitars and other string instruments, large and tiny, hang from the ceiling, set above wooden planks meant to represent the galleons that first brought them over. Further in, pipes and flutes form more sculptures.
One hanging bamboo installation has a video projected on it, of an Indian choir. Another is composed of masks. One wall is painted as a facsimile of a decorative church façade -- the mixture of color, forms, and iconography points to the integration that has aesthetically gone on for centuries. These are lovely backdrops that propel you through the exhibit.
Another interesting guide is the use of painted grid charts that accompany the various installations and sound stations. Think of charts that depict population or demographic changes. In this case, the blue lines represent the amount of Hispanic influence on the music or culture; yellow the native indigenous; the pink/red the African. In certain regions or in certain genres -- maybe where the vocal element is strong -- the blue line might rise the highest. In the Andes regions, the yellow might.
But while all three forms undeniably went into making a musical expression unique to the Western Hemisphere, the generalized term “Latin music” is too broad, as we find out with the numerous samples on headphones and in video of almost every type of music from the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Mexico, from the popular and familiar to the more regional and obscure.
Music critic and jazz musician Fernando González, who is organizing some of the listening sessions taking place as part of the exhibit, explains during a tour of the space that styles differ widely, even within the same country. He points out that the tango of the cosmopolitan port city of Buenos Aires sounds nothing like the music that developed out of the hinterland of the pampas.
The northern Mexican mariachi music, with its polka roots and almost big-band sound, is a world away from the percussion-based, Afro-rhythmic Caribbean and Brazilian flavor -- or is it?
Some music was created specifically for ritual and religious expression; some for street-life fun; some became blended and interchangeable. And the blending of styles and cultures has not stopped. Who created salsa, and where (hint: maybe New York)? Is North American rap now integral to contemporary Latin and Caribbean music?
You can start your own age of discovery of the incredible fusion of music made in the New World when entering “A Tres Bandas.”
There are several threads to this exhibit. The first is more historical, concentrating on the how, where, and extent of the intermixing.
No one can get around the traumatic beginnings. Spanish conquest involved subjugation and death of the native populations, and the introduction of Africans was solely through slavery. But different areas experienced different outcomes. The Caribbean and coastal areas of South America were highly influenced by African traditions.
The Catholicism imported from the Spaniards (and in the case of Brazil, the Portuguese, and in Haiti, the French) became melded in an intriguing way with the religions of West Africa. Many of the saints could “double” with a spirit or god from the Yorùbá religion of Nigeria, for instance. And music honoring all of their forms arose -- which in some cases resulted in the origins of the rumba and the samba.
Western instruments and native dance moves were added into the mix, resulting in the Colombian cumbia. Another Colombian musical variation, the vallenato, has three main “ingredients” in its makeup: a small African drum, the caja; the guacharaca stick instruments of the Indian natives to the coast; and the accordion -- can’t get more hybrid than that. Of course, there are the Cuban favorites as well, the bolero and son, and merengue out of Dominican Republic.
Elsewhere in the New World, the mixing was different. While African slaves were imported everywhere across the southern cone, the huge Indian populations in Mexico, Central America, and Peru influenced the music more heavily, and often the Spanish guitar played a more significant role.
And on and on. The last part of the exhibit is dedicated to all this music and more, accompanied by videos. Move from one station to the next, don the headphones, and watch clips from the past and the present. There’s a great one from the master originator from Cuba, Benny Moré. In fact, in his music alone -- mostly from the 1950s -- you can hear a little bit of everything, rolled into what became some of the most popular “Latin” music ever. Son, mambo, bolero -- it’s all there.
This last hallway of music dramatically reveals that while much of this exhibit is about history, the Latin sound has never, from its founding day, been static. It is diversifying still, this time with global influences. And in return, global has gone Latin.
“A Tres Bandas” runs through Oct. 27 at the CCEMiami, 1490 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; free; go to www.ccemiami.org for accompanying events.