While there’s nothing wrong with looking forward and looking for the means to improve things, doing so without paying attention to one’s history can result in the creation of a cultural vacuum. Far too often in North America we’re far more concerned with celebrating the next “Big Thing” and then discarding it once something else catches our eye. Instead of using what came before as a foundation for building something solid, far too often we end up with confections which, while looking good, are the artistic equivalent of candy floss. Lacking any real substance they usually blow away the first moment our attention is distracted by the next shiny pretty thing to come along.
Initially, popular music in North America was close to its roots, building on the solid foundation of both its African American and European roots. Even before rock and roll and the successful marriage of country and blues, composers like Ira and George Gershwin drew upon jazz and blues influences when composing some of their most famous pieces. Porgy And Bess should have been a defining moment in the development of a uniquely American culture in the way it combined the classical form of opera with the music of the new world. Unfortunately, commercial necessity forced the brothers to divert their creative energies into musical theatre and eventually film. While songs like “Summertime” might live on through their occasional revival, Porgy and Bess isn’t usually seen performed outside of opera houses, and the Gershwins are remembered more instead for the insipid music they wrote for Hollywood musicals.
Popular music in North America has been like a series of coups and counter-coups as in almost every new generation a type of rebellion occurs against what came before; rock and roll in the 1950s, psychedelic/acid rock of the 1960s, punk in the 1970s, rap in the 1980s and grunge in the 1990s, only to see each one co-opted and watered down by an industry geared towards treating development as a trend to be milked for every dollar possible. Having lived with this reality most of my adult life, it always comes as a nice surprise to discover parts of the world where things are different. Not only do musicians and audiences recognize the importance of their cultural history, they see nothing wrong in playing and listening to the music their fathers and their fathers before them played. One doesn’t even need to look too far from our own shores for an example either, for Cuba’s Septeto Nacional has existed since 1927 and is onto its fourth generation of players. One of the original son bands who first combined the African and Latino sounds of Cuba, the latest incarnation’s new recording, Sin Rumba no hay Son! (Without Rumba there is no Son), is being released September 14/10 on the World Village Music label.
Son music has its roots in the rural communities of Cuba, primarily former black slaves, and was brought to urban centres like Havana by migrants seeking work. It was in Havana that Ignacio Pineiro founded Septeto Nacional (the band takes its name from its seven-piece lineup: Eugenio Rodriguez Rodriguez “Raspa”, vocals; Francisco David Oropesa Fernades “El Matador”, bongos; Enrique Collazo Collazo, tres; Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva, guitar/vocals; Agustin Someillian Garcia, trumpet/vocals; Raul Acea Rivera, bass; and Crispin Diaz Hernandez, maracas/vocals) and proceeded to augment son with the rumba and other Havanan musical influences. In order to increase the music’s appeal to urban inhabitants he also took the step of adding trumpet to the ensemble as the lead instrument. The resulting hybrid, son habanero (which translates as son of the people of Havana or Havanan son) was the forerunner of basically every popular Latin sound that has made the rounds of North America from mambo to rumba (hence this new disc’s title).
After each of the 14 tracks’ titles on this disc the style of the song is listed in brackets showing that while this generation hasn’t lost touch with its roots in son, it’s also not letting itself be stuck in the past. Rumbas, boleros, congas and guarachas are built on top of the son base resulting in a compelling mix of melody and rhythm. Each component, from vocals to percussion, while having a distinctive voice of its own, plays an integral part in the creation of the overall sound. While the trumpet might be the lead instrument, it also accents the rhythm being created by the guitar and percussion to help give the music an extra edge.
Unfortunately the intricacies of Latin music are lost on me; I couldn’t tell a samba from a rumba if my life depended on it, so I’m not in a position to critique Septeto Nacional at that level. However, even someone as ignorant as me can’t help but recognize the individual talents at work in this band, and the incredible job they do of combining them to make each of their songs absolute gems. Rodriguez has one of those voices that coaxes and caresses every last nuance out of each syllable he sings to the point where it becomes irrelevant whether you speak Spanish or not. Yet, if the rest of the band weren’t so carefully attuned to what he was doing, pitching their contributions to complement and augment his performances, he would be lost in the shuffle.
One of the first lessons in music appreciation I ever received was that the sign of a good string section was not being able to tell if it was one instrument playing or a dozen. In the case of Septeto Nacional you can obviously tell there are seven different instruments, but they play with such harmony the result is as if they were speaking with one voice. This may be a band that’s nearly a hundred years old, playing music that’s been passed down from generation to generation, but it sounds fresher and more alive than most music you’ll hear today.
Last year this incarnation of Septeto toured North America for the first time since 1933, and they are returning again this fall and again in spring 2011 for a second go round. As well as engagements in major centres like Miami (September 02/10), Los Angeles (September 07 – 09/10) and New York City (April 16, 2011), remarkably they are even going to be making an appearance in my little backwater, Kingston Ontario, on November 03/10 (check the World Village Music web site for the complete schedule). All I can say is I hope they leave room for people to dance at each of the venues. Listening to them on disc it’s almost impossible to sit still — in person I don’t see how anybody will be able to stay in their seats.
If the opportunity presents itself for you to see Septeto Nacional during their tour this time, take it. Anybody who ever doubted there wasn’t anything we could learn from history or who thought the past belonged in the past will quickly learn otherwise listening to these men play. Listen, learn, but most of all, enjoy yourself, because that’s what this music is all about.