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Old Cuba

Afro-Cuban spiritual life in sound

By Greg Cahill

Over the years, Americans have plundered the island nation of Cuba for everything from sugar cane to yuppie music, world-class cigars to cheap sex. But few have taken the time along the way to appreciate the subtleties of this complex society. A newly released CD on the Smithsonian-Folkways label explores the 19th-century religious roots of Afro-Cuban culture with its deep ties to the spiritual and social traditions of West Africa.

The 28-track collection Havana and Matanzas, Cuba, ca. 1957: Bata, Bembe, and Palo Songs is the follow-up to a pair of highly acclaimed 2001 compilations, Havana, Cuba, ca. 1957: Rhythms and Songs for the Orishas and Havana, Cuba, ca. 1957: Afro-Cuban Sacred Music from the Countryside. All three discs were culled from an obscure 14-album series recorded in the field during the 1950s and collected by revered ethnographer and folklorist Lydia Cabrera and photographer Josefina Tarafa. The original albums were pressed for a small label and privately issued.

These three reissues reveal some of the most significant threads of Afro-Cuban music history and underscore Cuba's prominence in the web of Afro-Atlantic music in Brazil, Trinidad, Miami, New York, and elsewhere.

Unlike the popular Buena Vista Social Club discs--which spotlighted the island's pop, jazz, and folk music--these historical recordings were made just prior to Fidel Castro's rise to power and are steeped in the unblemished old-world mysticism of Yoruba, Dahomean, and Kongo-Angolan religions.

The latest release focuses on the bata (played by a small group of drummers led by a master percussionist who wore brass bells on his headband), bembe, and palo drum rhythms of praise songs, including those used for prayer and funerary rites.

Cabrera was no stranger to Cuban culture. She was born in 1900 to a prominent Havana family. Her father, a writer and publisher, had been active in the Cuban independence movement. In 1927 Cabrera moved to Paris--the same year that American entertainer Josephine Baker became the toast of Paris, sparking a huge interest in black culture--to study painting at the École des Beaux-Arts. During her schooling and initiation into the local bohemian subculture, Cabrera began to delve into the art and religions of India and Japan, which reawakened her interest in Afro-Cuban subjects. In 1928 she made her first visit to the Caribbean island. Cabrera later said that she discovered Cuba on the banks of the Seine. It was a period that also incubated Cabrera's first published work, Cuentos Negros de Cuba (Black Tales of Cuba), originally written to entertain a novelist friend convalescing in a Swiss sanitarium.

In 1938 Cabrera returned to Cuba, restoring a dilapidated colonial mansion. During the next few years, she expanded her studies of the island's African heritage. That essential research culminated in 1954 with the publication of Cabrera's masterwork, El Monte, with photography by Tarafa.

Her contributions as a musicologist are perhaps the least-known aspect of her celebrated life's work. With Tarafa's portable tape recorder and the assistance of two sound engineers, Cabrera recorded secretive Santeria priests, many of whom were descendants of Nigerian Yoruba slaves, evoking orishas (or spirits) through ceremonial songs that serve today as a window on life in the 19th-century sugar mills and slave plantations that once peppered the landscape.

The languid chants, the clattering rhythm sticks, the pulsing drums drive simple yet majestic songs that salute the powerful Shango (king of Oyo Yoruba), pray for protection from smallpox, or honor the otherworldly protectors of the land.

After the 1960 Cuban revolution, Cabrera moved to Miami. She died there in 1991. For those serious about searching for the roots of Afro-Cuban music, and those willing to venture beyond the confines of the Buena Vista Social Club, Cabrera is the ideal guide on that armchair spirit quest.



Spin Du Jour

Ustad Farida Mahwash and the Ensemble Kaboul 'Radio Kaboul: Hommage aux Compositeurs Afghans' (Accords Crosies/Harmonia Mundi)

Americans are intricately bonded to Afghanistan, though most of us seldom give it a second thought. This spellbinding collection of chants by singer Ustad Farida Wahwash, one of the few Afghan women to have trained with the classical masters and a longtime fixture at the influential Radio Kaboul, serves as an engaging primer to the music of that beleaguered nation. Granted political asylum in the United States in 1991 after receiving death threats from the mujahedeen, the California-based Mahwash is backed here by a six-piece ensemble that features violin, tablas, harmonium, flute, and various traditional instruments while performing music that is a hybrid of styles drawn over centuries from the Afghani taverns and Indian courts. The music is mesmerizing, the chants honey smooth. Radio Kaboul is an invigorating excursion to a remote region of the American consciousness. --G.C.

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From the January 1-7, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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