This book is about a paradise-like island and how it was populated by music. This story begins in an archipelago of gatherers, hunters and fishermen, without music or government, devoted to tobacco smoking and collective sensuality.
The first history of music in Cuba, it goes from the 16th century to the moment when this music triumphs in the world through Moises Simon’s “El Manisero,” on the one hand, and Xavier Cugat’s orchestra, on the other.
Along the way, the recovery of Esteban Salas (whose art had remained “in the most absolute obscurity” until this book). Or the music of salons and theaters of the 17th century. Or the musical traffic between Havana, Seville, Veracruz, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Or the musical disputes that shaped the Cuban nation. Or the first bars of the contredanses and the cuchumbé, sarabandes and habaneras, comedies and classics, the influence of Africa and the heritage inherited from Spain. Or the sinuous web of the music industry…
Carpentier records his admirations —Saumell, Ignacio Cervantes, Amadeo Roldán, García Caturla—, incorporates the term “Afro-Cubanism” and ends his book praising the island’s avant-garde music, represented by the works of Julián Orbón, Harold Gramatges, Gisela Fernández or the Renovation Group. But there is also room for his phobias, as in the case of Perucho Figueredo, author of the national anthem, whom he considers a sociological or iconographic phenomenon rather than a musicological one. Nor does he forgive the musical drift of Ernesto Lecuona or hesitate to lash out at Cugat, who, in his eyes, is some sort of unserious usurper.
Unlike José Lezama Lima, who considers as Cuba’s first poetic text the Diario de Navegación, by Christopher Columbus, who is neither a poet nor Cuban, Carpentier does not have that mystical relationship with the immanence of the insular space. If for Lezama what happens on the island is already Cuban (beyond the fact that nationality is not yet fully constituted), for Carpentier what music precisely proves is the need for a formative time if one wants to speak properly of a national culture.
Therefore, his book can be read as the history of a bridge that goes from music in Cuba to the music of Cuba.
Such a distinction goes beyond a prepositional game and, to a great extent, reflects his own complicated biography; the identity acrobatics that accompanied him all his life from his birth in 1904, in Lausanne and not in Havana, until his death in Paris and his funeral with state honors in the communist Cuba of 1980 (and with Fidel Castro himself guarding his coffin).
Roberto González Echevarría has scrutinized this “double life” like no one else in his book The Pilgrim at Home, published in 1977 and later translated into Spanish as El peregrino en su patria. That duality between the revolutionary and the refined intellectual, the businessman and the writer, the Cuban and the Frenchman, the communist and the surrealist, the salon host and the representative of the dictatorship of the proletariat. All this under the very careful reign of his world, which he created starting from a biography tailored to his own needs. After all, almost everything we know about Carpentier was written by him.
Returning to La música en Cuba, González Echevarría tells us that he brought the new 1972 edition (Fondo de Cultura Económica) to Carpentier in Paris, where he was at the time a diplomat of the Cuban government.
An interesting detail is that the first printing of La música en Cuba, dated 1946, also published under that imprint and commissioned by Daniel Cossío Villegas, was published in the Tierra Firme collection, while the second printing belongs to the Popular Collection. A proof of the importance given to popular culture and how much that perception has diminished half a century later. In fact, it can be said that this book drags that “mediatized orality” identified by Anke Birken, which is due to his previous experience in radio, a medium in which Carpentier worked for many years and of which he was a staunch defender.
La música en Cuba is, on the other hand, the first essay published, in book form, by Alejo Carpentier. And his second book in general, after that first novel, which he disowned for a long time: Ecué-Yamba-Ó, “the die is cast” in the Abakuá language, published in 1933.
We have in front of us, then, a work of transit between Carpentier the essayist and the novelist who, after La música en Cuba, will publish three novels as extraordinary as El reino de este mundo, Los pasos perdidos or El acoso, just to mention those published before the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
This is an essay on how music conquers a still silent territory and fills it with notes. And how the Cuban sound is being composed until it reaches that plethora of genres that will make this country, in musical terms, perhaps one of the most powerful on the planet.
This is a book that explains colonization with the sword and the cross, but also with the baton. With the writings and with the scores.
In Noise Uprising, Michael Denning perceives two levels in the essays on music. One generic and the other general. The first would deal with music itself and its place in the evolution of the species because of its connection to language, the brain or sound. The second would be focused on general overviews (rough guides he calls them), which would expand to a whole system that includes the music market or the microhistories of specific genres and artists. La música en Cuba —a pioneering text for Cuban studies and for the musical essay in itself— combines these two variants and goes beyond them. Among other things, because it is a hybrid text that enriches writing and music in equal parts.
Alejo Carpentier attaches importance to the search for a lost score, but also to the significance of sound in the configuration of a national order. He pays attention to the particular stories of musicians like Esteban Salas or García Caturla or Ignacio Cervantes, but also to the social and even political phenomenon that emanates from a concert. He discovers the sones that foreshadowed the son as we know it today, and at the same time he delves into the disputes over concert music. He cares about the archive, but he does not ignore the hierarchy of the hall where music is danced. He delves into the history of instruments with the same passion that he investigates the sociology of audiences. He loves scores, but is fascinated by improvisation. The European and the African legacy, the intellectual and the natural heritage. He is seduced by the geographical transcendence of Cuban music and resents the colonialist drift of its indolent trivialization.
In the wake of Fernando Ortiz —the great scholar who created the concept of transculturation in Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar, a book that appeared six years before La música en Cuba— Carpentier makes his own the anti-colonial criticism established in that work. And he applies to music Ortiz’s reprobation of the economic interests that merchants “would twist and braid for centuries,” as threads of history and “as supports and ties of the people.”
Hence his validation of the West Indies as places called to swallow the culture of the West, while the latter is colonizing them. It is in this vein that he defines them as a “profane-popular musical space” of resistance to vassalage.
When La música en Cuba was published, musical essays of the caliber of Mystery Train (Greil Marcus), Bossa Nova (Ruy Castro), Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found (Diane Peacock Jezic), El ritmo perdido (Santiago Auserón), Wagnerism (Alex Ross), Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950 (Judith Tick), the aforementioned Noise Uprising (Denning) had not yet been published. But Carpentier, in many ways, anticipates these books in his complex perception of the musical system as a cardinal piece of modern capitalist industry. And, unlike those essays that tell us how a territory founds a music, his tells us how music founds a territory (I’m being a bit categorical here, but not that categorical).
It is worth remembering that islands possess, perhaps in a more pronounced way than other spaces, an intense acoustic atmosphere. In his book In the Same Boat, Peter Sloterdijk includes a definition by the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer that speaks of the characteristic soundscape of a specific psychosocial group. A “soundscape that draws its own people into the interior of a psychoacoustic globe.”
Although other great sounds also fit here, such as mother tongues, the case of the magnetization exerted by Cuban music has its singularities. Because that music not only sounds attractive to its own people, but also to others, to the point of making them fall into its own traps and navigate its own waters. Those were, according to Blanchot, the intentions of Homer’s mermaids with Ulysses or the seduction of Melville’s whale on Ahab.
The list of these foreign attractions is long, and composes in itself a history of cultural appropriation exercised from the much criticized here Xavier Cugat to Ry Cooder, and including George Gershwin, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, David Byrne or Marc Ribot with his Prosthetic Cubans. (Speaking of the musical controversies at the beginning of the 19th century, Carpentier tells us about the German Juan Nepomuceno Goetz as a musician who arrives in Cuba to replace a Catalan “who pretends to be Cuban”).
La música en Cuba is, in addition, an archeology of the scarce studies that until then existed in the island, an arduous work of recovery of scores, as well as a criticism to the precarious conservation of the musical archives in the third world, a state of play in the matter of the Antillean debates on its own musical identity and, at times, a compilation of amusing lyrics and music that speak to us of Carpentier’s vast knowledge of popular culture.
When Carpentier publishes this book, it is still thirteen years before the guerrilla triumph of 1959 and for its author to become one of the organic intellectuals of the Revolution, holding high political —director of the National Publishing House, vice-president of the National Council of Culture— or diplomatic positions. He is not yet the founding novelist of the marvelous real, nor the narrator of the great allegories of the revolution in the Caribbean or the Latin American dictators, nor the man fascinated by Haiti or the Orinoco River. This is the setting for one of his great novels, Los pasos perdidos (1953), in which a Western museum expert travels to an indigenous community to bring back their musical instruments to Europe. This work, by the way, allows more than one comparison with Werner Herzog’s later Fitzcarraldo. Music is also present in El acoso, a 1956 experimental novel whose plot lasts as long as Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony. Or in Concierto Barroco (1974) and La consagración de la primavera (1978).
But before and after —in the essay and the novel—, it can be said that Carpentier always dealt with music. Either in chronicles and independent articles (published, for example, in Carteles magazine), or in books such as Los temas de la lira y el bongó (compiled by Radamés Giro).
In Spain, Alejo Carpentier y la música, by Blas Matamoro, or Música y escritura en Alejo Carpentier, where Gabriel María Rubio Navarro describes his literature as a “poetics of sound” that not only talks about music, but is governed by the musical structure as an internal mechanism of his writing, stand out. Other authors have looked for the other angles of his multiple work: Alain Absire, Graziella Pogolotti, Jean-Louis Coatrieux, Anke Birken, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Sandra Pein, Timothy J. Cox, Juliane Ziegler, Oxana Guskova, Pierre Dombrowski, Nicolai Bühnemann, Araceli García Carranza, Leonardo Padura, Wilfredo Cancio Isla, Rogelio Rodríguez Coronel, Luisa Campuzano, Rita de Maeseneer or Ana Cairo.
La música en Cuba offers keys to what would later become the Carpentier system, with that total literature that encompasses cinema, architecture, ballet and opera. Here it becomes clear, on the other hand, that despite being considered a paradigm of erudite and cultured intellectual, he was a persistent advocate for eliminating the boundary between high culture and popular culture.
Carpentier, obviously, did not know Spotify or YouTube, but he would probably be comforted if he knew that some of the pieces discussed in this book can be heard today on those platforms.
When he died in Paris on April 23, 1980, he was finishing a novel about Paul Lafargue. The repressed poet Heberto Padilla —then a pariah in Cuba after having become “the man of the case”— remembers him, old and tired, crossing the barrier of his official totemism to encourage him in private. Around that time, he sponsored a young piano genius like Jorge Luis Prats, who has just won the first prize in the Long-Thibaud-Crespin competition in France and to whom he dedicated a critical piece typical of his best days. In those final years, he even acknowledged his admiration for Pink Floyd and John Travolta’s dancing.
He never finished that novel about Lafargue, but he did know about his last book before his death, whose Spanish edition was edited by Eduardo Rincón, who also wrote the foreword. Its title? Ese músico que llevo dentro.
A closure that was not at all coincidental for a vital and intellectual cycle that begins and ends with music.
So let’s stop this introduction here. La música en Cuba is calling us.
*Foreword to La música en Cuba, Libros del Kultrum, Barcelona, 2022.