Under the Radar: A Survey of Afro-Cuban Music
2005, by J. Plunky Branch
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The music of Cuba is all about the celebration of life. The energy of the music has long been a source of inspiration and propulsion of Cuban culture; and today the influence of music in the daily life of the island is as pervasive as ever. For Cubans, music is both an escape from the struggles and hardships of modern living, and a source of pride. In terms of rhythmic, high energy, expressive music, Cuba is one of the most well endowed places on the planet.
The music of Cuba is a phenomenon born of the fusion of African and Spanish cultures. Historically, African drumming on the island began and developed during the slave period (1520 - 1886) and continued to influence the music and the aesthetics of Cuba through the 20th century. The rumba is the conga-drum-driven music developed from the recreational music of the African slaves in Cuba. Out of the rumba comes a complex of genres that includes numerous other forms of what is commonly called Latin music. Son is popular Cuban dance music. Salsa is the name of the popular Afro-Cuba music that is usually associated with Puerto Rico and New York City. Many Cubans would argue that Salsa is simply Son, the music that originated in the eastern part of Cuba; and that the term Salsa (which means “gravy” or “hot sauce”) is used to avoid the politics of acknowledging the music’s Cuban roots.
The political reality of the Cuban Revolution and the 45-year socialist regime led by Fidel Castro has led to a four decade US economic embargo against its island neighbor 90 miles to the south. The US trade blockade, which has been almost unanimously condemned by the United Nations General Assembly and denounced as “deplorable” by Pope John Paul II in 1998, has been an impediment to Cuba’s economic development.
The Cuban government has developed an education system and a business/social environment that nurtures, sustains and values music as a cultural and economic resource. The music of Cuba has achieved widespread international popularity, particularly in South America, Africa and Europe. Cuban musicians are superbly trained, practiced and motivated. Their output is poly-rhythmic, intricate, danceable, entertaining and inspiring. The exuberance of the people is reflected in their music, and the music is hot!
Afro-Cuban music is as artistic as jazz; as rhythmically complex as African music; as emotional as soul music; and as entertaining and tight as an R&B pop music revue. Cuban musicians are as well trained as US classical orchestra musicians, have chops like jazz improvisers, and put on great stage shows, while their audiences dance themselves into a frenzy.
Under the Radar - A Survey of Afro-Cuban Music is a documentary film that introduces viewers to the distinct music of Cuba and surveys the enigmatic island's current music scene. The film documents the travels and recordings of its producer/director, jazz saxophonist, J. Plunky Branch, and highlights the musical interactions and collaborations of Afro-Cuban musicians and rappers with noted Afro-American jazz musicians Craig Harris, Hamiet Bluiett and hip-hop producer Sir Fire.
Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
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Explore the Under the Radar website
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View Lesson Plan Free to Dance from PBS Great Performances: "Dance is an expression of culture, yet at the same time it is constrained by culture. The purpose of this lesson is to explore the role of African culture in modern dance in America. The lesson will focus on three key areas. The first area will examine the Afro-Caribbean slave roots that were a part of modern dance and the ways that modern dance movements and themes reflected daily life activities. The second area will focus on how modern dance reflected issues of black pride, self-expression, and identity. The third area will explore how modern dance themes of social justice and activism evolved in response to a racist American society."