|Music of Latin America|
Module 1: African Roots
Europe’s colonial adventures of the second half of the 19th century
would bring it in contact with musical traditions from around the world;
an event that would change European music henceforth.
Once in America, though, these colonists would come in contact with the music of a very different world: the powerful drumming, singing and circular rhythms of Africa. Or, more properly, what was left of it, considering that most people of African descent were brought against their wishes, as slaves, and were forcefully separated from their own original African communities and customs.
This confluence of European and African musical traditions, which also includes some native music from the pre-Columbian era, marks the beginning of what we think of today as an Afro-American musical foundation that has developed into a multitude of forms and styles, and which manifests itself in such geographically distant places as New York, Havana and Buenos Aires.
In the past, dancing was considered a necessary social skill, and the higher up that person was in the social ladder the more time he/she would spend at the dance floor. Also, dance as a social activity (unlike today), was not segregated by age: on the contrary, at a dance or ball the grandmother, the mother, and the daughter were expected to participate. Since most dances were private affairs to which you were invited as a guest, in the less formal situations even children were welcomed. In this regard Europeans shared with the African people a passion for dance as a means of communal bonding, and not just for entertainment only.
Because most people dance to the rhythm in music, it is the rhythm in the music that suggests the kind of physical movements and expressions that the dancers may adopt. Liberal physical expressions in public situations were frowned upon in western (as well as other) cultures. So, in addition to the constraints imposed by the clothing fashions prevalent in European countries (especially for women) -all the way up to the early 20th century- there was also a great deal of sobriety in people’s physical behavior in public.
This very important fact alone determined some of the rhythmic characteristics dance music would adopt in European culture. <More>
In Buenos Aires the foxtrot was performed along with tango up to the first half of the 20th century, in La Havana the danzón, the son and the rumba co-existed with jazz at the dance halls, especially after the American occupation of Cuba following the Spanish American war. In New Orleans ragtime bands also included the habanera and other Cuban song forms.
In the US, musicians, especially in the south, performed a music in open spaces with military bands that would ultimately be known as ragtime. Ragtime is the predecessor of jazz. At night during the weekends, these same musicians would also perform at private parties, providing the music for people to dance.
Many of the musicians involved in these performances were Creole of
color: they were of mixed European and African descent. Their African
cultural heritage gave the music they performed a particular rhythmic
quality, which would evolve in time into what we know today as jazz. One
of the most remarkable features of this dance music was that musicians
were often asked to extend the duration of the compositions to accommodate
the needs of the dancers. Through this need to make the original compositions
longer, they developed the skill to improvise (make up on the spot) new
musical material into an existing dance, giving the compositions any length
that was necessary.
Module 4: Classical Fusion
Today, European classical music still remains mostly an experience for the educated listener. The famous phrase “music is a universal language” is not only false when applied across cultural boundaries separating countries and civilizations, but it is also not true when applied across class boundaries within the same country and/or civilization. Typically, jazz musicians don’t truly understand classical music and classical musicians don’t truly understand jazz.
In fact, classical music is most authentically a European tradition. This tradition includes the many differences in styles between European countries and even between its cities. Similarly, many examples of classical music by composers from parts of the world other than Europe also have a distinct quality, one that points to its non-European origin. American classical music is no exception.
The music of the best American classical composers is now routinely performed in concert theaters across the globe, including Europe. Yet, it would be a stretch to think of this music as being indistinct from the music of European composers. <More>
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Ana María Hernández, 718.482.5697, email@example.com
Humanities Department, LaGuardia Community College (CUNY)
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This site was created with support from the LaGuardia Center for Teaching and Learning and is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities