Jazz at Lincoln Center: The Search for Original African Music

Nick Catalano By

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Although jazz emerged as an art form around the turn of the Twentieth century in the southern United States, its roots extend backward over several centuries. The music largely developed from a synthesis of many African and European forms that was achieved through the institution of slavery. Blacks were captured or purchased from specific "factory" areas in West Africa—the Portuguese took from Senegal and transported to Brazil, the English plundered the Ashantis of the Gold Coast and sold them in North America, the French acquired slaves in Dahomey and sold them in Haiti and Louisiana, Dutch and Spanish merchants entered the slave trade and sold to the West Indies.

When the slaves arrived in the New World they instantly became African-Americans and their original African forms evaporated as they merged with the European music of the slave masters. Now, after 500 years of musical synthesis the search for these forms has been taken up by ethnomusicologists, historiographic scholars, and various jazz musicians and composers. The producers of Jazz at Lincoln Center have joined in the search.

Earlier this season, I wrote of an early music form—Frevo—from Northeastern Brazil that received its first U.S. exposure at a JALC concert. Last evening, February 20, another series of African forms were resurrected in the premiere of an extended composition dubbed, "Cinque: Suite of the Caribbean." Grammy-nominated composer/pianist Elio Villafranca hails from San Luis in the Pinar del Rio province of southeastern Cuba—an area (the Tambor Yuka community) where the nearly extinct music of the African Congo has somehow managed to survive. He was classically trained at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana and when he arrived in the United States in 1995 he immediately joined the cavalcade of Cuban virtuosos—Paquito D'Rivera, Arturo Sandoval and others—who quickly became jazz headliners. He plunged into the jazz scene playing alongside such stalwarts as Pat Martino, Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, Eric Alexander, and Lewis Nash. Predictably, his first album Incantations/Encantaciones (Ceiba Tree Music, 2003) was critically acclaimed. He presently sits on the faculty of The Juilliard School of Music.

With reams of score paper for his new suite shrouding the piano where he played and led an all-star band in the Appel theater, Villafranca unleashed a mother lode of African forms in his five-part composition. Included in the work which ran on without a break for almost two hours were call-response mantras from the Congo, Bomba rhythms from the African legacy in Puerto Rico, slave folk music from Haiti, "Palo Muerto" refrains from the Dominican Republic, and revolutionary "Maroon War" sounds from Jamaica. The musical menu also featured native dancing and audience chanting.

Villafranca called the band "Jass Syncopators" recalling the initial spelling of "jazz" found in old New Orleans flyers. Featured in the group were saxophinists Vincent Herring and Gregory Tardy, clarinetist Michele Wright, trombonist Steve Turre, bassist Gregg August, drummer Willie Jones III, Congolese percussionists Arturo Stable and Jonathan Troncoso, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, and cellist/banjoist/ vocalist Leyla McCalla.

The musicians, particularly the horn men, faced a daunting task performing the jazz insertions Villafranca constructed to counter the myriad African polyrhythms played throughout. One of the highlights of the solo improvising sequences was that of Steve Turre who performed on a variety of Conch shells with a dexterity that would have wowed the ancients.


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