Baroque Music from Cuba and the New World

Join us on Wednesday, March 18 at Baryshnikov Arts Center for ARS LONGA DE LA HABANA: TESOROS DE AMERICA

Typical surveys of the-classical-music-known-as-baroque teach us about two predominant styles: the Italian, of Monteverdi, Corelli, Vivaldi, heavily influenced by vocal music; and the French, of Lully, Couperin, Rameau, inspired by dance. The Germans (like Telemann and Handel) and the English (like Purcell and … Handel) borrowed from and synthesized the two. And J.S. Bach did his own thing.

Now, gradual musicological efforts are revealing what might be considered a third distinct style of baroque music: that of Latin America. This music traces its roots back to Europe, to the colonial nations of Spain and Portugal, but to characterize it as an import would be inaccurate. Rather, it is a three-part blend of European, Indigenous, and African influences, and it is therefore intensely complex: problematic in its connections to colonialism and slavery, but also prescient of the more blended nature of Latin American culture today in contrast to the more segregated culture of North America. As a result, the baroque music of Latin America is characterized by texts, rhythmic hooks, and instruments that draw on influences from Black culture and Indigenous cultures, resulting in a music that couldn’t have been conceived of otherwise or elsewhere.

The rhythmic component of this repertory is particularly important. Like the French baroque style, Latin American baroque music tends to be groove-based, owing to its connections to dance music. But the percussion instruments are often distinctly un-European: instruments from Indigenous traditions like maracas (a pre-Columbian, gourd-based instrument) and jawbone (top middle in this watercolor from an 18th century Peruvian manuscript), and from African-style drums and rhythmic patterns. This influence is even felt in church music; Latin American villancicos, for instance, generally exhibit more rhythmic play and complexity than their Spanish counterparts, despite their sacred context.

Also noteworthy is the continuity of Latin American baroque music into folk traditions and even popular music. Taking Son Cubano as an example, a style associated, in its most popular form, with groups like Buena Vista Social Club; the instruments are once again a mix of Indigenous, African, and European provenance, with many, including guitars, brass instruments, double bass, maracas, güiro, claves, and various large drums, have been held in common across the styles and centuries. Another example is modern-day Son Mexicano, which uses instruments like smaller-sized guitars (jaranas) and the chromatic harp that are virtually unchanged from their baroque forms. When listening to these musics, too, there is much in common in terms of rhythm and harmony between the baroque and modern era styles, so that listening to the two side-by-side is not such a leap. (Try taking a quick sample of those two links.) This stylistic closeness is akin to a treasure-trove: that there are living traditions that might (judiciously) inform the revival of historically informed performance practice techniques.

Enter Ars Longa de la Habana, one of the longest running modern-day Latin American baroque ensembles. Founded in 1994, they’ve been dedicated to this style for over 25 years. And “dedicated to” is something of an understatement; “immersed in” would be more apt. Led by soprano and Artistic Director Teresa Paz, not only has Ars Longa been at this as long as any other group today, but they’ve set out to wholly immerse their audiences as well. As Paz says, in an interview in Havana Times: “I’ve always been interested in not only approaching the music in itself, [but] to recreate the spirit of a past epoch; that really came to form the ideal of my artistic aim, [to] travel back into other ages.”

One of the first things an audience member will notice is that Ars Longa performs primarily from memory, the singers in particular, a relative rarity today in performances of concert and sacred music. The feeling is one of hearing true popular songs; the singers move to the beat and act out their lines, embodying a deeply felt connection to the text and music. The ensemble’s execution is also exceptionally tight, showing that they not only deeply know this music, but each other as musicians as well.

Many factors contribute to this complete package, among them the given that all members of the ensemble are native Spanish speakers and that Cuba as a whole boasts an exceptionally deep and ubiquitous musical culture. The ensemble has also built close relationships with musicologists, who bring a deep knowledge of the repertory, the instruments, and the style to the group. The result is an ensemble that is arguably the foremost proponents of Latin American baroque performance — not just the music of Cuba, but also of other Caribbean, Central and South American nations, as well as music from Spain that would have been imported across the Atlantic. Given this pedigree, and the importance of this emerging field of research, hearing Ars Longa de la Habana live is an important and rich cultural experience that shouldn’t be missed.

— Michael Unterman

Ars Longa de la Habana will appear Wednesday, March 18 at 7:30 PM in a co-presentation by the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Gotham Early Music/Americas Society (GEMAS), and 5BMF.