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As Tobago readies and steadies to embrace another clutch of nubile divas for consumption by those with more dollars than sense or taste (they call it Tobago Jazz), I’m waiting in welcome silence for the Santiarican Blues.
The Caribbean “jazz festival” experience—as much a stereotype as the sea, sun and cocks with tails trope long touted by tourist boards desperate to gloss over the realities of poverty, corruption, drug and human trafficking, sexploitation and viral violence—is a largely fraudulent exercise in lame marketing and poor programming.
Like Carnival, jazz fests have priced themselves out of the range of all but the money launderers or the rapidly expanding cadre of ministerial advisers (doh dig no horrors—you can get the real stuff free on YouTube anyway). In fact most of these spurious fests have as much to do with jazz as a requiem mass has to do with a christening. The show must go on, and on and on and the gilded bourgeoisie are never slow to show off themselves, whatever the musical backdrop.
Imagine, back in the days when Cuban superstars the Buena Vista Social Club were selling out concerts in Europe within five minutes, they were hastily invited to a jazz fest in Ocho Rios, Jamdown. In Miami and London chasing down an interview, I hadn’t been able to get within a 100 yards of the BVs. In Ochee however, I was astonished to see Compay Segundo, Don Ruben Gonzalez and Ibrahim Ferrer, the Buena Vista elders, propped against the wall of a warehouse-big ballroom, totally ignored by the same people who’d paid a small fortune to come hear them.
Which proves what?—I hear you grumble. Only that some of the best music produced regionally (and acclaimed worldwide) is bypassed either in favour of local noise, foreign washouts and retirees, or the latest YouTube sensation. I wonder how many people will take the musical opportunities offered in Trinidad this weekend? Yesterday’s Jazz on the Greens or today’s final performance of the most popular opera of all time, Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Little Carib.
Has being bombarded by the roar of traffic and the ranting of empty vessels deafened us? In an effort to keep my eardrums intact, I prefer the company of trees these days. You have to listen carefully to hear a leaf tremble or the sap rising, while wind soughing through bamboo is a suite to my ears. When I can’t take the bad drives, the cussin, or the intransigence of bureaucrats anymore, I always find solace in the soliloquy of my soursop tree.
Noise distracts, as the poet-turned-musician Mohammed Muwakil demonstrated to my bemused class of Oral Literature students last week, slamming a wooden duster against the whiteboard continuously. Noise distracts us from the silences we need to focus on the greater silence.
Without silence, we can hear nothing (but maybe that’s the rationale). Music, on the other hand, cannot be measured by volume. Its gaps and even prolonged silences allow us, the audience, to hear, and feel where we are going. Is the Mozart syndrome, when babies exposed to the work of the prodigious Amadeus are noted to rapidly develop cognitive skills, mere sophistry?
I doubt it. So for now I’m patiently awaiting the arrival of an album I’ve read more about than listened to, so far: The Santiarican Blues Suite by the young Cuban pianist Aruan Ortiz. Cuba has a long tradition of superb pianists capable of straddling all genres; folk, popular, jazz and classical. From Ernesto Lecuona to Peruchin, Lili Martinez, Ruben Gonzalez, the Valdes: father Bebo and son Chucho right down to youngsters like Roberto Fonseca.
Ortiz stands out in this veritable pantheon of the ivories as he hails from the wellhead of Afro-Cuban and Haitian-Cuban culture-Santiago. The tumba francesa (literally the French drums) of Santiago is a drummed song and dance culture, imported by Haitians fleeing the War of Independence (1793-1804). It owes much to the same Vodou rhythms and rituals which have informed Haitian music both at home and in the Diaspora, particularly New Orleans (the apocryphal home of the Blues).
Originally scored for the ballet Pagan or Not, performed by the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre, the Santiarican Blues Suite, incorporates tumba francesa percussion along with strings in its celebration and evocation of the migrations which brought rhythms from Africa to new worlds and locations.
To quibble over labels like classical, jazz or folk is irrelevant when we recognise musicians like Aruan Ortiz. More productively, especially with a view to educating a new generation of musicians, we could think of work like Ortiz’s Santiarican Blues as creole classical music, an indigenous classical music which draws unashamedly on its many roots to make original modern music.
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