Hilario Durán: Songs of Longing

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Hilario Durán - photo by Danilo Navas
Hilario Durán “Contumbao” CD Release Party at Lula Lounge in Toronto

Svetlana Boym was the Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures at Harvard University, lived between 1959 and 2015, and has been described as a media artist, playwright and novelist. I was thinking a lot about her and her work as I was listening to Hilario Durán as he played music from his (2017) recording Contumbao at the Lula Lounge launch on September the 20th, 2017. One is able to make impossible leaps of thought when listening to the music of Hilario Durán. He jabs at the keyboard and each note pierces one’s brain provocatively. When that happens, there’s no telling where the mind will go. That night the word ‘nostalgie’ echoed noisily in the brain. Miss Boym once wrote in her book The Future of Nostalgia. (Basic Books, 2002) where she observed this about the word (and I paraphrase):

‘Nostalgia’ (or ‘nostalgie’) holds to its very brim ‘sentimentality’ for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. The word ‘nostalgia’ is learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of nóstos, meaning ‘homecoming’, a Homeric word, and álgos, meaning “pain” or “ache”. The word itself was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Described as a medical condition—a form of melancholy—in the Early Modern period, it became an important trope in Romanticism.

Hilario Durán: Contumbao
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Although he never said so in so many words one word – ‘nostalgie’ – was ever present throughout the memorable concert, as indeed we were reminded of it in Mr Durán’s commentaries, especially in a preface to one such song: “Parque 527” the house on the street where he grew up under the influence of his mother, a regal woman who was present at her son’s record launch that night. While the monumental architecture of the song was unfolding before all of us I could see – watching Hilario Durán’s fingers sculpt a sonic hologram of his house with its wooden windows and iron grilles, old furniture, gently endowed with new dust that settled after it music have bounced off brightly-coloured walls… But more than anything else, I could hear softly as in a gossamer backdrop of Hail Mary’s, sung to the genteel rhythm of a bolero Cubano in candlelight, with only the beads of the rosary replicating the chic dancing ones on a shekere necklace. Indeed nostalgia at its peak…

Like our brothers and sisters in the sprawling animal kingdom we live lives in an interminable state of migration and although many of us may live in one place for many years – sometimes for generations – eventually we all move physically. However, our minds remain locked in those places where we were once unspeakably happy. And if we are happy again, many years later it is almost always because we have carried something of that experience to our new homestead. That nostalgia is often tinged with melancholia and as much as it may recall extreme moments of joy – like when you first turned on the radio wherever in the world you were and out jumped Charlie Parker’s alto and Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet playing “Ornithology”… but somewhere there is always sadness as well. It’s inevitable. But then again what is sadness if it is not described as that at the end of which is happiness? Just like black best describes white, for instance…

Hilario Durán played on into that night in September and song after song – twelve songs in all – we lived through his deeply emotional ‘nostalgia’. This is not to say that every piece was a slowly unfolding bolero. Hilario Durán simply doesn’t ‘do’ that. He is a consummate artist – one through whom music flows as naturally and as viscerally as a river in flood. And that night it did, as headily also the wine and the rum flowed at the Lula Lounge. And we – especially those who were there only for the music – remained wide-eyed at this genius. Technique was on display, but also dynamics as surely as “Contumbao” was followed by “Pilón Influenciado”, which was followed by “El Tahonero”, which in turn was followed by “Rumba de Cajón” until the inevitable end with “Danzón Farewell (better known as “Danzón de la Partida”). It bears mention that on this particular journey, Hilario Durán was accompanied by a superbly-drilled cohort that included Mark Kelso on drums, Jorge Luis Torres “Papiosco” on congas, Roberto Riverón on bass and also guest appearances (on some songs) by the great Jay Danley, a Canadian tresero who is co-founder of the unforgettable Toronto band Orchesta Klave Y Kongo.

If you were there you would have been witness to something truly special. As on this record Contumbao – more than any other – Hilario Durán’s astonishing recording and performance of these twelve songs is to be admired for his clinical perfectionism as it is for the unsurpassable delicacy of his playing. Clearly with this performance – and these twelve songs – Mr Durán has taken his writing for his beloved concert grand into a new realm. Striving, as always, for absolute expression Hilario Durán has ventured at last into a complex revaluation of tradition, in which standard forms of classical Cuban forms have been invested with extraordinary emotional potency. The impetus of each (song’s) musical argument propelled one towards new moments and finales. And yet, in effect, Hilario Durán has come full circle: tormented by ‘nostalgia’ and by the most unclassical of Romantic impulses, he followed the old paths of Afro-Cuban music in search of (and the finding of) new freedoms. And for this the genius of his musicianship will always be praised…

All photos by danavas photography

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