Jazz Plaza 2020: Speaking in Tongues

From the musical tongue of Puerto Rico to the voice of the Venezuelan drum

Our sojourn took a magnificent turn as we swerved from the musical tongue of Puerto Rico to the voice of the Venezuelan drum. The magic here lay in the percussive music of the incredible Venezuelan percussionist and composer Fran Vielma, whose music begins with it a distinct advantage: for Mr Vielma is a percussion colourist of great distinction. Clearly also he “hears” music not only from the vantage point of the complex rhythmic patterns that adorn the music of Venezuela; the joropo oriental, a rural form which originated in the llanos, or the gaita zuliana and golpe de patanemo, or even the ones imported such as salsa from East Harlem (also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio) in New York City. But more significantly and infinitely more attractive is what Mr. Vielma does with the rhythmic patterns in the manner in which he adorns each with melodies and harmonic voices. Here, the percussionist leans heavily on his aptitude for, and particular genius for counterpoint and most of important of all – his understanding of instrumental timbre.

Fran Vielma & Venezuelan Jazz Collective at Casa de Cultura Plaza. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul da Gama
Fran Vielma & Venezuelan Jazz Collective at Casa de Cultura Plaza. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama

The results are quite remarkable – though no surprise considering Mr. Vielma’s masterful use of tonal colours and textures. Speaking of horns, the manner in which Mr. Vielma uses the trombone and the saxophone is also exceptional and he [Mr. Vielma] writes such harmonies that must be played in a manner that suggests their notes are poured into the harmony rather than merely played. To sustain this molten effect is one of the most memorable experiences of listening to this music. One can’t help but marvel how magically effective this is especially as the horns constantly have to be mixed in with the dry and sharp, stabbing aural palette of Mr. Vielma’s Venezuelan percussion.

“The tongues of angels were beginning to speak and we stood mesmerised as our own lips and voices were pressed into silence”

Ah…! Venezuela…! How fascinating that the music of so beautiful and troubled a country should be celebrated in Cuba, and by a musician who “feels” the beauty and the pain of his country so deep within his heart. Clearly, however, in the music of Mr Vielma, could be heard the oddly celebratory voices of those being crushed by the poverty and civil unrest. Such trepidation, however, did not prevent us – or a large adoring audience – from falling prey to the charms of a group of young Cuban musicians that included a brilliant young bassist, Tailin Marrero Zamora, who brought the house down together with drummer Oliver Valdés and pianist Rolando Luna, at Teatro Bertolt Brecht. Miss Marrero is also the bassist in Jane Bunnett’s all-female ensemble, Maqueque, and is now well-known worldwide. Her virtuoso bass playing held us speechless.

Jazz Plaza 2020 at Teatro Bertolt Brecht. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama
Jazz Plaza 2020 at Teatro Bertolt Brecht. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama

Miss Marrero’s set was followed by another which was as riveting as her own. This [second] set was headlined by Havana’s dazzling pianist Jorge Luis Pacheco, a magnificent virtuoso who brought the house down by his pianism. Mr Pacheco’s invited guests included the electrifying, velvet-voiced Idania Valdés as well as an appearance by one of Cuba’s most gifted young vocalists and musicians, Daymé Arocena. The two vocalists brought dramatically different dynamics to Mr Pacheco’s set, with Miss Valdés adding a dimension beautifully reminiscent of the vocalastics of legendary diva of Cuban music – Omara Portuondo, while Miss Arocena gave notice of where Cuban vocal music is headed, while staying true to its great Afro-Cuban [Santeria] roots.

By now we had become accustomed to the fact that each day brought new surprises. The morning of January 18th, one we spent at Fábrica de Arte, was one such surprise, and started with a panel discussion that included iconic Cuban musicians of various stripes and generations. They included the great musician, guitarist, composer and conductor, Leo Brouwer, Nueva Trova iconic singer-songwriter and bandleader Silvio Rodríguez, intrepid guitarist, musician and activist Pablo Menéndez and Gerónimo Labrada. Being in the same room as Mr Brouwer was, in itself, something to savour. However, our joy didn’t end there even as the session concluded.

Suddenly the hum of voices was silenced. The darkness of Fábrica de Arte was bathed in a surreal song of light. The source of this sound and slender light appeared to be the rafters of nave 3 from where the music cascaded towards us. Someone recognized the music. It was a piece that Leo Brouwer had written and the music seemed to be advancing towards him. I looked at Mr Brouwer. His eyes were shielded by thick sunglasses; his hand was rising as if in salute to the girls (for they were now discernable by their silhouettes in the darkness) who were singing; but then his hand fell slightly to his lips and he blew them a kiss as a tear, overflowing from his eye, ran down his cheek. Mr Brouwer was as overcome as we all were. But what was most remarkable about the swelling canticle was that the chorus of voices seemed to be raised as if to the heavens. The tongues of angels were beginning to speak and we stood mesmerised as our own lips and voices were pressed into silence.

Leo Brouwer Tribute at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama
Leo Brouwer Tribute at Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama
Raul Da Gama
Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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