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The Feeling Messengers, Past and Present (Part I)

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Elena Burke

Preamble

Within the current renaissance of popular Cuban music, coupled with the seemingly eternal presence of its first cousin American Jazz, we are once again witnessing a proliferation of recordings that seek to represent -in the here and now- those signposts of cross-culture. The name of the game however is neither renovation nor restoration, but rather re- issue, and I will try to convey to you, the reader, the who and why of it all.

Sexteto Occidente - New York 1926
Sexteto Occidente – New York 1926

Old Wine, New Bottles

So why all the re-issues? Let it be known that it is not for a lack of talent, as literally thousands of talented young musicians are digging into the vaults to rediscover that certain earthiness which our progenitors premiered over a hundred years ago. It is this collective body of work that has recently been (correctly) labeled as “classics”.

It would be impossible for anyone today to successfully manufacture or reproduce such unselfconscious and original music, even with all the so-called advanced technology that is now available. Producing new music, independently as well as under the auspices of an established label (good luck with that) has become quite costly, and frankly, it is much cheaper to just re-hash the oldies with new packaging which will ultimately attract new listeners (and buyers of course). Old wine, new bottles, as they say in the music biz.

Given all the new studio techniques and the strangely isolationist method of recording, one would probably think the opposite, and yes, there are indeed various artists and tech people for whom reproducing that original essence is first and foremost. I respect their commitment to this autochthonous music. These are not mere fans, in that their involvement is a big part of who they are. Both urban and rural folklore continues to excite and inform them and presumably they will follow it to the end. These folks are “purists” in the real sense of the word, but unfortunately they do not make up the bulk of our industry personnel.

The people in charge of the production, distribution and sale of pop music are an elite bunch, made up of a select group of “experts” who are forever seeking something “new” to distribute among the masses. Their main purpose of course is to create new “trends” and sadly, they have no use for preserving time honored traditions. Such experts are in effect, limited in their knowledge and have no sense of history whatsoever. All they know or care about is the bottom line. Suffice to say that hardly any of them are musicians.

Technology not withstanding, and given the fact that there are not that many seasoned veterans around today, these “classics” which I speak of are obviously a product of their time and have been subjected to their own evolution. And yet, talent and creativity still abound in our present environment, and just about everything is being done to encourage the new generation to rescue and preserve the past. Needless to say, there are a few choice recordings around today that have come very, very close to the original versions. They are however, neither American Jazz nor Cuban folk music as was originally performed. They are what John Storm Roberts alluded to in his book “Black Music Of Two Worlds” as fusion.

In The Beginning Too, There Was Fusion

The period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression was known as “the jazz age”, but it was also the epoch when the rural sounds of son and changüí began to develop in the eastern part of Cuba, along the coastal and mountainous province of Oriente. When this particular style of country music reached the capital of La Habana (Havana) -and this had to be right around the time that the new republic was forged- it merged with a more African derived music known as rumba, creating new and exciting dance rhythms. It would not be too long before this urbanized son habanero began to venture outside of the perimeters of the island, traveling along the same route that jazz had embarked upon, and, as quick as you could say tin cun tan, the two styles soon began to overlap.

Technology, Syncretism And That Raw Feeling

During that same post-colonial period (and perhaps even beyond, well into the 1940’s at least) many folklorists were recorded for posterity, first on shellac and later on vinyl discs. In the case of the transplanted Cuban son, which actually began to appear on 78 RPM shellac discs in 1920’s Havana, their original and very raw material was preserved for posterity, to the delight of many a record buff (collector) such as myself. Their unique vocal sound was related to the vieja trova, so that in addition to the aforementioned son oriental/son habanero, these troveros also began to record an amalgam of criollas, boleros, claves, afros, bambucos, habaneras, and even canciones de serenatas.

Before 1925, all 78’s were recorded by means of the artist singing or speaking into a horn, the sheer power of his or her voice directly vibrating the recording stylus and thus cutting the wax of the master disc. The raw power of the human voice and all its emotional feeling went into that horn, and it is for this reason that they are now known as “acoustic” recordings.

To date, there have been hardly any studies relating to the acoustic correlates of emotional expression in the singing voice. If such a study were to be made, they would invariably show robust signatures for certain emotions. To be sure, there is a major contrast between sadness and tenderness on one hand, and anger, joy and pride on the other. This would undoubtedly have much to do with the artists’ knowledge of vocal dynamics and their range, but it also must take into consideration the high power and arousal characteristics of their emotions. In other words, that certain thing we so often refer to as “feeling”. This very colorful tag is as illusive and misunderstood as its cousin “swing”. But more on that in a moment.

Featured photo: Elena Burke, revered and popular Cuban singer of boleros and romantic ballads.

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Bandleader, vocalist, composer, graphic artist and radio personality Ernesto "Chico" Álvarez Peraza has been performing as a singer and percussionist throughout the New York City tri-state area for the last four decades. Leader of conjunto Mafimba and The Palomonte Afro-Cuban Big Band, he was also the host and producer of New World Gallery, an eclectic world music radio show which had been airing over WBAI Pacifica Radio (99.5 FM) for more than 25 years.

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Tribute to the Masters

Tribute to the Masters: Mario Rivera

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Mario Rivera "El Comandante"

Mario Rivera was a gifted musician, composer and arranger that played more than 15 instruments, which included piano, vibraphone, drums, trumpet, timbales, congas, flute, and piccolo. But Rivera was known for how he kissed and caressed the tenor, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones. He could play all of the family of saxophones on a virtuosic level as a soloist and section player and was one of the very few saxophonists who also mastered of the flute in the Cuban charanga style. Unlike most musicians, Rivera played all these instruments at an exceedingly high level of musicianship. Rivera dominated the “straight- ahead” jazz and Latin Jazz, Salsa and many other genres.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante"
Mario Rivera “El Comandante”

Mario was born July 22, 1939 in Santo Domingo, The Dominican Republic. After he arrived in NYC in 1961, he worked with Puerto Rican vocalist Joe Valle. His most significant musical associations through the years include Tito Rodríguez (1963-65), The Machito Orchestra, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Típica 73, The George Coleman Octet, Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra, Slide Hampton’s Jazz Masters, the Afro Blue Band, Giovanni Hidalgo, Chico O’Farrill’s Orchestra and especially Tito Puente’s Orchestra and Latin Jazz Ensemble with whom he worked for on and off for decades.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante" the merengue-jazz - Guest: George Coleman - Groovin High
Mario Rivera “El Comandante” the merengue-jazz – Guest: George Coleman – Groovin High

Even though Rivera was one of the hardest working sidemen in the jazz and Latin music business he also led two groups of his own Salsa Refugees and The Mario Rivera Sextet. Although having appeared on virtually hundreds of recording, Mario recorded only one disc as a leader named after his sobriquet, “El Comandante.” It has fine examples of combinations of the native rhythm of his homeland, merengue from the Dominican Republic and jazz improvisation. Indeed it can be considered not only a tribute to his homeland and his mastery of jazz harmony but an homage also to one of his inspirations and yet another unsung hero, fellow Dominican saxophone master, Tavito Vásquez.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante" and "The Salsa Refugees" - Back row L-R: Mario Rivera, Andy González, Jorge Dalto, Jerry González, Papo Vázquez, Nicky Marrero - Bottom Row L-R: Elías Peguero, César Ozuna
Mario Rivera “El Comandante” and “The Salsa Refugees” – Back row L-R: Mario Rivera, Andy González, Jorge Dalto, Jerry González, Papo Vázquez, Nicky Marrero – Bottom Row L-R: Elías Peguero, César Ozuna

Rivera’s passing has been felt very hard in the Latin music and jazz community and he is sorely missed. But we have his stories, music recordings, photos, and videos to remember this grand musician because what he left us makes him truly immortal.


We leave the readers with these final thoughts from Mario himself: “In my case, the day becomes the night and the night becomes the day. There are no vehicles on the street; there are no sirens at night. There is nothing that could block the inspiration. My home is like a musical laboratory because I have to accomplish so many things, I have to learn to play so many instruments. I spend all of my free time at home, practicing like a maniac, refining my chops. This is why I play 24 instruments. When it comes to music, one must be actively militant. Music demands your entire attention and dedication. If a musician is not willing to make that commitment, he will end up floating on a sea of turds, along with the other idle and mediocre characters.”

Mario Rivera passed in August, 2007, may he play on.

Content source: James Nadal

Photos from the Facebook Tribute Page: Mario Rivera “el Comandante”

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