“This record by a very special artist will go down as one of the most significant works of music. Its power, significance and beauty will forever linger in the soul, where all musical art is enjoyed to the fullest.”
Aruán Ortiz is not only a phenomenon among the new generation of musicians performing today, but he is also a cultural rarity among these artists. Ortiz is one of only two artists whose origin is inextricably linked to the Cuban-Haitian Diaspora—the other being the celebrated a capella group once known as Grupo Vocal Desandann (now known as the Creole Choir of Cuba). Ortiz has always acknowledged his heritage in some form or the other, in his previous musical sojourns, but with Santiarican Blues Suite he takes not a step, but a whole leap further. Ortiz draws now a cultural line from Africa through Haiti, New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, wherever, that is, the blues flourished. The form is different—no 12-bar here, but that is a white man’s attempt to classify the form. Blues as a state of being reflecting the unspeakable horror of enslavement, the tentative joy of the discovery of freedom—for no one but the Haitians were free from slavery at that time and even when the Afro-Americans were legally free, they were still culturally enslaved by the domination of Christianity over the worship of their own bevy of saints that were brought across the Atlantic in the slave ships.
Aruán Ortiz tackles all of this in a sweeping spectacular suite written originally as a ballet entitled Pagan or Not and performed by the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre on the occasion of their 25th Anniversary. The ballet suite is in five parts beginning with the terrifying tentative arrival of the slaves from Africa and ending with a glorious jubilee of not only freedom, but also the realization that there was reason to celebrate the cultural union between Africa, and Europe as no one but the Afro-American or Cuban Haitian Creole could celebrate. This gave the newly created Diaspora a uniqueness that no one could take away from neither them, nor even copy or replicate no matter how hard they tried. This, however, is not the purpose of the ballet, nor a suggestion of Ortiz’s music on the Santiarican Blues Suite, it is simply an irrefutable fact. The majesty with which Ortiz has captured this journey must make it one of the finest works of modern music, comparable to another recent musical depiction of a cruel, but fascinating journey, Trails of Tears (Universal France/Sunnyside Records, 2010), the trumpeter Jacques Coursil’s depiction of the Cherokee Nation being driven out of their ancestral land.
Ortiz’s Suite begins with the arrival of the enslaved peoples to Haiti. The drama of their fear and uncertainty is brilliantly captured by the master percussionist, Mauricio Herrera, who uses the thunderous dramaturgy of the tympani combined with small percussion interspersed with ominous-sounding strings to depict the terror of a displaced people. By the time the second part of the Suite—“P’al Monte”—comes around the enslaved nation is getting to be comfortable in their new surroundings. Ortiz depicts this with his masterful use of the tumba francesa, the socio-cultural society that flourished in the Oriente province of Cuba. Wistful vocals are followed up with the imitation of song and dance that went with this musical stasis. The use of the “catá” the small wooden xylophone, melded with the string section is a brilliant exposition of the mood of the people now more ecstatic in their new surroundings. The third part of the Suite, “San Pascual Bailón” deals with the emergence of a people converted to Catholicism, where medieval Christianity is absorbed into the worship of Santeria. Here Ortiz uses a new rhythm, the tango haitiano, syncopated on the fourth beat. This harks back to the creole contradanza that uses tympani and bourdon to parody the pagan melodies heard through the newly converted to Christianity in procession with their bevy of saints. The still uncertain peoples are depicted in the next part of the Suite, “Sagrado” inspired by the “Perla Marina” of Sindo Garay. This part of the suite uses mainly strings to usher in the mood of melancholia that turns to calm just before the final celebration of life. This is heralded in the section by the sudden introduction of the flute. The final section is that of the “Jubilee/Comparsa” where the Haitian Creole comes to realize that theirs is a unique Diaspora—not unlike the Creole of New Orleans—where the music of Africa is fused with that of Europe. Thus Ortiz makes the link between Cuban-Haitian music and that of New Orleans—the proverbial origin of the Blues of the album—which is that emotional roller-coaster of sadness and joy, exclusive to the slaves of Gorée.
This record by a very special artist will go down as one of the most significant works of music. Its power, significance and beauty will forever linger in the soul, where all musical art is enjoyed to the fullest.
Tracks: 1. Diaspora; 2. P’al Monte; 3. San Pascual Bailón; 4. Sagrado; 5. Jubilee/Comparsa.
Personnel: Aruán Ortiz: piano; Katya Mihailova: piano; Zoe Hillengas: flute; Francisco Salazar: violin; Luis Casals: violin; Michiko Ozawa: violin; Samuel Marchan: viola; Brian Sanders: cello; Pedro Giraudo: bass; Anthony Morris: bass; Mauricio Herrera: percussion.
Aruán Ortíz – Official website: www.justin-time.com
Label: Sunnyside Records
Release date: April 2012
Reviewed by: Raul da Gama