The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie: How Immigration and Emigration have Shaped American Music

The case of Latin American and Caribbean composers and musicians in the U.S.A. is a complex and intriguing one. We in the U.S.A. have an unfortunate, chauvinistic, and wrongheaded tendency to look down on our Southern Hemisphere neighbors as “third world banana republics.” We therefore tend to ignore that they are New World countries with colonial and demographic histories similar to our own: indigenous populations overwhelmed by a colonial power by means of successive waves of immigration (some voluntary, most not) from Africa, Europe and Asia, and then eventual independence for a new multi-cultural society. The heritage and musical training of Cuban-born composer Tania León, whose ancestors are from China, France, Spain, Africa and the Americas, is a perfect example of what such a history means in present musical terms.

In many cases Latin American and Caribbean countries have stronger ties to Europe than we do, having achieved independence much later or not at all, among other reasons. Sophisticated universities, conservatories and fine arts circuits have existed “south of the border” as long as, if not longer than, they have North of it, and those educational and cultural institutions are as closely tied to Europe as ours are. For example, Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra has studied at both the conservatory and university in San Juan as well as prestigious music institutions in London, Utrecht and Hamburg, where he worked with Ligeti. He has taught in New York City, as well as being a fixture in the new music scene there, and enjoyed a four-year stint as composer-in-residence at the Milwaukee Symphony. He currently serves on the faculty at Cornell. One should not expect everything he has composed to reflect Latin musical roots, for though much of it does, Sierra is as firmly rooted in the European musical tradition as he is in the music of his home island. Sierra’s older compatriot Hector Campos Parsi has a similar international training background (having studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen), though it includes much more study in the U.S.A. (with the likes of Aaron Copland and Irving Fine). He writes both national and international works from a primarily tonal perspective, though he has used electronic and aleatoric approaches as well.

When discussing Latin music, it must be pointed out that certain Spanish-speaking musicians, particularly in the pop and jazz worlds, are able to avail themselves of four distinct music industries (something not even Michael Jackson or Madonna can claim). They are the Latin American music industry, the North American music industry, the European music industry and the separate but strong Latino music industry in North America — which has centers in New York, Miami, San Antonio and Los Angeles. These industries encompass recording, performance, print media, and broadcast opportunities. Examples of musicians who have profited from this arrangement are: salsa and Latin jazz stars such as Eddie Palmieri, Ruben Blades, Tito Puente, and Willie Colón; stellar Cubans like Celia Cruz, Los Van Van and Irakere; and Southwestern Mexican-Americans ranging from the rootsy Jimenez brothers to glitzy pop stars like Selena.

It is problematic to automatically view U.S.-based composers and musicians of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent as immigrants, because Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. politically, and about 1/4 of the U.S. was formerly Mexico. However, it is fair to say that the musical heritage of these individuals is at least partially imported and therefore their inclusion in this discussion is justified. In addition, in New York it is no longer always possible to separate Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians and musical styles, for it was in this city that the polycultural style known as “salsa” was invented in the 1970’s and “Latin jazz” invented in the ’40’s. One could argue therefore that these are Pan-American styles. The classic recordings of these ever-growing genres feature the above-mentioned musicians in addition to people like Mario Bauza, Poncho Sanchez, Cachao, Dave Valentin, Machito, Mongo Santamaria, Patato Valdez, Chico O’Farrill, Ray Barretto, Charlie Palmieri, Michel Camilo, Danilo Perez, Gato Barbieri, and Daniel Ponce, and revolve mostly around the Fania and Concord Picante labels though of course many other labels have participated.

Within the commercial confines of these labels, the musicians stretched out considerably, dabbling with rock, jazz, blues, disco, funk, and soul influences; with Trinidadian, Jamaican, Haitian and African influences; with Latin influences from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and other places, in addition to dabbling with synthesizers and working with American horn players. It is also important to acknowledge that non-salsa Latin musicians all over the U.S.A. have been at the forefront of intercultural experimentation, from Flaco Jimenez in Texas, to Carlos Santana, Los Lobos and Ozomatli in California, to the ultra-pop hit factory run by producer Emilio Estefan in Miami.

That interculturalism is mirrored by all of the fine art composers of Latin descent living and working in America, not just Sierra, León and Parsi. Argentinians Mario Davidovsky and Osvaldo Golijov have both made an impact in America’s new music scene while both retaining a very strong element of internationalism. Davidovsky is influenced mostly by the Second Viennese School and the electronic music movement. Golijov, having lived for three years in Israel, is known as an explorer of Jewish history, musicality, and spirituality. Likewise, immigrant Max Lifchitz and Texan Robert X. Rodriguez both take their Mexican roots seriously, but only as one more ingredient in an eclectic international stew that includes electronic music, lyrical atonality, tonal populism, atypical instrumental combinations, and, of course, the whole tradition of European art music. Both of them have taught at American universities for decades. Other composers to watch for include the Uruguayan-born Miguel del Aguila, Orlando Jacinto Garcia, and Ernesto Diaz-Infante. Argentinian Pablo Ziegler has also been more and more active here, with management, a booking agent and a record label here, will he soon also have a residence?

Latin American and Caribbean composers and musicians usually arrive in the US with all of the advantages that the Western music education system can provide. In addition, most, if not all are well accustomed to the vernacular music of their home countries in addition to everything that we Norteamericanos promulgate over our airwaves, from country to jazz, from hip-hop to rock. It is also important to recognize that film and television scoring opportunities have been available to many Southern Hemisphere composers for generations. For instance, Cuba’s most famous composer, Ernesto Lecuona scored films for the U.S., Cuban and Mexican film industries in the ’40’s and ’50’s. The political and cultural divide between the U.S. and our Southern neighbors has grown worse in recent decades, obscuring the fact that many of the musicians named in this overview truly exist in a Pan-American music world that knows no borders.

From The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie
by Sid Whelan
© 1999 NewMusicBox



Frequently called the “king of Latin music,” Tito Puente was born and raised in New York City and studied at Juilliard.
Sound sample – PUENTE: from Nuevo Mambo vocal by Vincentico Valdes
(from the album Dance Date with Tito Puente: Mambos, Palladium 121)

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Cuban-born Orlando Jacinto Garcia continues in the path of his mentor Morton Feldman.
Sound sample – GARCIA: from On the Eve of the Second Year Anniversary of Morton’s Death
(From the CD O.J. Garcia: La Belleza del Silencio, O.O. Discs 6)

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