Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

4. Latin Music

TANIA LEÓN: You can, you know, when you talk about all these incredible polyphonies, polyphonic attitude and rhythm, so it’s polyrhythmic. When you talk about these polyrhythms, you have to know the nuances that actually separate one thing from the other. You see, the salsa as it’s played in Santo Domingo is not the same as it’s played in Puerto Rico which is not the same as it’s played in Cuba. They all are different. And if you don’t know how to understand that variant, or that nuance, you know, then you tend to group everything together.

FRANK J. OTERI: In the Dominican Republic, merengue is totally different.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. A whole different thing.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s twice as fast as salsa.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly, exactly. And you have to know how to actually be able to identify a merengue from a guaracha. A samba is not a bossa nova, a bossa nova is not a guaguanco… You know? I mean, you hear all of these incredible systems that have a specific pattern, just like a waltz is not the same as a mazurka. But that’s something you have the chance to break down in a conservatory so you understand where the accent was placed in the 3 / 4.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, the popular musicians all play numerous dance forms; you don’t have somebody who just plays guaguanco, or just plays son. They play all of them, and what I thought was so interesting, getting back to Celia Cruz, I think she was one of the first non-Dominican artists to record merengues, to actually do merengues on all of her records, and that must have been a big deal in the 1950′s.

TANIA LEÓN: Um hmm. Well, it’s a big deal — you know why? Because it’s a recognition of a different language which you can also speak. You know, okay, I’m speaking English but I still speak with an accent, you see. And the thing is that if you understand what you are supposed to do, that you are flexible enough to actually go with that degree of syncopation, then you can do it. For that matter, also, you have to learn the culture, and the culture is not only the music, there is the food, there is actually living among them, and it’s moving among these people for a little while, for a while until your body adapts, and then all of a sudden you own the material.

A good example of the melting pot of salsa: Cuban émigré Celia Cruz teamed up with Nuyorican Willie Colón to perform a Dominican merengue.
RealPlayer  [60 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – WILLIE COLÓN/CELIA CRUZ: from “Pun Pun Catalu”

(from Willie Colón and Celia Cruz: Only They Could Have Made This Album, Vaya 0698 distributed by Fania)

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what I think happened with salsa that was so interesting is that in Cuban musicians coming to the United States and then meeting with Dominican musicians who were here, and Puerto Rican musicians who were here, sort of a Pan-Latin American music emerged, so that you have somebody like Ruben Blades, who’s from Panama, and you have somebody like Johnny Pacheco, who is from the Dominican Republic, and Celia Cruz, who is from Cuba, and Willie Colón who was born in New York City but whose parents are from Puerto Rico, and they all performed together…

TANIA LEÓN: And Oscar D’León…

FRANK J. OTERI: …from Venezuela…

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. So you have all these people performing together, and it’s no longer a single national music. It isn’t just Cuban music, it isn’t Dominican music, it isn’t Puerto Rican music…

TANIA LEÓN: It’s a Pan-Latin music.

FRANK J. OTERI: The same thing happened here with jazz. You had players who were from Kansas City, you had players who were from Chicago, you had white musicians, black musicians, they all played together. And everybody likes to point to Benny Goodman in 1938 having an interracial band at Carnegie Hall, and say that this was the first time that this had happened. But Jelly Roll Morton was playing with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in the early 1920′s.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, what I have found that has happened with the races is totally artificial. It’s again another political whatever, you know, I mean, it’s a means of control – of control of one over the other. And I think that the substance of what actually is happening is divide and conquer, as opposed to, you know, let people do what they’re supposed to do, and we will actually emerge with better results. So therefore, we have been very unfortunate that this has happened and there are still traces that you can find in our society that have not been really clear of all this dissemination of very low thinking. As far as what I feel about the music of the United States, it’s just such an incredible pool of richness.