In 1998, together with drummer Davide Giovannini, I released "Accommodating Gods", the only album of a duo called Afroshock. In those years we were studying Afro-Cuban music from the source, and we were playing a lot of Salsa and bata drums with ensembles mixing Cuban, South-American and European musicians. Afroshock's quest was that of interpreting Santerìa chants and rhythms freely, from a personal perspective, without getting hung up on a faithful reproduction of the source material. An impressionistic approach, I would say. On the poster/booklet I wrote this lengthy text, in which I was trying to put in context the whole phenomenon we were part of in those days.
Accommodating Gods is presently available for purchase only as a download, comprising all the original artworks and the manifesto copied below.
- - -
The music on this album is the outcome of a project that began in 1989 and took more or less its present form by the end of 1991. It originates from our love for Afrocuban music, from recognising in it a huge idiomatic wealth for percussion music and it develops around the question of how a white European musician can interpret this music without straying into the frustrating maze of imitation. We have been part of that flow. We are amongst the thousands of musicians who during the last couple of decades have travelled from the old continent to the main urban centres of Cuba to study its music, the attraction being a territory universally acknowledged as one of the nodal points in twentieth century’s musical evolution. What we found was a cultural and artistic goldmine, alive and dynamic, of astounding vastness and rare beauty, that in many cases surpassed our expectations and demanded of us an involvement and commitment even greater than anticipated, as well as influencing dramatically the way we would approach music from then on. In other words, that place totally blew our minds. Over the years we became part of a network in which books, records, tapes, manuscripts and all kinds of musical information are hunted, borrowed and exchanged in a feverish fashion that probably resembles closely the first years of the introduction of Jazz music into Europe, although we can only imagine it. Professional and amateur musicians from all over the continent rarely seem to miss any good opportunity to hook up with the like and share an experience that united us all in a passion and sense of mission, the ultimate aim and the historical perspective of which seem to have never been clearly enunciated. Especially during the last ten years we have seen the emergence of an ever increasing number of musicians who achieve a high degree of specialisation in batà drums, conga drums and the immense musical literature that these instruments are associated with. Those who choose to teach, when properly equipped, have been able to convey the beauty of this art to a large number of people, creating a first generation of learners who invariably manifest the desire to carry out the pilgrimage themselves and touch with their own hands the source of such fascinating music. As a result bands started being formed. Ensembles consisting mainly or exclusively of Europeans choose to perform not only the popular Cuban orchestral dance music, but even percussion based styles like Comparsa, Rumba, Abakuà, Ararà and Yoruba music; many of which belong to the religious legacy of the nation. Some learn to reproduce this repertoire faithfully, with respectful accuracy and with the intense emotional charge that this music requires. Some others, again inspired by American masters such as Irakere or Fort Apache Band, fuse elements of Afrocuban music with Jazz or other genres. A melody or a specific rhythm is used as part of an arrangement, or a whole tribal flavoured episode is inserted to sparkle up a tune or a live set. In most cases the choice of elements and their modes of insertion are the ones suggested by bands and composers from Cuba or from the Latin communities in North America. This growth of interest amongst musicians from all over Europe contributed to popularise Afrocuban music and has created an awareness in music lovers in general. DJs, journalists and record labels have spread a music that is now known, appreciated and sold far more than it was ten years ago.
Although hard to admit, it seems rather obvious that for as long as the general efforts will aim at reaching as faithful a reproduction of the American models as possible, then both the promoters and the music listeners will inevitably choose to make use of Cuban music by referring to its original sources; not necessarily dismissing or underestimating the whole phenomenon that we have been part of, but surely failing to notice any immediate relevance in it as an artistic proposal. They must not be blamed. This big curve has completed its course. The widespread ignorance about Cuban music that we have always seen as our main obstacle has finally dissipated, and a number of us now find themselves lost, without any artistic statement ever formulated as an object of cohesion, on the outskirts of the musical scene, unemployed and decadent. We have had our good time as ethnomusicologists and pioneers, but now maybe more efforts should be made to explore the meaning of the obsession that brought us to Cuba in the first place, and lucidly incorporate this musical patrimony into our own cultural background, in order to actually create something new out of it, and to pay back our debts to a culture that so far has been for us mainly an endless source to withdraw musical ideas from. This is a call to whoever didn’t take “Latin Music” as a façade for their lack of musical personality.
A few European artists are already moving in that direction. They are the ones who refused to relinquish their own musical roots, the ones in which now two great systems of expression coexist in a coherent and powerful whole. Their work is slowly awakening the attention of the audience to what this music has to offer to our culture from a conceptual and idiomatic point of view; but there is still a long way to go, and this path seems to be slow and not completely free from obstacles. Many times these obstacles are generated by promoters and record companies who, having priorities not always compatibile with the creative obsession, cannot conceive taking risks on something which does not aim at reaching a specific and already existing clientele; but there are times in which this
process is aborted inside the mind of the musician himself, and this circumstance seems to have rather complex ethical implications. They are, maybe, to be searched in the articulated role that sense of guilt has long had in our civilisation. But the main point is probably that in learning this music one is facing a tradition that is not only so vast no one knows it in its entirety (not even in the motherland), but it is so bound by rules, so disciplined and demands such respect and consideration in approaching it, that in most cases the foreign acolyte does not feel entitled to contribute to it with his own ideas, nor to contaminate it with his own musical background, with the music he has been listening for all his life. So, under such autority, one is prone to oscillate endlessly between acknowledging that his own contribution will only be possible at the end of the learning cycle and wondering if such an end will ever be reached.
Nonetheless, the art of playing Batà drums, Rumba or any of the ramifications of the pulsating heart of Cuban music is no archaeology at all. It is a dynamic process, nowadays more than ever in constant transformation; the driving forces of this transformation being the individuals who learned this art, inclusive of their personal reality and their social and geographic placement. West African music, be it religious or secular, is a strong social and individual tool, the roles of which go far beyond diversion and distraction from daily human occupations. It is an omnipresent transcendental activity which underpins the very foundations of one of the most influential civilisations of our time: trance, preservation of myths and archetypes and a rooted sense of belonging.
In arriving to Cuba and to other American Catholic colonies, the people deported from Nigeria, Cameroon and the neighbouring countries, encountered a situation that was completely different from the one of their homelands. In another part of the world, with a different society and a different language such important social and historical functions as the ones mentioned above had to be kept alive. They managed to do so by modelling upon the new environment the way a living organism would do. The shape and the sound of musical instruments were modified, the ritual procedures took new paths, even the face and personality of the gods mutated, in an elegant and conscious process of adaptation that reveals what is deepest and unchangeable in the heart of a human society.
The capacity to germinate in the womb of peoples and societies different from the ones of origin is a characteristic intrinsic to Cuban music from the very beginning of its existence. It is what makes it so inherently universal and is probably the main reason why it is so attractive and intelligible to people who are not born and raised within its natural environment. It is an aspect which is not dissociable from the music itself, and its mechanisms should be studied and assimilated with the same thoroughness. Whenever full understanding and respect are established through proper training, there is nothing wrong in intervening by making drastic and personal creative choices upon a form of art that owes much of its elegance and complexity to the contribution of different peoples and cultures. If we look in perspective to what is now happening in Europe with what is commonly (and coarsely) called “Latin Music”, we might agree that we are dealing with a phenomenon that is far from uncommon in this century’s history of art. Classical music in the United States has been for a long time just an imitation of the European models before composers like Ives, Varese and Copland made a conscious effort to detach at once from those models and create a new, national identity. European Jazz, British Rock, Newyorican Salsa, also belong to this category; and even the Musical Nationalism of early twentieth century contains several hints for us, although it does not fit perfectly into this list. We might agree, we might not, it’s always very hard to compare our time with any other epoch of history, but it is worth trying. We might even, ultimately, find out that we are talking about something that lacks the scale of the examples mentioned above. What is certain is that we are going to have a lot of fun.
The deviation occurs in the centre. This is a proposal. And a starting point.