Cuban Music from A-Z


Cuban Music from A to Z

Helio Orovio (2004)

Duke University Press

This 236 page encyclopedia has been published in Spanish since 1981 and is now available in English too. Author Helio Orovio, a very well respected musicologist/historian, spent nearly thirty years creating over 1,300 entries and 150 pictures/illustrations representing, mostly, biographies of musicians, instrument information and genre/style explanations.

Why you might buy it:
Entries are written in a concise manner, giving, for the most part, enough detail to give the reader a basic knowledge/understanding of the item in question. A good selection of photographs and line drawings help presentation – especially useful with some of the entries relating to instruments. This is a well written encyclopaedia style book that has a long shelf life – certainly something to come back to time and time again. There is no other book available in English like this.

Why you might leave it:
Not something you would necessarily read from cover to cover in one go, may feature a number of artists you have no real interest in, despite being around for over 25 years it is, quite surprisingly, not error free – at least one entry gives the wrong gender for the person and some of the dates/events don’t always cross-reference accurately. Given the richness of Cuban music there are many more people who could and perhaps should feature than actually do. Information on artists is often ‘thin’ after they have moved to the United States. Lack of an index can mean you spend more time than need be in finding what you are looking for.


List of Abbreviations
Organizational Structure of the Entries
Cuban Music from A-Z (pages 3-232)
Appendix A: Musical Instruments
Appendix B: Music Magazines
Appendix C: Orchestras and Bands
Appendix D: Theatres
Works Cited

Sample Entries:

Cornet China:
An instrument of Asian origin, absorbed into Cuban music. It was introduced by the many Chinese indentured workers who arrived in Cuba during colonial times. It’s Cuban origin is in Havana’s Chinatown, where the Asian comparsas known as Los Chinos Buenos played it in the city’s carnivals. It is said that around 1910 it was taken to the comparsas of Santiago de Cuba by the soldiers of the “permanent army”, and since then, it has remained a principal element in the congas of Santiago. Its five high-pitched, shrill and strident notes easily penetrate the dense texture of the carnival drums.

Lopez, Jesus:
Pianist. Born 30 July 1904, Matanzas; died 6 July 1971, Havana. Studied piano in his home town and later came to Havana, where he played with several orchestras, among them Collazo’s Maravilla del Siglo. Lopez joined Arcano y Sus Maravillas in 1937, and later played with fajardo y Sus estrellas. He is one of the most remarkable Cuban pianists to date, and his style has influenced many instrumentalists.

Pla, Luisito:
Composer and troubadour. Born (?), Havana; died (?). In 1939 Pla founded a trio with Senen Suarez and Manolito Menendez, performing boleros, sones, and guarachas on the radio and at theatres. In 1947 the trio made a tour of the Americas, and during the 1950’s, it performed extensively in the Unites States and also made several records. Pla is the author of “Jacarandosa”, “La Cancion del Caminante”, El Madrugon” and “Perico Sordo”. He moved to the United States in 1948.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews: by Loo Yen Yeo (2006)
I’ve just finished reading Helio Orovio’s “Cuban Music from A to Z”, which I’d been meaning to do for a while now, but thought the prospect of tackling it in Spanish a little daunting. Luckily my courage was given a reprieve when the translated version hit the shelves a couple of years back. The encyclopedic entries make reading the book a very dry experience if you approach it from cover-to-cover, which is understandable as it was designed as a reference work.

Nonetheless, doing so at a leisurely canter gave this reader a sense of the book’s scope, what the author thought to be important, and what is not so. It would be unfair to dwell on its inaccuracies: like the unlikelihood of people dying before they were born; or some of its glaring omissions like not mentioning the likes of Pedrito Calvo whilst maintaining and entry for his colleague Orlando Canto; simply because this work has no equivalent in the English language arena.

The balance of information seems to be heavily polarised, with plenty of weight given to musicians of Cuban-European music and practices of African origin, with not much in between. It’s as if the cataloguing began with a very pro-European bias, and was only recently redressed with some very Africa-centric entries in an attempt to render it some sense of balance. It’s a far from perfect work, but its very utility will ensure that Mr. Orovio’s name will continue to stare back at me from spine of the book on the shelf for many years to come.

And one final thing.

Reading it serially, hard on the palate though it might have been, gave me a sense of the Cuban contribution, in part, to the development of salsa.

But tellingly, it was missing the names of non-Cubans commonly mentioned as staples in other books of this genre, that told me just as much. The likes of Johnny Pacheco, the Palmieri brothers, and El Gran Combo. I guess there is truth in the saying “You don’t recognise the value of something until it’s gone”.

From Publishers Weekly
With more than 1,300 alphabetical entries (from Abakuá, a form of music that originated in Africa, to Eddy Zervigón, a New York City flutist and bandleader), this volume is a comprehensive English-language reference for anyone with an interest in Cuban music. Some of the book’s entries define musical terms: cha-cha-chá, for example, is a “song and dance style derived from a specific type of danzón known as ‘danzones de neuvo rito’ and influenced by the son”—danzón and son are extensively defined elsewhere. Other entries provide brief biographies of musicians and individuals who have shaped and influenced Cuban music over the course of its history. The encyclopedic organization means terms are easy to find; entries are concise but interesting and full of detail. Put together by Orovio, a musicologist and historian at the Institute of Folklore and Ethnology in Cuba, this volume is truly a “tribute to Cuban music and its musicians.” by Rebecca Mauleon
How wonderful this book was translated and updated! In its first edition in Spanish, many important Cuban musicians were omitted, mainly due to US-Cuban politics. Orovio’s thorough guide gives the 411 on some of Cuba’s most important and prolific musicians – including those living in the U.S. and elsewhere, including biographical as well as musicological information. A must have for anyone who loves Cuban music! by Lee Prosser
Readers and the jazz listening audience who enjoy Cuban music will want to own a copy of Cuban Music from A to Z. . . . Covering the full range of dance, styles, performers, composers, and related subjects, this is a pleasing book to read at your leisure. Much, much information is given in a crisp, highly readable format. This is a must-have reference book for your Cuban section in the home library, and a nice book to have on hand for library patrons at the Public Library.

Studies in Latin American Popular Culture by José M. Vadi
Cuban Music From AtoZ avoids the unfortunate politicization of music and culture that is legacy of political divisions among Cubans. Included in the work are figures such as Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Willie Chirino, and Albita Rodriguez who reside or resided in the United States. . . . [T]his work is a valuable resource that advances, for both novices and experts, the knowledge of one of Cuba’s great gifts to the world: its music.


One response

21 09 2011
riccardo giugliarelli

un buon sito per la cultura “salsa”

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