Friday, October 27, 2006

"Cuban Music from A to Z" by Helio Orovio

Illustration (left) ©Copyright 2004 Duke University Press. All Rights Acknowledged.

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".

Loo Yen Yeo

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