How on earth do you pick six compositions to represent an entire continent? Answer: You don’t. Because you can’t. So perhaps this is the first of a few more Latin 5&1s to come. My knowledge of what is out there is patchy, to say the least, but here are a few gems I’ve picked up over the years, with a bit of a geographical spread thrown in.
Classical music, as conventionally understood, is not often associated with Latin America, though, as we will see, this is a situation that needs rectifying. Some extraordinary soundworlds were being created long before the Conquistadores arrived from European shores, and together with the cultural impact of the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, the musical mix that resulted is unique. To put it at its most simplistic, we could say that the two key musical influences were the Catholic Church and the complex rhythms of percussion and dance; and often, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
1. Missa de Lima: I. Kyrie (1730s)
Roque Ceruti (1683-1760, Peruvian)
—Barbara Kusa, Flora Grill (sopranos), Ximena Biondo (contralto), Pablo Pollitzer (tenor), Ricardo Massun (conductor), Ensamble Louis Berger
Ceruti was Italian by birth and the music of his homeland clearly influenced his own work (to give some context, Antonio Vivaldi was only five years his senior). He was recruited by the Viceroy of Peru to become the conductor of his court orchestra in Lima, and he would remain there for the rest of his life. Like his countless European counterparts, he would therefore have focused on composing on music for both court and chapel.
This track is the first component of Ceruti’s setting of the Catholic Mass, dedicated to his adopted city. As it opens, this liturgical cry for the Lord’s mercy (kyrie eleison) could easily be mistaken for a setting by Bach or Vivaldi but as it develops, something about the rhythms in both instruments and soloists hints at a different context.
2. Misa Criolla: I. Kyrie (1963-64)
—Ariel Ramirez (1921-2010, Argentine)
José Carreras (tenor), Jorge Padin (percussion), José Luis Ocejo (conductor), Coral Salvé de Laredo, Domingo Cura, Sociedad Coral de Bilbao
Fast forward over two centuries and the world is radically changed. Spain’s rule over the continent is a distant memory and the Catholic church is a very different institution. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has started shaking things up. No longer was Latin the only, exclusively permissible language of the mass, for one thing. So, the Argentine composer Ariel Ramirez lost little time in making the most of the new freedom. It is not just the text of the mass that is now in vernacular Spanish, but the music is too. It is hard to imagine this originating from anywhere other than South America, and the Andes in particular.
Scored for choir and soloist (who can be soprano or tenor), this recording is led by the sublime voice of the Spanish tenor, José Carreras. With his flawless breath control and tuning, he seems to float the plea for mercy all the way up to heaven’s throne-room, while the choir chant it on its way.
3. Dos Aires Candomberos: No. 1, Nubes de Buenos Aires
—Máximo Diego Pujol (1957- , Argentine)
Guido Bombardieri (Clarinet) & Gabriele Zanetti (Guitar)
We have now travelled far beyond the cathedral walls into the plazas and community spaces of the towns. Under the weight of Spain’s influence in the region, it’s hardly surprising that the guitar is so important to Latin American music. In this track we hear it enjoying a thorough work out. The Candombe was a dance style that originated in Uruguay among African slaves, many of whom had been trafficked from Angola particularly. This spread throughout the Southern American countries where there were former slaves and other African diaspora communities, such as in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.
With this piece, Argentine composer and guitarist Máximo Pujol uses various forms associated with the Candombe style as one of his Two Candombe Airs. This, the first, means ‘Clouds of Buenos Aires’ and was originally scored for guitar and flute. This arrangement for Clarinet is even better (give me a clarinet over a flute more or less every time). The piece is by turns evocative, mesmerising, thrilling, romantic and utterly Latin. Hard to believe it is all squeezed into just a few minutes.
4. Dame Albricia Mano Anton
—Gaspar Fernandes (1566-1629, Mexican)
Nestor E. Adrenacci (conductor), Grupo de Canto Coral, Grupo Canto Choral Baroque Orchestra
Further north to Spanish Mexico now and back into church confines. But musically, we are far from constrained. The influences of mediaeval polyphony (choral music featuring the interplay of several different lines simultaneously) and early European Baroque music are clearly audible. This is a four-part anthem, a common feature in churches for centuries. But as this performance illustrates brilliantly, contained within its simple melodies are the rhythms of both Africa and indigenous American populations. So the use of percussion and guitars or lutes was entirely authentic.
The style was known as Guineo (i.e. from western Africa) and followed a standard call and response model. But the most striking element is the language, which is a kind of Spanish creole, an organic dialect forged by a mix of Africans, indigenous Nahua-speakers, plus some Portuguese thrown in for good measure. The result of this is that I can’t figure out what on earth they’re all singing about. Sounds great though!
5. Tango por una cabeza (1935, arr. Armen Babakhanian)
—Carlos Gardel (1887-1935, Argentine)
There are many dance rhythms that deserve a place on this list. The samba, rumba and salsa, of coruse; then there’s the paso doble, the Cha cha cha, and the bossa nova. I could go on (after googling, naturally). But the one that just has to be given airtime on this first Latin 5&1 is surely the tango. It is the epitome of Argentine style and who better to turn to than Carlos Gardel. This one, ‘por una cabeza’ (a horse-racing term which refers to winning ‘by a head’; in other words, a very close thing), is one of the most well-known. I’m sure you’ll recognise it, even if you couldn’t put a name to it.
Gardel was originally born France to a single mother, Berthe, and they emigrated to Buenos Aires when the boy was three. He was to become the consummate entertainer (actor with movie-star good looks, singer, songwriter, composer), indisputably the greatest tango-singer in history and revered the world-over. He was killed in a plane-crash in Colombia along with a group of other musicians and thousands travelled to Montevideo to see his body lying in state.
This arrangement evokes all the overwrought thrills and undercurrents of aggression for which the tango is known—and in a rather wonderful sign of how globalised we all are, it is performed by an Armenian folk music group, Cadence. They preserve all the authentically Argentine elements, with piano, guitars and band accompanied by the bandoneon, the concertina-like instrument that is so integral to that tango sound. Yet with a knowing wink and a knowing nod, the piano opens the proceedings with a homage to Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz! How’s that for a cultural melting pot?! Such joy!
Chôros No. 8 “Dance Chôro” (1925)
—Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959, Brazilian)
Linda Bustani & Ilan Rechtman (pianos), John Neschling (conductor), Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo
Finally, we come to the Brazilian master, Heitor Villa-Lobos. His output was simply enormous and I’ve only found myself beginning to explore it in recent months. He was a guitarist and conductor in his own right, quite apart from his composing (there are over 2000 works to his name). So I feel like I’m in the foothills of the Himalayas. Or perhaps Andes is more appropriate (despite them bypassing Brazil altogether)? He was a great champion of Brazilian culture and identity while at the same time drawing from rich seams from the European classical tradition. He was especially obsessed with J. S. Bach and composed nine suites for all kinds of instrumental combinations under the title Bachianas Brasileiras (meaning something like ‘Brazilian Bach pieces’).
But for this week’s longer piece, I’ve gone for Chôros No. 8, an orchestral work on a grand scale. In Portuguese, a chôro is ‘weeping’ or ‘a cry’. Villa-Lobos wrote 15 chôros, for all kinds of different combinations or even soloists (just as he did for the Bachianas Brasileiras). This one is scored for a full symphony orchestra plus several surprises: two harps, saxophone, a large percussion section, and two grand pianos! Talk about a wall of sound. This is dense and It’s not hard to hear why it was nicknamed “le fou huitiême” (‘the mad eighth’) after its Parisian premiere. It is complex and wild, with repeated rhythms and snippets of melody, all weaved together into an atmospheric and at times alien whole. Just stunning.