Valdes Gives the Valley Taste of Latin Rhythm Valley
By Daniella Bassi ’14, Contributing Writer
Last Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. the University of Massachusetts played host to Chucho Valdes and the Afro-Cuban Messengers, a Latin jazz group made up entirely of professionally-trained musicians, all educated in Cuban colleges and art schools. As Chucho’s hands struck the piano, his foot tapping volubly and ardently to keep time — something a classical musician would have winced at — he was accompanied at various times and combinations by: an electronic bass that switched to an upright wooden bass when a more subtle blending sound was needed; a standard drum set; a set of conga drums (which are played with the hands); a bata drum (which looks like a lopsided conga drum when being played properly); a tenor saxophone and a trumpet which also was replaced with a flugel horn when a wider, richer and possibly darker sound was needed for a piece. The bata drummer was also the vocalist most heard for the Latin inspired pieces.

Chucho improvised masterfully the whole night, creating full, busy, complex rhythmic passages that put the whole range of the piano to work. The bass created an excellent rhythmic and harmonious backdrop, though it was not featured as regularly as in other jazz music, where it is a common soloist. The tenor saxophonist improvised solos in two songs and did them more than justice, playing with a considerably bright and very full sound that was pleasant to hear even in the altissimo range. The ascending passages were played with confidence and fluidity, sticking to a dynamic, intensely embellished style of playing rather than soloing more smoothly. Surprisingly, the trumpet and flugel horn often played in unison with either the group as a whole or with the tenor saxophone; its true solos were fewer and shorter, but played with a persuasive, clear tone and a loudness of expression unique to Latin trumpet-playing. It was, of course, unmuted as well.

Although Valdes was the main feature of the night, the percussion and vocals were the biggest differentiating factor of the group and truly helped characterize it as a Latin jazz band. For one thing, the unique rhythm instrumentation and the sheer amount of it as compared to wind and all other instruments placed an emphasis on rhythm, one thing that is very culturally present in the Latin world and has an outlet in the passion and value that society places on dance and music. There were numerous percussion solos, mainly on the bata and conga drums. A particularly noticeable one lasted several minutes as the conga drummer cleverly improvised, creating numerous rhythmic and even subtle harmonic variations on the drums before moving on to play his cheeks, from which he incredibly got just as much variety of pitch, the rhythms mostly remaining similar to the ones he’d played on his instrument.

The very conspicuous focus on percussion also reflected the African influence in their performance, with rhythm pervading their music as it did African tribal culture. The vocals, which were mostly in Spanish but also in another language which sounded like a local Caribbean native dialect also contributed to the African and Latin genre of the group. The bata drummer’s singing was very often in this unidentified language and on a few occasions he was joined by the rest of the band in repeating those phrases, which gave the singing the communal aspect and sound of African tribal chanting. Though the words weren’t understood, the singing was very euphonious, and from a few words that were in Spanish appeared to be singing in reverance of nature. One love song was fully in Spanish and was beautifully sung by a female vocalist that appeared once, Mayra Caridad Valdes. Her voice leaned toward alto, and though she had a wide range, she stayed more in the mid to lower register. Her tone was fat and lush and infinitely intensified by her well-placed and wide, passionate vibrato. Her words did not need to be understood; her voice fully evoked passion and intense ardor. The group as a whole also projected very fully and well for much of the performance, in a manifestation of the unrestrained and overwhelming nature of Latin — and most famously Cuban — expression and emotion, though it had the ability to become very quiet as well, which it demonstrated in songs of different styles that it performed.

The group played in a variety of jazz styles — admirably never sticking to one form of expression — including smooth, slow-paced romantic songs, fast, vivacious ones and their own Latin-enhanced style of music in their repertoire. It was a culturally enlightening experience, revealing much about Latin and, specifically, Cuban culture through musical form and technique rather than talk and stereotype, and also revealing the astounding and little-known African and other native influences that are embedded in it.

Issue 07, Submitted 2010-10-29 19:59:44