From Tahiti to Cuba

Just listening to my old Tahitian records. In my teens I was looking for rhythms but not sure what exactly I was looking for, though I had a sense I’d know when I heard it. My aunt had sent me a set of souvenir bongos and I played the heck out of those and pounded on anything that resonated, including my stomach. I do not remember what came first, Tahitian or Arabic, but I’d bet Tahitian b/c I shared my Arabic recordings with some Lebanese acquaintances and they in turn got me into a couple of dance/banquets with Arabic orchestras and that was all as a college freshman.
Around then I ordered a set of Ethnic Folkways records (now distributed by The Smithsonian) and heard a cut of Ewe music. THAT WAS IT! I discovered that Haitian music had the same rhythms, only to discover that the culture of Vodu came from the Ewe via the slave trade. My sophomore year of college I met an Ewe who had taken traditional drumming in high school in Togo and delighted in teaching me rhythms. Once I order an album of Yoruba music and that taught me a lot: my first hearing I thought it sounded like someone pulling a bunch of pots and pans out of the cupboard and letting them clatter on the floor. It took a very long time to realize that this was to West African music something like Bel Canto, German opera, and Zoltan Kodalyi are to Western European music, i.e. far from popular music but deeply appreciated in the culture. Of course, the Yoruba music also came to the Americas with the slave trade and is found in Cuba and many other places.
My knowledge exploded and I became devoted to the study of the music of the African Diaspora. At this very time I also was introduced to a Black Pentecostal church where a deep form of Southern Black culture was practiced and all those diasporean traits were on view (? audio?) in that church. Some of the members were tolerant enough of me to let me play those Ethnic Folkways albums of pre-war blues and explain lyrics like “got my nose open behind you” and so forth. My wife-to-be reinforced all that and even showed me what she was listening to in the popular Black music of the day basically what people now call “listening to the bass”.
My own interests precluded the deep delving into Black music that so many Whites, Hispanics, Asians and others were participating in; I can still hear in lots of rock and roll and “folk” music the old Folkways albums. Nevertheless, my forays into the music, culture and history of the Diaspora went on over the years and just gets richer and richer. George Collinet’s Afro-Pop contributed a lot to my grasp of how many other people were interested in the many facets of the music and the culture. Fairly late I came to the study of North American slavery and that only added to my understanding of the culture of the Diaspora in North America.
Here I will end this brief discourse. I’m writing to Ned Sublette, the author of the latest amazing book on this music that I’ve read, Cuba and Its Music, and reviewing my own experiences in light of his book, e.g. the Panarts label out of Florida in the late 50s and so forth. Now I’m listening to the songs in French and Tahitian (I even have a Tahitian grammar on my shelf I got so enthused) and appreciating anew a book I read many years ago by A.M. Jones. Jones is famous for having an Ewe (again, that same ethnic group BTW, my Ewe friend was also best man at my wedding) master drummer tap out rhythms on a electrified plate and then reducing them to notations. When I’ve shown those to American percussionists, they just whistle: How in the hell……. But Jones believed African music eventually derives from the South Seas, Indonesia in particular. Listening to these Polynesian rhythms and the gamelan music of Indonesia allows one to imagine the influence across the Indian Ocean and on over to West Africa. But the West Africans did something to the music that is missing from the music of peoples farther east, so how did that happen?

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