Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Conga Pop

While you may well be familiar with conga music from Cuba, do you know what's happening on the conga scene today? Check out this exploration of the development of conga pop by Kenneth Routon in his interview with Sur Caribe. Drawing on the history of the conga, the music of slaves, and setting it to the pulse of modern Cuba, Sur Caribe has been 'catapulted into Havana's jet set' through their development of the genre known as 'conga pop'.

As Kenneth writes:
'No other song quite captured Cuban longing and nostalgia like Sur Caribe's “Añoranza por la Conga” (“Nostalgia for the Conga”). In 2005, the song seemed to be everywhere; it spilled out into the streets from home stereos, local bars, and passing Ladas. An instant classic, it was one of those rare performances that seemed to sum up the collective mood. As a metaphor expressing nostalgia for one's roots, the song quickly became an emblem of diasporic sentiment.'

Still from the video for 'Nostalgia for the Conga'.

So take a read, and why not listen to “Añoranza por la Conga” while you do so?

First, the shrill, exotic wailing of the trompeta china (Chinese cornet). Then, the tumba , a rhythmic clamor of struck brake drums, bells, and a battery of “bottom” drums, tambores, and congas. Wedded to this percussive onslaught are the low-pitched harmonies of a string orchestra. Next, the quick ebb and flow of the brass. The atmosphere is pulsating and brooding. Finally, the words, more spoken than sung: “Micaela left for another land in search of opportunities.”

No other song quite captured Cuban longing and nostalgia like Sur Caribe's “Añoranza por la Conga” (“Nostalgia for the Conga”). In 2005, the song seemed to be everywhere; it spilled out into the streets from home stereos, local bars, and passing Ladas. An instant classic, it was one of those rare performances that seemed to sum up the collective mood. As a metaphor expressing nostalgia for one's roots, the song quickly became an emblem of diasporic sentiment.


And like any good metaphor, its meaning worked on many different levels. “Micaela” could have been any one of the untold thousands of Cubans who have, over the past five decades, fled harsh economic and political conditions to take up residence in Europe or North America. For Ricardo Leyva, Sur Caribe's director, however, “Micaela” was the band itself, which, after nearly twenty years in Santiago de Cuba, had relocated to Havana but yearned for their old stomping ground. Indeed, “Micaela,” could have been just about any migrant from the eastern regions of the island who, beginning with the economic crisis of the early „90s, flooded the streets of the cosmopolitan capital in search of jobs and the recently resurrected tourist economy.

Yet, this was also a conga, the music of slaves, first heard in the (in)famous colonial-era Day of Kings celebrations and, later, performed almost exclusively during carnival. “Micaela's” nostalgia, then, might also be historical, reaching all the way back to the aching hearts of African slaves torn from their homelands and forced to endure horrific violence in a world of strangers.

Although praised by some for being a “refined” and “elegant” conga, bringing together “high” culture in form of a string orchestra with the vernacular (and, to some, “vulgar”) sounds of the Afro-creole streets, it was Añoranza's unusual combination of revelry and painful yearning that, I suspect, gave it such affective power.


Although Sur Caribe had achieved some success with previous recordings, known mostly for their Santiago de Cuba- style salsa and unique horn arrangements, “Añoranza” catapulted the band into Havana's jetset and the national spotlight almost overnight. Many others before them had recorded congas for mass distribution – Elíseo Grenet, Rafael Cueto, Ernesto Lecuona, Rafael “Mañungo” Ortiz, Trio Matamoros, Enrique Bonne, and Pello el Afrokan, to name just a few. In many ways a culmination of this recording history, Sur Caribe's contribution was unique. They were, in effect, creating their very own genre – “conga pop.” Following the wild popularity of “Añoranza,” Sur Caribe's new album – “Horizonte Próximo” or “Next Horizon” (EGREM, 2010) – would contain not one signature “conga pop” song but several.


Ricardo Leyva of Sur Caribe
Recently, Ricardo Leyva took time out the band's busy tour schedule to talk with me about the band's recent success and the congas recorded for their new album. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

What is conga music?

The conga belongs to the rumba complex, which means that it is grouped within an extensive spectrum of various genres of Cuban music, such as the rumba, guaguancó, columbia etc. The Santiago de Cuba conga is distinguished by its contagious and unmistakable rhythm produced by various types of drums: the galleta or tambora, the bocú, and the quinto as the soloist drum. There are three bells, which consist of pieces of steel, and each is played in a different way. Finally, the Chinese cornet, which is the key instrument that defines the tone and organization of all other members of the group. Another important element is the public who dance and sing the refrain simultaneously with the Chinese cornet. Those refrains contain a high dose of grace; they might be satirical or openly touch on any current topic or event. They can go on indefinitely while the conga plays. It's the people who are the anonymous author of the conga's songs.

The conga’s roots are in the colonial era. How do you think the violence of that period shaped the evolution of this music?

We know that during slavery and the colonial period that slave masters tried to prohibit and strip slaves of all their customs, religions, and beliefs. In Cuba, black slaves brought from Africa also carried with them their gods, drums, and songs. They practiced their rites in secret and only left the slave barracks with their drums on certain days. This was the only way slaves could play their rhythms, so that everyone could dance and sing in their native tongues until dawn. This is really the oldest antecendent of the conga. Nothing stopped it; nothing made it disappear. On the contrary, the fact that blacks sang in their native language allowed them to protest and find release without being understood by the slave owners, even to the point of laughing in their faces. The conga was, from the start, a manifestation of defiance.

The conga was described by many colonial elites as “noise” rather than music, an attitude that unfortunately carried over into the twentieth century. It is interesting, in light of this, that you’ve explained your incorporation of a symphonic orchestra in the band’s studio recordings as an attempt to “soften” the conga. Could you explain what you meant by this?

Earlier I pointed out that there was another instrument that I had not mentioned and that inevitably intervenes in this music; it's the sound that all those that follow the conga produce with their feet. Imagine three or four thousand people rubbing their feet at the same time to the rhythm … za, za, za, za. It's impressive. Also keep in mind that the conga does not require any use of loudspeakers. The Congas, which is what these groups are called, travel as much fifteen kilometers or more through the city. Sur Caribe's contribution is that up until now this kind of music was only enjoyed during carnival, never danced at home, never to celebrate the end of the year or the coming of the new one, never in discoteques. When we talk about making it softer or smoother we're referring to an orchestral processing that allows more universal enjoyment of this phenomenon and puts it within reach of all, wherever you are, in carnival or not. We incorporated a string section with a certain symphonic quality, showing, among other things, that this Cuban rhythm still continues to develop and expand. Unfortunately, the Congas are no longer the groups that make the most noise, not compared to the megaconcerts where they employ more than two hundred thousand watts in loudspeakers and that do not always respond to true cultural roots.

The conga has appeared every now and then in popular music. I believe the first musician to distinguish himself exclusively with this style was Enrique Bonne and, later, we get Pello el Afrokan’s distinct contribution. Have these musicians influence the development of Sur Caribe’s “conga pop”?

Of course. These great musicians have influenced all of us. Pello left us the Mozambique, which is not a conga but a very popular and opportune rhythm for the historical moment in which it arose, contrasting with the avalanche of foreign music that symbolized for many of us the decade of the „60s. The indisputable talent of Enrique Bonne, on the other hand, made the strengthening and development of the conga possible, creating resources of organization and utlizing a number of drums never before employed. It required discipline, rigor and imagination to carry out such a project. Today, all lovers of Cuban music have Bonne to thank for his contribution to our culture. The point where Sur Caribe coincides with the work of these great artists is that we consider ourselves faithful followers of his work in defense of our roots. Of course, we keep these earlier works in mind when carrying out our own.


Could you talk a little about the congas that appear on the new CD – “Horizonte Proximo”?

This new CD was recorded in various studios of EGREM. It not only has congas. Like all of Sur Caribe's work, several genres of Cuban music make their appearance, above all, the son, which is never missing from our discs. It also contains most of our videos and one of those with the theme “Arrollando por la cuidad” by the composer Roberto Valdéz that includes most of the Congas of Santiago de Cuba, not only Los Hoyos, as an example of how much this is ingrained in all of us. This time we invited one of the great Chinese cornet players, Joaquín Solórzano, to play on the track, “Ay qué felicidad.” Other tracks that stand out are “Sí,” where Omara Portuondo, in her insuperable manner, sings a duet with Juan Formell and the magisterial piano solo by the maestro Frank Fernández. The CD “Horizonte Próximo” touches on how much we love our culture. It unites those of us who want peace in the world in our dream. It calls on us to be better artists for others not just for ourselves. It will open doors for us to better paths. It is for the affection of all human beings that we work.

You’ve referred to the congas recorded by Sur Caribe as either “conga pop” or “conga house.” What is the difference?

The characterization of “Bonito Bonito” as conga-pop and “Donde mi Cubana” as conga-house has to do with the structure of each of these songs. In the case of “Bonito Bonito,” the melodic turns, the repeaitions, the text, and the agreeable cadences all belong to elemental pop music, an ideal platform to recognize once again the legacy of the Beatles, which explains the guitar solo that occurs as the song fades out. On the other hand, the piece “Donde mi Cubana” is based on house music, in the sonorous elements contained within the song, in the technology that functions in its parts, in the atmostphere that the melodic passages generate, and in its liberal use of the refrain, which does not require any language in order to be sung (“donsolo lari gave, donsolo lari gave”). Together, those are the universal laws of house music. This has never before been done with the conga. It takes more than technical terms to bring us human beings closer together.

Have you noticed an increased interest in conga music among younger generations and popular musicians since Sur Caribe recorded the now famous “Añoranza por la conga”?

For the health of any musical genre, you want, among other things, the greatest number of groups possible to perform and develop it. In this regard, we are lucky. Many other musicians have recorded congas, the young and the consecrated. Nowadays, various cartoons have as their musical foundation the song “Añoranza por la conga.” In sporting events you can hear the conga animating the fans; the little ones, the youth and the gray hairs are all thankful for the existence and continuation of this musical current, which is more than a passing fad. We're sure that is now immortal.



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