WE GOT RHYTHM?
This coming week trumpeter Walt Szymanski will be playing at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café. Walt is exactly like what a Walt Szymanski should be like. He is an affable, easy going guy from Detroit and is one heck of a horn player. He has a typical Detroit jazz artist’s bio. It is long and full of famous associates, impressive gigs and descriptions of the time he spent in NYC. Walt has gotten around and is now living in a suburb of Quito, Ecuador where he teaches at a university. Jazz musicians can settle in anywhere and find a common language in their music. It may take a few moments, but most jazz musicians end up on the same beat. The rest of us can just walk through life moving at our own familiar beat, a rhythm shared by those around us.
THE RHYTHM OF LIFE
I bounced my children on my knees probably with the same rhythm that my dad used to comfort me. My sister and I jumped swirled and clapped to the beat coming from my parents record player. I had rhythm, we all got rhythm. When the rhythm of life is right, everything else seems to fall into place.
When I watch a group bustling along a downtown street, I am fascinated by the different body types and strides of the pedestrians. If you look at the movement of the group en masse their feet land at the same time and there is a definite rhythm of the stream. You could put a beat to it. The individuals have adapted their movement to match those around them. We live a life sharing a beat with those around us. We are not always aware of the complex rhythmic patterns of life. There are times when we slow down and listen. On vacation in a quiet place it may take a few days before our beat becomes one with the sound of the waves or the wind in the trees. And then there is a trip to Cuba.
In the New York Times’ Travel section this week was an article titled The Sweet Sounds of Cuba. It describes a road trip through Cuba that finds each region of the island moves to its own defining rhythm.Here are some excerpts from the article by Shannon Sims.Her observations mirrored what my son Bill and I experienced on our visit to Cuba.
“Just an hour’s flight from the United States, Cuba is drenched in music. You hear it everywhere, emanating from bars or homes or religious ceremonies. For many visitors, Cuban music is defined by the traditional sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club or Celia Cruz. But Cuban music stretches far beyond those sounds; its roots draw on Africa and Haiti, France and Spain. Genres come together and break apart, like flocks of starlings at dusk, endlessly forming new shapes and sounds.
Cuban music is often described as a tree, with various primary roots that supply life for many branches. But separating the island’s music into distinct genres is an inherently flawed task — they intertwine and cross. And it’s become trickier in recent years: Styles shift with increasing speed as Cubans dive into the possibilities provided by the internet. Across the island, we met musicians taking traditional sounds and twisting them, and finding new ways to reach an audience. Cuban music is in turbo mode.
“I wish you luck in trying to describe Cuban music with words,” Claudio laughed at me as we headed home that night in Gibara, after a stop for a pork sandwich. “The way to know Cuban music is to hear it for yourself.”
To really discover Cuban music, he said, you need to head to the countryside. “In Havana you can see a lot of people from a lot of places in Cuba making interesting stuff, but what you miss are the roots.”
The core of rumba is the clave, an instrument that to an outsider looks like two wooden sticks about the width and length of carrots. But the clave, in the hands of rumba musicians like Los Muñequitos, becomes a through-line from Africa to Cuba, and acts as the maestro of rumba, setting the pace and the tone of all other instruments, like the maraca shaker, or the batá drum, a Yoruba drum that stands upright on the ground and is slapped on the top.
Other percussion elements are usually added into a rumba composition, and soon it becomes a crowd of sounds, almost like a cascade of beats. Because rumba is polyrhythmic, with multiple rhythms happening at the same time in one song, to an outsider it can sound cacophonous and disorganized. But if you let your mind give up trying to find the rhythm, you have a better chance of actually finding it.
The percussion of rumba is spiked by call-and-response singing. For some rumba musicians and listeners, rumba is a religious experience. Listeners who are also believers in Afro-Cuban religions like Santería may experience the African gods taking control of their body, forcing them to dance and move in ways typical of that orisha.
The sound of conga is predominantly percussive: Drums of all kinds are gathered (“you just grab anything and start playing!” one onlooker explained to me), but there is usually always a higher-pitched quinto drum in the mix. The earsplitting bang of conga is made by hitting metal sticks on doughnut-shaped motorcycle brakes.
Together the instruments — the six-stringed tres, the conga drums, and the cheese-grater-like guayo scratcher — sound like rain drops, falling in different tones and at different speeds, but ultimately crescendoing to form a rolling storm, one that you can almost envision rolling across the Oriente’s green hills.
The instrument that makes changüí unique is the marímbula. The marímbula looks like a big box. On the front of the box, a row of wide metal teeth bridge over holes carved into the wood. The marímbula player sits on the box, and reaches between his or her legs to pluck the metal teeth, whose vibration builds inside the box and exits the holes with a deep bass note. Listening to the marímbula in the studio, we could feel the sounds in the bottoms of our feet first, a buzzing vibration almost demanding them to lift up and dance.”
My son Bill and I were at an open air concert in Havana, Cuba. Bill is a very good drummer and was studying with local percussionists. He was trying to get a handle on Cuban rhythms. One of his new friends invited us to hear some of the Island’s hottest salsa music. The place was packed and everyone was on their feet. They moved to the music en mass, shoulder to shoulder except for the two doofuses from the USA. It wasn’t that we didn’t make the right moves, it was that we moved at the wrong time. We both moved and clapped out of sync with those around us. We opted to remain still and smile with appreciation for the remarkable complex rhythms surrounding us. With time Bill mastered the complex pulse of the Island, I learned a deep appreciation for Bill and for all drummers.
WHAT WAS HAPPENING?
Bill tried again and again to teach me the son clave. The five-stroke son clave pattern represents the structural core of most Afro-Cuban rhythms. All those at the concert had the clave embedded in their every move. I needed to learn this beat. Bill would clap the beat and I would match him once or twice. When I was alone I could never sustain the beat. It never happened. I guess that I am who I am and I move on my own beat.
When I hear it I can really feel the clave beat. I am moved by this beat, but I just can’t replicate it. What is going on.?What is missing?
ALL THE WORLD’S GOT RHYTHM
Playing for Change features musicians from around the world, all sharing their music. take a look.
Studies have shown that North American adults are not rhythm challenged, We have plenty of rhythm, but we are just more accustomed to a regular meter. It is our music’s underlying beat. We are just challenged by more complex beats that are not common in our music.
“What you find in almost all the world’s music is that at some level, there is a regular beat,” said Edward Large, who studies the neuroscience and psychology of rhythm at Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences in Boca Raton.
“Music might have a relatively complicated pattern of timing. But you still hear a basic, underlying beat—that framework that formulates the rhythm,” Large said. “We have a very strong bias toward hearing periodic regularity. Some say we actively try to impose [that regularity] on an incoming rhythm”. ( like the son clava)
BLAME IT ON OUR CULTURE
Lange’s studies point out that our culture deeply influences our perception. “Culture encompasses a tremendous range of complex societal constructs, including laws, beliefs, morals, and art. In addition, music and language from a given culture share rhythmic properties. For example, English and French musical rhythmic structures are more similar to English and French speech rhythms (respectively) than to each other, in the sense that English music is more rhythmically variable than French music, and English speech is more rhythmically variable than French speech broader cultural linguistic experience can improve rhythm perception. These studies show that enculturation to the rhythmic aspects of music and language occurs early in development and continues into adulthood.” This may explain my struggle learning French late in life.
WE CAN BLAME IT ON OUR YOUTH
A recent study found that kids in North American are more adept than adults at recognizing complex musical rhythms. When we are infants we respond to both familiar and more complex foreign musical rhythms. This is good, but we can also lose the ability to discern irregular rhythms. By the time babies celebrate their first birthday, their ears are already tuned to the rhythms and sounds of their culture. One-year-olds in North America, for example, notice subtle changes in waltz-like rhythms but not in the complex dance rhythms unique to other continents. At some point I didn’t get enough Xavier Cugat spun on the Victrola and have suffered rhythmically ever since.
WE CAN BLAME IT ON OUR CHURCH
” Because that’s where it all started, and that’s where it all come from – that’s where I learned to keep rhythm – in church.” Art Blakey
Art Blakey was a professional rhythmologist, he was a drummer with an unwavering solid beat. Art Blakey was as solid as his church building and as spirited as the services he . attended. My rhythm did not come from the time I spent at an all white Episcopal Church. If anyone moved to the music it was because they began to waver from standing so properly for such a long time. I am still trying to learn to go with the beat. I have to find someone who has the beat and clap along with them.
OR WE CAN ENJOY THE RHYTHMS OF LIFE WHERE WE FIND THEM.
“I’m very much aware in the writing of dialogue, or even in the narrative too, of a rhythm. There has to be a rhythm with it … Interviewers have said, you like jazz, don’t you? Because we can hear it in your writing. And I thought that was a compliment.”― Elmore Leonard
I will be tapping this out on a computer keyboard, sometimes with a latin beat. It maybe never too late to get rhythm.
COMING TO THE DIRTY DOG JAZZ CAFÉ
October 9 – October 12
Blessed as a student of both Herbie Williams and Marcus Belgrave, and then musical director for the legendary J.C. Heard & his Orchestra as well as hard-bop groups IMPACT and the Motor City Jazz Quintet marked the highlights of Walt’s early career in Detroit.
The next twenty years found Walt in NYC engrossed in a myriad of music endeavours as both trumpet/vocal artist and composer/arranger/orchestrator as well, serving in the later capacity for BET, American Idol and Dancing With The Stars.
Currently Walt lives in Tumbaco Ecuador, a suburb of Quito. He now directs his life towards chillaxin’, composing, studying, mentoring young minds, attempting to discern the pulse of the future musical model and performing with his second line group, the Zulu Kings Brass Band as well as a selection of diverse projects.
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