Music
1:55 pm
Fri June 20, 2014

The Rhythm That's A Way Of Living

Originally published on Tue June 24, 2014 12:17 pm

Compared to American rock and roll, Afro-Cuban music sounds complicated to the point of intimidation. Sure the rhythms make you want to move, but if you stop to think about what's going on, your feet won't know what to do. And that's just the point — some rhythms are better felt than counted off. NPR's Frannie Kelley learned how easy they can be to play, once you abandon a central tenet of rock: the one.

She spoke to Cuban percussionist Dafnis Prieto, who grew up hearing complex rhythms outside his window in Havana. Polyrhythms and the songs they propel are not particularly concerned with hitting the downbeat. An example is a Cuban polyrhythm called the guaguanco, one of three rhythmic patterns that live under the umbrella of the rumba.

These rhythms have moved and evolved with people from Africa to the Carribbean to the States. They can be notated, but some aren't, for good reason. The guaguanco in particular comes out of a secret Afro-Cuban organization that played on even though the government in Havana banned African drums from 1900 to 1940. For a time the rhythm was actually subversive.

Today Afro-Cuban percussionist Roman Diaz lives in Newark, New Jersey. He says when he's playing a guaguanco, he's supporting the dancers, a man and a woman enacting a story of pursuit and resistance. "Everything is combined: dance, music and the singing," he says, through his friend and translator Onel Mulet. "There's one thread that goes throughout the music. We are molecules in one nucleus. We all work together as one."

And pianist Vijay Iyer, who joined Dafnis Prieto in the studio, says that attitude, a comfort with rhythms moving together, has taken different forms.

"It's in ragtime, it's in bounce music from New Orleans. You hear it in hip-hop today. There's an inherent asymmetry to these patterns. There's a sort of downside and an upside. There's a part that's with the beat and there's a part that's against it. Right? And it sort of moves back and forth between on and off, so it has that lift in it."

He calls it 3-D. And it's no coincidence that the styles he names are all music for dancing. Polyrhythms can be felt, and taught, even if the listener didn't grow up in Havana.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Different cultures have different approaches to rhythm. Some beats are more easily felt than explained. Take Afro-Cuban music - to some, the rhythms sound complicated to the point of intimidation. It may make you want to move, but if you stop to think about what's going on, your feet won't know what to do. Well, in this installment of our series, Rhythm Section, Frannie Kelley learned it's not really that hard once you abandon a central tenant of a lot of music - the one.

FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: In pop music, songs by everybody from the Beatles to Blondie to Prince start like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "RASPBERRY BERET")

PRINCE: (Singing) One, two - one, two, three, huh.

KELLEY: The one is the downbeat. It's the first beat - the one in which a conductor drops his baton. For some types of music, that one is crucial. It drives rock 'n roll, gives funk it's muscle and makes disco sound like it will go on forever. But the one, the downbeat, isn't everything everywhere.

DAFIS PRIETO: In Cuba, we don't really have that much of a love affair with one.

KELLEY: Cuban percussionist, Dafnis Prieto, grew up hearing more complex rhythms outside his window in Havana. Polyrhythms, and the songs they propel, are less concerned with hitting that one. An example is a Cuban polyrhythm called the guaguanco. A musician playing clave, basically two sticks or wood blocks, insinuates the rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN EL CALLEJON")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

KELLEY: And then the rest of the band jumps in, like Double Dutch.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

KELLEY: Dafnis Prieto slows it down. He plays the clave part on two drumsticks.

PRIETO: Bong, bong - bong, bong, bong - bong, bong - bong, bong, bong. It has a very specific rhythmic taste.

KELLEY: These rhythms have moved and involved with people from Africa to the Caribbean to the States. They can be notated but some aren't - for good reason. The guaguanco, in particular, comes out of a secret Afro-Cuban organization that played on, even though the government in Havana banned African drums from 1900 to 1940. For a time, the rhythm was actually subversive. But that's another story. The effect, Prieto says, gets back to the idea of musicians forgetting about the one.

PRIETO: When you don't think about it, that is when you do it. You can become just frightened by just the intellectual idea of how is it possible? And they don't even ask that question. When you ask that question to them, it's like what you mean? I just dance and play.

KELLEY: The dancing part is key. Guaguanco is one of three rhythmic patterns that live under the umbrella of the rumba. There are different dances and dancers for each. Guaguanco is for a man and woman. The man tries to get the woman. She resists.

ROMAN DIAZ: (Through translator) A good example would be the way that a rooster courts a hen.

KELLEY: Roman Diaz is an Afro-Cuban percussionist who lives in Newark, New Jersey. He says when he's playing a guaguanco, he's supporting the dancers, watching their steps.

DIAZ: (Through translator) You are sketching this idyllic romance that the dancers are presenting. Everything is combined. There is one thread that goes throughout the dance, the music and the singing. We are molecules in one nucleus, you know? We all work together as one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS MUNEQUITOS DE MATANZAS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

PRIETO: It's more an attitude. It's more a way of living than just the sake of keeping specific patterns.

KELLEY: Dafnis Prieto was joined in the studio by a pianist, Vijay Iyer. And he says that attitude of comfort with different patterns or rhythms living together has taken different forms.

VIJAY IYER: It's in ragtime. It's in bounce music from New Orleans. You hear it in hip-hop today. There's an inherent asymmetry to these patterns. There's a sort of downside and an upside with the beat, and then there's a part that's against it, right?

PRIETO: Right.

IYER: And it sort of moves back and forth between on and off. So it has that lift in it.

KELLEY: He calls it 3-D, and it's no coincidence that the styles he names are all music for dancing. Polyrhythms can be felt and taught, even if the listener didn't grow up in Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLEY: This is Roman Diaz and me playing together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DIAZ: (Foreign-language spoken).

PRIETO: He says you have rhythm. So there you have the different elements of the rumba. It's very simple. He had you playing a rumba in no time.

KELLEY: Frannie Kelley, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.