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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the March 24, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Month of Latin American Music

In an exceptional collaborative effort, half a dozen individual Princeton entities leave their separate ivory towers to join in a month-long celebration of Latin American culture encompassing music, art, and literature. Entitled “In Search of Xochipili,” the festival begins with “An Evening of Acoustic Puerto Rican and Caribbean Folk Music” on Tuesday, March 30, and culminates in a concert featuring Carlos Chavez’ “Xochipili: An Imagined Aztec Music,” performed by the Richardson Chamber Players on Sunday, May 9.

Three years in the making, “In Search of Xochipili” was organized by Nathan Randall, artistic director of Princeton University Concerts, and John Burkhalter, a musician and independent scholar, who collects and plays pre-Columbian musical instruments. Xochipili was the Aztec god of music, dance, flowers, and love. The notable Chavez piece named after the god was commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art for its landmark 1940 show, “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art,” the first comprehensive exhibit of Latin American art presented in North America.

Under Randall’s direction, the Richardson Chamber Players will use authentic pre-Columbian instruments in the May 9 performance. The Princeton Art Museum’s Latin American holdings include a sizable collection of pre-Columbian instruments, which are remarkable for their ingenuity, design, and workmanship. (See related story page 31.)

Chavez’ “Xochipili” calls for a conch shell trumpet and an Aztec slit drum or teponaztli. An assortment of percussion instruments evocative of pre-Columbian instruments will be featured in the Richardson Auditorium performance. The concert will also feature an authentic, almost 500-year-old, Aztec drum, on loan from a private collection.

“This constitutes, possibly, the first performance since 1940 that integrates into the proceedings the sound of at least one original pre-Columbian instrument,” says Burkhalter. “In every other occasion when the work would be performance, Chavez found modern equivalents such as a trombone that imitates the conch shell, kettle drums for the Aztec drum, and piccolo for the high-pitched Aztec clay flutes.”

“The Chavez piece is based on his understanding of what pre-Columbian music sounded like,” explains Gerard Behague of the University of Texas at Austin, author of the first basic study of Latin American Music, as well as a contributor to the definitive “Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians.” “Ideally it should be done with traditional instruments,” Behague asserts. Substituting a trombone and timpani for the Aztec instruments doesn’t work. “Although nobody can know how pre-Columbian music sounded, one must defer to the composer’s desires,” he maintains.

Behague contributes his expertise to a roundtable discussion, “What is Latin American about Latin American Music?” on Wednesday, March 31, in Taplin Auditorium. Joining him will be panel members Patrick Wood, independent scholar and violinist, who contributes to the project musical offerings with an April 25 concert program that contrasts early 20th-century music in Latin America and in Paris; and members of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, which performs on Thursday, April 1, playing music of Heitor Villa-Lobos, Silvestre Revueltas, and Alberto Ginastera. Nathan Randall, artistic director of Princeton University Concerts, moderates the panel.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano is a return visitor to Princeton. Their last appearance was in a Richardson Auditorium concert in 1996 (U.S. 1, November 6, 1996). Although the ensemble likes to incorporate Latin American music into a repertoire that includes the compositions familiar to European-oriented string quartets, this will be an all-Latin American program. First violinist Saul Bitran notes, “Latin American music is very varied. It has different shapes and forms. Latin American music with traditional folklore elements has highly complex rhythms. They can be analyzed and played correctly, but they have a special flavor. If you learned them in childhood, it’s more natural that what you learn from a score.”

Gerard Behague agrees. Interviewed by telephone from his office in Austin, Texas, Behague singles out the traditional indigenous elements as the most difficult aspect of Latin American music for North Americans to understand.

“It’s difficult also for Europeans,” he says. Behague distinguishes between European and North American music and points out that the European classical music tradition encompasses both North America and South America.

Behague voluntarily offers Chavez’ “Xochipili” as an example of indigenous elements hard to grasp. “When Aaron Copland heard this and the ballets of Chavez he called it ‘the most non-European music I’ve ever heard,’” Behague says. “It’s not based on conventional western harmonies or conventional western melodic structures. The instruments have unfamiliar tone colors. But other aspects of Latin American and Caribbean music are known and understood by the great majority of Americans.”

Behague’s interests in Latin American music extend to both folk music and art music. He describes his field as historical musicology and ethnomusicology. Born in Montpellier, France, in 1937, he came to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at age seven. Although he grew up in Rio, Behague learned French, in addition to Portuguese. His early education was at a French school. Behague’s first instrument was piano. At the Rio Conservatory he was a piano major. He also took courses in general music history and Brazilian music history.

His interest in ethnomusicology was a by-product of the ocean voyage that took him to France in 1959 for studies at the Sorbonne.

“Airplane travel was too expensive at the time,” he says. “It took two weeks to get from Rio to France. On the ship I met Pierre Verger. He was a very distinguished ethnologist and photographer, who refused to be classified as an academic. During the trip we had plenty of time to talk. He studied about the retention of West African myths in Brazil. I was fascinated and wanted to go to Bahia to see what this music was about. It stayed in the back of my mind.” An esteemed photo-journalist, Verger, who died in 1996 at the age of 92, published 60 books. He became a Yoruba priest. The current price for one of his silver gelatin prints is somewhat more than $3,000.

After he left the Sorbonne in 1963, Behague studied at Tulane University. When he arrived in the United States after his stay in France, he could read English, but couldn’t speak well, he says. “Now I manage four languages all the time,” he says. “For my research Spanish and Portuguese are most important.”

Behague earned a PhD at Tulane in 1966. His doctoral thesis dealt with popular musical currents in nationalistic compositions of Brazilian composers between 1870 and 1920. Since 1974 he has been a professor at the University of Texas at Austin where he holds the Virginia Murchison Regents Professorship in Fine Arts.

In the early 1970s Behague began to study the music of the Brazilian areas where his shipboard companion, Verger, worked. The music, known as “candomble,” cannot be studied in isolation because it is an essential element in a system of religious dogma for which dance and drums are equally integral. The repertoire is extensive. The earliest examples come from the late 18th century. “It was brought to Brazil by slaves and falls into an African tradition,” says Behague, “but it has a local Brazilian style. Its esthetic is amazing.”

Behague’s “Music in Latin American,” published in 1979, is, in his own words, the “first comprehensive view of the history of music in Latin America.” The description is fact, not self-promotion; Latin America is habitually neglected north of the Rio Grande. Published in the Prentice-Hall History of Music Series, at the request of the overall editor, musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock, the volume omits indigenous music and begins with the 16th century. Behague, however, makes no secret of his interest in native music.

“Music in Latin America” is now out of print and Behague is revising it, rather than simply updating it. His target date is the end of 2004. “I’m organizing it in a different fashion,” he says. “I’m rewriting it not as a text, but according to my own experience with various traditions of Latin American music.” At this point Behague has added a quarter century of active research in Latin American music to his substantial immersion in the topic when the book was published.

“It’s not a chronology,” he says of the revision, “but essays on various topics: art music, the colonial period, 19th-century music, and contemporary music with its esthetic eclecticism. I’m interested in the question of identity in a multicultural world.”

Behague is also at work on a second book, one that explains his work of the last 25 years on Afro-Brazilian religious music in northeast Brazil. Despite residing in the United States, Behague thinks of himself as Latin American. “I go back to Latin America often four times a year,” he says. “I guess I’m a citizen of the world.”

Behague happily takes the opportunity to talk about a topic that didn’t come up in the interview. The forgotten element is what he calls “the degree of sophistication in the urban popular music of Latin America today.”

“Latin American pop music is not just salsa,” he says. Behague is a convinced advocate of Caetano Veloso as a representative of the new sophistication. The eclectic performer-composer appears at Carnegie Hall twice next month, once alone and once with American David Byrne.

“Veloso is now in his early 60s, and has been composing since the late 1960s. He’s incredibly creative,” says Behague. “The level of sophistication in his music and lyrics is extraordinary. He’s one of the greatest geniuses to come out of Latin America in the last 30 years.” Behague, who has consistently brought traditional Latin American music to the attention of North Americans for a generation, now brings us insider information at the boundaries of rock and roll.

— Elaine Straus


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