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Voices from Latin America

By Jeremy Geffen
28 Nov 2012

Gustavo Dudamel
photo by Chris Christodoulou

In a recent conversation with Jeremy Geffen, director of artistic planning at Carnegie Hall, Osvaldo Golijov outlined the importance of the various facets of Voices from Latin America and the musical icons who have been engaged to be a part of it.

From the irresistible rhythms of Afro-Cuban jazz to the sophistication of Brazilian samba, from the passionate intensity of Mexican rancheras to the infectious joy of Venezuela’s El Sistema social-action movement, Latin American culture has captured the world’s imagination.

With its citywide Voices from Latin America festival, Carnegie Hall pays tribute to Latin American cultures that continue to fascinate audiences here in the United States and around the world. Under the guidance of Osvaldo Golijov (holder of this season’s Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair), Carnegie Hall has invited three internationally acclaimed performers to curate series of concerts that spotlight their vibrant musical cultures— pianist-composer Chucho Valdés and Afro-Cuban jazz, conductor Gustavo Dudamel and El Sistema in Venezuela, and singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil and Brazilian popular music.

Why is it important for Carnegie Hall to turn its focus to Latin America?

I think Latin America is giving the world something unique, powerful, and essential: the possibility of an intelligent popular music, the possibility of a popular music that reaches the deepest places in our individual and collective soul. I feel, in the same way, that classical music did this when Bach was writing for his church or when Verdi was writing in Italy or when Shostakovich was writing in the Soviet Union—this deep relevance of music to the culture from which it emerges. And this is what popular music in places like Cuba and Brazil is doing—not only in those cultures, but also in the world at large. As for classical music itself, it has now been redefined in Latin America, thanks to El Sistema. So the reason why Carnegie Hall should be presenting this festival is simply because of the shaping force of Latin America in the musical landscape of our time.

One of the things we initially discussed about this festival was the hybrid culture found in Latin America, where it’s a mixture of African, indigenous, and colonial musics.

It’s hard to generalize, but there are places in Latin America where the syncretism between the indigenous, the colonial, and the enslaved peoples’ cultures has created the richest imaginable music. It is a music that has enormously influenced our music in the US: The whole Cuban approach to music, for instance, was tremendously influential in jazz development in the 1950s, whereas Brazilian bossa nova had a strong impact on the development of American popular culture in the ’60s.

As someone who was born in Latin America—specifically Argentina—how have those different influences impacted you as a composer?

In Latin America, there is a great fluidity between popular and classical music, and between the past and the present and the future. You can really belong to several worlds at once. In Latin America, you have people like Chucho Valdés or Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who are equally at home in classical music and popular music. So is Gustavo Dudamel, as an interpreter. For me, too, I learned this from Astor Piazzolla, who studied with Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger and knew how to write symphonies, but realized that his voice was in doing this hybrid music—this music that is harder to classify, but that reaches directly into the hearts and minds of people and stays in their memory.

When people think about Latin music, they think about joy. But are there misconceptions on the part of American audiences?

Many times, people associate Latin music with party music. But that is a misconception: The joy of the Latin rhythms—particularly Afro-Cuban rhythms or Brazilian rhythms—is deeply spiritual. These rhythms have a spiritual origin; they come from a sacred place.

One of the primary advisors for the festival is Chucho Valdés. What does he represent, and why was it important that he be included?

Chucho Valdés is a hugely important force in the development of Cuban music and in Cuba’s contribution to music in the world. In Cuba, there was this phenomenon of musicians, like Chucho or Paquito D’Rivera and others, who were trained rigorously as classical musicians, but also embraced their country’s musical roots. Their triple personality encompasses the love and knowledge of classical music, the love and knowledge of their own roots, and the awareness of what is happening at the time in the world. What Chucho did when he formed his band Irakere was unheard of, this idea that within a song—within a single piece—you can go from absolute classical to delirious Afro- Cuban rhythms, and assimilate and transform the influence of the rock music that was pervading American and world culture in the 1970s. This was free-rock meets free-jazz meets sacred drums meets Mozart—and it all made sense. He was, in a way, a pioneer.

Let’s turn our attention to Venezuela and Gustavo Dudamel. How important has El Sistema been as a force for change—both musically and socially?

El Sistema has been talked about as having revolutionized the world of classical music; it is a rediscovery of what classical music is. The idea is that all you need is absolute devotion, dedication, and children who realize that by giving themselves to music, they will have better lives than what is expected from them at the moment. Something that started as a social program has actually ended up teaching the entire planet a truth that perhaps I (as a composer) and Carnegie Hall (as a temple and a preserver of this heritage) already understand: what the discipline of classical music can mean for our lives when we embark in it as children. It’s one of the most beautiful and successful social and cultural experiments in history that I can think of.

The other thing that is moving to me as a Latin American is that this program is centered in music and not in soccer or baseball. I love soccer (even though I don’t play it so well), but soccer can only take you up to some point in life; music carries you throughout your entire life. So for me it is very moving that at least one country in Latin America understood that and made musicians out of hundreds of thousands of children whose lives have been changed forever.

The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra—now Symphony Orchestra—was born out of El Sistema and produced a young advocate in Dudamel.

There is, fundamentally, an awareness in Gustavo that he owes who he is to El Sistema. Not only does he want to give back to El Sistema, but now that he is in Los Angeles with the LA Philharmonic, he makes it a priority to infuse its spirit into his new community. It’s not lip service; it’s a deep commitment that takes his time, his thought, and his sweat to convey that music is more than just music. When you hear or see him conducting, you realize that he is connected with the same spirit that guided the composer while writing.

Another major portion of the festival stems from Brazil. What makes Brazil different musically?

Brazil, like America, has a fearless, omnivorous culture. In Brazil, they will Brazilize everything like we Americanize everything. Truly, if they take rap, it is an unmistakable Brazilian rap. If they take classical music, it becomes Brazilian classical music. Whatever they take becomes Brazilian. They come from this triple birth: the Portuguese colonization, the native population that suffered under the colonization, and the people that the Portuguese brought from Africa as slaves. They all contributed in fundamental ways to the development of the miraculous Brazilian music. Brazil’s prodigious metabolism—Caetano Veloso calls it cannibalism!—is a testament to the strength of its culture.

The person who’s at the center of this Brazil focus is Gilberto Gil. You were very specific about including him.

Can you imagine someone who was hugely popular in his 20s in his country—like Elvis was here—who Gilberto Gil was later prosecuted, who is a true intellectual, who becomes more and more a part of that culture as he grows older, and has the opportunity to become the Cultural Minster of this enormous, 200-million-person country that is Brazil? He is bringing this treasure of a lifetime experience to us at Carnegie Hall. He is aware of the importance of every musical strand in his country, and he’s bringing us some of its most significant artists and genres.

What do you think is Americans’ perception of Brazilian music?

I think they are most familiar with bossa nova. It’s a music that, like Mozart’s, has achieved such a perfect balance of form, of darkness and light. By virtue of this balance and perfection, perhaps, bossa nova became the most exportable music. And the beautiful thing about Gilberto is that he has brought these other genres—forró, samba, baião, and all of these other musics that are not known here because they are more extreme, or less balanced, than bossa nova. This is an opportunity for us to be exposed to all of these essential musics of Brazil that didn’t make it into American culture.

Especially when looking at Brazilian popular music, how is that different from what American audiences might view as pop music?

There are many factors that make Brazilian popular music unique in its reach. First of all, there’s the musical complexity of it, the tremendous variety of rhythms that inform it, and also the sophistication in harmony and melody. And then there is the boundless territory that they cover with their lyrics. Everything becomes music; everything can become a song. Director Peter Sellars once pointed out to me that the most moving thing about this phenomenon of popular music of Brazil from the late 1960s and ’70s—besides the music itself—is the act of responding with utmost tenderness and beauty to brutal oppression. Especially in times of military dictatorship, lyrics without any overt political or social message had such metaphorical richness and depth that they became messages of something else. The response to brutality was not violence; it was loving and tender.

What do you think is the most important part of bringing the Voices from Latin America festival to Carnegie Hall?

The important thing about this festival, to me, is not how original, unique, or exotic (a word that I dislike very much) the music is that we will hear. What matters is that it is music that immediately resonates in some part of the territory of your own soul, of anybody’s soul. It is music that transcends time and place. I couldn’t be happier, knowing that we are bringing this festival to the people of New York City.




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