Thursday, 6 August 2009

habañera, milonga, clave, candombe, libertango

This starts as another "things I wish I'd been told in week 3" post. In this case, it's inspired by a CD I've just bought which has a 'candombe' on it. (The rest of the CD is standard tango, milonga and vals). But then it becomes a post for my Dad, who will like it.

I am no musician; I can sort-of read music, in that I understand more or less how the writing works, but I have to puzzle it out letter by letter, as though it were Greek. I'm partly repeating other people's explanations where I'm confident that I've understood them, and partly just puzzling it out. I'll tell you when I get beyond my knowledge, which won't take long.

Habañera ("from Havana") is the characteristic rhythm of milonga.

The most famous and familiar example in European music is the Habañera from Act I of Bizet's Carmen. Here it is sung by Maria Callas. The rhythm is there, alone, right at the start, played on low strings. The speed varies a lot, but it goes on right through. If you don't know it already, then tap your fingers along with it while she sings. It speeds up and slows down dramatically so you have to keep listening to the orchestra.

I'd write it like this:

1_2_3_4_2_2_3_4_ 1_2_3_4_2_2_3_4_ [etc]

Pom paPom pom Pom paPom pom

The capital Ps are two evenly spaced beats. Sometimes the rhythm pauses or falls silent and sometimes the whole orchestra plays it. If you don't know the song, the general gist is "love is a bird, it knows no law, you'd better watch out if I fancy you".

An aside; when I learned that song many years ago I was interested to find that the melody has a little triplet where you'd expect it to follow the pa-Pom. It makes it very interesting. "L'amour est-un-oi-seau reb-el-le-que nul ne peut apprivoiser ...", that's actually written as three evenly spaced little beats. The melody isn't to the habañera rhythm. You have to listen to the orchestra.

Now (Dad and curious beginners) play this one, which is Fred and Caty Romero dancing a slow milonga. Listen at about the same low pitch of the strings that started it with Callas. Their feet will help you find it from about 00:05 to 00:12. If you find it hard because you're distracted by the different tune, watch Fred's feet from 00:20, where's he's not doing much traspié so he steps on the capital P. It's exactly the same rhythm as in Carmen, just a bit faster.

People don't usually step on the little 'pa', it's too fast, but Caty does it a little bit from around 02:10. Most of the time people seem to step on the little pom, or divide the other Pom in half, or both. But anyway, it's a rhythm that very much makes me want to dance.

Now here's something quite different: the clave which we hear in cuban salsa. Now I don't really get salsa so I'm winging it a bit here. (The little girl is cute).

It's a set of three evenly spaced beats, a pause, and a set of two, not necessarily in that order, it also comes as two-then-three. I looked it up and found it written down. Now, I'm not really sure if what I found is quite right, but the best I can do to translate it into a form I can make sense of is this:

1_2_3_4_5_6_7_8_1_2_3_4_5_6_7_8 ... repeat, or

1_2_3_1_2_3_1_2_3_4_1_2_1_2_3_4 ... repeat.

Now compare this candombe that Maya sent in, in a previous comment. At the very start and from 02:00 I am pretty sure that what I'm hearing is, among others including the habañera, that same rhythm. I don't have any reason to think that this rhythm or another particular rhythm says candombe the way the habanera says milonga; maybe there is one that does, I don't know what it is, and maybe there isn't; but it's clearly on the menu.

Of course, there's a lot more than that going on in the drums - too complex for me to hear and understand without a guide. And even more so with this, which Tangocommuter showed me. A group of musicians in Havana are clapping and singing a really complicated rhythm. I am well beyond my knowledge with this; I have no idea what they're doing and had to listen several times to find anything at all that I recognised or could follow.

I'm not sure if the one thing I do think I recognise is even being clapped by any one musician, or just emerges from the total. But it goes like this, from about 00:28:

1_2_3_4_5_6_7_8_ 1_2_3_4_5_6_7_8_ 1_2_3_4_5_6_7_8_
Or you could write:


8, divided into two longs and a short, 3 and 3 and 2, is the driving, uneven rhythm Astor Piazzolla was so famously fond of, and that just makes some people climb the walls with excitement (literally in this video at one point). Here it is in Libertango, with Yo-Yo Ma. It's the drum that's playing the rhythm - the starter melody is doing something just slightly different, and the cello melody something else entirely.

I love Libertango - it's one of the ones I'd really miss if it never got played.

I'm not arguing any case here. But it often seems to me that talking about where musical ideas come from is often a bit meaningless. People make music using what they know and what they've got, so in as far as you have identifiable genres of music, it does often make at least some sense to talk of them as though they were descended from each other. Not as much as it does with languages, but to some extent, and certainly as much as it does with any art form - including, for example, film or fashion. All the pieces above are related to each other somehow, and at least some of them are quite possibly, if not provably, related through up-and-down paths of living and dead individual human brains and not only by chance. But that doesn't mean that any of them is the ancestor of another, any more than I am the ancestor of my cousin. I'm not.

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