Because of the United States’
longstanding embargo against Cuba, Americans often fail to recognize
its vast influence upon their culture. Before 1960, Americans
frequently traveled 90 miles south of Florida for vacations,
just as they visit Jamaica today, where they openly enjoyed
Cuban music, cuisine, and its legal gambling. By the turn of
the 20th century, Cuban music had also arrived stateside
on phonograph records; later, Cuban musicians themselves, like
Desi Arnaz, arrived. Latin music would add new textures and
rhythms to jazz and introduce a plethora of new dance steps
like the tango and the rumba. Roots of Rhythm, narrated
by Harry Belafonte, explores the origins of Latin music, its
growth within Cuba, and finally, its influence on jazz and popular
music in the United States.
Cuban music originated from two
major sources: Spain and Africa. When the Spanish arrived in
Cuba, they brought the music of their troubadours and gypsies.
Small farmers lived in the mountains and continued to play the
Spanish folk music and flamenco of their forefathers. Like South
American plantations, Cuban landowners eventually imported slaves
to work on large farms and in the shipping industry. At first
there was little interaction between African Americans and the
small farmers; but when the farmers had little work, they took
jobs on the Cuban docks. There, Spanish folksongs began to mingle
with African rhythms, creating a pulsating Latin hybrid.
Latin music would profoundly
influence American jazz players from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy
Gillespie. Chano Pozo moved to New York in 1947, bringing his
congas and exotic Latin rhythms with him. Pozo joined Gillespie’s
big band where he would become a major influence on Latin-jazz,
writing pieces like "Tin Tin Deo" and "Manteca."
Multiple instrumentalist Tito Puente ("King of the Mamba")
became a major influence in the mid ‘40s and ‘50s, fueling dance
crazes like the cha-cha-cha. Through constant touring and excellent
showmanship, he has continued to spread Salsa and Afro-Cuban
jazz for fifty years.
Roots of Rhythm allows
the music to tell the story, with Belafonte’s narration often
giving way to a musician’s performance. This provides concrete
examples of the music described within the narration, and lets
the viewer experience the music for him or herself. At two hours
and forty-five minutes, the program is a bit long; but it can
easily be broken into three sections as it was originally shown
on television. For anyone who enjoys Cuban music and dance,
and wants to learn more about its origins and influence on American
culture, Roots of Rhythm provides a good introduction.
Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.