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Noon Edition

Tropicalia: Ether Game Playlist


It’s vacation season and the Ether Game Brain Trust is heading to the Caribbean! Browse our playlist for culture, music and trivia near the Equator.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) Cuban Overture George Gershwin’s professional success first came with the popularity of his Tin Pan Alley songs and Broadway shows. Then in 1924, he completed his Rhapsody in Blue, establishing the 26th year-old New Yorker as a classical composer whose distinctive style blended elements of classical, jazz and pop. In 1932, He spent a two-week holiday in Havana, Cuba. While there he heard Caribbean rhythm and dances, especially the popular rumba, and decided he wanted to experiment with them in his own music. He completed his Cuban Overture, a tone poem for orchestra, six months after returning home. Alongside prevalent rumba rhythms, the piece also requires native Cuban percussion: bongo, claves, gourd, and maracas which are to be played from the front of the orchestra, rather than in the percussion auxillary.  Two years later, Gershwin would take another vacation, this time to South Carolina, at the invitation of author DeBose Heyward. That vacation would produce a work on a much larger scale for Gershwin, his opera Porgy and Bess.

Dizzie Gillespie (1917-1993) Jambo Dizzy Gillespie is often labeled as a leading developer of bebop, a style of jazz that adds virtuosity, complex harmony and rhythm to the genre. He is also a major figure in the creation  of afro-cuban jazz, and latin jazz as a whole. Gillespie was introduced to Caribbean music by Chano Pozo and Sabu Martinez, two Caribbean musicians who joined his big band in the late 1940s. The three developed a synthesis of Cuban rumberos music and bebop, which would be called Cubop. In 1961, Gillespie delved even deeper into the music of the Caribbean with his album Jambo Caribe. The record features plenty of bebop, as well as forays into Caribbean folk song and tradition. In several tracks, such as the one we just heard, Gillespie himself even attempts some traditional Calypso vocals. 

Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) Sensemayá Silvestre Revueltas came from a famously artistic family of painters, dancers and writers. Beginning violin at age eight and entering the Juarez Institute by age twelve, he would have a prolific performance and teaching career in Mexico, Spain, and the US and was  appointed by Chavez to be assistant conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. As a composer he wrote orchestral music, ballets, and film scores, most notably La Noche de los Mayas in 1939. This tone poem Sensemaya was inspired by a work of the same name by Afro-Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen which describes the ritual killing of a snake. That is easy to imagine in this music with its winding melodies and complex rhythms. The sometimes dissonant harmonies evoke an impending doom and the ending falls like the stroke of a knife. 

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) Danzón Cubano Copland’s fascination with Caribbean rhythms mirror that of Gershwin to some degree. Like Gershwin and his Rhapsody in Blue, Copland’s Danzón Cubano was not his first attempt to incorperate traditional music into his own compositons. In 1937, he premiered his El Salon Mexico after a visit to Mexico, and it did not take him long to travel across the gulf to Havana. Cuba held a special place for Copland. In the early 40s, he became a representative of David Rockefeller’s Committee of Inter-American Relations, an initiative to foster debate about social issues facing North and Latin America, and the Caribbean. In the four months that Copland spent teaching and performing in the Caribbean, he became entranced by Cuban traditional music. Many of the melodies and rhythms in Copland’s Danzón Cubano would come from personal recordings he made while in Havana, and Cuban music would continue to influence his compositions throughout his career. 

Joan Tower (b.1938) Island Rhythms Joan Tower’s three-movement work for chamber orchestra was premiered by the Florida Orchestra in 1985, to commemorate the opening of a new residential district on Tampa’s Harbour Island. Tower famously deplores explaining her work, however she has mentioned that the lively first and third movements of this composition were influenced by Caribbean music, and that the slow middle movement suggests an underwater swimmer slowly rising towards the light of the surface. A later companion piece titled Island Prelude for oboe also depicts the tropics, evoking lush jungles and many-colored birds.

Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty (p.1990) We Dance (from Once on this Island: The Musical) We just listened to music from a 2017 revival of a 1990 Broadway show titled Once on this Island. Based on Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel My Love, My Love, a Caribbean retelling of Hans Christien Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Once on this Island follows a tale told by a group of storytellers to a young girl in the French Antilles, in which four island gods make a bet amongst themselves to find what is stronger, love or death. As with many legends involving gods, humans are the pawns in this story. In this case, the peasant girl Ti Moune and the gentleman Daniel Beauxhomme.The show explores themes of faith, tradition, social status and of course, love and death, as Ti Moune and Daniel struggle to find happiness in a society that would keep them apart. Love prevails, though not without sacrifice. Ti Moune is eventually transformed into a tree by the gods, under which another peasant girl and Daniel’s son meet and become playmates. The Storytellers sing that the story of Ti Moune is proof of the power of love, passed down through generations by oral tradition as a way to bring people together.

Graeme John Koehne (b. 1956) Powerhouse: rumba for orchestra The rumba developed in Cuba from its African religious origins to a popular dance in duple metre with complex rhythmic syncopation. A traditional rumba is defined by its percussive accompaniment, usually consisting of congas, tumbadora drums and claves intertwined into an energetic, driving beat. The dance style became extremely popular in the US in the 1930’s where a modified version of the rumba was incorporated into popular easy listening and light classical music. This genre, used mostly in cartoons, dancehalls, early television and pop music tends to be skipped over when tracing the lineage of modern classical music, however this is the exact point of inspiration for Australian composer Graeme Koehne. Feeling that contemporary classical music lacked the excitement and enjoyment of early 20’th century pop music styles, his Powerhouse rumba for orchestra pays homage to the music of Raymond Scott, whose jazz and light classical music became ubiquitous with Bugs Bunny cartoons. The piece attempts to capture the spirit of humor and rapid changes of character in Scott’s music. 

Roberto Sierra (b.1953) Trio Tropical Before becoming a professor at Cornell University, Sierra studied music in his native Puerto Rico and later in Utrecht and Hamburg, where he developed his own modernist style with Gyorgy Ligeti as a mentor. In a process he has named “tropicalization” Sierra fuses European modernism with Puerto Rican folksong, jazz, and salsa. His compositions often feature the driving pulse and rhythm one expects in Caribbean music, but will be overlaid with intricate layers of dissonant and chromatic harmonies, sometimes obscuring the Latin American influence. While many of his compositions incorporate specific cultural elements from Puerto Rico, his Trio Tropical is inspired by a more generalized expression of the Caribbean.

Third World (1981) Rock the World Third World formed in 1973 when keyboardist Ibo Cooper and guitarist Cat Coore left the reggae group Inner Circle to form their own band. Performing mainly in nightclubs around Kingston, Third World’s breakthrough came when they opened for the Jackson 5 at the Jamaican National Stadium. The band's musical style is a hybrid, combining Jamaican roots genres like reggae, ska and rocksteady with soul and disco. Third World recorded many commercially successful original tracks, but they are also well-known for their covers,such as “Now That We Have Found Love,” and “Dreamland.” The group still performs today and was nominated for a Grammy as recently as 2019.




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