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Cuban Flute Style
Scarecrow Press, Inc. /Rowman and Littlefield, Plymouth.
Cloth, 355 pp., £44.95
After completing a postgraduate jazz course at Leeds College of Music during the late 1990s, flautist Sue Miller became a regular visitor to the Casa Latina nightclub in Leeds. Miller loved the Cuban music she heard at Casa Latina, both recorded and live, so much so that she attended Latin-American dance classes. Thus began what Miller describes as her 'obsession' with all things charanga.
Not to be confused with the charango, a Bolivian Andean stringed instrument of the lute family, made with the shell of an armadillo, the charanga is a style of popular Cuban dance music characterised by the use of violins, percussion instruments (güiro, tumbadora, timbales), piano, bass, vocals and, importantly, flute improvisations.
In 1998, Cuban musicians at the Casa Latina told Miller of an annual charanga festival held near Santiago de Cuba. The young English flautist did no more than set off for Cuba, making an incident-filled and sometimes perilous journey that ended in the suburb of Santos Suarez, at the house of one of the most famous charanga flute improvisers, Richard Egües. If merely told alone, that part of Miller's tale would make a fascinating broadcast documentary.
So, not surprisingly, the musician Richard Egües was genuinely intrigued by this enterprising Englishwoman who had set up her own charanga orqesta in England. Immediately, Egües agreed to teach her. Cuban Flute Style is thus a contextualised, analytical study, arising from a combination of Miller's lessons from Egües, her research in Havana and New York, her subsequent experiences as a charanga bandleader, and the completion of a Leeds University PhD undertaken to study the processes involved in learning the charanga style of improvisation.
In her introduction, Miller makes the important point that although flute improvisation is at the core of popular Cuban dance music, there have been few academic studies on the subject of Cuban music that look at improvisation or ethnomusicology. Amongst many studies that deal with other aspects of the music, analysis of the music itself is the elephant in the room, says Miller. This, then, is a pioneering study.
Unfortunately, the budget style of Scarecrow's publication doesn't adequately match the high quality of the book's contents. Though a generous number of clear and well-notated music examples is given, and the editing is faultless, the many photographs are poorly reproduced, particularly so when one takes into account the book's high price. Such ground-breaking text deserves better presentation.
John Robert Brown
An edited version of this review appeared in Jazz Journal, Spring 2014. www.jazzjournal.co.uk Used by kind permission, reproduction forbidden.