Book Review by Jessica Valiente
Cuban Flute Style: Interpretation and Improvisation, by Sue Miller (The Scarecrow Press, 2014), holds the distinction of being the only scholarly work published in English devoted exclusively to the study of the Cuban charanga. In its modern definition, a charanga is a dance ensemble, Cuban in origin, that includes a featured flute soloist, a small contingent of violins (occasionally with the addition of viola and/or cello), three vocalists, and a Latin rhythm section of bass, piano, timbales, congas, and güiro. This instrumental configuration generated such important Cuban music and dance styles as the mambo, the chachachá, and the pachanga, and yet, prior to 1987, there were no scholarly works on this subject in English; even studies from Cuba in Spanish were few. Beginning in 1987, a couple of graduate theses on charanga appeared in the academic literature, but Dr. Miller’s is the first to be published.
Miller’s book has something to offer everyone who may have an interest in learning about charanga. Her work is divided into three sections: historical (for the music historian), theoretical (for the ethnomusicologist), and practical (for the flutist seeking to engage with charanga as a performer). In her opening historical chapters, she focuses on the first half of charanga’s history, beginning in the early 20th century in Cuba, and continuing through the development of the chachachá in the 1950’s. She discusses the origins of the charanga as an ensemble, the significant charangas and bandleaders in its early history, and the accomplishments of the most influential Cuban flutists in the genre: Antonio Arcaño, José Fajardo, Richard Egües, and several others. Finally, the historical chapter also includes some organological discussion of the distinctive, 19th-century, five-key, French simple-system flute that is preferred by charanga flutists.
The theoretical chapters include transcriptions of full ensemble performances with analysis and references to other scholarly works on improvisational theory. There is a discussion of the importance of shared improvisational language in the music of a cohesive culture, with comparative analysis between Cuban music and other improvised musics within the African diaspora.
For the aspiring charanga flutist, the practical chapters offer many treats, both useful and delightful. There are fingering charts for the Boehm system flute’s 4th register (this extreme octave is a signature element of charanga flute style), and three complete fingering charts for the French five-key flute, compiled by Cuban flutists Joaquin Oliveros, Policarpo (“Polo”) Tamayo, and Eddy Zervigón (born in Cuba and residing in the United States since 1961, leading his New York-based charanga, Orquesta Broadway). The inclusion of multiple fingering charts is essential, because simple-system flutes vary, and many of the notes have multiple fingering options, particularly in the 4th register. She also has transcribed melodies from the charanga’s standard repertoire, examples of ornamentation from the danzón era (florear style) and improvised solos from two of the most influential flutists in the genre’s history, José Fajardo and Richard Egües. The transcriptions come with Miller’s insightful analysis, but they also provide flutists with plenty of material to play, as they begin the task of immersing themselves in the style.
Miller herself embarked on this journey in preparation for her study. Because comprehensive materials and primary resources on charanga are rare to non-existent outside of Cuba, she traveled there to pursue her research in 1998, 2000, 2001, and 2006. In addition to examining bibliographic sources, Miller interviewed several active charanga flutists and studied with Richard Egües, legendary flutist from the most well-known and oldest charanga in existence, Orquesta Aragón. In her book, she recounts numerous personal experiences as a charanga student in Cuba, providing the reader with a kind of self-ethnography and first-hand account of her development as a performing charanga flutist. This provides valuable experiential insight into the process of absorbing the charanga style of interpretation and improvisation.
Cuban Flute Style is an excellent introduction to the charanga genre, with engaging aspects for the casual appreciator of Cuban music, serious ethnomusicologists, and student and professional flutists. It is essential reading for any study of charanga today.
Jessica Valiente holds a BA in music from the Manhattan School of Music, an MA in music performance from Queens College and a DMA in flute performance from the CUNY Graduate Center. She is a 2014-2015 recipient of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) American Dissertation Fellowship for her dissertation on the Cuban charanga in New York from 1960-2000. She has performed in numerous classical, jazz, experimental and Latin groups, but is best known as the musical director of Los Más Valientes. She recently took over as chair of World Music for the National Flute Association.
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