Aruán Ortiz is one of a number of contemporary Cuban musicians taking the traditions of their rich island culture and exploring its avant-garde potential by deconstructing the Afro-Cuban rhythms that underly so much of modern music and thereby exploring their African roots and culture. This cohort, including PI Recordings and ECM artist David Virelles, has benefitted from connecting to the US free jazz scene, and in particular, with the Chicago musicians grouped around the AACM and Art Ensemble formations who share an interest in the percussive root of Afro-American music, it’s symbolism and cultural power.
It’s no surprise then to find Ortiz, who was taught by the pioneering Chicagoan Muhal Richard Abrams, in the company of octogenarian percussion giant Andrew Cyrille, who has also worked with Virelles and extensively in the Afro-Cuban idiom as well as with Cecil Taylor, whose ‘88 tuned drums’ approach is influential here.
Alongside the musical abstractions, the new album Inside Rhythmic Falls contains a series of conversations inspired by the African roots of Cuban music (the opening coda, Lucero Mundo, is a poem addressed to an Elegguá, a god in Santeria, concerning the Bantu slaves from the Kingdom of Kongo – now Angola – who were brought to Latin America by the Portuguese), and the Cuban province of Oriente, Ortiz’s birthplace. There’s a great depth to the cultural and historical backstory here that deserves study – the sleeve note by New York don Adam Shatz is erudite – but the musical interplay between these three great artists is reason enough to dive in. The three voices: piano, percussion and drum, strike up an exhilarating trialogue, interjecting, jabbing, cajoling and commenting, working off fragments of rhythms and riffs, building to a crescendo and back to silence. It’s compelling stuff.
The music for Rhythmic Falls was written in New York, Ortiz’s current home and the great foundry of Cuban fusion. However, the inspiration came from an intensive study on Cuban Haitian rhythms and Afro-Cuban religion and a number of field trips back to Cuba, soaking up the local music and the landscape and vibe. You can clearly hear all of these influences in this suite of works: the sophisticated interplay of Ortiz and Cyrille (on, for instance, Conversation With The Oaks) speaks of the urban scene. The percussive brilliance of Herrera on a selection of traditional media including Marímbula (a musical box used in changeí heard on the quietly groovy Marimbula’s Mood), Changui Bongoes, Catá, Cowbells, inspirits the deep music of the Cuban interior. The texts and titles feed back to the historical and mythical/spiritual references for the work. The title tracks (there are two), subtitled Sacred Codes and Echoes, contrast the explicitly African origin of the music, based around rhythmic drumming, and their extension and deconstruction in Ortiz’s piano interpretation. They also neatly summarise the themes expressed in this complex and powerful work: the mythic past and its modern articulation.