Sonic Truth

Experimental composer Lukas Ligeti came to town with a mission: Create a new Miami sound


The "dangerous" mixture of Europe and Africa that Ligeti promotes today is what created Caribbean culture centuries ago. Violently wrenched out of context by the slave trade, the myriad religions, languages, and musical traditions of Africa took on new meanings in the New World. "I'm surprised," Ligeti said at the end of his first week of work with the Miami musicians, "by how much certain African traditions have been preserved from Africa to Cuba and Africa to Haiti, though sometimes what's been preserved is a strange mixture." Throughout the first week, Ligeti learned from his ensemble how these African traditions have traveled even farther, from the Caribbean to Miami.

Ligeti's initial meeting was with Adrian Castro, the poet and babalao. "Adrian's a very good poet," he says, "especially for this project, because he switches back and forth between languages and reflects on the cultural mix of Miami." At that initial meeting, the composer aimed a shotgun microphone at the poet's chest, recording Castro as he read from his poem When She Carried a Calabash. Later he would feed the verses into his sound machine and loop them into a click track. Tapping time on his knee, Castro read aloud to the rhythm of rumba. The poem surveys the languages and landmarks of Miami's diverse black communities, trailing a mythical African woman as she walks through Little Havana, Overtown, and Little Haiti: "She collected some of our objects of sound/In the end/Laced them side by side/Ensnaring them."

Caribbean cyborg (from top): Richard LaGuerre, Adrian Castro, Mike Kernahan (right), a Macintosh Powerbook 180, Lukas Ligeti, Marty Galagarza, and David Font (left)
Steve Satterwhite
Caribbean cyborg (from top): Richard LaGuerre, Adrian Castro, Mike Kernahan (right), a Macintosh Powerbook 180, Lukas Ligeti, Marty Galagarza, and David Font (left)

As Ligeti recorded the words, he wondered aloud how to unite them with the music. "I'm interested in the rhythms of languages naturally spoken," he said, "not language forced into music, but music forced into the rhythm of language." He sat down at his drum set to explain. "You could read a line from the poem," he suggested to Castro. "Then I could play the rhythm of the next line on the drum, so that the drum will become part of the poem."

Several hours later, long after the nine-to-fivers who work in the warehouse offices had left for the day, Ligeti met with Mike Kernahan to explore the language of the steel pan. "The sound is unique," Kernahan commented, drawing spirals with his mallets across the chrome-plated instruments, "but some people say the pan sounds like a kiskadee."

The most common bird in Trinidad, the kiskadee got its name from the sweet song that islanders hear as the French phrase "Qu'est-ce-que-dit?" ("What are you saying?") Indeed the steel pans did sang out "kiskadee, kiskadee." Kernahan made the instruments himself at his pan yard down in Cutler Ridge, off Quail Roost Road. A renowned builder, he takes orders for pans from across the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. A set like his can cost up to $800.

Balancing a tape recorder on his lap, Ligeti began to record as Kernahan played individual notes. Later, when the composer synthesized these notes, he would be able to generate the sound of an entire steel-pan orchestra. "Play each note just once," he asked, and Kernahan played slowly, hand over hand, from bottom to top, from right to left, all 32 notes in four full scales.

"Play a melody," Ligeti requested, and Kernahan complied.

"Play something as far away from Europe as you can," said Ligeti. But Kernahan looked perplexed. The steel pan, after all, developed not in the African bush but amid the industrial waste of World War II. Ingenious workers in the Trinidadian shipyards that sent petroleum north for the Allied war effort cut the first pans from the bottoms of oil barrels.

Growing up in the same postwar period as the pan, the 52-year-old Kernahan lived in a "respectable" family that kept its son far from the older, African-influenced music they believed to be low class. "I could hear the Shangó drums when I lay in my bed at night," he recalls, referring to the Trinidadian worship of Shangó, the Yoruban god of thunder. "But my parents didn't let me go there, man. We listened to classical music on the radio at home."

When Ligeti sprang from his chair to suggest the pair improvise a duet on the steel pan and the balafon, a xylophonelike instrument he brought with him from the Ivory Coast, the pan maker looked nervous. In Trinidad, he said, ensembles rehearse months for a single ten-minute performance during the national competition at Carnival. Ligeti, however, was already running his mallets along the balafon's soft wooden slats. Haltingly Kernahan answered with the pan. He listened and furrowed his brow, then grew bolder as he struck the chrome-plated curves. Ligeti's mallets skipped across the balafon like pebbles across a brook. The pan sang like a bird shaking drops of water from its wings.

Late the following night, hunched over a low table in the studio, Ligeti and bass player Richard LaGuerre shared a meal of stewed fish and plantains while the musician told the story of his flight from Port-au-Prince four years ago. LaGuerre played bass in the influential rasin, or roots band, Boukan Ginen, whose name is Kreyol for "Fire in Africa." In the early 1990s, the rasin bands actively supported populist president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his political party, Lavalas. Roots groups and Lavalas alike appealed to the masses by drawing heavily from the symbols and songs of the neo-African religion vodou.

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