Sonic Truth

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

A bloody coup ousted Aristide shortly after his election in 1991. Restored to power by a U.S. intervention in 1994, Aristide and Lavalas failed to fulfill their campaign promise of social change, and rasin groups took the government to task in their music. LaGuerre recalls the day a corrupt official offered Boukan Ginen $30,000 to remove the word magouyé, which means a person who says one thing and does another, from the recording of one of their songs. "We can't do that," LaGuerre explained to the official. "We already play the song in concert. People already know what we say." When Boukan Ginen refused to cooperate, LaGuerre and his bandmates were taken to a police station and interrogated. He left the country soon after. "I came to Miami for the Rasin Festival in 1996," he said, "and I never went back."

Far from the turmoil of his homeland, LaGuerre sat with an acoustic guitar, playing a traditional warrior chant to a rhythm called nago. "Saint Jacques," he sang, appealing to the vodou god of war, "deliver me from my hypocritical friends."

The composer asked LaGuerre to demonstrate the rhythm on the drum, and the bass player rolled out a rough-hewn vodou instrument and slid it between his knees. Microphone in hand, Ligeti tried to persuade the roots musician to hit just one note at a time, but LaGuerre insisted on playing complicated patterns. "I just feel things," he protested. "Vodou is very big, I'm telling you."

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)

Finally Ligeti set down the microphone and repeated the basic nago rhythm on his own drum set. "That's it!" LaGuerre exclaimed, jumping from his seat. Sitting back down he played the second of the three nago rhythm parts. "Now play this."

Ligeti raised his stick high and pounded the tom in imitation. Then he added the lead drum pattern, pumping the foot pedals and threading his drumsticks through the air to play each of the three nago parts at the same time.

"You're too much!" LaGuerre exclaimed, standing up and spreading his arms wide. "What you're doing, that's the right thing you do."

By the end of the first week, Ligeti had met and recorded each of the six musicians. Now it is late on a Friday night and the group is meeting at the Sound Arts Workshop to hear the "objects of sound" the composer has gathered. Tethered to the colored cables, they listen as Castro's poem is fed into the headphones. Ligeti asks the musicians to find what he calls "the inherent rhythms in the poet's speech." As they follow the cadence of the verse, the steel pan, bass, violin, and drums rise and fall together. The composer is pleased. "They play these speech rhythms surprisingly well," he reports. "No other group has ever done it as quickly."

Working with these Caribbean musicians, he adds, "makes it possible to combine a lot of background knowledge that musicians in [classical] ensembles don't have. I can learn a lot from them, and I can expect them to play back their interpretation of what I've learned with the authority of authenticity."

In the two weeks that follow, tradition often clashes with technology as the musicians struggle with Ligeti's unusual creative process. The composer, however, is accustomed to chaos in the click track's wake. "In the beginning nothing will work," he admits. "Sometimes two or three days before the performance people can't understand how something coherent will come out of all this. Then close to the end, it will fall together like a jigsaw puzzle. Or maybe it won't," he says. "That's why I'm an experimental musician, because I like to see what works and what doesn't." Flowing from the electronics in the black wooden box, across the long tentacles of Caribbean history, the music of Furacan Caribe will be as unpredictable as the social maelstrom of modern-day Miami.

Furacan Caribe will perform as part of the Subtropics New Music Festival at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach, at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, April 15. Call 305-981-0600 for more information.

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