One love, one orchestra
Like the wide Sargasso Sea, Miami seduces. Here float the detritus of Caribbean disaster and dream: deep undercurrents of Africa, mournful melodies of exile, bright promise of prosperity, shark bite of poverty. Many a composer has floundered, fooled by the shimmering surface into believing it a simple thing to harvest the life below. A tourist excursion. A fishing trip.
There was Tania Leon's Drummin' in 1997, a formidable endeavor anchored by a full symphony orchestra with Haitian, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, indigenous, and Japanese drummers parading across the proscenium like so many lightning flashes across the sky. Then Lukas Ligeti arrived in 2000 to set a piece for ad-hoc band Furacan Caribe, a multicultural monster created too quickly and born dead. The prestigious composers move on; Miami remains behind.
José Elias Mateo wants something organic, something that will last. Born in Santo Domingo to Cuban parents and raised right here, Mateo knows well the Magic City's sleight of hand. A six-year veteran of hard-working local jazz outfit Mantra and leader of the traditional Cuban group Conjunto Progreso, the guitarist got a taste for more expansive sound -- diverse to the point of insanity -- when in 1998 he formed the one-night-stand Sun Ra tribute band, the Afro-Polyphonic Space Orchestra. "I got such a great response to that I thought, In due time I'll put together another big group." Four years later we have the Afro-Polyphonic World Orchestra, sixteen members and special guest composers drawn from Miami's cultural mélange. "I'm not coming from outside Miami to reflect on it," Mateo points out. "It's a homegrown situation as opposed to a commission. It's grassroots music-making."
Standing beside the pulpit of St. John's United Methodist Church in Miami Beach, where the APWO rehearses and performs, Mateo is having a hard time keeping the roots in time. A guitar slung across his belly, his apple cheeks anxiously drawn, the conductor waves his hands over the nine men before him (it is a rare rehearsal when the full lineup can turn out), trying to bring the bass, brass, and percussion back in a single burst after a languorous harmonium solo by guest composer Rajesh Bhandari.
"You gotta give me more time," Mateo protests to the Indian musician, whose features are as sharp and angular as Mateo's are round and full. While he plays, Bhandari raises his heel from the ground, his knee rising and falling like the works of a clock.
"If you could do me a favor and count it out," the composer retorts, running the slim fingers on his left hand across the keyboard while his right opens and closes the bellows, loosing a swell of air into the nave of the cathedral. Listening intently, Mateo counts to himself and then shouts, "I got it! I got it! I got it!" Bhandari begins the solo again, while the musicians watch, trumpets poised near lips, trombones cocked. The meandering melody, as slow and plaintive as a stroll through Marrakesh, is cut off by a series of metallic explosions.
Mateo is satisfied, but the drummer, Jimmy Daniel, wants to run it through again with percussionists David Font and Nelson Prieto. "Just give us a sec," pleads the seasoned studio hand. In the meantime Bhandari has direction for the tuba and trombone. "You're just a backbone. Staccato on every note," he tells Louis Quintanilla and Paul Southwood Smith.
Struggling with the trills at a rehearsal just two nights before, the trumpets had questioned whether the orchestra should even attempt Bhandari's "Sitting in the Garden of Love" with so little time left before the actual performance. Mateo argued then for making the effort, for thinking big, but now he seems awed by the enormity of his own undertaking. "It's really ambitious," he admits, shaking his tight curls.
Bhandari begins his solo again. The musicians flip through their charts for one more run. ("We had to use charts," Mateo explains later. "It's just too big. If you can't read music, you can't play.") Bhandari's voice breaks with emotion, and Mateo begins to count. At his signal, the rest of the orchestra bursts into a manic climax, then recedes exhausted, until the only sound echoing among the arches is the heavy breath of the harmonium.
With the rehearsal already going late, Bhandari runs to the back of the band and joins the percussion section for a quick refresher of Mateo's hot swing number, "Moon." As the orchestra tweaks the weak spots, the imposing dreadlocked figure of guest composer Macarldie arrives to set up a steel pan for his "Tai Chi/African Sunset." The night's program features six of Mateo's Afro-pop and swing-flavored works, with the guest compositions rounded out by a third work by Middle Eastern oud-player Mostafa Mekki.
"Our main goal is to explore the diverse styles of cultures throughout the world and create new forms based on the juxtaposition," Mateo says, as he collapses after rehearsal, "to exemplify the similarities among these different cultures; how they all tie in to one. I don't know if the music is necessarily better [than high-profile commissioned projects], but it's better in that it's all people within Miami."
If commissions and Caribbean rhythms have attracted outside composers to Miami, it was the Yoruban deity Yemaya who commanded dancer and choreographer Ima Jordan to move here after her art gallery foundered in Philadelphia five years ago. And it was Yemaya who told Ima (now the director of the World African Traditional Arts Dance Company) to put on a festival for the female orishas Yemaya and Oshún -- deities honored in some form from the Yoruban homeland in West Africa to the former slave states of Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and the United States. Although the orishas are notoriously jealous -- to say nothing of the rivalries among their followers -- Ima claims Yemaya told her it was time to bring the traditions back together. "It is so important that people understand the oneness of this tradition, instead of the separate pieces," says Ima, "to uplift our spirit and to know that we have a power in creation to heal not only ourselves but the world." Performances of African, Afro-Cuban, Haitian, and Brazilian dance will be followed by a ceremony by the sea. "For me it's more than just dance," Ima explains. "It's a way of life that would make us more prosperous as women. We've taken on more masculine traits than feminine traits, but Oshún and Yemaya remind us that we can use the goddess force and beauty to get what we need, more than brute force and aggressiveness."
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