The Music of, and in, Another Place:
Vizcaino in Mexico
music of another place is more than just notes. But knowing this
in your mind is different than seeing it with your
eyes or feeling
it in your heart. If a people’s soul can be found in their
music, then a direct confrontation with such strange sounds says
people are different from us. We are not one. This foreignness entering
our ears is not comforting but disconcerting. It says I am no longer
home. I am in the hands and at the mercy of strangers. It is only
by assuming that others are, deep down, the same as us that we can
the courage to stay and listen, searching for that which we have
in common in all this uncommon sound.
And that, of course, is exactly what draws us to it. The jolting
realization that we are no longer, musically at least, in Kansas
anymore (sorry Kurt) is
what drives us to seek out musics which open windows into the worlds of others
who we might have known of, but certainly didn’t know.
This was my experience at the Latin Percussion Program with Cuban teacher,
Roberto Vizcaino, this June in Mexico. Roberto had invited me to bring my students
parents and significant others) to Morelia to further complicate the ongoing
Cuban/Mexican interaction which has become his daly life there. The more I
travel in Latin America, the more I realize how different each country is from
and from us. With each trip the region becomes less familiar as I become more
aware of its size and complexity. This is what I wanted to share with my students––a
direct interaction with the other side of the coin of American culture––not
as points on a map or chapters in a book, but in the faces and through the
hugs of the people who teach us, feed us, drive us, and give us a place to
The music in another place is more than just notes. To understand how music
is part of people’s lives, you must be invited into their world.
You must learn their language, eat at their tables, travel their roads,
hardships. Music, or any art, is the key to a door that, once opened, leads
to knowledge, empathy, and perhaps love. You become part of their music
music becomes part of you. And because your world has changed, their world
changes too, at least for you.
hotel and studio is snuggled in the hills above the city. At night,
we can look down on the lights of the cathedral. It is a college
town where Latino-hippies and leftist intellectuals share the sidewalk
cafés with Native Americans in traditional dress. The Vizcaino
family is almost as foreign here as we are. They also share our curiosity
to learn more about the complicated, contrasted people who are our
hosts. The Mexicans seem guardedly interested in us as well, asking
us questions about our world while trying to show us theirs. In truth,
it’s one world, but we’re from different parts of it
so the exchanges that happen everyday at breakfast or in the cathedral
plaza begin timidly only to develop more confidently as we build
understanding. Maybe, but sometimes I think that this initial lack
of trust comes from the fact that we do know something about each
other. We are not unknown.
This is true in music too. When studying other people’s traditions, that
which seems obvious at first may become more difficult as you go. You may need
to relearn every concept you ever thought you knew, and the context––cultural,
religious, and social––can be, in every sense of the word, foreign.
This process can be painful. Many times in Cuba I’ve felt my mind
and heart being stretched out of all recognizable shape, my internal landmarks
You can lose a lot more than just your perspective.
When one has no firsthand knowledge of others there is no alternative but to
see them in stereotypes. Discovering that your stereotypes are untrue is healthy
if a bit shocking, but knowing that you must grow beyond them is easier than
actually doing it. If you are feeling disoriented you are probably on the right
path. Every year, I watch Americans bring their preconceptions to Cuba only
to discover that they are completely irrelevant to the Cubans. This can be
While some cope by reconceiving their understanding, others refuse to let go.
The prospect of starting over is just too disturbing for them. Rather than
adding to their knowledge, they have to discard it then begin again, and some
Understanding grows only slowly, so this discarding process is continuous.
I came to realize that my early musical studies were flawed. Most had to be
and the process continues now. It’s hard to retrace your steps when there’s
so much new stuff to explore.
New music is rooted old history but shaped by daily life. To understand a music
you must come to know the people who make it and how they came to be who they
are. This seems straightforward but it can be a problem. As Americans, we are
taught a certain perspective on Cuban history and we have stereotypes about
its people. The Cubans have been told many things about us which can be a little
surprising––their ideas don’t reflect our country as
we see it.
We must both transcend our preconceptions if we wish to know the other better.
Yet our perspectives are real and must be understood for what they are. We
need to see our shared history from the other’s point of view without prejudice.
But to retain two completely antithetical perspectives requires that you suspend
judgment and cease to criticize, because if you only see what you want to see
you lose the opportunity to learn better. This sounds obvious when it’s
written down, but the experience becomes personal and profound when you’re
forced to confront it in real life.
While the Mexicans around us aren’t directly
affecting our percussion studies, they are the context within which the Cubans
and Americans are interacting. They
envelop us all. Mexicans and Cubans are not the same and each seems familiar
to me in a different way. Each resonates in a different part of my mind
and I can only guess that while they might feel a similar resonance with me,
process it within their unique context and through their personal and national
relations with the United States. How they view each other is a question
I really can’t answer, but it is clear that they are bridging a gap there
music of another place shows us that it is not a universal language,
as many so wrongly believe. These differences become
more apparent when considering
issues. For example, notational traditions vary widely in different
places. Even between countries that use the same musical conventions
instance) the way they are used can be very different. When Cubans
write music they usually notate it so the clave is written within
one measure, and
always three-side first. The two-three clave concept is not used
and sometimes not well-understood. This is a shock to American drummers
for whom two-three
clave has become a musical crutch. Likewise, American horn players
are accustomed to reading clave across two bars and are comfortable
with the eighth-
sixteenth-note patterns that creates. Writing the clave in one bar creates
and Americans can be confused by the long strings of thirty-second
notes found in Cuban sheet music.
Many Cuban conga drummers, including Vizcaino, have developed their own notational
styles using different noteheads to indicate the various strokes. Although
each is perfectly logical, they are all different so a student must relearn
when changing teachers. Also, these odd noteheads don’t lend themselves
well to computer transcription so they re difficult to publish. I use a more
standard notation which indicates both strokes and hand patterns, and Vizcaino
has chosen to rewrite all his materials for us using this notation. Because of
this, I’m transcribing his exercises and rhythms on the computer so that
next year’s students will have even better teaching materials,
and we intend to publish his long-overdue conga method based on these
he is willing to alter his concepts to help us access his knowledge
we are able to make that knowledge more available to drummers around
educational exchange flows both ways.
Other traditions don’t read or write music at all. This can be a problem
for those of us with bad memories. We try to adapt our notation to describe music
that is difficult to capture within its limitations. Any attempt to notate batá drumming
simplifies and distorts it because the many possibilities of the
living music cannot be reduced to symbols that must be written in
a specific order.
transcriptions are a useful tool as part of lessons with a knowledgeable
teacher, the essence of this music can never be found on paper.
Teaching styles vary widely in different places, so a student’s expectations
of the lesson can be very different from the teacher’s. If you are conservatory
trained, you may wonder why your Cuban teacher is still making you play the same
pattern after twenty minutes. Unless you realize that he is teaching something
completely different than you think you are learning, you may not see the point
because you are looking for something else. Your college teacher may give you
an assignment and send you home to learn it. A Cuban may make you play until
he’s sure you’ve got it. This is a really good way to teach. You
may learn fewer patterns but you will know them better. Nevertheless, this can
be a problem for students who aren’t used to it.
The Mexicans, perhaps, find both the Cubans and Americans a little strange.
The girls at our hotel asked us to go dancing at a Banda bar. Perhaps they
that in our concentration on Cuban music we would miss the traditions of the
people around us. This gave us the chance to see their music not as a cliché but
as part of their daily lives. And while it was gratifying to see
that they had almost as much trouble dancing to Salsa as we do, it
not to have
to take six weeks of lessons just to take a pretty girl out on the
dance floor, as I would need to in Cuba.
The music in another place proves we are not cartoons. That they know more
about us than we do about them is a given. That they are us is more of a surprise.
Think of the Morelian cabby who used to work in the Loop, or the tour guide
owned a house in Berwyn, or the waitress whose sister lives in Pilsen. What
am I to them? Another loud American who doesn’t understand how the decisions
of my government affect their lives? Do they make allowances for my ignorance?
Or am I proof that not all Americans are bullies? Have they already seen through
these stereotypes to view me as a unique person? The answers, all unknowable
for me, are probably different for each of them. Am I a symbol? If so, of what?
Perhaps it’s less important for me to draw conclusions about them than
it is for me to ask what conclusions they’ve drawn about me. Perhaps the
bonds between us are there only as long as we choose to maintain them. Perhaps
they are there whether we know it or not. Perhaps they are there even if we don’t
want them to be. Perhaps when we expand the concept of us to include them “the
other” disappears and we become family, bickering perhaps, but family
Roberto speaks a little English and my students
speak broken Spanish (if that), so when classes began I had to translate much
of what was said. Yet as each
week went on I needed to interpret less. Why? Because they grew to understand
other more. It was gratifying to watch them develop a relationship which
need a mediator. And that is how it should be. On our journey we meet other
travelers, people who share our love, and who understand our passion in
ways that outsiders
do not. And we share that experience with those who open up their homes,
minds, and hearts to us, creating a bond that crosses borders, blends cultures,
changes us all in ways we could never have imagined before we reached out
to the unknown other and found understanding reaching back.