Music. Art. Culture. Writing.
The Legacy of Cuban Son:
An Interview with Frank Oropesa of Septeto Nacional
Ignacio Piñeiro de Cuba
Interviewed by Rafael Otto
Translation by Chris Parisoff & Rafael Otto
Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro de Cuba is widely regarded as the premier champion of Cuban son music. Founded in 1927 by the talented and prolific Cuban bassist Ignacio Piñeiro, the group’s repertoire stems from Piñeiro’s compositions that built upon the rumba traditions from Havana and Matanzas. By blending Spanish and African musical elements, Piñeiro laid the groundwork for a new kind of Cuban son music that eventually gave rise to modern musical forms such as salsa. Today, his work lives on with the fourth generation of band members who are regarded as Patrimonio Nacional de la Cultura Cubana (a national treasure of Cuban culture).
Frank “El Matador” Oropesa joined the group 17 years ago and is both the administrative director and the percussionist. Largely self-taught by listening to early recordings of Septeto Nacional, Oropesa is a talented bongocero who is committed to maintaining the established son traditions.
Septeto Nacional toured in the United States in 2009 for the first time in 76 years. They returned briefly in 2010 and again in March 2011 for a 14-stop tour that started at UA Centennial Hall in Tucson, Arizona. Despite fatigue after taking four flights from Havana to Tucson, the group invigorated the crowd with many songs and musical styles including bolero, son, cha-cha-chá, guaracha, and more.
The day after the show, I had a chance to talk with Oropesa about the history of the group, his personal musical tastes, the link between Septeto Nacional and Cuban Abakuá traditions, the most legitimate way to learn son music, and much more. Septeto Nacional is currently preparing to celebrate its 85th anniversary with a world tour in 2012.
The complete interview with Oropesa appears on Afropop Worldwide. Below are two excerpts from the interview, as well as an audio file of Oropesa talking about the best place to learn son music: en la calle!
Rafael: What is the historical relationship between rumba and son?
Frank: The last CD I produced for the group is titled Sin Rumba, No Hay Son, for no other reason than to reflect the relationship that exists between rumba and son. Rumba emerged in Havana and Matanzas with origins that go back to 1836 when the first group of African slaves arrived belonging to the Abakuá secret society. Obviously, they brought their own culture and dialects with them from Africa, mainly from Nigeria, Cameroon, and what they call “Old Calabar.” This greatly influenced the development of rumba and son, because these blacks, as they called them, were members of Abakuá, not a religion but a secret society. Their instruments and drums were of African origin and the mixture of African and Cuban elements resulted in rumba. Looking back, the majority of the rumberos were from different sects of Abakuá. Ignacio Piñeiro was born in a rumbero neighborhood and was initiated into the rumba and Abakuá traditions from a very young age. He belonged to what is called the Efori Nkomon sect. Piñeiro was raised on these African rhythms, and he was the one who started to introduce elements of rumba into son. He began mixing these musical forms and also started the Coros de Clave Ñañiga (Abakuá singing groups) in Havana (ñañigo refers to a member of the Abakuá society).
Rafael: Could you talk about the concept of clave and the importance of clave in Cuban music?
Frank: In Cuba, people often say that son developed in the Oriente province. Recent research has proven that son was played in Oriente, but it was also played in Havana, and the son in the east was influenced by trova. It was a kind of son that didn’t have clave, and it was a son that basically included “montuno” refrains consisting of four lines. Ignacio Piñeiro was the one who gave son its poetic form, lyrically speaking. He introduced the clave that originated from rumba. There are two claves that are very similar, with the difference being just one beat. (Oropesa demonstrated both clave patterns by clapping and saying the notes.)
3:2 Son Clave
3:2 Rumba Clave
Oropesa on the changing times and traditions in Cuba and the durable quality of son music: (4:03)