In the beginning was Latin America

Latin America’s journey to national independence, which started in 1810 and went on till 1825, is as fascinating Latin America. The coexistence of multiple cultures through that history resulted in unique musical styles known only in the region and popularised as such around the globe.

Published on 23 September 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

Latin America’s journey to national independence, which started in 1810 and went on till 1825, is as fascinating Latin America. The coexistence of multiple cultures through that history resulted in unique musical styles known only in the region and popularised as such around the globe. Today, traditional Latin American melodies presented in a variety of rhythms are among the most cherished experiences of performers, dancers and audiences, and classical musicians from the region give us rich substance of their own, with compositions attractive to all listeners.

2010 is a special year for Latin America. Understandably, the world of music commemorates the countries’ independence. Names such as Silvestre Revuelta, Arturo Màrquezor, Alberto Ginastera, Astor Piazzolla are among many Latin American composers whose names are on the programmes of orchestras around the world. Many concerts include arrangements of Latin American folk melodies and songs, attractive to listeners from other cultures.

On 18 September at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nayer Nagui contributed to the national celebrations, offering a programme with compositions from Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela. The concert inaugurated inauguration the new classical music season of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, and it drew ambassadors and diplomatic figures together with dignitaries from Egypt.

From Colombian folkloric songs by Emiliano Zuleta arranged for the orchestra by Luis Eduardo Bermúdez, one of the first musicians to transcribe traditional Colombian, to the Argentinian L’Histoire du Tango, the evening was a rich treat from the start. The second half opened with the Bolivian Diabladas, followed by the Chilean popular song “Thanks to Life”, Arturo Marquez’ Danzon no. 2 (from Mexico), the Venezuelan Fuge of a Little Bird by Aldemaro Romero, and Pedro Gutierres’s “Soul of the Plains”. Each was enchanting if not for its folkloric colorisation then for the attractive orchestration or for the original rhythm.

La gota fria (The Cold Drop) by Emiliano Zuleta, the Colombian song writer, was a hit all across Latin America. Whether classical songs drawn from the Colombian folk repertoire or original compositions, Zuleta always offers beautiful melodies and a vibrant beat characteristic of his homeland. The instrumental version of La gota fria energised the audience with its strong brass, among the concert’s most remarkable moments.

For his part the Ecuadorian Luis Humberto Salgado is one of the most prolific composers of his country. His orchestral works are frequently performed in Latin America and included in symphonic repertoires worldwide. From the first measures of La fiesta de la cosecha the audience relished numerous details and colours. One of the most captivating blends was the opening theme, on a celesta, soon joined by bells before the orchestra slowly joined in with percussion and woodwinds.

We remember Astor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango from last November’s “Latin American Night” which took place in Al Gomhoria Theatre (see Issue No. 972). Once again the piece was played by the soloist Ines Abdel Daim. Originally composed for flute and guitar, then orchestrated by Dmitry Valeras, Story of Tango is a journey through the sensual milonga, traditional tango, jazz elements and concert hall music. Abdel Daim also played an encore, Piazzolla’s Tango Etude no. 3.

The Bolivian Diabladas (Dance of the Devils, arranged by Javier Parrado) opens with a strong gong, before it moves to the melody on strings. Strong percussion and brass dominate the composition, stressing the march accents and hence adding a truly diabolical flavour to the music. Diabladas is usually performed during the annual carnival celebrations in Andean Bolivia incorporating theatrical elements and dancers wearing colorful masks and devil suits. From Diabladas, the audience was taken to Morenada Tradicional, one of the rhythms of Bolivia in 6/ 8, especially known among African Bolivian communities.

Nayer Nagui invited the audience to sing a Gracias a la vida (Thanks to Life), a popular Chilean folk song composed and first performed by the Chilean Violeta Parra. “Thanks to life, which has given me so much. It gave me laughter and it gave me longing. With them I distinguish happiness and pain,” are the song’s final lines, concluding also singer’s last message. Gracias a la vida was in “Las “ltimas Composiciones,” the last album Parra released before she committed suicide in 1967. Nostalgically and somehow hesitantly the audience joined in the singing.

One of the evening’s orchestral highlights of the evening was Arturo Màrquez Danzón no. 2. As a child and a young man, Màrquez was influenced by many musical styles, which understandably resulted in compositions rich in variety. His series of Danzones are influenced by a Cuban dance known also in the southern region of Mexico. Danzón no. 2 — considered by many Mexicans a second national anthem (just like the Huapango ) — is a complicated piece with a constantly changing rhythm and fast passages from 4/4 to 3/8 and 2/8. Wonderful orchestration elevated details which were perfectly underlined by the conductor. Nagui managed to release pulse-pounding energy from the piece, respecting the tempos and hence balancing the music’s volatile power with its classical dignity.

Venezuela concluded the concert with Aldemaro Romero’s Fuga con Pajarillo (Fugue for a Little Bird), arranged for strings by Glenn Michael Egner, and based on a folkloric theme. The fugue was followed, last but definitely not least, by Alma Ilanera (Soul of the Plains) by Pedro El’as Gutiérrez. Here again, considered by Venezuelans a second national anthem, Soul of the Plains is a typical joropo (national merry dance) with Spanish and African elements especially apparent in the percussion. Soloist Ragaa El Din Ahmed was the absolute surprise of the evening. The quality of his tenor and his control made the audience ecstatic, so much that the piece had to be repeated.


“Latin American Night” was an original and very strong opening of the classical music season 2010/2011. After a few months’ break, impatient concert goers will have a chance to attend many events at the Cairo Opera House as well as other locations featuring promising musical experiences. The soonest is the Chopin celebration organised at the Pyramids on 29 September. October includes the Cairo Opera House Anniversary Celebration, and a Choral-Percussion Celebration. In that same month, the youngest listeners are invited to a children’s concert played by Orchestre Colonne de Paris. The Cairo Symphony Orchestra’s journey to South Korea early this month was part of an artistic exchange between the two countries, and so the National Orchestra of Korea will be visiting Egypt in November. In the same month works by Mozart and Carl Maria von Weber will be played in Al Gomhoria Theater. January is filled with the Carmina Burana ballet from Hungary and the 12 pianists concert “Up to 24 hands” and a musical Man in the Mirror, while February invites us to the Hunchback of Notre Dame ballet. Plans for March include the British Chamber Orchestra and the Munich Percussion Ensemble, while April goes from “An evening with Brahms” and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra to the Suite en Blanc ballet. There will be lots of Mahler and Liszt in May along with Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade. But the list is much longer than this handful of highlights.

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