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Hill, Juliet E. (2008) The conjunto piano in 1940s Cuba: An analysis of the emergence of a distinctive piano role and style. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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By the early 1940s, the piano was an established part of the Cuban conjunto in the performance of son montuno, one of the great 20th century Cuban dance musics. Its role, however, has been given little attention by scholars. This thesis documents the emergence of an idiomatic and highly influential piano style during the 1940s in the new context of the conjunto. It argues that the piano represents a challenge to accepted views of the continuation of African musical practices in Cuba. Popular and academic perceptions of the African heritage in Cuba are directly related to the country's historical position as a former plantation slave society, in which African cultural forms were seen to survive within specific parameters, and in which the recreation of African musical instruments was a key feature. This has resulted in an over-simplification and binary categorisation of European and African musical elements. The perception of the piano as European has precluded it from the study of the broader application of African musical principles in the Americas, and discussions of African influence in Cuban piano style concentrate on the instrument's percussive qualities rather than a change in function. The conjunto piano style contests this paradigm, and the transformation that it embodies is more complex than a rhythmic or percussive touch. Although drawing on the role of the piano in other types of ensemble, conjunto pianists also recreated the musical function of the tres, a Cuban variant of the guitar, which had been the predecessor of the piano in the playing of son montuno. It is this that links the conjunto piano style with a wider musical world. Although elements such as call and response and the prominence given to improvisation have been seen in the literature as part of son montuno's African legacy, only Sublette (2004) has made the connection between African musical structures and the piano montuno, the repeated rhythmic ostinato which underscores instrumental and vocal improvisation. My approach draws on both detailed musical analysis and the wider study of African music. Working from commercial recordings from the period, I argue that the construction and function of this ostinato can be linked to wider African musical principles. The practice of interlocking - the creation of harmony by means of a continuing stream of interlocked notes rather than block chords, and using motion to establish a harmonic centre - is characteristic of many African musical forms and is a key part of the piano montuno. Illustrated with extensive transcriptions from 1940s recording and present day performance, this analysis of the multiple functions of the conjunto piano provides insights into deeper principles of musical organisation that are at the heart of Cuban musical identity.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses > Proquest
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 16 Oct 2018 15:11

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