New Cuban Music
Introducing Composer Tulio Peramo


by Johannes Tonio Kreusch

"I’m 33 years old" insists Tulio Peramo with a straight face. Actually born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, Peramo’s playful sense of humor speaks volumes about his cheerful, thought introspective personality. Originally trained as a professional opera singer, Tulio Peramo began his career at the National Opera House of Havana. At the (real) age of 25, disappointed and personally harmed by the intrigues and flamboyant life of this singing world, he left the opera in order to start a new life. As he recalls: "33 years ago I found myself at a point of no return: I had lost everything - the faith in my work and even my social backgrounds with all my friends, who couldn’t understand this decision - but I still had myself with the deeply felt desire to change my life." After a difficult time lasting several years, nearly isolated from his usual environment, only supported by his close family and inspired by solitude and the silence of thoughts, did he come to understand the need to become a composer in order to find a new way of expression.

In 1994, I met Tulio Peramo for the first time during the guitar festival in Havana. At that time, I was 23 and Tulio was nearly twice as old. The age difference didn’t matter. I was touched by his wise, philosophical and poetic thoughts. He, though, had to deal with my youthful energy ! From this energy and Tulio’s beautiful musical thoughts the following music arose as did a deep friendship between the two of us.

From our very first encounter it was clear to me that Peramo was different; he was not a typical cog in the music business machine, frequently a repository for opportunists and egoists. By contrast, I found him to be a modest and noble individual who is driven by a need to serve art, rather than himself.

Tres Imágenes Cubanas (1996)

At the young age of 23 I was touched and honored, when Tulio asked me after my performance at the Havana Guitar Festival in 1994 whether I would like to come back to Cuba in order to premier the revised version of his first guitar concerto "Tientos y Cantos" during the regular season of the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra. From this point on a deep musical relationship between Tulio Peramo and me began to grow, which has given to the guitar repertory some very fine new works.
Returning to Cuba in 1995 for this performance Tulio offered to write a new work for me. I came up with the idea that he should write for guitar and string quartet, because I realised by hearing other orchestral music by Peramo, that he masters the strings in a very special manner. Since the music of Tulio Peramo is deeply inspired by his native country, Cuba, we came up with the idea to use Piazzolla’s "l’Histoire du Tango" as a model and to write a little "history" of Cuban music, combining all the different elements and styles of Cuban music. Some months later "Tres Imágenes Cubanas" was born!
"Tres Imágenes Cubanas" juxtaposes the string quartet, one of the principal musical body of European classical music, with one of the most important Cuban instruments: the guitar. The music itself reflects a strong cross-pollination of different cultures, namely the interaction between European (mainly Spanish) and African cultures, that have co-existed in Cuba for centuries. Therefore, Tulio first thought to call this work "Mulata", a term for their beautiful mixed-coloured Cuban women.
Throughout most of Cuban history, Cuban society did not accept African culture as part of its artistic life. However, with staunch support from many Cuban writers, painters and musicians who were all deeply influenced by African culture, this began to change. Some of these artists include Fernando Ortiz, Alejo Carpentier, Wilfredo Lám, Amadeo Roldán, Ernesto Lecuona and Alejandro García Caturla. As a result of their efforts, "Afrocubism" became an integral part of Cuba’s artistic life. In fact, today’s Cuban culture is regarded as a "tropical cocktail" of influences. Spanish, French, Nigerian and Asian culture all contribute to Cuba’s rich landscape. Though the interplay between Spanish and African styles is the most readily apparent aspect of "Tres Imágenes Cubanas", elements from all of the backgrounds mentioned above permeate the work. Aside from reflecting Afrocubism, "Tres Imágenes" is also an homage to Alejandro García Caturla (1906-1940), one of the leading figures of the Afrocubism movement.
To better understand the importance of this homage, we must point out Caturla’s role in the emergence of Afrocubism.
In the summer of 1928 Caturla went to Paris where he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger, one of the most illustrious French composition teachers. Upon his return to Cuba he settled in the little town of Remedios where he earned a living as a lawyer. Caturla went on to become a municipal judge who was not liked by the corrupt police and politicians of the town; he was an ethical person who refused to cooperate with them in their "dirty games". In Remedios, Caturla lived with a black woman, Manuela Rodriguez, despite the fact that it was then scandalous for a white man to live with a woman of color. (Some years later, after Manuela’s death, Carurla went on to live with her sister, Catalena; eleven children resulted from these relationships). To further complicate matters, interracial couples were forbidden to marry in Cuba.
Caturla vehemently objected to these rules and so he dedicated his life fighting for Afrocubism. Together with Amadeo Roldan, Caturla helped to create a new style of Afrocuban symphonic music in the 1930s. Among Caturla’s most famous compositions are the orchestral works "Danzas Cubanas", "Bembe", "La Rumba" and "Obertura Cubana". His songs with texts by Nicolas Guillen and Alejo Carpentier are also wellknown. Caturla also wrote one opera, some works for strings and various pieces for solo instruments. Along with writing a great variety of music, Caturla was also a skilled band arranger, making many arrangements when he conducted a jazz band in Remedios.
Tragically, it was Caturla’s unwavering commitment to uphold the law that led to his untimely death. A young criminal who was awaiting trial in Caturla’s court and who was afraid of the sentence that he was sure to receive, met and killed Caturla on the street. At the young age of 34, Caturla, one of Cuba’s finest composers was gone.
Caturla’s music was first brought to the United States by Henry Cowell in 1929. Cowell, the director of the Pan American Association of Composers (PAAC), was the first individual to take an active role promoting Caturla’s music. Cowell published some of Caturla’s music in his New Music Editions and released recordings of Caturla’s works. Sponsored by PAAC, conductor Nicolas Slonimsky brought Caturla’s music to Europe, South America and the U.S. This helped to establishe Caturla as an international figure and helped to identify him as one of the most accomplished Cuban composers. Today, most contemporary Cuban composers credit Caturla’s work as a major influence.
Proof of Caturla’s influence is evidential in Peramo’s "Tres Imágenes Cubanas", which begins with a quasi-quotation of Caturla’s "Obertura Cubana" for orchestra.
The first movement is written in sonata-form: the opening theme has a Spanish flavor, while the second theme has African elements, something akin to a slow Conga, an African street dance. Within this theme, one can find the Cuban "clave" rhythm. The second part, which reminds me to the spirit of Caturla’s "Berceuse Campesina", introduces the Cuban peasant "guajira" rhythm. (I wonder whether this "Berceuse Campesina" by Cartula was also the inspiration for Leo Brouwer’s famous "Cancíon de Cuna" ?) Again the general idea of this second part is a classical European structure: the "Liedform".
The third movement, a mélange of Spanish and African influences, is written in rondo form, but ends with the famous Cuban "son" that again makes use of the "clave" rhythm.
At this point Iwould like to interject a note about Cuban music and its relation to percussion. Stereotypically, Cuban music is associated with drums and percussion. While it is true that these instruments play an important role in traditional Cuban music by underlining the pulse, percussion is not what makes the music Cuban. If one listens to examples of contemporary Cuban music - such as music by Leo Brouwer or Tulio Peramo - one can hear "implied drumming". The distinct accents and syncopations along with the metrical distribution of accents are what give Cuban music its unique identity. In countries like Jamaica for example, which is also an Island with a strong African presence, the white people barely mixed with the blacks. But in Cuba Spanish men mixed with black women: the mulata and mulato were born and with them a totaly new cultural aspect. The British people in Jamaica did not mix so much with black people, therefore the music lacks this kind of syncopations like in Cuba - the accents are "British in a way". So Tulio avoids mainly the use of percussive rhythmical effects, but writes in the true Cuban rhythmical way in order to be faithful to the spirit of Cuban music. So "Tres Imágenes Cubanas" is truly an aural journey through the history of Cuban culture!
In 1997, I premiered "Tres Imágenes Cubanas" at the Gasteig Hall in Munich, Germany. One year later, Leo Brouwer invited me to do the world premier of the orchestral version at the Teatro National during the Havana Guitar Festival together with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra. In 1999, with the help of a grant from La Salle University, Philadelphia/Pennsylvania and with the great effort of the Cuba specialist Prof. Charles White, Tulio and I were invited to do a US- tour presenting his music in performances with the Griffin String Quartet.

Aires de la Tierra (1998)

During this trip, Tulio heard another premier of one of his new compositions.
On March 6, 1999, Mezzo-soprano Nan-Maro Babakhanian and I premiered the song cycle, "Aires de la tierra", at Carnegie Hall. Since Tulio first began his career as a professional Opera singer, I wanted him to combine his two souls: singing and composing. Before writing this song cycle, Tulio had never considered returning to the singing world. In fact, it took quite some time for him to feel comfortable with the idea ! I’m glad, that I did convince him to return to the singing world and that the great success of this cycle inspired him to start composing more works for the human voice. The big orchestral Cantata "Leyenda del Bosque" for orchestra, choir and soloists, which has just recently been premiered in New York is an impressiv example!
It was my wish, that Tulio should try to write a cycle wherein the guitar is an equal partner to the voice, rather than providing a mere accompaniment. I was convinced that at least one of the songs should also have an extended solo section for the guitar, not unlike Granados’"La Maja de Goya". I also suggested the scoring for mezzosoprano, which would better reflect the "earthy" sound of Afro-Cuban music.
In this song-cycle, Tulio shows his poetic side writing the words to the music himself. "Fiesta", the last song of the cycle, is written in "Bozal", a language reminiscent of the Spanish slang spoken by black slaves in Cuba during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (Tulio included the following description in his correspondence to me: "Aires de la Tierra should be sung by a woman who possesses a lyrical voice, but not in an operatic sense. The voice should be very open and clear as well as aggressive, sensual and tender. Remember the Cuban "mulatas"!").
"Fiesta" is based on the tango-conga rhythm, a rhythm that can be described as a fast, yet less intense habanera. This particular rhythm was used extensively in Cuban comic theatre during the first half of this century. "Fiesta" keeps some of this theatrical spirit to make the audience enjoy the moment. As Tulio describes it, one can experience here the heritage of the old Spanish literary tradition that came to Cuba and Latin America during the colonial days. (The anonymous medieval novel, "El Lazarillo de Tormes", is a good example of this aesthetic). Most of the time this literary world alludes to sexual pleasures and to politics, a strange and unique blend of tragedy and comedy that is an intrinsic part of the magical Latin American world.
When songs in that style became part of Cuban popular theatre, they kept their roguish intentions, but began to mutate into something more refined. Written in the same tradition, though not as direct as "Fiesta", is the opening song, "Vegas de Vueltabajo", translated roughly as "Down road". Vueltabajo was the name given to the Western side of Cuba back in the colonial days. In particular, this term refers to the province of Pinar del Río, where one can find the best soil for tobacco plantations. "Luna de Guamá" uses the traditional guajira rhythm and is an excellent example of Cuban rural music. Guamá was the name of a native village, located in the south middle side of the island. This song, along with "Mar", with its beautiful guitar solo parts and "Psalmody", a lullaby for a dead child, build a very intimate and tender contrast to the extroverted beginning and end of the cycle.

En Tardes de Lluvia (1999)

In May 1999, I was on tour in Latin America as a member of a Jazz-trio together with my brother Cornelius. We also traveled to Cuba, where we performed several concerts and where I was also scheduled for a solo-recital at the Gran Teatro de la Habana. The endless conversations with Tulio, my brother, and myself and our aimless walks through Havana, around the shore and into little Cuban rural villages - like Hemingway’s fishing village Cojimar, where people seem not to know the word "time" - are reflected in "En Tardes de Lluvia". There is also an impressionistic touch to this music, which reminds me a bit to the aesthetics of Debussy or Ravel.
During Tulio’s trip to the United States, we were able to spend a day together in the Impressionist’s Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. After a long day, talking about these wonderful paintings, as well as about the music and poetry connected to Impressionism, I asked Tulio to write a Suite for solo-guitar in this spirit. "En Tardes de Lluvia" - "On Rainy Evenings" was written especially for my CD "Portraits of Cuba" and originated during a period of heavy rain - the perfect poetic surrounding ! This music takes inspiration from Impressionism but nevertheless is Cuban in its inner soul. (Ironically we had unusually heavy rain during the recording of this Suite...)

Liturgia (para el signo de Virgo) (1994-97)

Unlike the previous pieces discussed above, "Liturgia" uses a different musical language. However, it too is unmistakably Cuban. This five movement piece, written for violin and guitar, originated in 1986 when Peramo began experimenting with serialism. "Liturgia" was originally written for violin, flute and guitar. However, Peramo was never completely satisfied with the work and in 1994 he returned to the piece and changed everything except the central idea and the main themes. The final version of the work was completed in 1997 and dedicated to my wife violonist Doris Kreusch-Orsan and myself. While this final version of "Liturgia" is a tonal and not a serial work, Peramo’s use of dissonance creates a distinct harmonic world. In addition, while there are no direct quotations of Cuban rhythmic structures, Cuban rhythms are implied by the music. The percussive effects used in "Liturgia" underline the music’s program and avoid building a rhythmical structure (not unlike the role of a drum during a pagan ceremony).
Spiritual ceremonies like those of the "Abacuá" or "Yoruba" religions, which were brought to the island by African slaves, have always been important in Cuba. The programatic idea behind "Liturgia" - though not directly linked to these beliefs - is also a very traditional one.
The heathen cult of the sacrification of an elected warrior in the name of the pagan gods is the central idea behind this music. This mystical idea reflects the heathen belief in the almighty of nature. Like in Strawinsky’s "Sacre du printemps" the whole athmosphere is very earthy and rural - supported by the "dry" use of the two wooden ("close to earth") instruments guitar and violin and the use of percussive effects, which remind one of the holy "bata" drum in the "Yoruba" cult. During many ceremonies of this cult, the drum plays an important role by providing rhythmic support for the often wild and ecstatic celebrations.
Moreover, the link to Sravinsky and eastern European culture, namely that of Russia, is very real. Russian culture, full of untapped mystical powers, has had a strong presence in Cuba for decades. Although Tulio says it is merely a coincidence - the violin’s opening motive in "Liturgia" is reminiscent of the first melody of Prokofiev’s "Five Melodies for Violin and Piano".
Liturgia’s first movement, "Invocación del Elegido" (Invocation of the Elected), depicts a warrior preparing to offer himself to the gods. The warrior is aware that his imminent death will lead him to a new life. In the second movement "Canto de la Luna Llena" (Song of the full moon), the warrior sings to the moon, a goddess who will carry his song to the other gods. The warrior offers himself to the gods in the following section, "Ofrenda" (Offering). The fourth "Sones de Danza" (Dance Tunes), is the warrior’s sacrificial dance. In "Consacración" (Consecration), the sacrifice is over and the warrior’s soul ascends to heaven.

Canto de Septiembre (1999)

"Canto de Septiembre" was composed on Tulio’s birthday in 1999. I was surprised to receive this beautiful little guitar piece as a present on his (!) birthday. But it seems to be the greatest present for Tulio Peramo to give through music. "Canto de Septiembre" is also the final piece on the CD "Portraits of Cuba" (OEHMS CLASSICS) on which one can hear most of the music, which is described in this article. In part through this CD, Tulio Peramo is widely recogniced as an important composer of our time. I’m proud to introduce Tulio Peramo to the guitar world. I’m happy, that also other players - like Eliot Fisk, who recorded together with Paula Robison "Cantos del Caribe" for flute and guitar by Peramo as did just recently the British guitarist Richard Hand with flautist Anna Noakes are enjoying this "New Cuban Music". Tulio also wrote a duo Suite for Greek guitarist Antigoni Goni and me. He also shows his great talent as an arranger for the guitar through his great arrangements of Greek songs, which Antigoni Goni is playing extensively in concerts all over the world.
For me, it is a miracle how one can capture the soul of the guitar in such a refined way without being able to play that instrument himself (Although Tulio is always proud to show that he knows how to play the introduction of one major guitar piece - Leo Brouwer’s "Elogio de la Danza" - by plucking the open E-string three times). Though his music was first recognized when he won the composition prize of the "Cuban League of Artists" in 1987 for his tone poem "La Parábola del Rey" for large orchestra, he focuses at the moment mainly on composing for the guitar. Indeed his catalogue fills a great number of solo pieces for guitar, as well as chamber music works, music for guitar quartet or concerti for guitar. He is a regular guest at Seminars or Festivals (in the past years he traveld to cities like Salzburg and New York) presenting his music for guitar and he also won the Agustin Barrios-Mangoré composition prize in Paraguay.
I’m very happy, that Mel Bay is going to publish an album with sheet music of some of Tulio Peramo’s finest guitar solo works, which he wrote for me. This album will also include his 5 Preludes, which he wrote to me just some month ago and which I premiered at the Cardiff University, UK October 2006 following with a masterclass about the guitar works by Peramo at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Peramo’s Preludes for solo guitar are a personal homage of his to the famous 5 Preludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos.
Overcoming living conditions where finding paper or sheet music is as difficult as finding a way to feed one’s family each day, Tulio however has never lost his love and faith in his country and culture. Like many of his artistic friends, Peramo had the opportunity to leave Cuba. However, his strong belief in his fate to be a Cuban composer has kept him in the place where he was destined to live and work: as a Cuban composer in Cuba!

If you are interested to get scores by Tulio Peramo or the CD "Portraits of Cuba", you can write to kreuschbros@johannestoniokreusch.com or wait for the Mel Bay publication.

For a PDF version of the music below, click  here !

Peramo 1
Peramo 2 Peramo 3