This post was updated May 15 at 1:20 p.m.
The Afro-Cuban Ensemble performs according to one guideline: If the audience is not on its feet dancing, the musicians have done something wrong.
The ensemble, which meets for rehearsals Monday nights in Schoenberg Hall, practices and performs several genres of Latin-American dance music. In each performance, David Castañeda, the group’s graduate student director and a doctoral student in ethnomusicology, said the ensemble’s members aim not only to demonstrate their talents as musicians but also to deliver an engaging show as performers. Because Afro-Cuban music inherently connects to dance steps, he said the ensemble must be cognizant of their audience’s mood in an effort to get them moving.
“As a performer, you’re constantly aware and you’re very in tune to what the audience needs,” Castañeda said. “And that’s such an integral part of this music that I felt needed to be taught.”
With faculty sponsor Steven Loza, chair of the department of ethnomusicology, Castañeda revived the Afro-Cuban Ensemble in 2017 after a hiatus of eight years as a class in the department. While the group’s previous iteration, led by musician Francisco Aguabella, focused solely on representing Cuban percussion, Castañeda said the group now represents a more diverse musical ensemble. Students play Cuban drums and traditional instruments, such as the tres – an instrument similar to an acoustic guitar, with differently tuned strings – as well as European instruments such as alto saxophones and trumpets.
Castañeda said he wanted to teach different genres to students unfamiliar with Latin music, such as cha-cha and son montuno, which fall under the wider umbrella term of salsa coined in the 1960s. Over the past year, students have progressed from standard genres to more complicated ones such as timba, which was developed in Cuba as a mixture of funk and jazz. Castañeda said he also teaches the ensemble the complex cultural history of Afro-Cuban music, as the island of Cuba acted as a catalyst for merging indigenous and African traditions.
“That’s what keeps (Afro-Cuban music) so fresh all of the time, why I love the spectrum of Cuban music. It is never stagnant, it is never stale,” Castañeda said. “It is always being remade.”
When the ensemble rehearses covers of Afro-Cuban music, Castañeda said he pushes the students to develop a mindset reactive to improvisation, often cueing individuals to perform solos on the fly. Castañeda said the singers also ad-lib lyrics in the spaces between the songs’ refrains, through a technique called coro inspiracion. Grayson Peters, a pianist in the ensemble and first-year political science student, said such improvisations require intuition with fellow ensemble members.
“You play it by ear. You trust that everyone around you knows what they’re doing,” Peters said. “They’re going to keep the rhythm going … and they’re going to give you a brief moment in the sun to shine.”
While searching for an opportunity to play piano at UCLA as a non-music major, Peters said his background in jazz piano led him to the Afro-Cuban Ensemble. His role as pianist emphasizes the rhythm of percussion instruments, and he sometimes adds his own embellishments and solos. Although Peters knew nothing about Afro-Cuban music before joining the ensemble, he now has a greater appreciation for the genre, he said.
“I think (Afro-Cuban culture) is not something that’s a part of our cultural vocabulary,” Peters said. “I think it’s very exciting when you get to delve in … to really get a sense of where the people and the music are coming from.”
Samantha Shen, a third-year ethnomusicology student and singer in the ensemble, said one of her favorite performances with the group occurred during their Fowler Out Loud concert in April, when the audience began to dance during Shen’s solo performance of “El Cuarto de Tula.” Shen said the performance opportunities allow students to translate what they have learned in class to a real-world setting.
“The audience feedback is so important for the music and for the energy of the piece,” Shen said. “It’s the kind of music that is meant to be shared, to be enjoyed and celebrated by everyone.”
Shen said singing in Spanish, a language she had not spoken before, was a challenge enhanced by the improvisational nature of Afro-Cuban musical traditions. She has had to find her own rhythm alongside the syncopated beats and patterns of instruments like the conga drums and the claves – a pair of hardwood percussive sticks. Afro-Cuban music’s celebration of individuality and audience interaction has led to a rewarding year in the ensemble, she said.
“It’s a great experience because it pushes the boundaries of your ability. Before this class, I couldn’t sing in Spanish … and the practice really pays off,” Shen said. “People notice this and want us to perform at other places, which is just so magical to me.”