Drums, as any Cuban can tell you, do more than keep a beat. They can carry a seductive tune as well, and last night they captivated a standing-room-only crowd at the Organization of American States. The Catholic University Percussion Ensemble and the Enrique Navarro Yoruba Drummers shared this remarkable evening of all-percussion, mostly Cuban music. Their playing brought all the pleasures and surprises of a hot tropical breeze.
Amadeo Rolda'n's 1930 "Ri'tmicas" is a neglected key work in the percussion literature, and the revival of even highlights from that score was cause for rejoicing. It anticipates not only Vare se's more famous "Ionisation," but even many of the ideas in Steve Reich's "Drumming." The Catholic U. musicians, under guest conductor Antonino Herna'ndez-Lizaso, opened the concert with its last two movements, "Tiempo de son, No. 5" and "Rumba, No.6." The playing was idiomatic and vigorous, making child's play of the awesome musical demands and revealing rhythmic permutations that make today's pattern music seem simple indeed. This ensemble must be persuaded to perform the whole work soon.
The "Toccata" by the Mexican composer Carlos Cha'ves was a colder, more martial affair. The opening drum roll was deliberate, and the final allegro acquired the disciplined beat of a soldier's heart. The conductor's own "Preludio y Danza" for 13 percussion instruments and piano was full of hybrid fun on a first hearing. Thomas Mastroianni's piano stood out like high heels among bare feet, and either the scoring or the playing of the claves was a bit awkward.
The Yoruba Drummers filled the second half of the program with religious invocations and popular Afro-Cuban rhythms. Only selections were played (the invocation to St. Lazarus alone took literally all night when performed in the streets of Regla near Havana). But the drumming was raw and magical, and the spell of Olimpia Alfaro's na'n igo chanting was very hard to resist.