Percussionist Michael Spiro examines Afro-Cuban music

Alicia Bones

Before attending renowned percussionist Michael Spiro’s lecture “The Music of Cuba,” most members of the audience thought the word Creole came from New Orleans and that the word rumba was pronounced with an “h.” In his lecture, presented February 10 in Harper Hall, Michael Spiro used history, percussion instruments, and some Lawrence students to help stiff Westerners find their Afro-Cuban groove.
Michael Spiro has been presenting lectures and teaching master classes to percussion students at Lawrence since 2003. According to his Web site, Spiro has played on thousands of recordings and has produced important records in the genre of Latin music. His CD “Bata-Ketu” was released in 1996 and was considered one of the top 50 percussion recordings of all time by Drum magazine.
Spiro focused his lecture on how the combination of African and Cuban music formed a new genre of music called “Creole,” meaning “a blend.” He said “many, many, many, many African groups came to Cuba,” due, in part, to the fact the African slave trade was alive and well in Cuba after it was outlawed in neighboring countries. Throughout their indenture, slaves often retained their African culture. After the slave trade ended in 1884, their African heritage became part of the culture of Cuba.
Drums were often outlawed during the slave trade because they were a means of communication, so slaves had to find new ways of creating percussion instruments out of found objects. This is how the shekere drum was born. Spiro said slaves would make these drums out of gourds, which would harden in the sun, and then wrap them with a corded layer of seeds or shells that they then could shake to make a sound.
In the same tradition of using found items for percussion, Spiro explained a type of drums called kahons. These drums were made from wooden boxes originally used for shipping things to the island. Yambú, a form of the Afro- Cuban dance rumba, is played on these boxes.
As much as the U.S. is influenced by Afro-Cuban dance styles such as the rumba, the cha-cha, and the bolero, Spiro said, “Cuban music has been very influenced by American music [as well].” To illustrate this fact, Spiro played a recording the famous Cuban band Los Van Van (The Go Gos in English) called “It’s Gonna Make You Crazy” about different cultures’ influence on Cuban music.
Spiro also utilized the talent of the Lawrence percussion studio to help him demonstrate examples of different types of Afro-Cuban music as well as to sing and play an unfinished, untitled piece on which he is currently working.
Spiro was in residence this year February 7-10 and presented a series of master classes to the percussion studios. The grueling schedule, including master classes, practice and performance, lasted from 9-5 p.m. on Saturday and 9-4 p.m. on Sunday, said junior percussionist Felicia Behm. In regards to Spiro, Behm commented, “He’s intense because he knows what he’s talking about and he wants us to get it right.”
Michael Spiro’s newest CD “BataMbira” was released in 2005 and is available online.