Sunday, May 25, 2008

Music in Exile

Since I first heard it a year or so ago I have been fascinated by the music of Esteban Salas. Born in Cuba in 1725, he lived in Havana as a musician until 1762 when the English invaded. He was then transferred to a position as choir-master in the little cathedral in Santiago de Cuba, where he remained until his death in 1803.

From the CD liner notes:

"The image of Salas is one of angelic purity. The little troubles and tribulations which he experienced in his life enable us to envisage a simple, trusting soul, who since his youth had observed strict chastity, living like an ecclesiastic, in no way undeserving the tonsure. A true mystic, he had taken the vow of living in poverty, and he always dressed in black."
The compositions on this recording are carols for a small choir accompanied by a simple string orchestra. Heartfelt, simple, genuine and poignant, for me they summon up a sense of great distance and exile. The music seems less sophisticated, less polished, less worldly than European music of the time. There are no obvious "Cuban" influences, but elements of "that distant and isolated" country surrounded by sea have managed to creep in nonetheless.

There is something beautifully unpolished and genuine about the recording as well. Recorded in Cuba in the Dominican church of San Juan de Letran by a Cuban choir, there is a very particular quality about the voices - sometimes a little breathy, not quite together, but always honest and with conviction and integrity. Sometimes the sound of crickets can be heard in the background through the unglazed windows of the church.

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