Cuba – Isle of Rebellion and a Runaway Slave

90 YEARS AGO TODAY, JULY THE FIRST, German composer Hans Werner Henze was born. His large oeuvre of works is extremely varied in style, having been influenced by serialism, atonality, Stravinsky, Italian music, Arabic music and jazz, as well as traditional schools of German composition.


I first met Hans Werner at the Berlin Festival in 1970 at which he conducted his own work, El Cimarrón (The Runaway Slave), written when he lived in Cuba in 1969-70. It is subtitled Biographie des geflohenen Sklaven Esteban Montejo (Biography of the runaway slave Esteban Montejo), and is based on the autobiographical passages recounted by Montejo to Miguel Barnet in 1963. Montejo was also a veteran of the Cuban War of Independence (1895-98). The composer  premiered the work in 1970 at the Berlin Festival and later conducted it that year at the Aldeburgh Festival in the UK.

Listening to the score had an unforgettable impact on me, and back at the swank Kempinsky Hotel, I couldn’t get some of the fifteen sung “tableaux” – oftentimes more laughter, whistling, shouting and screaming than singing! – out of my system. I hearkened back to July of 1946, back to my New Delhi home: It was cruelly hot there during the summer’s nights of 70 years ago.

akmal3My storied maternal grandfather, Ziauddin Akmal, who was my idol of derring-do and daredevil adventure, was spending a brief holiday with the family. He always preferred sleeping outdoors, so a couple of cots were prepared in the open-air back veranda for us at the direction of my mother.

Before sleep took over,  I was enthralled by Nanaji’s engrossing tales of travels in foreign lands  – from the  time he was just 17 until the age of 39 years – as we lay alongside looking upward at the cloudless heavens. In a nutshell, he was a globe trotter with a yen for being in countries embroiled in some sort of political upheaval or rebellion. Leaving aside his time in Turkey during the Turco-Greek war of 1897 and later in South Africa during the Boer War and Zulu rebellion, his riveting recollection of the last year of the Cuban rebellion (island patriots prefer to call it their War of Independence) in 1898 really kept me awake long into the night.

cubaMy early memories of that island 90 miles off the south Florida coast of America were already romantically colored by my reading of Hemingway’s books, but precious little else. So it was riveting to hear almost firsthand about the exploits of those willing to risk their necks in becoming free of the Spanish yoke. I never got to go to Cuba, but my three years in Miami (1975-78) did enable me to make a lot of friends in Little Havana who were always willing to speak about their lost homeland, undeniably tinged with regret.

I’ll close with an extract from a 2010 rendition by the Greenwich Music Festival of the opening tableau Die Welt (The World) of El Cimarrón to enable you, dear Reader, to honor the memory of a great musician.

For the record, the complete complement of 15 tableaux is listed below:

1.Die Welt (The World)
2.Der Cimarrón
3.Die Sklaverei (Slavery)
4.Die Flucht (Flight)
5.Der Wald (The Forest)
6.Die Geister (The Spirits)
7.Die falsche Freiheit (False Freedom)
8.Die Frauen (Women)
9.Die Maschinen (The Machines)
10.Die Pfarrer (The Clergy)
11.Der Aufstand (The Uprising)
12.Die Schlacht von Mal Tiempo (The Battle of Mal Tiempo)
13.Der schlechte Sieg (The Evil Victory)
14.Die Freundlichkeit (Frendliness)
15.Das Messer (The Knife)

In particular, his stage works reflect “his consistent cultivation of music for the theater throughout his life”.

My Diary 1961-70; Wikipedia

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Copyright © 2016 Azim Lewis Mayadas

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