Music is woven into the fabric of daily life in Latin America. Hit songs boom from car radios and nightclub DJ booths. Children’s rhyming rounds fill playgrounds. Folk music with centuries-old roots echoes in plazas.
From Colombian vallenato to Mexican ranchera, Cuban son, Argentine tango and beyond, a vast array of genres are potent symbols of national identity.
Those everyday pleasures grow out of a complex, 500-year history, as the music of European conquerors, indigenous peoples and African slaves met and mingled. That history is explored in A Tres Bandas, an exhibition opening Thursday at the Centro Cultural Español in downtown Miami that runs through Oct. 27.
“The idea is to make the public reflect on something very familiar, very present in our daily lives — on the radio, at parties, in all the important moments of our lives, something so ordinary that we stop thinking and talking about it,” says Albert Recasens, the Spanish ethno-musicologist who curated Tres Bandas.
“We wanted to show how the music arrived here, what are its roots. It has a story. To go deeper and search in the depths of Latin American music for our cultural identity, for who we are.”
The show’s title is a colloquial expression from Spain meaning a three-sided conversation or view of things. More literally, it can mean three channels or wavelengths — in this case the European, indigenous and African cultures that gave rise to Latin American music.
Sponsored by the Spanish government, Tres Bandas has traveled to Colombia, Central America and Puerto Rico, reaching Miami in time to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival in Florida and to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month.
“Miami is the perfect metaphor of the encounter for the Americas and Europe now,” says Francisco Tardio, who was the cultural manager at the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C. before becoming CCE director in May.
“For Latin American culture and Spanish speaking cultures, it’s the capital.”
Tardio sees Tres Bandas as a way to enhance the profile of the center, which moved from its longtime home in Coral Gables to a showplace location near Adrienne Arsht Center in 2011 with great fanfare (Queen Sofia attended), but has seen its funding dwindle as recession has ravaged Spain.
The exhibit’s Miami stay will be accompanied by theater performances, concerts, dance workshops, listening sessions and a film series.
“A cultural center cannot only be an exhibition space,” Tardio said. “We need to have activities and a lot of programming to keep the center alive and full of people.”
The exhibit itself uses a wealth of interactive and hands-on elements to make the complex history it presents more accessible. Visitors are invited to touch musical instruments, play with touch-screens and listen to music. They can follow footsteps stenciled on the floor while listening to instructions on how to dance merengue and cha-cha-cha.
“It was important the show not just be pictures behind glass where you can’t touch anything, like most exhibits where there’s a lot of distance between the objects and the audience,” Recasens says. “From the beginning we wanted the audience to be able to touch the instruments, or listen to the music, or feel like they were entering a dance hall.”
The live programming includes a special edition of Microteatro, a mini-festival of 15-minute plays performed in converted cargo containers, which the center has been staging in its rear patio for more than a year. Called Por Mi Fa Sol La Si, it is a music-themed group of plays with titles such as Super Tango Man and Salsa Scene.
There is an Afro-Cuban dance workshop for children and flamenco classes for adults, concerts of music by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and Spanish Baroque composer Padre Antonio Soler. A documentary film series includes The Accordion Kings, about Colombian vallenato, and Si Sos Brujo (“If you’re a magician,” an Argentine expression about confronting impossible situations), about a tango-orchestra school in Buenos Aires.
Music educator and critic Fernando Gonzalez, who helped organize the live events, says that while the idea of Latin American music as a tripartite hybrid is not new, the experience of exploring and listening to the many ways in which it evolved is often revelatory.
The exhibit illuminates “how all the different sources connect,” says Gonzalez, who writes for the Miami Herald. “To see how vallenato singers sing and say it sounds like a Mexican mariachi singer. We have this idea it’s all a mix of these different influences. Now we see how these influences have been absorbed differently in different places, that it’s not the same in Cuba as it is in Brazil or Montevideo.”
Sensitive to the bloody history of Spanish conquest, Recasens says he and the other Tres Bandas organizers made sure that the scholarship behind the exhibit was Latin American, not European.
“All the experts are from Latin America,” he says. “We wanted to be very conscious of this, to give them an important role, so that the music was not perceived as coming from a Spanish point of view.”
Indeed, Recasens says, Spain and the rest of Europe could learn much from Latin America.
“In Europe we still don’t have the kind of ethnic composition that there is in Latin America. This exhibit gives voice to this phenomenon that is one of the greatest virtues of the American continent — its cultural richness, the enormous, multicultural, fantastic richness that it has in this crossroads of culture.”