Conga del Fuego Nuevo

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            A native of the Mexican state of Sonora, Márquez is known for his adroit incorporation of Mexican musical forms and styles into his compositions.   One of Mexico’s eminent contemporary composers, he is widely popular with Latin Americans for the accessibility and attractiveness of his compositions.  Educated at the Conservatorio Nacional in Mexico, he went on to graduate study in California and Paris.  Recipient of an impressive list of honors, his recent works include a commission from the San Antonio Symphony, a cello concerto, and a homage to Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary.  His father was a traditional mariachi musician, but early on, like so many young composers, the son composed in the latest, modern styles, often in the usual dissonant and obscure manner.   But, he later gravitated to a personal idiom that made full use of traditional Mexican urban music—but not necessarily “folk” music.

            “Conga” variously refers to groups of musicians, to a kind of drum, and to a specific dance, as well.  All are popular in Latin-American countries, most especially in the street carnivals of Havana and Santiago de Cuba.  These musical groups are part of the camparsas that parade down the streets in jubilant, often riotous carnival celebrations.  We are all familiar with those in Rio de Janeiro (where they are called carnival blocks) and in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama (where they are called krewes).  The term, “conga” has a long and somewhat ambiguous history, but it certainly stems from the belief that the dance, itself, was taken to Cuba by black slaves from the West Indies.

            The dance is characterized by a strong pulse on the beat for three beats, followed by a syncopated “thump” just before the fourth beat.  In the late 1930s and 1940s the US seemed obsessed by the congo:  think of Desi Arnaz, Xavier Cugat, the nightclub conga lines in RKO musicals, and even Warner Brothers cartoons.  Americans were mesmerized by the screen sophisticates dancing to one-two-three-kick!  Today, not so much.  But, Marquez has taken this somewhat passé dance and infused it with new life in a sophisticated symphonic guise.  Lyrical melodies seem to “float” above the welter of syncopated rhythms churned out by the large battery of Latin percussion.  Who could resist?

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan