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European origins, Part 1

PostPosted: Thu May 13, 2021 2:37 pm
by Thomas Altmann
I have been researching and working on European musical traditions for some time. I want to share some of the insights that might be of interest for the members of a Latin percussion forum like Congaplace.

1. Timbales:

It is probably known that the Cuban timbales came to existence as a replacement for the timpani. Real timpani (kettledrums) had been used in the orquestas típicas and early charangas francesas, and they are still preferred by orquestas that strive to emulate a historic sound. As a matter of fact, the word timbales is as well the French as the Spanish name for the timpani (German: Pauken, Kesselpauken).

The Cuban orquestas típicas that employed kettledrums came up during the Haitian revolution 1791-1804, which had in turn followed the French Revolution in 1789. These ensembles were initiated by refugees from Saint-Domingue (the later Haiti), who introduced the contredanse to Cuba, where it became known as contradanza (English: country dance, German: Kontertanz). Whether those refugees brought the relatively bulky timpani with them remains questionable. More likely, they picked up timpani that were already there in the Oriente of Cuba.

The beginning of the Haitian revolution coincided with the year when W.A. Mozart died and Joseph Haydn composed his Surprise Symphony (Symphonie mit dem Paukenschlag). We have to consider that from the Baroque to the Classical period up to the early 19th century, European timpani were much smaller and often shallower than the instruments that came into use at the beginning of the Romantic period. They had already copper kettles, were tuned by T-handle screws exclusively, and rested on wooden cradles. However, the skins often were thicker and more unevenly finished than today. In addition, they were struck towards the dead center of the drum head with hard wooden mallets, resulting in a more drum-like, hard and noisy, percussive sound. That was the official technique at the time when timpani were played in the early Cuban orquestas.

Considering the size and shape of baroque timpani, it seems natural that Cuban musicians in the Oriente got the idea to transform wok-like pans (Spanish: pailas) into improvised timpani (Span.: timbales) by installing tuning bolts and mounting animal hides.

What's also interesting, is the fact that in Europe, upon their arrival during the late Medieval and the Renaissance period, timpani were habitually combined with trumpets, just as the snare or side drum went together with the fife. All of these instruments were associated with martial music. Drummers, timpanists, trumpeters and fifers formed guilds that were specialized in military signal codes and ceremonies. They were not regarded as musicians of the same level as orchestral flute or string players, organists or cembalists. Playing the timpani was a craft, not an art.

While the side drum and the fife were associated with the infantry of European (namely the Swiss) mercenary armies, the timpani and trumpets had courtly status, and few members of the aristocracy were granted the privilege to sustain timpanists and trumpeters. They executed their service on horseback. It was noted as particularly prestigous to have colored ("moorish") drummers at the timpani.

I'm not sure about J.S. Bach, but when G.F. Händel or J.P. Rameau incorporated timpani in their works, timpanists did not get written sheets; they were coupled with the trumpet passages and had to improvise their parts along with the trumpets, almost as some big band drummers in jazz prefer to read along the first trumpet chart. Timpanists of the Baroque applied so-called "Schlagmanieren" (German for "beating manners") as the stylistic repertory for improvising and varying their parts - somehow similar to the rudiments for the snare drum.

2. Flute and Trumpet

One remark about the flute and the trumpet: The baroque trumpet did not have valves and came in various shapes, even straight. The French baroque flute was exactly the wooden flute that is still traditionally played in charangas by some Cuban /Latin flute players. Many flute players chose not to switch to the metal Boehm flute since its invention in 1832, because they just got along fine with the wood model, and the Boehm flute costed a fortune.

3. Contredanse

Listening to the Cuban contradanza "San Pascual Bailon" and then comparing with, say, the "Contredanse en rondeau" by Rameau, we notice that rhythmically, one does not have anything in common with the other. The baqueteo technique for the timpani may have been developed already in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), as well as their tango rhythm. The contredanse that came to Cuba from Saint-Domingue was merely the dance. The contredanse was a fashionable dance all over Europe in the 18th century, and it was taught to the African slaves in the French Caribbean colonies to channel their passion for dancing into tame European manners. Often the black slaves parodied their masters in imitating their dance movements, and I assume that the contredanse that was danced in the French Caribbean differed notably from the European original.


Re: European origins, Part 1

PostPosted: Sat May 15, 2021 9:48 pm
by Siete Leguas
Hi Thomas, thanks for sharing those interesting insights.

I've heard that in Veracruz (Mexico) Danzón-ensembles are still quite popular, and some of them still use timpani-like timbales as you mentioned, like in the video below. I suppose those are similar to the timbales originally played in Cuba/Saint-Domingue, before the "pailas criollas" were invented?

Re: European origins, Part 1

PostPosted: Sun May 16, 2021 8:05 am
by Thomas Altmann
I'm pretty sure about that. The timbales in the video even look that antique!

That's probably the definite video on YouTube on this subject.

A man named Acerina was probably the best known Danzón timbalero-bandleader in Mexico. He was born in Santiago de Cuba, according to Wikipedia. In each photo that I have seen, he is shown at timpani-timbales.