Our thanks to the Instituto Cervantes in Eaton Square, London, for hosting a truly memorable book launch. Katia Chornik presented her new study Alejo Carpentier and the Musical Text as part of the Instituto’s series of lectures on winners of the Cervantes Prize — Spain’s Booker Prize, except that the award is almost a state occasion, and that it goes to writers rather than single books. With slightly suspicious exactness, the award tends to go half and half to writers from inside and outside Spain. Carpentier, the second ever winner in 1977, was a proud Cuban.

In his fiction, Carpentier was what we would now call a magical realist, and music has a talismanic role throughout his work. Brought up in a musical family (his father, I’m interested to find, was taught the cello by Pablo Casals), and trained as a composer himself, Carpentier nevertheless saw music as more than the European tradition.

Stage performers

You sometimes have to wonder what the authors we write about would think of our books, if they could come back to life to attend the launch. (Would Goethe have enjoyed reading about his extreme old age, for example?) But I’m fairly sure Carpentier, a great champion of Afro-Cuban rhythms, would have liked this one. Katia appeared alongside the stunning Son Yambu, and here she is playing violin with them after her lecture, when the chairs had been cleared away for dancing. Beside her is Sue Miller, a Leeds-based musicologist who’s an authority on Cuban charanga flute. (Yambú is the original Cuban rumba, and charanga is a sort of skirling, partly improvised jazz.)

It was quite the ensemble, and take my word for it, they would have lifted the roof off the building if we hadn’t been in a basement auditorium.

Having worked with Katia on what’s mainly a literary study, I hadn’t realised that a major area of interest for her is the role of music as a form of resistance, active or passive, against abuses of human rights. Here are Katia and Sue playing the Internationale, a song which features prominently in Carpentier’s La consagración de la primavera:


Though I don’t think we actually clenched our fists in honour of the Cuban Revolution, Katia really did stir up the audience to sing the words, some of us in English, others in Spanish. To be honest, I think we were shamed into it; when you’ve just been told about prisoners in Chilean torture cells singing the Internationale, it seems less cool to do the English thing and be too embarrassed to sing in public.

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