Review: Cuban Flute Style

Cuban Flute Style by Sue Miller is a meticulously researched, comprehensive, well-written, and enjoyable book investigating the Cuban charanga flute style, with an emphasis on they ways flutists in this genre approach improvisation. Cuban Flute Style is very obviously Miller’s doctoral thesis (dissertation for my North American readers) transposed into book form, and is clearly intended for an academic audience rather than a popular one.

Because Cuban Flute Style is intended for an academic audience from within the field of Latin American, and specifically Cuban, music there are some issues that readers from outside of that field (such as myself) need to be aware of with this book. Miller presupposes that the reader has a high level of knowledge regarding charanga (the musicians involved, and the style). Given that this is a thesis turned into a book, this is understandable, and it is something that the reader from outside of the Latin American music field needs to keep in mind while reading. I was interested in this book because I know a little bit about the style, and I wanted to know more. However, even with the glossary of terms I occasionally felt out of my depth with the nuances implied by Miller in her analyses. I felt that I missed out on some of the subtleties because of my lack on knowledge. A greater familiarity of bands would have also helped my understanding- there were occasions where Miller would discuss certain bands or musicians, but without a basic introduction of who they were or their place in the scene, and I felt lost without recourse to the Internet to search for more information.

The most serious issue I have with this book is the overarching structure. As someone who has done a PhD myself, I’m aware of the issues surrounding the avenues of attack that one needs to take in a long structure. In my case (possibly due to the editing work I have done over the past year), I have become rather intrigued about how to best structure different types of documents, and importantly how to essentially translate documents that were originally intended for a specific, restricted audience, into something that is approachable by the general educated public. I found as I read Cuban Flute Style that the earlier chapters made more sense after having read the later chapters. I discovered that chapters three, four, and five made more sense after reading chapters six, seven, and eight. Chapter six in particular, ‘The Thieving Magpie,’ which deals with the oral tradition of learning charanga, the importance of call and response in Cuban music, and the use of musical borrowing within the tradition, is really very important to the understanding of the history and development outlined in chapter one, and the analyses presented in chapters three, four, and five.

The third issue I have is with the analyses themselves. Although they are meticulous in their transcription and the analysis is excellent, I could not help but feel that I would have preferred fewer analytical examples and more contextualisation of the solos within their song’s form and within the wider genre. As always your mileage may vary, but I feel that an in depth examination of the context of solos might have clarified some aspects of the analysis, and given even greater insight to the flutist’s solos, and even the history of the tradition. I was also disconcerted by the lack of in depth discussion regarding each flutists approach to rhythm, which is repeatedly mentioned, and, given the precision of terminology used in the rest of the book, the lack of precision of rhythmic terminology and description in the analyses presented here.

My criticisms aside, I really enjoyed this book, and Miller has a wonderfully engaging writing style. I was impressed by the groundbreaking study undertaken by Miller, and the amount of thought that she has put in to contextualising this iconic flute style. In particular I found the interview excerpts, and the chapter on Miller’s experiences learning the charanga style to be thoroughly engrossing, I could have read a book just on her learning journey. I was also fascinated by the chapter on flute technique, and the contrasting approaches to altissimo register on the 5-key wooden flute versus a modern Boehm flute. Although a higher level of knowledge of charanga than I have was needed for full enjoyment (without recourse to Internet research), Cuban Flute Style was an easy and interesting read. Although I cannot recommend it for those without any knowledge of charanga, for anyone who is seriously interested in this style, or who is studying it, Cuban Flute Style is an excellent resource for the various approaches to performing in this genre.

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