habanera book cover

Syncopated Piano Music of Latin America

Introduction by Bill Matthiesen to his book
Habaneras, Maxixes & Tangos,
published by Mel Bay.

Please contact Bill Matthiesen
for permission to use or reprint any portion of the following text (© Mel Bay Publications, Inc., 2008).

This collection showcases the syncopated piano music of Latin American during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It features Latin rhythms, which are really African rhythms brought to the Americas by slaves and applied to the music of the European colonists. These rhythms are varied and complex, and so is their history. They've had a widespread and profound influence on the evolution of popular music not only in Latin America, but also in the United States. The most obvious offshoots are the tango in Argentina and Uruguay and most of the other popular dances of South and Central America, as well as ragtime and jazz in the United States. Jelly Roll Morton claimed this "Latin tinge" is the essential element that distinguishes jazz from ragtime. These rhythms are the musical roots of groups like "The Buena Vista Social Club."


Before the invention of sound-recording devices in the late 1800s, the only way these fascinating rhythms were captured for posterity was when classically trained composers incorporated them into their music. In doing so, Latin Americans followed the example of European composers who brought folk music into their compositions. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the most interesting and influential syncopated compositions of Latin America came from Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

The most important genre was the habanera, which was born in Havana, Cuba. As early as 1800, African musicians in Cuba were applying new rhythms to the popular social dance music of the time, the French contradanzas (contradances). These were originally folk dances from England, also popular in France and Spain during the 1700s. These dances were brought to Cuba in the 1790s during the French Revolution, when French plantation owners fled slave revolts in their Carribean colonies. At that time, the most popular bands in Cuba employed African musicians, and so the French contradances quickly picked up African rhythms. These rhythmic innovations soon dominated social dance events.

To outsiders, these dances and their music became known as habaneras, meaning "from Havana." The term described a basic rhythm, rather than any specific dance or musical structure. It's the same rhythm now associated with the tango from Argentina. By mid-century the music and dance had spread throughout the Americas and even back to Europe, where they were variously called contradanzas habaneras, danzas americanas, tango habaneras, tangos americanos or simply habaneras. It's interesting to note that the word tango was associated with this habanera rhythm twenty or thirty years before the birth of the Argentine tango in the 1870s.

The Cuban contradanzas were two-part, 32-bar tunes, composed in either 2/4 or 6/8. These were group dances in which the couples formed two lines, with men facing women. The top couple initiated the dance by performing a series of figures to fill 32 bars of music. Next time through the tune, these dance figures would be imitated by the next couple in line, and so on until everyone was dancing. There was often competition for who would be in the top position of the dance line. It was considered rude to initiate figures that were too difficult, or for other dancers to change the figures that had been set by the top couple. These dance figures were similar to what one would see today in a square dance, except that the couples were arranged in lines rather than in square formations.

To modern players, the music for these contradanzas seems very short, at just 32 bars. But it should be remembered that these tunes would typically be repeated many times, until all the dancers had a chance to participate. It's also likely that the musicians, ear players rather than classically trained note-readers, would improvise variations around the basic melodies.

Over time, these social dances changed and evolved. For example, by the 1850s in Puerto Rico the danza had become a dance for individual couples rather than a line dance. Meanwhile, in Cuba the contradanza was supplanted by the danza, though this differed from the Puerto Rican variety. By the 1870s many people in Cuba were doing the danzon, which in turn influenced the son of the mid-teens. But through all these evolutions, the habanera rhythm continued to be a major influence.

While contradanzas are no longer popular in Latin America, a related tradition has continued in New England, where it is danced to music of the British Isles (and variants) rather than Latin music. There is also some interest in 17th-century English country dances (both in the U.S. and in England).

During the 19th century Latin American countries such as Cuba and Puerto Rico were extremely poor. These countries also had repeated revolutions to try to gain their independence from Spain. In addition to their poverty and social upheaval, few Latin American countries had publishing houses, so composers often had to disseminate their pieces through newspapers or inexpensive magazines. All these factors combined to make it difficult for even a European-trained composer such as Ignacio Cervantes to make a living through music.


This collection surveys the most influential Latin American composers of syncopated piano music of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Cuba these were Manuel Saumell and Ignacio Cervantes; in Puerto Rico, Juan Morel Campos and Jose Ignacio Quintón. Brazil's pianistic genius was Ernesto Nazareth. In Mexico the bestknown composer was Toms León. I've also included a few other works that were particularly popular or influential in their day.

Manuel Saumell Robredo (1817–1870) is considered the father of Cuban musical nationalism. Born into a poor family, he was largely self-taught. Despite his limited training, he became a pianist, cellist and organist. He taught as well as played music for theaters, concerts and dances. He composed more than 50 contradanzas. These are considered pioneering works because they incorporate so many of the folk rhythms that figure in the later history of Cuban music. Saumell dreamed of composing a thoroughly Cuban opera, but he was never able to achieve his vision. The Museo Nacional de la Música Cubana has published a good collection of his work, including extensive background notes: Contradanzas—Manuel Saumell (Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1980).

Ignacio Cervantes Kawanagh (1847–1905) is often described as the most important Cuban composer of the 19th century. Unlike Saumell, Cervantes was able to study with several prominent teachers. These included prodigy and concert pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–1869), who also spent time in Cuba. Gottschalk composed and played habanera-inspired themes in his many popular concerts in Europe and the Americas. He heard Cervantes play as a youngster and became his teacher from 1859 to 1861. Cervantes then studied at the Paris Conservatory, won several prizes and became friends with Rossini. A story is told about Franz Liszt walking on a street in Paris, and upon hearing beautiful music coming from a house, he knocked on Cervantes' door and asked whether he might listen for a while.

After returning to Cuba in 1869, Cervantes wrote 37 contradanzas as well as chamber and orchestral works, an opera and a symphony. In 1875 he was forced to leave Cuba, when authorities suspected him of donating his concert revenues to the rebels. He was able to return a few years later, but he had to leave again in 1895 under similar circumstances. During his years abroad he gave concerts in the United States and in Mexico. His contradanzas became popular throughout Latin America, classic examples of romantic salon music seeped in Afro-Cuban tradition.

Tomás León (1826–1893) is recognized as Mexico's first great pianist. Though he showed talent at a young age, he was from a poor family and was never able to study in Europe. He made his living as a teacher. He also helped to found the Mexican Philharmonic Society and the National Conservatory of Music. León did compose contradanzas, but they represent a small portion of his work. His contradanzas, like all the syncopated music of Mexico, really reflect Cuban influence rather than native rhythms. In general, syncopated music appears in the Latin American countries that had African slaves. Mexico had few Africans because the Spanish conquistadores exploited the native Indian population rather than importing African slaves. The Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA) has published a collection that beautifully reproduces the original nineteenth century sheet music editions of León's work: Edición Conmemorativa del Primer Centenario Luctuoso de Tomás León, Obras para Piano (Mexico City: INBA, 1993).

Juan Morel Campos (1857–1896) was a prolific Puerto Rican composer. Though 337 of his 514 works were danzas, only 105 had ever been published until recently. Campos began studying music when he was 6 years old, playing flute, bass, trombone and also singing. Campos worked as an orchestra director and played in several bands for dancing and concerts. He also composed many religious works. He died at 39, but during his short life he was able to travel to Brazil and Argentina.

His danzas generally contain two sections, beginning with a martial-style introduction of 8 repeated bars, el paseo, during which the couples promenade around the floor. This is followed by el merengue, which is the dance itself, usually consisting of two sections plus a trio. Puerto Rican danzas are considered either festiva (short, fast and light), or afectiva (slower and more lyrical). Danzas incorporate what has been called 'elastic triplets," which are difficult to notate precisely. Though the pieces are usually written in 2/4 time, they often sound as though they alternate bars of 6/8 and 3/4—and sometimes the music is actually notated this way.

Because Campos' pieces were for the most part undated, it's difficult to trace the evolution of his style and its influences. The Instituto Cultura Puertorriquena has published five volumes of his works: Danzas de Juan Morel Campos, "Obras Varias," 1958. Another nice collection, from the Sociedad Para el Fomento de las Investigaciones y las Artes, is Flores Silvestres, which includes 10 works plus a good deal of reference material (in Spanish)— (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Publicaciones SOFIA, 1996).

José Ignacio Quintón (1881–1925) is another important Puerto Rican composer of this period. Quintón studied under his father, a French organist who had attended the Paris Conservatory. Quintón gave his first recital when he was 10 years old. In addition to the piano, he played many stringed instruments. Ten volumes of his work have been reissued as Obras completas de Jose Ignacio Quintón (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Amigos de José I. Quintón, COAMO, 1986).

Ernesto Nazareth (1863–1934) of Brazil is certainly one of the most impressive and prolific Latin pianists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A prodigy, his first piano piece was published when he was just 14 years old. Though he studied with his mother and then with family friends, he was largely self-taught. His library included the complete works of Chopin. His own piano technique was prodigious, but his real genius was his ability to combine 19th-century classical influences with the Africanized folk rhythms of his native Rio de Janeiro, choro music in particular.

Chorar means "to weep" in Portuguese. The chorinhos were serenading street bands who played Brazilian folk tunes on guitars, mandolins, flutes and other instruments. These bands were hired by young men to play serenades under the balconies of women they were courting. Nazareth's music captured the rhythms of the choros and all the other popular dances of the day, including the samba, batuque, maxixe and tango. Nazareth's publishers used the tango label freely, but all the Nazareth pieces in this collection are actually maxixes, whose rhythm is very different from the Argentine tango.

At this time in Brazil the pianists were either called "pianistas" (concert pianists) or "pianieros"—pianists who played for parties and in theatres. Nazareth was the latter and played for silent movies. Many people came to hear him play, rather than to see the movie itself. His fans included other musicians such as Darius Milhaud and Heitor Villa- Lobos, both of whom were inspired by Nazareth.

It is said that Nazareth composed close to 500 pieces, though only about 220 were ever published. In his later years he was almost completely deaf and sadly ended his days in a mental institution. After escaping his warders, three days later he was found dead in a nearby forest, close to a waterfall, with his arms outstretched as if he were playing an invisible piano. According to the papers, little attention was paid to his death at the time, because the Carnival was about to begin.


While these are the most well-known Latin American piano composers, there are a few others who produced works that were particularly influential in their day.

Spanish musician Sebastian Yradier (1809–1865) spent time in Cuba and later published popular salon pieces in Paris, several of which were habaneras. The most famous, and the first Latin American hit, was La Paloma (1859), which became well known in Europe, the United States and throughout Latin America. Another tune from the same collection, El Arreglito, was appropriated by Bizet for the famous habanera theme in his opera, Carmen.

At the end of the century the habanera rhythm was still exerting a strong influence. In 1890 Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes (1874–1944) again redefined the habanera with his composition Tú, which was extremely popular throughout Latin American and in the United States.

Popular compositions like La Paloma and Tu were largely responsible for the continuing spread and influence of the habanera rhythm during the second half of the 19th century. One example is the basic rhythm of the cakewalk, a very popular dance of the 1890s. The rhythm is also found in some ragtime tunes, notably Solace, a Mexican Serenade, by Scott Joplin (1867–1917). The fact that Joplin gave this piece a Mexican rather than a Cuban label reflects how Mexican music had become influenced by the habanera during the nineteenth century. Solace is often mistaken for a tango. But in 1909 the tango was still almost unknown outside Argentina. It didn't get much attention in Paris until the early teens. Of course, the habanera rhythm was also popular in Argentina during the second half of the nineteenth century, and in fact provided the basic rhythm for the tango. So the confusion is understandable.

In 1896 another influential American musician, Will Tyers (1876–1924) published his habanera, Trocha. In jazz circles Tyers is better known for his 1911 tune of the same genre, Panama. Tyers was a West Indian black musician who worked as a staff arranger for music publishers. He was one of the founders of ASCAP, and also conductor for the Castle House Orchestra for a time.


Of course, no book of Latin piano music would be complete without including some tangos. The tango arose in the 1870s in the poor barrios of Buenos Aries, Argentina, and across the Rio Plata in neighboring Montevideo, Uruguay. Originally considered a low-life dance, the tango gained international fame during the teens and eventually became part of mainstream Argentine culture. While the Argentines consider the 1930s and 40s their golden age of big-band tango, from a pianistic point of view the earlier years offer more variety and more interesting piano sheet music arrangements.

Mel Bay also publishes my book of ragtime-era piano tangos, Argentinean Tangos for Keyboard, which contains reproductions of the original partituras (sheet music) for 42 tangos. It includes a good cross section of early composers. I've also produced a companion CD with many of those selections recorded for solo piano, Tango Viejo.

For this collection, I've included just a few tangos to introduce you to this very large subset of syncopated piano music. After playing other pieces in this book, the connection between habanera and the early tango rhythms will be obvious. While the true origins of the tango dance and music are obscure and contested, many believe the first tangos were a blend of habaneras, milongas (a polka-like Argentine folk dance), and candombe (still danced by Africans in Argentina in the 1870s and 1880s).

Readers may be surprised to learn that the earliest tangos were sprightly, major key, three-part tunes that are very different from the slower, minor key, two-part piece that is now the stereotypical tango. In fact, some of the earlier compositions are played today as milongas, a fast tango-like dance that was invented in the 1920s and assumed the name of the older polka-like Argentine folk dance.

Over the past hundred years there have been hundreds of tango composers and tens of thousands of tangos. The five selections in this book come from the early years, before the First World War. The early tangos were composed by a generation of musicians born between 1860 and 1900, later called the guardia vieja (old guard). Many in this generation were self-taught ear players, rather than classically trained musicians. The early tango groups were small and incorporated many different types of instruments including clarinet, flute, guitar, harp, violin, piano and bandoneon (a German accordion). While there was much improvisation, tangos first began being written out as piano scores in the 1890s.

El Esquinazo was composed 1903 by Angel Villoldo (1868–1919), a guitarist, singer and prolific early tango composer. He also wrote the most famous tango of all time, El Choclo, the same year. Though Villoldo went to Paris in 1907 to record tangos, at that date the dance didn't make much of an impression. But things changed dramatically one evening in 1912, when an elite young Argentine played a tango for the smart set at a French salon. The dance soon became all the rage in Paris, and quickly spread to other capitals of the world. The pianist was Alberto López Buchardo, and the piece he played was El Entreriano, one of the earliest published tangos (1897) and very popular in Argentina. It was composed by the pianist Rosendo Mendizábal (1868–1919), also known as Anselmo Rosendo.

Vicente Greco (1888–1924), Eduardo Arolas (1892–1924), nicknamed the "tiger of the bandoneon," and Juan "Pacho" Maglio (1880–1934) were each well-known bandoneon players, prolific composers and band leaders of the guardia vieja. Their groups came to define the tango orquesta tipica during the teens, when these compositions were written. As such, these particular selections embody the minor-key drama that eventually characterized the music of the tango's golden age.


A collection like this would not have been possible without help from many people. Most important was the invaluable assistance I received from Jane Arvanites, who located many out-of-print collections of music with her internet and interlibrary loan wizardry. Music collectors Thornton Hagert, Jon Skinner, and Eric Stott generously shared music and recordings from their collections. John Roberts has done a superb job with the music typesetting, a difficult and very much appreciated labor. As with my other publishing efforts, I owe a great debt to my wife and music partner, Liz Stell, for her encouragements and editorial assistance. And also to Bill Bay of Mel Bay Publishing, Inc., for his willingness to invest in bringing this music back from obscurity so that keyboard players can enjoy its beauty today.

I welcome inquiries and information. Please email me or write to Bill Matthiesen, 33 Stormview Road, Lanesboro, MA 01237, USA.

© Mel Bay Publications, Inc., 2008

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