Classical: A musical treasure trove in casa de la trova

Where were the women in Buena Vista Social C lub? In trova, an earthier variety of music than the now-famous `son', women can express raw emotion.
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The Independent Culture
Thanks to the popularity of a handful of records, and the success of Wim Wenders' wonderful film Buena Vista Social Club, all the world now knows what Cuban music means: a feisty bunch of gnarled octogenarians, wreathed in smoke and oiled with rum, pumping out a stream of songs whose wistful lyrics about love and exile are cheerfully belied by the tone in which they are sung.

But Compay Segundo and his merry men are only half the story. The other half, which will be briefly on view at the Queen Elizabeth Hall tonight, is darker, more mysterious - and predominantly female. When the Faez Sisters - aged 69 and 71 - sing `Flower of Vengeance' in hard, nasal voices accompanied by trumpet and guitar, there will be sulphur in the air. `In your orchard I sowed the flower of love, and found the flower of sorrow ... You killed my happiness, and some day you will pay for it.' This music is not the much-touted Cuban son: it goes by the generic name of trova, and owes its survival to Fidel Castro's decree that every town in Cuba should have its own casa de la trova, where the trovadores - troubadours - were to be given a regular wage. With its particular modes and rhythms, this musical form emerged in the nineteenth century as a blend of Spanish, African, and French elements. Originally its troubadours really were just that - travelling entertainers who took their ballads from village to village.

But whereas son went international, trova stayed at home, less urbane and more inward, more conscious of its art. Like Cesaria Evora, the "barefoot diva" from Cape Verde, the Faez sisters were hoicked out of obscurity by a perspicacious European enthusiast. They had retired 15 years before - for good, they thought - when the younger brother who accompanied them was killed in an accident.

Until their triumphant debut in Madrid this year, they had never been outside their native country. That debut was to launch Warners' Casa de la Trova in which they star alongside several other trovadores: in bringing this music to a wider public, the record industry has played an exemplary part. While Nimbus release Cuba: The Trova, whose chaste magic is created by a singer plus a guitarist and a player on the Cuban laud, Harmonia Mundi are bringing out a 5-CD set which takes the listener on a rivetingly atmospheric tour of Habana's musical dives.

Cuadernos de la Habana - `Notebooks of Havana' - spans son as well as trova, but its sweetest section reflects a non-stop ballad-session in which singers of all ages and levels of ability take their turn with the support of an indefatigable guitar accompanist.

It has the roughness of what ethnomusicologists call a field recording, with the sound of chairs scraping on the wooden floor and toddlers squeaking in the background; the voices are fresh and untrained. Shut your eyes, and you could believe you were there.

Tonight, together with the feline Zaida Reyte, the Faez Sisters will be here. Treasure trove. Casa de la Trova.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 19 November, 7.45pm (0171 960 4242)