June 20th, 2024

The Human Condition: Tresillo

By Daniel Schnee on February 22, 2023.

As I often remind readers, I am a jazz musician, and love the music very deeply. Thus Black History Month is a time to joyously celebrate the jazz, rock, blues and other related Black musics in our lives.

In fact, if one investigates the relationships further they discover a rather wonderful secret hidden within all such popular music. To explain why we must begin in the city of New Orleans in the mid-18th century.

Spain came to rule over Louisiana from 1762-1800, with its administrative center being Havana, Cuba. This means people had access to the imported music of Hispanic and Latino people for centuries. Thus, they heard any number of songs containing a central pattern known as a clave (“clah-vey”).

The rumba, cha-cha, salsa, the tango, a clave is the driving pulse of these styles, out of which jazz and rock music eventually arose. But on closer inspection you will find that most claves contain the secret I referred to earlier: a triplet pattern called a tresillo.

Pronounced “tray-sEE-yoh,” this little figure plays a significant part in claves, and it too was a musical import, from the ancient music and dances of Africa (via Spain’s often complex relationship with those in the Atlantic slave trade). The tresillo is an ancient but common feature across West African and other sub-Saharan musical cultures. Thus, it came to New Orleans with newly arrived slaves in 1719, and was slowly (and secretly) disseminated into the Creole culture of the city. But unlike in America, the slaves in Latin American countries were generally allowed to keep their drums and music, thus the tresillo soon came to influence the colonial music it wa\s surrounded by.

So when it returned to America within Cuban habanera music, the stage was finally set for the tresillo’s grand entry into New Orleans’ social and marching band music, especially as part of the fundamental bass drum patterns used in the proto-jazz music of Black cornetist Buddy Bolden. Even legendary (Black) ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton himself referred to such rhythms as “the Spanish tinge” energizing and uplifting such music.

This vital African rhythm lives on in modern music, and serves as a reminder of the other Black innovations that shape our lives without our awareness.

For example, the tresillo lives in jazz. And while listening to jazz at the local festival we can enjoy a bag of potato chips… invented by a Black chef. While driving to the festival we are kept safe by tri-colour traffic lights, which were also invented by a Black man. Our cars automatically shifted gears as we drove, thanks to a Black inventor. And while we are out driving and enjoying the music our houses are being protected by home security systems, invented by a Black woman and her husband.

Thus, Black History is more than just pointing out and addressing objective grievances. It is also a time for showing gratitude for the innovation, beauty, artistic genius and the great Black thoughts of civilization.

February is a full but singular month. So let us continually seek to understand and celebrate the fullness of the people it is dedicated to.

Dr. Daniel Schnee is an anthropologist and jazz/rock drummer

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