Odaline de la Martinez is a Cuban-born composer and conductor, and was the first woman ever to conduct at the BBC Proms in 1984. Here she speaks to Francesca Wickers about her latest project, the world’s first Afro-Cuban opera about slavery, and her childhood filled with African drumming.
“I left Cuba, but Cuba hasn’t left me!” laughs Odaline de la Martinez, to explain the innate sense of rhythm in her bones. The Afro-Cuban composer and conductor has lived in the UK for forty years, but her childhood diet of African drumming and a cappella singing never ceases to influence her musical writing.
Even Odaline’s voice, with its soft Caribbean lilt, is tuneful. I find myself plying her with questions just so I can keep listening to it. A deeply inspiring woman, Odaline fights vociferously for women’s place in the arts, and flew the flag for female conductors worldwide when she became the first ever woman to conduct at the BBC Proms (“Honestly, my gosh, I was so excited. But isn’t it sad that the Proms had been running for a hundred years and not one woman had waved a baton?”)
We’ve met, though, to discuss her most recent composition: the world’s first Afro-Cuban opera about slavery. She calls it her Slavery Opera Trilogy, and the second installment – The Crossing – premieres this Friday 7 November at the London Festival of American Music.
The story is loosely based on a 17th century novel by Aphra Behn, who, incidentally, was the first woman in history to make a living from writing. And, to add another world record to the mix, the opera’s libretto is the first to be written by an Afro-Caribbean woman, Joan Anim-Addo. It was Joan who brought Aphra Behn’s novel to Odaline’s attention.
“It’s a love story, seen through the magnifying glass of slavery”, explains Odaline. “An African prince, Oko, meets the King’s daughter, Imoinda. They fall in love, but are cast away in a boat to be slaves.” It was the plot she’d been waiting for. “Writing music for this tale opened so many doors. I was able to tap into my subconscious and create all this music that had a really strong Afro-Cuban flavour. It was there inside me, waiting for me to grasp. And I did, I grabbed it with all my hands.”
Odaline, who has just celebrated her 65th birthday, was born in the little town of Jovellanos in Cuba. Until the late 1800s, more than one million African slaves were imported to the island’s sugar plantations, bringing their African beats across the ocean. In Odaline’s home town, which is surrounded by sugar refineries, the slaves’ musical legacy lingers. “There was a very big Afro-Cuban music scene. My first memories of music as a child are of falling asleep to the sound of drumming outside the house. I would wake up in the middle of the night when it stopped.”
The opera is written for string orchestra and percussion, the latter heavily influenced by these African beats. What does Afro-Cuban drumming sound like? “It’s not any old drumming. It is an art. I cannot even begin to explain what it’s like until you’ve heard it. When I’m writing I don’t try to write in an Afro-Cuban style – it just comes out because it is in my subconscious. Opera composers tend to begin with the harmonies, but not me. I start with the rhythms, always, and add the notes later.”
The Crossing, the middle section of the trilogy, follows the protagonists’ journey across the Atlantic. “The conditions for these slaves were horrendous, not to mention hygienically disastrous. Think of sardines packed together. It was worse than that. They were all chained and they couldn’t move. There was just a communal bucket for the loo. One song in the opera comes from a girl who was raped.”
Odaline has told her singers (including Brixton-born soprano, Nadine Mortimer-Smith, whose family is Jamaican-Indian) that she doesn’t want to hear “pretty English voices”. The slaves singing, she explains, was their only outlet for all their suffering, and you could hear what they were going through just from the way they sang. “From the choir, I want a stronger, rougher, raw sound.”
When Odaline was 11, she left Cuba with her sister and moved to New Orleans to live with relatives and study music. As she pursued a career in composition, she was delighted to find she wasn’t the only one whose cultural heritage seeped into her compositions. “There is such a variety of styles coming out of the US, you wouldn’t believe it. What you hear in the North East is radically different from what you hear in California, Texas, and Louisiana for example. And of course the people vary so much too. There are Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Italian Americans… You name it, they’ve got it.”
To raise awareness of this plethora of styles in America’s contemporary classical music scene, Odaline founded the biennial London Festival of American Music. This year’s festival, the fifth since it began in 2006, opens on Friday with Odaline’s The Crossing, followed by six days’ worth of performances of new works by composers such as Chen Yi, a Chinese woman living in New York, whose music “has a beautiful connection to the folk music of China and Tibet”, and Armando Bayolo, originally from Puerto Rico, whose writing is “loud and demands attention!”
The festival seems a fitting way for this passionate, quietly persevering woman to celebrate her birthday, not to mention an opportunity for the rest of us to hear how contemporary classical music is progressing outside our own cultural sphere. I finish by asking Odaline what advice she might give to anyone (especially women) pursuing a life as a conductor. You must believe that you have something to offer and something to say, she urges, and don’t let anything or anyone put you off. “I’ve been told, since I was a child, that women don’t conduct. But I did what I wanted anyway.”
The Crossing premieres this Friday 7 November at the Actor’s Church, Covent Garden, as part of the fifth London Festival of American Music. The festival continues at St James Studio, near Victoria station, until 14 November. For more details and to book tickets, click here.