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A Collector Bequeaths His Huge Archive Of Cuban Sound


October 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Cristóbal Díaz Ayala----------

Cristóbal Díaz Ayala
PHOTO Ana Martinez for The New York Times


SAN JUAN, P.R. – To build his huge music library, it has taken Cristóbal Díaz Ayala 25 years, countless missed family vacations, much of his savings and every skill he has learned in a multifarious life.

His collection includes about 25,000 LP's, 17,000 78's, wax cylinders, sheet music and a trove of books encompassing all of Latin American music, though its strongest area by far is the music of Cuba, Mr. Díaz Ayala's native country. The Fundación Musicalia, as the collection is known, is thought by experts to be the largest collection of Cuban music in the world.

But Mr. Díaz Ayala, who has used his success in the construction business to finance his personal interests, is now 71. And supervising the Fundación Musicalia, in a two-story house on a quiet residential street in the Santurce neighborhood, has become burdensome. His latest acquisition, 5,000 78's bought from a Puerto Rican collector, is stacked horizontally on metal shelves; it is taking him longer than usual to catalog it.

Quick to smile and exhibiting a wide- ranging curiosity, Mr. Díaz Ayala has graduated from the collector's anxious hunger to deep contentment. "I've spent such good times here," he said, relaxing in the air-conditioned top floor of the Fundación. And so it is with some sadness that he has decided to give up the collection. Over the last five years, he has sought a suitable home for it, and in June he made his decision: Florida International University, in Miami, the largest university in South Florida. Over the next three years, he will donate the entire collection, with the provision that the university finance the final stages of cataloging it – in other words, cover the operating costs, which include new computer software, electricity, water, air-conditioning and Lysol. (The greatest enemy of most North American record collectors is temperature change; in the tropics, where the heat holds fast, it is mildew.)

"There is an old proverb which I learned reading Lin Yutang, the Chinese philosopher who was educated at Harvard," he said. " `You must learn to get old gracefully.' You have to say goodbye to some things. I'm not going to have the collection anymore, but on the other hand, I know that many people will get to use it."

The bequest of the Díaz Ayala collection, recently appraised at $825,000, is more evidence of increasing interest in Cuban studies. Now that the mania sparked by the album "Buena Vista Social Club," or what Mr. Díaz Ayala calls "Cubanitis," has subsided a bit, there are clear tasks for musicologists, collectors, producers, writers and people like Mr. Díaz Ayala, who is all of those.

The Smithsonian's traveling exhibition on Latin jazz, which is to tour 12 cities, will be unveiled next fall. Alejo Carpentier's fundamental study, "Music in Cuba," published in Spanish in 1946, is finally available in an English translation from the University of Minnesota Press. Two volumes of field recordings made in the late 1950's by Lydia Cabrera, who captured Yoruban music as it was played by Cuban religious elders, have just been released by the Smithsonian-Folkways label. And A Cappella Books, an imprint of the Chicago Review Press, is scheduled to publish Ned Sublette's sweeping, still untitled history of popular music in Cuba, which will help provide English-language readers with a historical context for Cuban music.

Mr. Díaz Ayala spoke to representatives at the Smithsonian, Miami University (in Florida) and the Conservatory of Music in Puerto Rico, who were all interested in his collection. But he chose Florida International University for several reasons: its plans to transfer the collection to digital form immediately and to his satisfaction; it was closer than Washington; and Miami seemed the most central location for those interested in Latin music.

Giving the collection to Cuba, he said, was unthinkable; he explained that valuable items were known to disappear from its museums, and that waiting to see what happened after Castro is a risky venture.

"You have to be practical," he said. "At my age, you don't know how long you're gonna live. And besides, I'm not leaving a collection – I'm leaving a system."

The Fundación Musicalia is a matrix of research as well as a music collection. With the help of his wife of 48 years, Marisa, and one assistant, Mr. Díaz Ayala has cataloged his holdings by performer, songwriter and song; gathered an archive of newspaper articles about Latin music; answered 10 queries a week from international researchers; and drawn up discographies of Cuban music from 1898 to 1960.

In the process he has become an expert on missing links, and there are many in the history of 20th-century Latin American music. The Victor record company, for example, lost a huge cache of mechanical prototypes for all the Latin music it recorded from 1904 to some point during World War II. (According to one widespread theory, the company gave them to the armed forces to be melted down for munitions.)

In the early years of the century, Cuba had a rich recording history: Zon-o-phone, Victor, Edison and Columbia had made 500 recordings in Cuba by 1905, Mr. Díaz Ayala estimated. Some are now in the hands of a few collectors; most no longer exist. There is no telling how many of those records could be crucial to understanding not only the development of Cuban music but also all that was related to it, including Mexican, Colombian and Argentinian music and jazz, he said.

Those gaps bedevil him, and they have also forced him into the realm of philosophy and logic to answer basic questions, like who invented mambo and what is the earliest recorded example of Afro-Cuban jazz. And – this one's for you, Ken Burns – what did jazz come from?

Mr. Díaz Ayala's hypothesis involves three elements: the improvised trio portion of a danzón, played by danzón orchestras as early as the 1880's, involving cornet, clarinet and trombone; the music taken home by black soldiers from New Orleans who went to Cuba during the Spanish-American war; and the popularity of Cuban danzón records in the United States during the first decade of the century.

"Now let's go to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917," he said, turning professorial. "What do you have? The rhythm part is completely different, but melody-wise, you have the same combination: the cornet playing the melody, and then the trombone and the clarinet playing with him. Where did jazz get that?" He laughed conspiratorially.

Mr. Díaz Ayala's long history of collecting falls into two parts. Growing up on the outskirts of Havana, he was a jazz fiend who logged all his acquisitions in a three-ring binder, decorating each page with pictures of musicians cut from books. On family trips to America, he bought jazz 78's released on independent labels. (In Havana, fans could buy only Victor, Columbia and Decca.) In his late teens, he and a friend had an afternoon slot playing records on a radio station, and after he earned doctorates in both civil law and social science (Castro was a law school classmate), as well as studied journalism for three years, he wound up practicing law and running a record store in Havana with his wife.

A year after the revolution, Mr. Díaz Ayala fled Cuba without his records. In San Juan he became a partner in a construction company, eventually taking control of the business. At the same time, he became even more interested in Cuban music but found little research available to compare with the discographies and nascent musicology that focused on jazz.

"Cuban music was at a very low ebb," he remembered. "Salsa musicians were using many compositions of Cuban composers without putting their names on it. People were talking about `tropical music' but not Cuban music."

In the late 1970's, Mr. Díaz Ayala approached Vicente Baez, who had edited a major encyclopedia about Cuba that lacked proper documentation of Cuban music, and asked if he could write the encyclopedia's music entry for its second edition. The answer, surprisingly, was yes, and he began his work. After the publisher decided to abandon the second edition, he pressed on anyway, writing "Música Cubana: del Areyto a la Nueva Trova," a one-volume overview of Cuban music history.

"When that book came out," said Mr. Sublette, the historian of Cuban music, "there was no other book out there to tell you this information." Mr. Díaz Ayala's books, all in Spanish, are available from online retailers like, or at Casa Latina Music Shop, at 116th Street and Lexington Avenue, Harlem, (212) 427-6062.

Mr. Díaz Ayala then turned to compiling a discography – drudgery, but the kind of drudgery that entire fields of study rest on. "Although I had a lot of answers, I had more questions that I didn't have answers to," he explained. "It was like drinking a glass of water that never quenched the thirst."

He came across the Latin-music volume of the ethnomusicologist Richard Spottswood's "Ethnic Music on Records," which organizes into discographical data the music of other cultures recorded in America. Mr. Díaz Ayala was determined to respond with a discography of Cuban music. "Dick Spottswood is responsible for my craziness," he said.

What followed was 20 years of trips to Puerto Rican and American libraries. Mr. Díaz Ayala stood in front of copy machines for hours, pored over RCA's catalog information on its history of Latin music recordings and pressed his whole family into service.

"This is a martyr," he said, gesturing to his wife, who was breezing through the office during another day of cataloging. "I took a lot of the time that I should have spent with my family – I have to recognize that." So he was obsessed? "Yes," he said, considering the term carefully. "That is the word."

Volume 1 of his discography, "Cuba Canta y Baila," spanning 1898 to 1925, was published in the mid- 1980's. He has recently plowed through the rest of the 20th century and has come to believe that his work should not be published piecemeal. He is looking for a CD-ROM publisher to issue its 3,500 pages.

Mr. Díaz Ayala isn't a musician or a trained musicologist, and his research is usually based on discography. "I believe in the recording," he said. "If you're a researcher of Indian ceramics, all you have is doubts. You'll dig and find some ceramic, and you'll call two other anthropologists, and each of the three will have a different opinion of what has been found – we can be discussing it forever. But with a recording, it speaks for itself. It tells its own story. It doesn't cheat you. You don't have to say, `this might be' – no, no, you hear it."

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