Panamanian Dances (Danzas de Panama) for String Quartet

by Max Derrickson

William Grant Still
(Born in Woodville, Missouri in 1895; died in Los Angeles in 1978)

Panamanian Dances (Danzas de Panama) for String Quartet
1. Tamborito – (“Little drum”)
2. Mejorana y Socavón – (2 Dances: “Marjoram” and “Tunnel [where an image of the Virgin Mary was reported in an old mineshaft in Panama in 1756]”)
3. Punto – (“Point[ing]”) – Allegretto con grazia
4. Cumbia y Congo – (2 Dance names)

In 1955, when most African-American citizens in the South couldn’t even drink out of the same water fountain as their white neighbors, composer William Grant Still achieved a breakthrough – he was the first African-American to conduct the New Orleans Philharmonic.  It was, certainly, only one of the many steps toward racial equality (in that same year, Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama for refusing to obey bus segregation), but in the Deep South in 1955, Still’s accomplishment was nonetheless an extraordinary one.  That 1955 program with him as the conductor highlighted several of Still’s own works, including his Afro-American Symphony (Symphony No. 1, 1930) in which Still was just mastering the technique of giving voice to folksong elements, specifically African-American song and rhythm, in the “classical” Neo-Romantic style.  If George Gershwin started that idea in 1924 with his Rhapsody in Blue, Still carried it further into the concert hall and perfected it.  Such is the case with his marvelous Panamanian Dances for string quartet which he premiered in 1948.  Still incorporated not only African-American elements, but as the title’s “Panama” suggests, also Spanish and Amerindian elements as well.  These Dances are filled with ingenious details, such as the actual percussive elements of […] the three-stringed violin, the Rabel – during the Mejorana y Socavón (2nd movement), as well as the shoe-[…]dance, the Zapateo.  In the final dance, Still brings to life the joyous Africo-Latin dances, the Cumbia and the Congo, evoking women dancing sensuously in the streets during the Congo with candles held high as the men […] throughout the New World and to make it a joyous celebration.  The vibrating, exciting finale completely succeeds.