Like fathers seem to do, the brilliant early 20th century Cuban pianist Osvaldo Alén may wonder which of his sons to be most proud of. Those with experience may conceivably comment that it is inevitably the oldest son who gets the nod -- bad news for Andres Alén, younger than Olavo Alén by three years. However, this seems to be the rare instance where there is actual merit involved in the choice: it was Olavo Alén who wrote From Afrocuban Music to Salsa, a book considered by some critics to be a masterpiece. The brothers share the avocation of musicology, suggesting that the younger one may gladly accept his family status, closeting his 2001 Latin Grammy nomination as he gets on his with his own brilliant career.
Seriously, the wealth of achievements in the Alén family alone is simultaneously remarkable and typical, both on the Cuban music scene and in the arts in general. Dr. Olavo Alén Rodriguez -- often known as simply Olavo Alén -- was like his younger brother trained in the piano arts by their father, a solo performer in what would have to be considered a fairly high-class cabaret environment. Between 1955 and 1961 the family lived in New York City, where the sons were exposed to an action-packed Latin music scene. Olavo Alén was between eight and 14 years old in this period. Equally exposed and considered a prodigy, the younger brother pursued a career which in its first half was heavy on performances as a pianist.
The older brother put aside such ambitions, despite the possibilities of funding from the Soviet Union. He became involved in directorial positions, administration, and subsequently the Cuban government itself, an inevitable link in the Fidel Castro regime once the concept of running an enterprise comes up. Alén was the director of music at the National School for Modern Dance prior to seeking his musicology degree at Humboldt University in Berlin. Graduating with honors in the late '70s, Alén got in thick with the entire Eastern bloc music scene as well as teaching at the Mexican Center for Musical Research and Documentation.
He began publishing as early as 1973 with a volume detailing relationships between singers and musical instruments. What has come to be considered his greatest work was first published in Spanish in 1992 as Generos Musicales de Cuba: De Lo Afro a la Salsa. There have been subsequent editions of From Afro-Cuban Music to Salsa in other languages, including English and Japanese as well as a version accompanied by a fine compilation CD. Tape junkies may prefer a Puerto Rican edition that comes with a pair of cassettes. Ethnic music fiends will recognize Alén as the author of liner notes, but only if their eyes can still focus after listening to Sacred Rhythms of Cuban Santeria. Alén is the founder of the Center for Research and Development of Cuban Music.