The Rhythmic Component of Afrocubanismo in the Art Music of Cuba

Article excerpt

Afrocubanismo was an aesthetic trend in art music, focusing on the recognition, assimilation, and validation of African cultural features present in Cuban society. The new ethos found expression in the works of the Grupo Minorista, a seminal group of composers with an emergent ethnic sensibility, whose production reflected neonationalistic musical concerns that emphasized the manipulation of timbral-rhythmic elements in a modern harmonic vocabulary. In this regard, afrocubanismo provided a transition from nationalism to cosmopolitanism in Cuban art music, forging the representation of race and class at the intersection of art-popular and rural-urban music dichotomies. These experiments marked a significant juncture in the evolution of the Cuban concert repertoire, becoming a discursive site for the negotiation of national identities.

The path to a new Cuban art music was charted by the pioneering ethnographic studies of Fernando Ortiz (1881-1969), who revalidated the island's African legacy and reinterpreted the concept of cubanidad (Cubanness). (1) In response to the political turbulence and financial decline surrounding the Gerardo Machado administration (1924-1933), strong nationalist sentiment ushered an intellectual and artistic movement committed to cultural reconstruction. A new generation of progressive thinkers, journalists, and artists in Havana established the Grupo Minorista ([Artistic] Minority Group) in 1923, whose goal was to explore the roots of cubanidad to forge an inclusive cultural identity with a sense of "modernity" (Roldan 1980, 9). Drawing inspiration from Ortiz's work, the group recognized the significant contribution of West African traditions to the integration of Cuban popular culture and to the formation of the postcolonial identity. In denouncing the doctrine of racism that inhibited Afro-Cubans' just participation in national culture, the minoristas asserted a modernist, decolonized revision of Cuban cultural history. (2) Ironically, white and black middle-class society did not readily embrace this cultural revision (Moore 1997, 210). Well aware of Cuba's ambivalent attitudes toward its African heritage, the circle nonetheless voiced its commitment to class and public reform predicated on the equitable representation of the island's multiethnic cultures. The minoristas thus challenged the conventional concepts of collective identity to promote a more inclusive concept of nationhood.

As an aesthetic complement to Ortiz's research and the sociological concerns of the circle, an artistic movement emerged called afrocubanismo, which addressed the cultural continuities of Cuba's African heritage. (3) Partly derived from the literary school of Negrismo (black-aesthetics)--spearheaded by Cuba's national poet Nicolas Guillen Batista (1902-1989) (4)--the movement embraced Afro-Cuban themes as the focus of a distinct criollo (5) identity. This Africanist reading of Cuban cultural history especially acknowledged the various influences of African epistemology in art and folklore, as well as the significance of syncretic religious performances as vehicles of resistance to postcolonial hegemony (Apter 1992, 223-224; 1991, 254-255). (6) Minorista poets, visual artists, and musicians sought to produce socially relevant art that projected positive, black cultural values. Reimaging the past by reaffirming an African heritage in a society that often denied its value, the vanguard transformed the era's conventional aesthetic sensibilities. The movement not only sparked a period of prolific artistic production, but more important, it symbolically reintegrated the disfranchised into the nation. Challenging the dominant conceptions of cubanidad within a modern construct of race and nationhood, afrocubanismo validated the black presence in Cuban cultural identity and underscored the interpenetration of cultural forms.

The musical manifestation of afrocubanismo found its voice in a postimpressionist school of nationalist composers, whose active cultivation of African musico-cultural traditions forged a modern symbolic language of expression. …