Rumba: Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba; Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music

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Rumba: Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba

by Yvonne Daniel

Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1995.

Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music

by Deborah Pacini Hernandez

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Popular art forms and the construction of national identity

Yvonne Daniel and Deborah Pacini Hernandez trace the history of art forms first developed and enjoyed only by the poorer classes of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. While bachata has only recently been accepted into the mainstream of Dominican society, the rumba rose to the level of a national symbol for Cuba after the 1959 revolution. Daniel and Hernandez follow the complicated journeys of these genres from their origins as informal entertainment for a small audience to their growing professionalization and commercialization. In both texts, a difficult tension is maintained. The authors argue, on the one hand, that these art forms should not be marginalized and that practitioners should reap the financial benefits. On the other hand, they imply that, once they are accepted by the middle classes, such forms of expression are co-opted by those in power and lose some of their distinctive qualities. The underlying question in both texts--one that both authors expertly keep alive rather than try to answer reductively--is, how can one respect the particular cultural expression of poor people and not try to change it, yet work to transform the destitute material conditions from which the genre emerged?

These broad concerns put Daniel and Hernandez in dialogue with intellectuals who investigate the relationships between systems of power, resistance and art. Like Edouard Glissant in Caribbean Discourse and Jean Bernabe, Patrick Chamoiseau and Rafael Confiant in Eloge de la Creolite, for example, Daniel and Hernandez assert the importance of conserving, not preserving, art. As anthropologists, they call for respect and knowledge of tradition, but look for the organic growth and change necessary to sustain a living art form. Preservation, they imply, is for dead things.


These two books add to our body of knowledge about national identities and how they are formed. Daniel investigates the significance of the fact that Cuba's Ministry of Culture chose rumba--rather than danzon, mambo or cha-cha--as the country's national dance. She looks at how the dance has changed since 1959, examining the way rumba is performed for tourists and official guests as opposed to the form it takes when practiced by amateurs for their own enjoyment. The complex results of Daniel's study emphasize dance's role in the construction of a Cuban national identity as viewed by outsiders, as well as what it means to different groups of Cubans.

Just as Cuba's self-image (as constructed by the Ministry of Culture) has meant the elevation of rumba to the position of national icon, so the self-image of the Dominican Republic (as constructed by its people) has meant the repression of bachata. Hernandez carefully traces the factors which, until recently, kept bachata banned from FM radio and outside the mainstream recording industry. Key among these factors are the country's economic and political systems, which have caused increasing class stratification over the past 30 years. By detailing the individual and national histories that affected bachata's growth and trajectory, Hernandez reveals the complex of events and decisions that influence the creation of a national identity.

Although national identity and the music industry are gendered, previous studies have devoted little attention to women performers or audiences. Even Caribbean Currents, the otherwise excellent study of music by Peter Manuel, only mentions women in passing. This is due in part to the fact that men dominate the industry. In Rumba, however, Daniel discusses women rumberos as well as the gendered aspects of Cuban life and dance, especially rumba's symbolic expression. …