Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas

Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas

Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas

Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas

Synopsis

Long a taboo subject among critics, rhythm finally takes center stage in this book's dazzling, wide-ranging examination of diverse black cultures across the New World. Martin Munro's groundbreaking work traces the central--and contested--role of music in shaping identities, politics, social history, and artistic expression. Starting with enslaved African musicians, Munro takes us to Haiti, Trinidad, the French Caribbean, and to the civil rights era in the United States. Along the way, he highlights such figures as Toussaint Louverture, Jacques Roumain, Jean Price-Mars, The Mighty Sparrow, Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, Joseph Zobel, Daniel Maximin, James Brown, and Amiri Baraka. Bringing to light new connections among black cultures, Munro shows how rhythm has been both a persistent marker of race as well as a dynamic force for change at virtually every major turning point in black New World history.

Excerpt

The Burt Lancaster film The Swimmer contains a scene in which the white suburbanite protagonist, Ned Merrill, emerges from the woods at the entrance to the home of one of his wealthy friends. At the same time, the friend’s Rolls-Royce car arrives at the gate, and Merrill runs forward to catch a ride up the lengthy driveway. As the car draws up, Merrill calls out the chauffeur’s name (“Steve”), and the car stops. It is only when Merrill moves close to the car that he realizes he had mistaken the chauffeur for his predecessor. “You’re not Steve,” he says. “No,” the driver replies, without giving his own name. The unnamed driver agrees to take Merrill the short ride through the verdant property up to the house. By this point, we viewers see plainly that the driver is a brown-skinned man, and we might also hear that his accent has a slight Caribbean intonation. The implication is that the white protagonist cannot distinguish between one person of color and the next, that “they all look the same.” The driver’s wry facial expression suggests that he is aware of Merrill’s complacent racism but accepts it, as if it is not the first time his identity has been confused with that of someone else of similar skin color.

Driving up to the house, Merrill makes small talk with the driver and finds out that he has been working for the family for two years. Merrill asks what happened to Steve, and the driver discreetly says nothing. “Man, what a character,” Merrill says of Steve, “did he mangle the English language. We told him he should have been on television.” Steve, moreover, had a “big bass voice.” “You should have heard that guy sing,” Merrill says to the driver, who has appeared unmoved to this point in the conversation but cannot resist asking: “And a natural sense of rhythm?” Unaware that the driver is mocking him, Merrill nods enthusiastically, saying “Yeah, that’s right.”

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