Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Dark Pursuits: Race and Early Argentine Jazz Criticism

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Dark Pursuits: Race and Early Argentine Jazz Criticism

Article excerpt

When jazz first penetrated the Latin American imaginary in the 1920s, the very word denoted as much a new cultural paradigm as a musical genre, serving as an umbrella term for an ever-expanding web of industries, distribution networks and metropolitan fashions issuing from the modern matrices of Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. As US performers such as Sidney Bechet, Paul Whiteman, and Josephine Baker made headlines overseas and films like The Jazz Singer (1927) played to full houses in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Lima, avant-garde intellectuals from the region were attempting to break free from the shackles of various cultural establishments and literary traditions, all the while keeping their fingers on the pulse of international trends.

Largely, but not entirely, following European models, Latin American vanguards tended at first to relegate jazz to an odd realm of civilized savagery at once synonymous with the North and its others. Indeed, for peripheral intellectuals such as Alejo Carpentier and Mário de Andrade, jazz was in many ways the ideal means of embracing the contradictions of the modern metropolis, seemingly without abandoning either projects of novomundismo or concerns for subaltern cultural practices. Writers of diverse political affiliations rightly saw the arrival of jazz from the United States as inseparable from the rapid spread of film, radio and the recording industry, but also clearly associated it with the hotly debated subject of negritud. Some, like the Mexican Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano, viewed the artifact of the "race record" as a metaphor for the globetrotting mobility, eroticism and exoticism of jazz and those performers rightly or wrongly associated with the music.1 The Peruvian journal Amauta, on the other hand, tended to condemn jazz as part-and-parcel of US cultural imperialism.2 Pioneering popular music magazines such as Brazil's Phonoarte, meanwhile, likewise downplayed the musical innovation of jazz as a commercial assault facilitated by the sophistication of recording technology and the aid of Hollywood's growing mastery of sound cinema.5

Like other Latin American avant-garde publications, the Argentine journal Martín Fierro greeted jazz with primitivist ecstasy tinged with fear, yet steered clear of concomitant critiques of the US culture industry. In his 1926 poem "Jazz Band," for example, Leopoldo Maréchal compares the sound of the music to the "shouting of children or savages" since this is the only way that "the dead mouths of joy can be revived"(3).4 In an essay published the following year ("Afirmación del jazzband"), Ulises Petit de Murat credits jazz musicians for coaxing "pure music" from "the abyss of noise" with their peerless technique. At the same time, Petit de Murat maintains that the dynamics of jazz, with its syncopation and "sharp and nervous palette" of sound fills the listener with "almost physical sensations of trepidation" (4). Buenos Aires-based vanguard writers thus mitigated the musical achievements of jazz not by emphasizing the music's commercial impurities, but rather by stressing the ominousness of its transformative power.

Although Petit de Murat nominally distances the music from its "fondo racial," the specter of race, with its connotation of syncretism and even witchcraft, is never far off from his purview (4). The study of race in Argentina has frequently been beset by a disavowal of blackness as either an exotic import or an anomaly remote from criollo subjectivity. Yet nowhere in Latin America has jazz criticism been so prolific and intense, particularly in the pivotal period of the 1920s and 1930s, when African-American musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington first came to the attention of local intellectuals and musicians. Indeed, Argentine writers were the first in Latin America to rigorously examine jazz not only as a technically sophisticated musical genre but also as a cultural practice inseparable from the African diaspora and postcolonial legacies of slavery. …

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