Black Music in a Raceless Society: Afrocuban Folklore and Socialism

By Moore, Robin | Cuban Studies, July 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Black Music in a Raceless Society: Afrocuban Folklore and Socialism


Moore, Robin, Cuban Studies


The existence and character of a civilization are located in its cultural forms, and in their capacity to influence others. Cuban blacks have been fundamentally influential in both senses. On the one hand they created, through music, the nucleus of our national culture. On the other, they have influenced the world with it, making Cuba famous and leaving their mark on cultures abroad.

Enrique Patterson, "Cuba: discursos sobre la identidad"

Introduction

Throughout the Americas, the expressive forms of African descendants have proven central to the emergence of distinct regional and national identities. Slaves brought forcibly to the New World had no choice but to adapt to radically new social conditions, forms of labor, and language. While in many cases they perpetuated traditions brought with them across the Atlantic, it is not surprising that, in their new environment, Afrocubans were among the first to fashion a distinct cultural sensibility by fusing elements from their past with the practices of their colonial masters.1 Following abolitionist and independence movements in the nineteenth century, postcolonial leaders of all backgrounds learned (slowly) to embrace the culture of African descendants as symbols of local heritage. Nowhere is this more the case than in Cuba, where nationalist discourse since the late 1920s has described African-influenced music as representative of everyone. Folkloric traditions of many sorts exist in Cuba, but the most influential and widespread for centuries have been those of African origin. Perhaps for this reason the term "folklore" there is now synonymous with "Afrocuban folklore."2

Since the mid-nineteenth century, virtually all innovations in Cuban music have come from the Afrocuban community. The wealth of their expression has served as inspiration for numerous commercial genres such as the son, conga, chachachá, and mambo. These styles demonstrate European influences, yet also incorporate sub-Saharan African elements in tangible ways. The formal structure of such music consists largely of repeated, ostinato-like vamping. Musical interest is created through a process of layering melodies; the interlocking instrumental figures, together with accompanying percussion, create patterns that serve as a basis for improvisation. Formal organization of mis sort bears striking similarities to traditional music from countries such as Ghana and Nigeria.3 One might describe the development of all Cuban music from the nineteenth century onward as involving movement away from strophic, sectional, European-derived models and toward cyclic, improvisational, African-derived forms.

The decades immediately prior to the Cuban Revolution witnessed an increasing prominence of black, working-class performers in commercial entertainment, most of whom grew up playing folkloric music of various sorts (Valdés Cantero 1986,22,44). For these individuals, music making represented one of many job skills that frequently included agricultural labor, construction, carpentry, or cigar making. Many lived in poorer, segregated neighborhoods and struggled to make ends meet. Even the most successful - Chano Pozo, Sindo Garay, María Teresa Vera-were often functionally illiterate. Yet their very social marginality and lack of access to formal education seems to have led to the development of oral and performative skills fundamental to the appeal of popular musicians. Percussionists on conga drums not only found a place wimin dance bands in the 1940s and 1950s, but became featured soloists in dieir own right for the first time. Candido Camero, Armando Peraza, Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaría, Carlos "Patato" Valdés, and a host of others achieved artistic acclaim on instruments that had been widely spurned only a few decades earlier.

Paradoxically, the colonial legacy also perpetuated strong bias against noncommercial drumming and African-derived religious music. Middle-class audiences of the 1950s, while arguably proud of their country's mixed ethnicity in the abstract, dismissed African-derived traditions as primitive. …

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