Sabor Colonial: Crafting Savory Bodies through Cuban Music and Dance

By Guevara, Pilar Egüez | Cuban Studies, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Sabor Colonial: Crafting Savory Bodies through Cuban Music and Dance


Guevara, Pilar Egüez, Cuban Studies


Femando Ortiz's analogy of Cuban identity as ajiaco (stew) resonates with the cultural historian Pablo Riaño San Marful's description of the nineteenth century in Cuba as "somewhat of a stock or medium of cultivation of what later, and always forever will be Cuba."1 After nearly four centuries of Spanish colonialism, wars of independence were fought in Cuba starting in 1868, which led to a period of neocolonial republicanism under US intervention in 1898. During this century of cultivation, distinctively Cuban music and dance genres emerged with roots in European and African traditions. The introduction of the printing press early in the century made available detailed historical records that offer a window into the changing attitudes and ways of feeling of white dominant classes toward long-loathed African-influenced cultural expressions. While outspoken white creole detractors of the Cuban contradanza set a tone of moral panic during the opening decades, the century closes with radically different feelings of embracement and appropriation of the Cuban danzón, a relative of the contradanza, by a group of more decidedly nationalist white creoles.

This article offers a critical reading of selected narratives by white creole elites between 1801 and 1912, describing their experiences of feeling, listening, and moving to the beat new popular mixed genres, the contradanza, danza, and danzón. White creole elites' developed characteristically affective languages to gloss unusual and novel "experiences of bodily intensity" that resulted from their historical experimentation with and orientation toward African-influenced Cuban dance and music (Gould 2010; Ahmed 2004; Turino 1999). In particular, I historicize the construction and discursive uses of sabor as a qualifying category of Cuban music and dance. White creole writers and journalists started using the term around midcentury and into the second half of the century. As they described it, sabor indexed an affective state of "irresistibility," a certain uncontrollable bodily "drive" to dance prompted by musical stimuli.

I argue that the coding of sabor as a positive qualifier of white experiences with Afro-Cuban rhythms indicates a critical shift in the dominant systems of difference and distinction organizing social hierarchies in Cuban colonial society. In particular, music and dance had been traditionally coded according to colonial dichotomies of European and African, decent and indecent, high and low. The gradual popularization among white elites of mixed rhythms combining two antithetic traditions, brought about aesthetic and moral reconfigurations of the music in the dominant discourse, shifting from repudiation (indecente) to agreeability (música sabrosa), with further requirements of moral cleansing (adecentar). As such, sabor was an index of historical changes in dominant standards of respectability and taste, signaling deep transformative processes in Cuba's collective habitus and structures of feeling-those shared systems organizing perceptions, emotions and sensibilities in different realms of everyday life (Elias [1939] 2000; Bourdieu 1989; Williams 1977). In particular, the incorporation of sabor into dominant white affective habitus in the context of late nineteenth-century discourses of raceless national identity espoused by (white and black) Cuban revolutionary leaders created the conditions to imagine a darker, kinesthetically more active, and significantly more sensitive national body.

I place the discussion about sabor in the second half of the nineteenth century in perspective with the racial cleansing projects propelled by the white creole planter and the intellectual elite in the first half of the century. These projects represented efforts of the emergent Cuban bourgeoisie to craft a Cuban ideal centered on white bourgeois cultural models. In the first section, I discuss the backdrop of racial and political conflict, in particular, the efforts by the colonial state and white elites to draw racial and cultural boundaries vis-a-vis an emerging and-to them-menacing class of working free people of color in the cities. …

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