From the New World

By Simon Lee

Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Encyclopedic History; Volume 2: Performing the Caribbean Experience,
ed. Malena Kuss
University of Texas Press, ISBN 9780292709515, 553 pp

This five-hundred-and-some-page “encyclopedic history” of Caribbean music, complete with two-CD set, copious black-and-white photos, and line drawings of instruments, is the kind of project which will mean different things to different people.

Postcolonial and postmodern cultural theorists will feel comfortable with the analysis and multi-disciplinary approach. Creole theorists, whether cultural, historical, musical, or anthropological, will find much of the most interesting work of the last 150 years (because Haiti has a literary tradition which far predates that of the Anglophone Caribbean) gathered here between two admittedly far-apart covers. Music historians, cultural commentators, musicians, and every non-Spanish-speaking reader will rejoice that for the first time some seminal essays written by Cuban musicologists are presented in English. These essays alone would make the tome — the second of four projected volumes — well worth its not inconsiderable cover price.

Before getting inside those covers, however, it might be helpful to locate Performing the Caribbean in the creole canon, to which it is a classic addition. In terms of documenting, conceptualising, and analysing Caribbean music, this is probably the most important text published since Alejo Carpentier’s Music in Cuba (written in the early 1940s, but translated into English only in 2000). Of course, if we mention Carpentier, we must also honour and respect his compatriot Fernando Ortiz, who was not only the first documenter of Afro-Cuban music but also a founding father of creole cultural theory, whose “transculturation” premise still proves fascinating to postmodernists, more than fifty years down the camino.

In more recent times, the French-Canadian scholar Jocelyne Guilbault has brought a focus similar to Performing’s to bear on her research into the music of the French Antilles (her 1993 book on zouk was among the first of this new crop of postcolonial, postmod analyses of creole cultures) and her 2007 study of the politics of Trinidad’s Carnival musics, Governing Sound. Another recent addition to postcolonial studies of creole music, written from the participatory inside rather than the academic periphery, is Rebecca Miller’s Carriacou String Band Serenade (2007).

And, finally, Performing the Caribbean Experience belongs on the same shelf as José Martí’s Nuestra America; Jean Price-Mars’s Ainsi parla l’oncle; C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins and Beyond a Boundary; Fernando Ortiz’s Cuban Counterpoint; Alejo Carpentier’s Los pasos perdidos; Césaire’s Cahier; all of Fanon; Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse; Chamoiseau, Bernabé, and Confiant’s Eloge de la créolité; Kamau Brathwaite’s Development of Creole Society in Jamaica; Benítez-Rojo’s’ Repeating Island; Michael Dash’s Other America; and Shalini Puri’s Caribbean Postcolonial. Of course, there are other texts on this shelf, but these are some of the most significant in establishing the conceptual framework for engaging with the creole aesthetic. Performing the Caribbean Experience takes its rightful place in the Mundo Nuevo canon and even carves out its own niche, as the most comprehensive creole investigation of cultural forms to date.

While each chapter has been written by a different expert (and the contributors are impressive: besides Guilbault, there’s the grande dame of Jamaican folkforms, Olive Lewin; Vodou priest and scholar Gerdes Fleurant; St Kitts National Museum Director Jacqueline Cramer-Armony; Embert Charles, former director of St Lucia’s Folk Research Centre; founder of Cuba’s musicological studies Argeliers León Pérez — to name but a few), they share a common creole perspective, whether couched in the language of the postcolonial subaltern or not.

To quote Fleurant: “It is encouraging to realise . . . that scholarship no longer questions the value of the ‘reflexive approach’ . . . which supports an attempt to study a culture from an insider’s view on its own terms.” More militant is Juan Mesa Díaz’s stance at the beginning of his chapter on Santería:

The Eurocentric systems of thought inherited from the rationalism of the Enlightenment cannot accommodate either the dynamic vitality of this cultural reality or the fact that it came to exist as a culture of resistance in a hostile milieu, overcoming the process of deculturation to which it was subjected.

Díaz goes on to make a point similar to Derek Walcott’s, whose Nobel Prize acceptance speech “Fragments of Epic Memory” serves as introduction to this volume. When Díaz confronts the prejudice of cultural ignorance, he highlights two major issues in the praxis of creole aesthetics, one implied, the other distressingly obvious.

The contempt, oppression, and willful ignorance directed at creole African-derived belief systems and their expressions has had a corrosive effect:

The same type of prejudicial mindset assigns this religion (Santería) to the domain of folk culture, because the semantic subtext implies that these practices corresponded to historical junctures now surmounted by the triumph of “reason”, when the barriers between social classes of which they were purportedly a product were levelled. Consequently, the artistic forms inherent to the tradition (its music, dance, oral expression, and liturgical artifacts), purged from the “burden of ritual”, can be legitimised as displays of a static cultural patrimony recontextualised for public consumption.

Besides describing attrition wreaked on living traditions by this universalising globalising thrust, which colludes with commercialisation and other dubious projects like nationalism, Díaz’s essay, like the others here, is a blow against the grain, an unpredictable off beat, informed by the highest principles of creole scholarship: to record and document the complexities of creole expressions. As Malena Kuss, the superb editor of the volume, notes on the last page:

Each essay . . . tells a similar story of repression and restitution. From the depths of tragic human bondage, the African ancestors keep drumming, singing, and dancing themselves into existence.

Walcott’s introduction sets the tone, when he speaks of “the force of exultation . . . when a writer finds himself a witness to the early morning of a culture, that is defining itself branch by branch, leaf by leaf, in that self-defining dawn.” But we need to turn to León Pérez’s essay “Music in the Life of Africans and their Descendants in the New World” for the thesis which underpins the whole book.

Creole music by definition was and is produced in a totally different environment from the music of the West. The individualism enshrined in the European Renaissance, which the early colonisers brought to the Americas, stands in direct opposition to the communal ethic of the African world view, which those slaves who survived the Middle Passage brought with them: “the innate African view of society, the basis of African social consciousness, is a group image, an image of collective action and participation.”

“The function of Western music and the other arts is individual expression, as opposed to the holistic functions of African music: designed to bring the community of the living, the dead, and the spirits together in a process of healing, guidance, protection, and celebration”

The function of Western music and the other arts is individual expression, as opposed to the holistic functions of African music: designed to bring the community of the living, the dead, and the spirits together in a process of healing, guidance, protection, and celebration. These fundamental differences in intent are only one element of the West’s failure to read or even acknowledge creole expressions. How many travellers’accounts have we read, replete with disgust at the barbarity, savagery, or bestiality of Afro-Creole drumming and dancing? Another vital difference concerns the African concept of time (a continuum of past, present, and future), which has real implications in terms of structure, repetition, and the polyrhythmic base of much creole music, and which has caused confusion and misconception among Western musicologists and even African-American classical jazzmen of the ilk of Wynton Marsalis.

León Pérez’s thesis is both deceptively simple and incredibly complex:

The aesthetic value assigned to timbre or tone colour as a fundamental syntactic element is Africa’s principal contribution to musics in the Americas . . . Timbre refers to colour-textures unfolding in time and space, wherein pitch, rhythm, and modes of sound production create distinctly differentiated masses of sound . . . The transfer of a real image, such as any environmental sound, to a performance, which is a controllable human creation, conceivably could have been little more than a higher level of animism to the African mind. The combination of different timbric layers, organised as sound masses of different tone qualities, conjures up images of corporeality and colour, and might have stood as a concrete representation of sonorities transcending auditory images in surrounding nature. Such a concept of timbre permitted Africans to assemble a sound mass produced, for instance, by a drum skin, combined with another sound mass produced by other means (metal idiophones, aerophones, chordophones) . . . a chordophone repeats a single motif whose constancy makes it sound like a timbric band of a specific colour.

Ortiz had long observed the centrality of timbre in African music, and its use of “the sound potential of wood, skin, and metal,” which he concluded was a means of uniting the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, but León Pérez posits this is “an African cognitive device to attain a concrete timbric corporealisation of different auditory images offered by nature.” He explains how the timbric bands are “extended temporally” as a logical element of the African concept of time:

. . . the African musician conceives of a performance as situated in space, instead of unfolding in time, more like concrete images within a space whose dimensions are shaped by the timbric combinations themselves, and by the very subtle variables in the quality of such timbres. African music thus circumscribes a space whose dimensions and boundaries are intrinsically delineated and easily perceptible as timbric bands.

León Pérez’s conceptual framework gives any reader the clave, as it were, to unlocking the essence of creole music; he liberates us from Western musical concepts and analysis, and takes us inside. Similarly, his compatriots Carmen Coopat and Maria Vinueza, in their essay on “Oral Traditions in Cuba”, give the necessary creole perspective for understanding sacred creole musics:

Music and dance play a fundamental role in the ceremonies of . . . syncretic cults because . . . the singing and instrumental toques are the indispensable means as well as the decisive factor in reaching the religious objective, which is to summon the presence of deities through spirit possession of initiated believers.

More specifically, the role of the sacred drum — whether in Vodou, Rada, or Petwo rites, Palo de Monte, Reglas de Ocha y de Ifa, or the Afro-Venezuelan worship of San Juan Bautista — emerges as a logical process rather than a disembodied beat, sampled out of context by postmodern music industry producers. As Mesa Díaz in his essay on Santería explains:

. . . the drumming materialises the presence of energies as well as the psychic capacity of humans to cross the liminal boundaries of consciousness and unconscious levels of existence with which they have been endowed by the powers they have received, and the strength and spirituality of religious training.

Quite apart from its riches of musical documentation and analysis, Performing the Caribbean Experience lives up to its claim to being “an encyclopedic history,” providing excellent socio-cultural-historical overviews of most of the territories covered. Malena Kuss’s “Quasi-historical sketch of Cuba”, in particular, provides so much more than data. She examines the path mapped out by Martí, and continued in the work of Ortiz and Carpentier, in constructing a creole worldview.

For those with a real interest in entering the kingdom of the creole world, Kuss also makes the connection between Carpentier’s theory and practice of the “marvellous real” (as opposed to the European magical realism of the 1920s and 30s) and all other creole expressions. What Carpentier was able to translate into a literary form were the musical, religious, and symbolic cadences of the creole world. Much like Wilson Harris in his woefully neglected masterpiece Palace of the Peacock, Carpentier “perceived America (as in Martí’s Nuestra America) as a repository of primeval forces that lie, at times dormant, underneath a layer of superficial Occidentalism.” Kuss continues:

In the arts, these mythological forces activate systems of symbols that Europeans can only grasp at abstract levels, exoticising them through mechanisms of distance that rule out the mediation of faith . . . The “marvellous real” . . . is a way of being-in-the-world when African demigods can take on shapes of Catholic saints and descend upon humans to heal, speak, and guide practitioners through the paths of self-realisation. In animistic religions such as Cuban Santería or Haitian Vodou, spirits are not distant mystical beings but demigods embodied in humans who partake from the indispensable infrastructure of reality . . . Through the mediation of energy, generated mostly by drumming and dancing but also by prayer, faith collapses the distance between supernaturals and humans. In Carpentier’s literature, faith differentiates the “magical realism” of early writings from the 1920s and 1930s from the “marvellous real” in which he saw the possibility of an autonomous Latin American culture . . . In Carpentier’s “American marvellous real”, faith subverts the objectification and distance in the European “magical realism” of Franz Roh.

Similarly, the point is made that — beyond the platitudes of postmodernism and the sometimes strangled language and theorising of the postcolonialist school — creole expression, like the African worldview which has profoundly informed it, is a continuum, embracing oraliture and literature along with music, dance, and religious ritual.

Dominique Cyrille’s essay on Martinique provides an invaluably concise overview of those theorists and writers (Césaire, Fanon, Chamoiseau, Confiant, Bernabé, and Glissant) who have been shaping creole thought and the arts since the 1930s. By revealing the connections, the rhizomes, between the oral traditions and the development of theories of creole aesthetics, Performing the Caribbean Experience makes the mostly joyless multi-disciplinary approach of western academe come gloriously to life. In this respect, this volume is another creole first.

With such an abundance of riches on offer, it seems churlish to criticise; yet while it is a delight to read about the creolisation process evident in Afro-Colombian cumbia, or the Antillean waltz of the Dutch Antilles, I can’t help but be disappointed that such fecund territories as Dominica and Guadeloupe are unaccountably ignored. This, however, is a minor moan. Performing the Caribbean Experience is a template for creole scholarship and an inspiration to all those with an interest in Mundo Nuevo.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008

Simon Lee is a London-born, Trinidad-based “Jewish Creole.” He writes frequently on Creole history, poetics, and culture.