Afro-Cuban Allstars

When Alejo Carpentier published the first major survey of Cuban Music in 1945, he knew that much remained unsaid. “Much will be added” he wrote, “when scienteists undertake the study of the continent’s music and its African roots.” He goes on to demonstrate that the musical culture of the Americas had already influenced Europe. Rhythms known to have existed in the 17th century–and in all likelihood much, much earlier–persist today.

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And yet, there are still difficulties for any rigorous analysis of Cuban music, and especially for examining the powerful Afro-Cuban strain in that tradition. Antonio Benítez-Rojo explains that “The main obstacles to any global study of the Caribbean’s societies, insular or continental, are exactly those things that scholars usually adduce to define the area: its fragmentation; its instability; its reciprocal isolation; its uprootedness; its cultural heterogeneity; its lack of historiography and historical continuity; its contingency and impremanence; its syncretism, etc. This unexptected mix of obstacles and properties is not, of course, mere happenstance.” Rather, it is a result of imperialism and colonialism.

Carpentier was well aware of this. He describes the vilification of African cultural heritage over the course of centuries, detailing the prohibition against African religion, language, and drums (which combined the two). He explains the racial basis of social stratification in Cuba. Carpentier writes: “All these factors contributed to the attitude held by well-heeled men of mistrusting all matters black, and since they were not inclined to ask difficult questions, they did not notice that high on the scaffolds, in the heat of the foundries, under the sun of the rock quarries, or in the coachman’s seat, an entire sea of humanity was on the move, a people who conserved their poetic and musical traditions.”

With a confidence and forthrightness uncharacteristic in its time, Carpentier deemed these traditions “quite worthy” of study.

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To study the region’s supposed fragmentation and instability, Benítez-Rojo proposes the notion of chaos as a framework for approaching such complexities. “In truth,” he writes, “the field in which Chaos may be observed is extremely vast, for it includes all phenomena that depend on the passage of time; Chaos looks toward everything that repeats, reproduces, grows, decays, unfolds, flows, spins, vibrates, seethes; it is as interested in the evolution of the solar system as in the stock market’s crashes, as involved in cardiac arrhythmia as in the novel or in myth.”

Music, or course, is temporal by nature, and so becomes a nexus of cultural practices and performances. Benítez-Rojo explains: “Nature is the flux of an unknowable feedback machine that society interrupts constantly with the most varied and noisy rhythms. Each rhythm is itself a flux cut through by other rhythms, and we can pursue fluxes upon rhythms endlessly. Well then, the culture of the Peoples of the Sea is a flux interrupted by rhythms which attempt to silence the noises with which their own social formation interrupts the discourse of Nature.” This is the difference between rhythm and polyrhythm. Cuban music, in other words, interrupts nature–ironically–even as it mirrors it.

Inhabiting this “paradoxical space,” one has “the illusion of experincing a totality, there appear to be no repressions or contradictions; there is no desire other than that of maintaing oneself within the limits of this zone for the longest possible time, in free orbit, beyond imprisonment or liberty.”

This was precisely the effect of the Afro-Cuban Allstars’ performance; the audience was suspended, even transformed by their polyrhythm and counterpoint.

Still, the implications of the polyrhythmic concept, for Benítez-Rojo, are more far-reaching. He suggests that “rhythm, in the codes of the Caribbean, precedes music, including percussion itself. It is something that was already there, amid the noise; something very ancient and dark to which the drummer’s hand and the drumhead connect on a given moment; a kind of scapegoat, offered in sacrifice, which can be glimpsed in the air when one lets himself be carried away by a battery of batá drums.”

With deliberate gestures they demonstrated the je ne sais quoi, the unspeakable dimensions of diasporic cultures of improvisation. Benítez-Rojo again explains: “When a people’s culture conserves ancient dynamics that play ‘in a certain kind of way,’ these resist being displaced by external territorializing forms and they propose to coexist with them through syncretic processes… But aren’t such processes perhaps a denaturing phenomenon? False. They are enriching, since they contribute to the widening of the play of differences. To begin with, there is no pure cultural form, not even the religious ones. Culture is a discourse, a language, and as such it has no beginning or end and is always in transformation, since it is always looking for the way to signify what it cannot manage to signify.”

Just Don’t Never Give Up On Love

Penn State was recently blessed to host as Distinguished Visiting Professor the poet, artist, educator, and activist, Sister Sonia Sanchez.

Photo by A.L. Nielsen

Each day during her week-long visit she spoke to African American Studies classes and delivered campus-wide lectures on the Black Arts Movement; she gave readings and joined Ronnie Burrage’s World Jazz Harmony Ensemble and dancers Vie Boheme and Kikora Franklin in a sublime multi-modal performance. Their collaboration was a profound tribute to the improvisational ethic and experimental impulse of jazz.

Sanchez’s is a prophetic, humane voice. During the week of her visit, she gave compelling lectures on the Black Student and Black Arts movements; she spoke reverently of poets–like Adrienne Rich, Lorca, Neruda, and Hughes–who influenced her; and she vividly related the vision for her collaboration with the City of Philadelphia’s MuralArtsProgram. The project, called Peace is a Haiku Song, will feature peace haiku by great writers–Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou–alongside those by children of Philadelphia. Submit your own poem via Twitter (#peacehaiku) or at peace.muralarts.org.

Bearing witness to her story was an education of its own. The generational transmission of oral history is a crucial facet of the black intellectual tradition. During her stay, Sanchez shared a number of moving memories, like one of Jean Blackwell Hutson, a curator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, who nurtured her love of books and introduced her to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois. And she warned of the inherent risks in seeking a radical education and pursuing pedagogies oriented towards equality and peace. Her story of attempted intimidation by the FBI while teaching at San Francisco State in the 60s illustrated how powerful (and how dangerous) education can be.

Sanchez schooled us in hard-won lessons from the Movement. When asked about the state of social protest and overcoming a climate of apathy, she revealed that courage hadn’t enabled the movement, but rather “it was the activism that made us brave.” Flipping the script, Sanchez drove home the important point that faith—not just fearlessness—inspires new solutions to old problems.

Sonia Sanchez Homecoming

The changes that Sanchez helped usher in eventually brought Ethnic Studies programs to institutions of higher education across the country. Yet such gains, Sanchez was quick to point out, were not exclusively for the benefit of black and minority students. She paraphrased James Baldwin, who wrote that “whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”

She brought these lessons to bear on contemporary politics, culture, and art when she spoke to Ronnie Burrage’s hip hop studies course. During the lecture, Sanchez credited Common, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) for carrying the griot’s torch. And she also repped for Philly, placing the poet and rapper Ursula Rucker in this constellation of conscious artists. While Rucker may not have the name recognition of her male counterparts, her work is every bit as swift and exacting.

Photo by A.L. Nielsen

Photo by A.L. Nielsen

During the presentation, Sanchez held the students rapt as she flashed to a memory of her friend, Afeni Shakur, on the occasion of hearing a song by a man named Tupac come on the radio. She recalled holding the rapper in her arms as an infant; “Anyone with the last name Shakur,” she said, “is in danger.” Her personal connections to the legendary rapper’s family and the social context of the times transformed the memory into a parable about the stakes of revolutionary art.

Sanchez’s poem for Tupac was among the pieces she performed the next night in Heritage Hall. Before she took the stage, Ronnie Burrage warmed the audience up with an instrumental composition called “Martinique.” The piece was reminiscent of Wayne Shorter and incorporated funk and Caribbean rhythms with the intensity of the best jazz fusion. Eric Slaughter’s scathing guitar work shifted into overdrive and almost literally brought the house down. Thanks to a brave and quick-witted woman in the front row, we avoided a near catastrophe. The incident provided still more proof that poetry is dangerous work.

Rick Tate, Jr. (alto and EWI) played exquisite leads and got full throated and funky, while Bob DeBoo (bass) plucked out subtle, essential pocket grooves. They were joined by Rene McLean (tenor and flute) and Rasul Siddik (trumpet and percussion). McLean is the son of the legendary hard bop tenor-man Jackie McLean. Siddik hails from St. Louis, where he worked in the Black Artists Group, an experimental collective  that included musicians Joseph Bowie, Hamiet Bluiett, and Julius Hemphill and writers Quincy Troupe and Ntozake Shange.

Vie Boheme—a versatile performance artist—is also doing big things in Pittsburgh. Her dynamic choreography proved to be a focal point of the show. Her creative use of space brought the performance a kinetic life as she dramatized the musical and poetic exchange with bursts of intensity and lithe maneuvers. Her movements knit the tempo, tone, and poetic imagery, producing a richly textured network of creative exchange–a most righteous jam session.

Photo by A.L. Nielsen

I would encourage anyone within striking distance of Pittsburgh to see her upcoming show Viva Black on April 19th and 20th, at 8:00pm at the August Wilson Center. This live theater documentary alludes to Wilson’s Century Cycle, presenting a decade-by-decade history of black American music and dance across the twentieth century. Until then, connect with Vie and find out how to support her exciting, ambitious project.

At the conclusion of Sanchez’s visit to Penn State, she graciously met with a small gathering of poets, faculty, and graduate students where she spoke about her writing process and theorized the psychological necessity of creative labor. Writing, she explained, “keeps you from really committing atrocious acts sometimes. If there are atrocious acts it’s on paper and with your pen and that’s a different kind of atrocity—when it’s not working well. But when it is working well, it is very spiritual and beautiful and it connects you a great deal.” Her reading of the prose poem, “Just Don’t Never Give up on Love” evinces a spiritual reverence for communicative acts and marvels at our capacity for language.

Sanchez explained: “We do this thing called poetry. It’s something that really keeps you alive, that keeps you going, that keeps you sane.” Her point resonated with Toni Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech: “Word-work is sublime,” Morrison explained, “because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference—the way in which we are like no other life.

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”