A Week With the Legendary Sonia Sanchez


Earlier this year I wrote about Sister Sonia Sanchez’s visit to Penn State University as the Institute for the Arts and Humanities’ 2013 Distinguished Visiting Professor. With much credit due to the considerable assistance and resources provided by Penn State’s Media Tech, Knowledge Commons, and the Digital English Studio, a full video recording of Sister Sanchez’s performance with Ronnie Burrage’s World Jazz Harmony Ensemble is now available.

In some future time and venue, I will surely have more to say about the lectures, readings, and performance that Sanchez gave during her weeklong visit. For now, I’ll let the film speak for itself.

I owe a profound debt of gratitude to Sister Sanchez for visiting our campus and to all of the people who helped make that event possible. The week offered an extended encounter with a revered literary elder and provided an opportunity to absorb the wisdom and experience that roots her work in black American history, life, and culture.


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.


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.

Afro-Cuban All Stars live.16174

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.”