Caribbean Literature and Music

ENG 399, Fall 2014

Caribbean music is diverse, vital, and enormously influential. Bob Marley, for instance, is probably the single-most recognized voice of postcolonial resistance across the globe. This course introduces students to Jamaican reggae, Afro-Cuban jazz, and Trinidadian calypso (among other regional, national, and international styles) and situates vernacular musical forms in relationship to literary expressions of Caribbean identity, history, and culture. Together, we will explore the role of music in Caribbean literature in both content and form, interrogating the possibility of a pan-Caribbean style encoded in nuances and gestures across genres and media—what Antonio Benítez-Rojo evocatively describes as walking, dancing, singing, writing, or speaking “in a certain kind of way.”

Our readings include the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier’s revision of the Heart of Darkness narrative, in which the musicologist narrator travels up the Orinoco River in search of indigenous instruments whose ritual purpose points back to the very origins of music and human civilization. The course contrasts Carpentier’s psychological journey with the political stakes of postcolonial rituals played out during Carnival season in the Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance. Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco reveals the deep interconnections between geography, architecture, language, and performance underlying a Martinican Creole community when the narrator must persuade an urban planner not to raze a neighborhood built over generations. Woven throughout the course schedule are short stories, poetry, and recordings by Dionne Brand, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, and M. NourbeSe Philip (among others) and music by Celia Cruz, Calypso Rose, and Rita Marley. Women writers and performers provide essential counter-narratives that elucidate constructions of gender that recall and reinterpret the legacy of gendered violence during slavery and colonialism.

Reading and listening for patterns that emerge as a consequence of colonization, migration, and globalization, students will examine how writers and musicians from across the Caribbean synthesize influences from Africa, Europe, Asia, and the New World. Literature in translation from Spanish and French complements novels and poetry composed in English to illustrate the polyglot nature of Caribbean language. Diverse critical traditions including rhetoric, socio-linguistics, ethnomusicology, and postcolonial theory inform our consideration of the aesthetic, historical, and political implications of Caribbean expressive practices. Postcolonial theorists including Aimé Césaire, Franz Fanon, Edouard Glissant, C.L.R. James, Wilson Harris, Kamau Brathwaite, and Benítez-Rojo help us theorize improvisation as a trope of cultural syncretism and postcolonial disruption.

Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps
Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco
Earl Lovelace, The Dragon Can’t Dance
Nunez and Sparrow (eds.), Stories from Blue Latitudes