On Tuesday, we explored the legacy of traditional Afro-Cuban folkloric music in Cuba. I was most fascinated by our discussions revolving around the discourse of “racelessness”; indeed, as Moore foregrounds, socialists in Cuba, loathe to admit to the world that they were experiencing dissension among their ranks, were quick to claim that they were a post-racial society.
The lack of Afro-Cuban representation in academia and the housing and employment crises obviously dispel any such notion of a raceless society. Particularly interesting to me were the ways in which the cultural elite attempted to control the narrative of Cuban culture and society; the problems with music education, for example, which served to reproduce hegemonic views of what music is and is not (at the expense of Afro-Cuban traditional musics).
Easily the most interesting aspect of our discussions, however, was the tokenization of indigenous musics following the rise of tourism in the 1970s and 1980s. We briefly discussed the performativity of a more “primitive” indigeneity through spirit possession so as to appeal to tourists (stylized performances with drooling, convulsions, and other behaviors associated with possessions). We discussed the negative effects of such auto-exocticization, including the possibility that Cubans themselves will forget what these rituals were for or even “authentically” like prior to being commodified.
To this point of commodification, however, I would like to raise a point. While we typically associate the commodification of cultures in a negative fashion, I want to counter this claim with an argument posed by the Comaroffs in their text Ethnicity, Inc., that the commodification of a culture can be as empowering as it is impoverishing.
A quote from a review of Ethnicity, Inc.:
The recent explosion in the commodification of ethnicity, assert John L. and Jean Comaroff in their 2009 book Ethnicity, Inc., has largely been due to intellectual-property litigation and to a global consensus acknowledging the right of indigenous peoples to profit from their vernacular customs and products. The majority of these cultural producers, whom the Comaroffs call “ethno-preneurs,” do not believe that commercializing identity denigrates or reduces it to a simple article of trade. Rather, as echoed by a proponent of ethnic tourism in South Africa’s rural North West Province, “marketing what is ‘authentically Tswana’ is also a mode of reflection, of self-construction, of producing and feeling Tswana-ness” (italics in original; p. 9). In such an example, the distinction between performer and audience becomes ambiguous, for the producers of culture are also “consuming” embodied enactments of their own identity. In turn, these saleable representations of ethnicity frame people’s conceptions of cultural identity and belonging, such that many impoverished black Africans fear annihilation if they cannot successfully market something “unique”. In these cases, survival, the Comaroffs note, is a function of an ethnic group being “seen” by paying tourists. In one alarming example (p. 10), the (white) proprietor of a safari park in South Africa’s Western Cape invited San “Bushmen” to don “tribal” garb and sell their crafts to tourists.
Vasquez writes of how music is more participatory, or social, than prescriptive, or political. She writes almost figuratively of how children represent the still-present opportunities for musical experimentation in the often codified as steely Cold War landscape. Vasquez’s writing is intensely poetic as she tries to describe the melancholy of children estranged from and yet deeply affected by their diaspora from a socialist regime. The creation of music in this environment is something Vasquez believes helps to bridge the gaps in understanding and it offers a mode of expression for the inexpressible.
Moore describes American government as continuing to impose cultural controls over Cuba instead of welcoming plurality, as perhaps a truly liberal democratic nation should encourage. As a result, Cuban musical groups have extreme difficulty entering the U.S. Meanwhile, Cuba is still controlled by one ruling party, and oppositional views are suppressed, despite at times supporting from progressive actions. Moore seems interested in whether it is even possible for the Cuban government to democratize and liberalize while resisting the imperialistic influences of the U.S. And yet contrary to this, there still exists rich Cuban music in America, primarily as a result of there being a Cuban American community.
In some ways, however, this makes sense, given Cuba’s relationship with the U.S. and Latin America, considering that the U.S. has been imperialistic towards Cuba and Cuba has been sympathetic to communist movements in Latin America as representing an ideal of self-determination. This has fostered a Cuban defensiveness against American cultural encroachment, and support for cultural practices, including music-making, that reflect a Cuban people’s sovereignty.
This week, it was amazing to delve into the spiritual aspect of Cuba. It was interesting to see how the dynamics was between the government and practitioners of various faiths would change between intolerant and accepting. The way they (practitioners) would be sometimes penalized for even just the type of clothing they wore (e.g. white garb) reminded me a bit of how the modern Western society treats those of Islamic faith. It was also interesting to see that when the government was focused on dissipating the religious aspect of Cuba that it was aimed towards the children with acts like forbidding them from being baptized into any Afro Cuban religion. At the same time, as someone of the Ifa faith, it was good to learn more about one of its similar faiths (santeria) a little more. I especially was glad to know they used the same names for the deities that we use.
I found Moore’s chapter on Sacred music interesting because of the immense opposition the government had towards religion – both traditional forms like Santeria, and Catholicism. The bias towards Santeria could be connected to the racism towards Afro-Cubans, and Santeria was seen by some to be a barbaric practice. The Communist government attempted to remove religion from the Country to fit Marxist ideals. This seems to me to be an impossible task, as Marx put it, “religion is the opium of the people.” And naturally it was not successful in Cuba. Reading about this suppression of Religion was interesting, because originally I was surprised. However, this suppression of faith is quite common, we like to think of ourselves as accepting of all faiths today – this is however not true (as Ajani brought up about the Muslim Faith).
Like Vitalis, I was also very interested in the commodification of Afro-Cuban culture that took off in the 1970s and 1980s. As someone who is interested in the Cold War, learning about interactions between socialism and capitalism is fascinating to me, particularly in the reflexive nature of the two ideologies. By this I mean that though they can be viewed as binary, the two ideologies affect one another in their development over time. An example of this is the transformation of government opinions towards Afro-Cuban culture and tradition. Moore quotes Che Guevara in his thoughts on the absence of textbooks concerning Africa and its peoples in schools in 1964: “I see no more purpose in black people studying African history in Cuba than in my children studying Argentina… Black people need to study Marxist-Leninism, not African history.” However, this opinion deeply contrasts with Castro’s later definition of cubans as “an African Latin people” in 1976. Because the government recognized that support from the black community is crucial to the success of the revolution, it became necessary to valorize artistic forms that were previously considered “backward” and “primitive” (175). It is interesting to me that this “African Latin” nationality came to be commoditized, not for the success of the revolution, but as a capitalist exploitation that it focused less on celebrating Afro-Cuban culture and more on its capacity for exoticism.
On page 198, Moore tells us that “Communist Party doctrine guarantees citizens the right to devote themselves to any belief system as long as it does not incorporate antirevolutionary ideology,” which, admittedly, is very vague. But it’s still hard for me to make sense of this statement, especially after our discussion of how religion is usually antagonized in Marxist ideology (opiate of the masses). Did anything like this statement actually exist in Marx’s writings or in the doctrines of other communist regimes, or is it specific to Cuba?
I liked both reading and discussing this chapter because it gave us another angle to study socialist regimes, which I actually feel like this book/unit has consistently offered. Approaching both socialism and music from the lens of religion gave a new spin to the ideas of commodification and fetishization that have entered several of our discussions in previous classes and units, but were more attached to ideas of capitalism, distribution, and ownership. This time, in discussing the commodification of religious practices, it seems that the regime relied on the practice of commodifying these religious groups/ceremonies as a way to sort of making them less religious, and therefore less of a threat to the marxist agenda, but in effect didn’t they just create a different kind of “opiate” of entertainment? I think religion plays an interesting role in these discussions because it offers a sort of separate platform through which music can be consumed, and it has a sort of tense and sort of unreconciled relationship with socialist practices in itself.
Beyond this though it is important to remember that many of these “over commodified” traditions were that of the afro cuban religions, and it would be remiss to gloss over the impact that race relations had/have on these trends.
This week we discussed the shifting attitudes toward religion in Cuba. We learned about the level of discrimination faced by those who observed afro-cuban religions, such as Santeria and Yoruba, in pre-revolutionary Cuba under Batista. the afro-cuban religions were viewed as “obscurantist” and “backwards” by the Spanish and White Cubans. However, there was an implicit promise to an end of this sort of discrimination. The official policy of the CCP was one of neutrality toward religious practices. The first to respond to this policy of “neutrality” was the Cuban Catholic church, the laity within Cuba were mostly spanish and white, middle to upper class individuals who had the most to loose from the goals of the revolution. Once they began protesting, presenting an opinion oppositional to the CCP Castro responded by expelling “the majority of spanish priest and nuns from the island. ”
The practitioners of afro-cuban religions were free from the racist disapproval of their beliefs it seemed at first. But it did not take long to realize that the “largely white, middle-class revolutionary leadership did not approve of African-derived religions.” Although at first there was more religious freedom immediately after the revolution by the late 60’s it seemed as if the CCP could possibly be more repressive of religion than Batista was. Members of the CCP made arguments against afro-cuban religions based on “marxist doctrine,” “racial prejudices”, ill conceived notions of evolutionary religion considering Santeria as “earlier stage” religion, and Freudian based ideas of religious belief as “a symptom of mental disorder.”
However, Cuba has taken measures to preserve afro-cuban religious practices, creating groups that would stage religious ritual practice. This method of preservation presents problems. One, it takes the ritual out of their original context pulling all real meaning from it and preventing practitioners from fully participating. Two, it exoticizes the religion, presenting it as something people used to do but no longer do. Three, it causes misremembering, destroying the very thing it was meant to preserve.
Even with all of this state repression of religion we still see sacred rhythms make their way into popular music. In the 1970’s we also get Catholic liberation theology throughout all of Latin America which embraces Marxist critiques of capitalism, and notion of collectivism both in the positive (banding together, communal ideals) and negative (ideas of collective and institutional sin). With the Papacy of Francis we are seeing an embrace of liberation theology in the Church in a way we have never seen before. There is hope for revitalization of religion in Cuba.
This weeks section on Religion and Socialism was interesting for me as I feel it has been harder in past units to get a direct interpretation of Socialism’s effect on those religions associated with the folk genres and identities that Socialism often tries to claim in its search for ideologically appropriate material. I often wondered, in the Soviet section, what kind of folk religions and rituals were obscured when folk orchestras and notation were imposed. Here, it seems that while definitely opposed, African-Cuban religious customs have maintained a stronghold in the arts and in people’s lives. While it seems as if policies towards Yoruba practices and Santeria have relaxed in recent years, Moore writes that they still get very little radio and airtime. Middle class intellectuals are still ignorant to the philosophies behind the chants and melodies that inspire music they enjoy. Without consistent government support and, in fact despite occasional government opposition, these customs have managed to continue on. Can similar cases be made for religious folk traditions in China and Russia or is there something particularly resilient about these practices and this situation?
I found the idea and practice of “religious pop” in the reading we did for Wednesday particularly interesting. The adoption and appropriation of religion and spiritual material in commercial music in general is a curious intersection of fields in any culture but the 1950s Afro-Cuban context stands out.
In this context, religious pop was used by some to subtly express religious beliefs without censorship and consequences – this is an interesting way of using the platform of popular music, bringing an incredibly personal relationship, or set of feelings, onto the stage of popular, commercial music. Obviously it’s also a way of preserving certain traditions and practices, albeit with the possibility (over time) of misrepresenting and trivializing those practices.
I found this week’s discussion of race in regards to music in Cuba to be particularly interesting. Cuba is the first case of a former colony being the subject of our study and thus a unique set of race related issues arose, as documented by Moore. The most interesting for me was the head on comparison between Pedro Izquierdo and Enrique Bonne. The very basic distinctions between the receptions of their interpretations of Afro-cuban rhythms was so directly tied to which came as a surprise from a country that prided itself on being a post-racial society. This aspect of socialism is something that we haven’t really had to discuss in this manner before, furthermore the ways in which the culture of the Afro-cubans was monetized on an international scale by the Hispanic-cubans without due credit being attributed. The chapter on Santeria is another example of this, with traditional rhythms from the Yoruba religious ceremonies being taken by white and black Cubans alike and re-purposed for the sake of commercial value. I was reminded of the controversy which sprang from the popularity of Desi Arnaz and his character Ricky Ricardo’s use of “babalu” and the concern from Santeria practitioners over the co-opting of their traditions.
This week’s discussion brought attention to the topics of race and religion, which were not as present in the previous units on the USSR and China. The readings highlighted the complex interactions between the Socialist state of Cuba and Afro-Cuban cultural practices. Moore exposes the extent to which Cuban music has been shaped by deep racial divisions. I was intrigued by Moore’s description of the Afro-Cuban “religious pop” of the 1950s and how this hybrid genre appropriated aspects of Afro-Cuban sacred music into the context of the commercial music industry. Similarly in the 1990s, Afro-Cuban sacred music practices experienced increased tolerance, but emerged in the form of staged public performances. In response to this recent development, Moore cites Rogelio Martínez Furé who calls this commercialization of Afro-Cuban music as both “pseudo-folkorism” and “autoexoticism.” As a reader it is difficult to immediately dismiss the legitimacy of these staged performances. While these performances raise questions of authenticity, they still represent a significant shift of increased tolerance towards Afro-Cuban culture in Cuba.
It was interesting to me the differences in how the communist governments of USSR and China had a different approach to restricting religious practices. Was this due to which religions were prominent in each specific country at the time communism took over? Or was it more a result of the type of regime and those who were at the head of it. In the USSR, communism took over Russian Orthodoxy. In China, it was Buddhism and Christianity that were eliminated from the culture. And now in Cuba we see this mix of Catholicism and traditional Afro-Cuban religions being given a similar, but more benign treatment. In each case there is an inevitable loss to the culture, and a disconnect between what is offered to replace it. Whatever problems religion may cause, the importance of any religion as part of its culture is something that is dangerous to break. In doing so, music, language, and tradition are also eliminated. I think this can be seen by the frightening similarities between communist governments – the replacement of their leaders as a type of “god,” or even the fact that Cuba would send its young musicians to be educated in another communist country rather than by other Cuban musicians. It was interesting exploring the links between music and religion, and I think these links are even more intricately connected than one can see right away. Even more than the appropriation of religious symbols in popular culture, there is also the influence of popular culture on religion. While tradition is important, the most difficult and problematic religions for modern society are those which do not change as society changes. I think music plays a big role in this, and if this natural progression of influences is cut off, something important is lost.
During the rise of Cuban tourism in the 1970s and 1980s there was a focus on performing indigenous music. However, these performances were exaggerated with convulsions and overdramatized with dancers acting as if possessed by spirits. As we talked about in class, this was problematic because the performers were auto-exoticizing themselves and the music. The rituals were no longer being performed as a way of connecting spiritually, but rather to appeal to tourists, which led to a commodification of this culture. Although it can be argued that performing these rituals was empowering and provided a means of reflection for the dancers and singers, it also diluted the concentration of these ceremonies.
Like Vitalis and Isabelle, I was interested in the commodification of Afro-Cuban traditional and religious forms in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. To me, this trend, along with the drive to make these folkloric traditions palatable to the middle classes–a process that Moore tells us the similarly named Carlos Moore asserts is a form of cultural “whitening” and “de-Africanization (Moore 187)–seem to be an attempt by the regime to provide some outlet for musical forms, that, while not ideologically consistent with a strict Marxist perspective, are still deeply ingrained in people’s culture. Like the regime’s eventual acceptance of timba, albeit as a reward for workers, these partially distorted manifestations of traditional religious music are used as a tool to prevent unrest and anger. The contextual cut away from actual ritual and the transposition onto a stage such as that of the CFN necessarily changes the music and performance experienced. Though these traditions are somewhat supported by the state in this manner, as well as commercialized through the 1990s (especially for to gain the money of tourists in the newly opened tourism market) in what Rogelio Martinez-Fure calls “pseudo-folkorism” and “autoexoticism,” they are transformed and in my opinion, divorced from their original meaning and spiritual context. I will not simplify this complex topic nor define it as either “good” or “bad,” but in this process I can see a quality of the Cuban regime that differs greatly from the other regimes we studied. It seems that the Cuban government is more willing to put up with different forms of music, and although it seems to support the distortion and transformation of these forms, it is more open to musical variance than the Soviet Union or China. Music appears to be considered a useful tool, and while all three regimes tried to use music as such, Cuba seems to allow for the most diversity in musical forms, and quite soon after the revolution as well.
America is still bullying Cuba and is not allowing Cuban musicians to perform in the U.S. which is really a loss for the Americans. The Cuban youth are the driving force for creating new music. The young Cuban musicians trained in other Socialist countries had a unique experience because they were able to see how the other Communist countries ran. The American view of Communist countries is that they all work the same way but the differences are so interesting. (It’s unique that Cuba got to keep their religious music and practices for tourism).
The “indigenous” music performed for tourists was kind of disappointing. I understand that it is a tool to make more money but it’s taking away from the authentic practices. I think the performances for tourists fetishize the rituals and reflect the religion poorly. Ex: A dancer is “possessed” to a practitioner this is an important part of the ritual but to a tourist they can laugh and call it strange and weird.
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