". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Monday, April 27, 2009

Call of the Drum -- US Caribbean Communities & Cultural Identity

This was one of those weekends of intense, revelatory experiences. Saturday was particularly so.

The conference's title was ¡El Tambor Llama! Tanbou a Rele! The Drum Calls!: Sacred Drumming Traditions of Cuba, the Domincan Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico. It was attended beyond the dream of Elena Martinez, the organizer, of the City Lore cultural center. People flew in, even, from all over the country -- some of them because they learned of it from da List -- just to attend; they weren't presenters, though they present at conferences themselves. Among those who came up because of da List's heads-up it was happening were the dance dept. chairman of George Mason University, and the chairwoman of Tulane's dance dept.

This is both wonderful and unfortunate because there is so little money, and so few resources that could be called upon. I couldn't help but contrast how things were between a mere grad student ethnomusicology conference at Columbiafor grad students and our gallery at Hostos College, filled with high-achieving professionals in these areas of all kinds from cultural institutions, the most elite of Ivy Leagues universities, independent scholars, musicians, members of the communities, both as presenters and as the audience. At Columbia, all day platters of very nice food were available, coffee, water and juices. When it was finished, more and different food rolled out, along with wine and beer. All this for anyone there. The latino communities City Lore couldn't even provide coffee for the attendees. Best they could manage was coffee for the presenters. It seems so damned unfair.

It seems so damned unfair particularly because the people presenting, the people attending, were all so very brilliant and informed, and passionate about what they are doing, beyond degree or career. It was a conference that dealt with the spiritual function of music and dance via the drum, and it is safe to say that everyone there has experienced this spiritual transcendence personally. Beats that Columbia student blithering about the bravery and inspiration of Bayonce's pole dancing routines that nearly sent me screaming out of the room -- and would have except Vaquero kept firm hold of me.

This was a gathering of the tribes such as we had gotten used to in the days of the Cubans coming in regularly. And of the sort we haven't had since. But there is also a huge difference: this was a gathering out of more than the latino communities. This has never happened before, that the latino communites have seen common ground that matters more than language difference with the French Caribbean. And Cuba is the mother-center for all this. Also, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have steered away from considering themselves black, but this seems to be changing, with the deep emphasis now on the Afro of Afro-latin. Woo! It was wild.

This has been going on for the last couple of decades, as we've learned in the Caribbean itself, this surge to find what it has all in common in terms of community and identity and culture. But wehaven't seen this broadly in the U.S. Now too -- which was not the case at all until just the last 4 years, New Orleans counts as an essential vector in that drive to explore and discover the African diaspora and the Afro-Caribbean history. The basis is the commonality of our cultural Kongo roots in language, dance, expression, gesture and music. The electricity crackled in that airless, way too warm college art gallery(naturally this took place on an extra-early hot weekend, and the a/c was not in play -- though the art is brilliant and made that space the opposite of the usual conference grim souless space). Over and over again, Cuban and Its Music and The World That Made New Orleans were refered to, as source and inspiration.

Every copy of the books that we brought up there were sold within a couple of hours. If we'd had them we could have sold three times as many -- and this is to people who really don't have deep financial resources. Ivor Miller's book -- the only book that exists in this area, just came out, The Voice of the Leopard, that deals with the Abakuá societies in Cuba and the Cross Rivers regions of the Calabar, is priced at over $50, from the University of Mississippi, and every copy Ivor brought was sold. All the merchandise brought by the presenters sold unexpectedly well, including mugs that said, "We Honor Haiti." Outside there were three different Haitian vodun altars of the greatest beauty.

There were four music groups that played Saturday. The first was Alexander LaSalle's Bomba group Alma Moyó. They were performance illustration for Dr. Robert Farris Thompson's keynote, which broke down for us out of various Caribbean art works Kongo gesture and expression (that was worth attending just by itself -- beyond worthwhile even, so briliantly does Master T swing! And people did attend particularly to have the opporunity to hear the brilliant man who has become a legend in his own time.

In the evening, after dinner break (which was so short because people just couldn't stop talking and asking questions) there was a 3-group concert in the Hostos Theater -- which does regularly host latin and folk group music series. It sold out. The core audience, because of where we are located here in the Bronx, is Puerto Rican, but nearly now out-numbered by Dominicans. This is not a Haitian community, and the Cubans have mostly decamped for New Jersey.Vaquero was the emcee; he introduced each group with remarks about their background, cracking funny and wise -- and most importantly, briefly. The audience loved him, and responded to everything he said wildly.

These three groups were, first, Pa'lo Monte, a group that works with traditional sacred drumming, dancing and singing from the Dominican Republic and Haiti. They perform palo, salve, gagá, congo and saradunga, the rhythms and melodies of the 'forest' or uncultivated wilderness.

The Proyecto Enyenison Enkama is a Cuban Abakuá group from New Jersey, that has attempted to re-establish a lodge and all the Abakuá traditions here for the ex-patriated Cuban Abakuás. The first Afro-Latin ceremony I ever witnessed was an Abakuá initiation on my first full day in Cuba, in Matanzas de Cuba, in the home cabildo (lodge) of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, with Diosdado playing one of the iremes -- for some reason their old Carbali name, nañíga, or in Cuba also, 'diabolito,' have come to be regarded as insulting. All three terms were in use that broiling hot day I spent at the Uribon Ifi, (est. 1863) in Matanazas. It was the first time I'd seen iremes, and I had no idea what I was seeing then, but was determined to learn, as far as it was possible. This group re-created a performance of an Abukuá community ritual (as opposed to the secret society member-only kinds) complete with two iremes. They knocked the freakin' house down the ground.

I realized that the first time most of this audience, generally child-bearing and raising age, had seen anything of the Cuban traditional forms in music and dance, was here, in this theater, as kids, with their parents, on that first tour los Muñequitos made in the U.S. -- Vaquero's work. And since the bushcrimesyndicate hammer came down this whole generation has grown up, and is raising families, and hasn't seen anything direct from Cuba in all that time, and are starved for it! The audience had gone crazy before hand, when he spoke of the Cuban embargo and how we can't go there because it is US that keeps us out of Cuba and Cubans out of US.

This was followed by the vnerable (est. 1973) California Haitian vodun group, La Troupe Makandal. Vaquero's introduction included references to how Haiti and Haiti's Revolution is kept out of all the official narratives of history. He mentioned the first book to grapple with this, Black Jacobins, and the audience response startled him -- unlike most audiences, this one knew the book The applause was deafening.

When the whole concert was finished the audience just kept applauding and applauding. It was then I realized I was witness to the tipping point for areas like NYC and California, at least, that have electorally significant Caribbean populations -- they are no longer divided. They are reaching out to each other, and their narrative is the connected Caribbean, in history, in colonialism, in slavery, in culture and spiritual roads. This was more exciting than I can express -- that's obvious as I write this woefully inadequate description. It's thrilling because we are a part of it, and have in our own way, been helpful for this happening, with the Qbadisc record label, the Cuban groups' tours, and now, with the books and articles and presentations.

What a privilege.

The contrast behind Friday and Saturday might be summed up like this: "The Pictures Generation exhibit, and the music of Rhys Chatham, "Guitar Trio," performed out of that on Friday night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art may be the last generation in art we see in which the retrospective participants are ALL WHITE."

Vaquero and I kept wondering what "Guitar Trio" (which was actually played with a sextet of guitarists) would have sounded like Friday night if the drummer, the bass player and at least one of the guitarists were African American, or Afro Latin musicians. It would have swung, for one thing.

Also, what if Call of the Drum had the equiavalent state and city underwriting that it provided The Pictures Generation exhibit and the "Guitar Trio" concert?


Renegade Eye said...

I saw Olatunji live a few times.

I know an Afro-Cuban style drummer who lives here, who had a chance to meet him. He dressed in a dashiki for the occasion, only to find Olatunji dressed completely western.

Foxessa said...

Olatunji is Nigerian, not Cuban.

I haven't ever seen an African wear a dashiki, I think. That was an Afro-American 'black power' iirc. Maybe some South Africans wore dashikis way back in apartheid days? For some reason those African American political-style movements always modeled themselves on Africans that were never brought here via the Middle Passage.

Like speaking swahili. Whihc was a dialect created by the Islamic slave traders in order to communicate with the southeastern African slavers who brought them their merchandise, that was shipped to southeast Asia, Turkey, etc.

See what happens when one is ignorant of history AND geography?

Love, C.

Renegade Eye said...

I know Olatunji isn't Cuban. His concerts are my primitive drum experiences.

Foxessa said...

Um, Ren? Nigerian drumming is the most sophisticated in the world. Only drum traditions from India are it's equal.

Trust me on this. I know what I'm talking about.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

You want primitive drumming?

Listen to Heavy Metal or any of the hair bands.