Review | Rebel Dance, Renegade Stance: Timba Music and Black Identity in Cuba by Umi Vaughn
Rebel Dance, Renegade Stance: Timba Music and Black Identity in Cuba. By Umi Vaughn, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2012. [xii, 203 p. ISBN 9780472118489. $27.95.] Photos, references, index.
Despite the fact that the Cuban timba phenomenon has been one of the most remarkable and widespread developments in popular dance music in recent decades, few English-language publications have sought to explore its significance for Cuban society or globalized culture. For two decades bands have toured internationally, and the timba dance style has been assimilated into salsa and social dance circuits in North America and Europe. Timba continues to be a central part of social life for many Cubans and thus has a place within the long history of Cuban music and dance crazes that have flourished and circulated since the late 19th-century. Named with a slang word simply meaning ‘music,’ timba emerged during the crisis of the 1990s, known as the Special Period. A time of social transformation, food and energy shortages, and political disaffection, the bleakness of the decade stands in strong contrast to the colorful, high energy sounds and often ribald lyrics of timba music. In contrast to the existing literature, which has emphasized the music’s links with salsa dance music and the nascent Cuban tourism industry, in Rebel Dance Renegade Stance: Timba Music and Black Identity in Cuba, author Umi Vaughn examines timba as a manifestation of African diaspora practices, which creates a Black cultural space within the Cuban nation. The book will be a tempting read for Cuba watchers, curious salsa fans, and those interested in popular culture and the African diaspora.
The book is organized into seven chapters, the last two being short personal reflections. In chapter one, the author lays out three basic concepts through which he seeks to understand timba spaces. First, locating timba within the African diaspora, the author takes the unity of music and dance as a social force, and as evidence of its continuity with African traditions. Second, he proposes the concept of the maroon aesthetic, which refers to how timba reflects a spirit of struggle and creativity through techniques of “raiding” and “use of old principles to improvise new styles” (3). Here, he draws on Amiri Baraka’s concept of the changing same to underscore the continuity of Black cultural expression rooted in African musical traditions. He frames timba as a mode of opposition, which draws resources from within the system and operates in conflict and complicity with the state apparatus and mainstream culture (4). Third, the author introduces the concept of performance to refer to the communication between singers and audiences, and to the actions of self-presentation and sociality in timba spaces. Thus the author sets up the book’s central claim: that timba represents the continuation of old ways of surviving and making culture characteristic of the African diaspora (9).
After establishing a framework for the interpretation of timba as productive of Black cultural space, in the second chapter, the author turns to the music. He locates timba within a tradition of “hybrid forms and mulato [sic] styles” in Cuba, such as son and danzón, that have been despised and rejected prior to mainstream acceptance (16). Here the author draws a parallel between timba and musics defined broadly as subaltern, including reggae, hip-hop, samba and jazz. He emphasizes quotation of hip-hop, funk, and jazz, as well as similarities with Trinidadian soca, and Congolese soukous (23). The description underscores the ways in which “timba is produced by Cuban musicians in dialogue with other African musics” (Ibid.). The style description focuses on musical features that reflect a “similar spirit of eroticism, aggression, and ‘African revival’ in different genres of popular music/dance from the Black Atlantic” (39). Features such as fragmentation of the traditional bass rhythm or tumbao, rhythmic and percussive use of horns in strident registers, and an emphatic vocal style attributed to the direct influence of rap, for example, are said to contribute to timba’s aggressive sound (27, 28).
Timba’s African revivalist tendencies manifest differently in music and dance according to the author, although this observation departs from the initial stance that “music and dance are one” (2). Citing that the anticipated bass rhythm or “tumbao [sic] of son has been left behind” the author argues that timba represents a major departure from traditional Cuban popular dance music (27). To the contrary, he concludes that timba dance styles “besides summarizing and extending the Cuban popular dance tradition through movement and gesture also emphasize the African roots that nourished it” (39). He uses examples of solo and group formations, and sensuality to exemplify timba’s African roots. Taken together, these observations reflect shifts emphasizing transnational over national musical expressions. The chapter closes with an anecdote illustrating the maroon spirit of timba in which a famous bandleader bests an arrogant TV host with a virtuoso performance.
The central portion the author’s argument and ethnography is presented in chapter three. Here, he proposes and illustrates the concept of Afro Cuba as a socio-cultural space existing within and yet separate from the nation. He describes the lived experience of blackness in Cuba in terms of discrimination and marginalization. From casually pronounced but deeply racist remarks, physical descriptions reinforcing notions of black inferiority, to the tactics of the informal economy, the author documents day-to-day experiences of Afro-Cubans during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Through interviews and photographic portraits, he presents evidence of the “inclusionary discrimination” that characterizes the relationship between Afro Cuba and the nation at large (72). Central to these descriptions are examples of gendered self-presentation, marriage, romance, and desire; however, in the overall argument gender analysis remains largely absent. Here, the author focuses on Cuba’s historical Black social spaces, from the slave barracks of colonial Cuba to the social clubs of the Republican era. Underscoring the absence of such institutions today, he claims that public dances (bailes públicos) in particular, and timba in general, constitute the spaces par excellence of Black identity and sociality (70, 108, 119).
Chapter three concludes with the assertion that a distinct Afro-Cuban culture has developed within the Cuban nation as a form of embodied knowledge passed down since colonial times (79). Here, a clarification of the sense in which he uses the term embodiment would have been useful. The concept has been applied to phenomena as various as first person experience, being-in-the-world as social interaction, the body as a physical structure, and cultural memory. Here, the author describes how timba expresses Afro Cuba’s unique experiences, as well as its alignment with the nation, through an analysis of the lyrics to “El Poeta de la Rumba” by Mario “Mayito” Rivera (formerly of Los Van Van). Through recollection of painful history and imagery of drums and dancing, the author reads Rivera’s lyric as an assertion of Black identity in line with a history of Afro-Cuban leaders and thinkers, which “recognizes the progress being made by the black man in Cuba” (78). Noting that the singer invokes mixture as racial democracy, “aqui to’ el mundo esta mezclao” (here everyone is mixed), the author explains that Rivera engages in the project of nation building rather than separatism (Ibid.). The conclusion “timba, the music of Cuba now, is black music, maroon music: mestizaje musical, música mulata, musical mixture,” at once elides different notions of mixture and identity, and underscores the construction of blackness through national culture. This sets up the examination of timba spaces in chapters four and five.
In chapter four, the reader encounters the Speculator, a type of young man who dresses fashionably, speaks in neighborhood slang, and otherwise performs identity in timba spaces. Examples from throughout the African diaspora underscore how young Black men use clothing, speech, and gesture to perform and transform identity in order to escape experiences of limitation, senses of inferiority, and unattractiveness enforced by racist societies (105). Comparisons across the African diaspora include early 20th- century sapeurs from Congo, contemporary hyphy boys from Oakland, among others. Using Fernando Ortiz’s description of 18th- and 19th-century negros curros (Sp. flashy blacks) as historical precedent, he argues that the role structure for the Speculator emerges from Cuban “folk wisdom” (82).
Chapter five describes and compares three types of timba spaces, highlighting the public dances (bailes públicos) as the location of Afro Cuba. The author describes how people tend to organize themselves spatially according to social status at public dances, and proposes a typology of spaces in which the free public dances are set in opposition to commercial dance venues. Using the juke continuum as a comparison, the distinction rests on the basis that commercial spaces charge entrance fees, require official sanction to operate, and have no direct precursor in the African past (110). In contrast, he claims that the public dances reflect an extension of the cabildo tradition. Organized by free Africans to mitigate the trauma of enslavement, these colonial institutions functioned as mutual aid associations that served to establish African cultural practices in Cuba. Arguing that public dances represent continuity with cabildos both in forms of expression, such as call and response, and as Black social space, he concludes that through timba they produce Black identity in Cuba. The two final chapters, present the author’s reflections on identity and his personal experiences while doing fieldwork in Cuba. Here he re-asserts the importance of dance and the maroon aesthetic for contemporary scholarship on the African diaspora.
While the book presents a vivid portrait of the lived experience of blackness in contemporary Cuba, the central arguments about timba music and identity do not seem to reach their full potential. By framing of timba as a response to the Special Period that was informed by the everyday lives of Afro-Cubans, the author rightly separates the cultural dynamics of music from a deterministic relationship with abstract forces such as globalization, economics, or tourism. The argument thus promises a perspective on how communities exert a measure of autonomy by using musical processes to experience, define, and shape identity, relationships, and social life. Despite the claim that timba produces a mode of being, music and dance appear tangential to the author’s discussion and analysis of timba spaces. A subtle mismatch arises between the types of arguments the author sets out to make and the evidence presented. Due to elisions among the three approaches to Black music and identity operating in the book, much remains implicit and unexplained about the relationship between music and racial identity.
Obliquely introducing Fernando Ortiz’s concept of national culture, broadly defined as a mixture of African and Hispanic cultures, the author declines to identify how such Afrocubanist discourses may inform responses to and interpretations of timba (16, 28, 75, 133). The use of Ortiz’s concept of transculturation seems to affirm Cuban self-understanding, and furthermore raises the issue of the production of anthropological knowledge countering U.S./Anglo hegemony (Coronil 1995). Nonetheless, the concept has been strongly criticized by scholars in the U.S. for its racializing tendencies (Helg 1990, Moore 1994, 1997, Coronil 1995, Hagedorn 2001). Although the author uses transculturaion to encompass any form of culture contact, a response to its critical reception is warranted. As a result of the omission, arguments and evidence presented often lack specificity in their attribution of racial and ethnic terms. Scholars argue that ethnonyms have specific local connotations in Cuba, in addition to indicating continuities with African traditions and/or communities (Palmié 2008). In the context of national culture, identifying African elements or the “Africanness” of Cuban music produces knowledge quite different to that of Africanist scholarship, which nevertheless shares an interest in tracing continuities with African traditions. Thus when the author cites the musician Cesar Pedroso saying “what we call timba today, the despelote [sic]– all of it is nothing more than African dance,” it leaves the reader wondering what “Africa” the musician invokes (39).
As Ortiz cataloged and gave value to African features of expressive traditions through the discourses of Afrocubanism, he was largely interested in identifying the codes of racialized culture. Ortiz thus defined modern Cuban ethnicity, a category usefully thought of as constructing the boundaries internal to the nation (Barth cited in Stokes 1994:6). Once defined and objectified as musical elements, the African features of Cuba’s popular traditions could be appreciated, and appropriated by elite artists for their “universal” values (Moore 1994). Unsurprisingly, Ortiz’s ethnographic observations and literary methods incorporated many of the dominant ideologies of his time (Coronil 1995). Citing European anthropologists, such as Amaury Talbot and H.H. Johnston, Ortiz takes up tropes including eroticism and primitivism in his discussions of the African elements of Cuban folklore. The body becomes a focus for the construction of social difference through his interpretations of cultural practices. Referring to dance, Ortiz asserts, “[f]or no other form of artistic expression is the primitive man better equip. His body is incomparably more flexible than that of the civilized races” (Ortiz  1993:128, my translation). With a gaze similar to the European ethnographers he cites, Ortiz attributed racialized difference to cultural expressions.
Ortiz’s concept of transculturation falls within the broader purview of Latin American discourses of mestizaje, which were used to legitimate modern nation-states by propounding an ideology of racial democracy. Later scholars critiqued mestizaje as an elite strategy, which perpetuates a fundamentally binary racial hierarchy (Safa 1998, Martínez-Echazábal 1998). While discredited as a mode of racial democracy, some scholars argue that critical approaches to mestizaje or miscegenation reveal the role of sex and gender in the formation and maintenance of racial hierarchies (Stoler 1995, Stolcke and Coello 2008). Thus the often noted sensuality and eroticism observed in timba spaces points less directly to African origins, than to the racial ideologies of Cuban social hierarchies. In the absence of a critical review of Cuban national culture, the author forecloses on the possibility of gender analysis, by naturalizing structures of desire, erotic emotion, and sexuality, which by his own account pervade timba.
In order to make sense of how timba plays a role in the production of Black identity in Cuba, the author draws on African diaspora, nationalist musicology, and Black Atlantic approaches. Initially setting out to examine the creation of national culture in Cuba during a time of crisis and transformation through timba (1), he follows Ortiz among others, in taking music as the clearest articulation of Cuban identity (16, 75). He then establishes an interpretative framework focused on features of the African diaspora and Black Atlantic performance. Thus tacitly shifting the objective, the goal of the book becomes contextualizing timba within the African diaspora and describing it as a mode of opposition and a technology of self. Problems arise in aligning these later arguments with evidence dominated by methods and reasoning based on the assumptions of Cuban nationalist musicology.
In the case of the Speculators such a mismatch of argument and evidence occurs. Here the author claims “that there is a call and response of self-performance that parallels the musical call and response acknowledged as essential to African-based music” (80). This establishes an argument about what the author cites as “technologies of self,” leading the reader to consider how individuals project subjectivity through their participation in musical events (98). The author relies, however, on evidence of word usage and the analysis of song lyrics to substantiate his claim. Observers comment on what it means, in common parlance, “to speculate” (92). They characterize the actions of speculating variously as self-aggrandizing, or self-expressive, but the individuals interviewed do not count themselves among the Speculators (Ibid.). The author draws further evidence of the Speculator from the lyrics of Paulito FG’s “De La Habana.” In this hit song, the lead singer poses the question to the audience: “Where are the speculators?” When performed, this song certainly provides a medium for interaction between the lead signer and the audience. The analysis, however, focuses on the song lyrics and not on cases of performance. The discussion of Speculators omits the voices of Speculators entirely. Evidence does not point to the use of music as a technology of self, as the author suggests. Such an approach requires evidence of the subjective uses of music, and its experiential significance for participants. This reader is left wondering who the Speculators are, and what informs their identity performances.
Similarly the discussion of timba spaces loses sight of musical experience and ascribes significance, in this case, through non-musical and non-ethnographic indices. Although he begins with the idea that all venues under consideration “share timba as a medium of social (inter)action,” the analysis does not follow through on this interesting proposition (106). The initial assertion that music organizes social interaction might illuminate particularly Cuban conceptions of identity. Instead the underlying differentiation of the spaces revolves around entrance fees, commercial interest, and the official sanction required for operating those spaces (106). Of the three types of venues presented, only the free public dances are Black cultural spaces, due to their open access and seemingly low degree of official sanction (108).
The idea that public dances go on unregulated in Cuba, notwithstanding, the explanation of identity presented has less to do with music than initially suggested. Rather the author focuses on ways that the public dances extend the cabildo tradition and operate like U.S. Black cultural spaces in the juke continuum (110). The argument linking timba to cabildos through musical elements such as call and response actually derails the analysis of how timba organizes social interaction and identity (62). Operating on an assumption of how music signifies identity through continuity with historic African cultural institutions, this aspect of the argument obscures a good deal of contemporary social and historical context. Ultimately the author presents too little discussion of how music mediates social relationships in timba spaces to support the broad claim that “timba produces the contours of social relationships in Cuba today” (24). As musical experience becomes sidelined in the typology of timba spaces, differences among the venues are reduced to economic status.
The overall logic of the arguments made and evidence presented reinforces the association of blackness with marginality, despite the overwhelming importance of timba in generating hard currency for both individuals and the state during the Special Period. Despite the assertion of the importance of dance for contemporary studies of the African diaspora, the author cannot deliver a detailed and compelling explanation of timba and Black identity in Cuba, largely due to slippages between central claims and the evidence presented. The book proposes a timely and important project but lacks consistent follow-through on its promise to analyze dancing and being. Its broader interest is thus unfortunately limited.
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E.K. Batiuk is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.