Review | Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music by Alexandra T. Vazquez

Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music. By Alexandra T. Vazquez. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013. [xii, 333 p. ISBN 9780822354550. $25.] Notes, photographs, references, index.

Reviewed by Teresa Sanchez


Alexandra T. Vazquez’s groundbreaking book Listening in Detail alters the coordinates of Cuban music scholarship; it focuses on the places that comprise “Greater Cuba” (especially Paris, New York, New Orleans, Mexico City) and shines light on key Cuban musicians who have too often been left in the shadows, such as Graciela Pérez. Vazquez leads readers through a series of details-as-portals that illuminate idiosyncrasies about Cuba, its music, and the bodies that produced it. To Vazquez, details are bits of history left unattended, “fugitive and essential living components that contribute in very specific ways to an event and its aftermath” (19).  For example, she devotes an entire chapter to the detail that is the infamous grunt of mambo king Dámaso Pérez Prado. Vazquez demonstrates how listening in detail is a strategy to “listen closely to and assemble that inherited lived matter that is both foreign and familiar into something new” (8).

Furthermore, Vazquez’s book rejects the assumption that “Cuban music” is an object that can be known, and does not pretend to be a comprehensive account of Cuban music; rather, it is a playful and heartfelt interaction with Cuban music. Drawing on scholarship from both on and off the island, Vazquez urges her reader to live a different relationship to Cuba, the revolution, and the polemics that define the discourse on Cuba. She pushes us to listen harder, consider alternate pasts, presents, and futures, and to embrace all the pleasures and difficulties related to Cuba and its music. For Vazquez, the two central questions that guide the book are: “What do Cuba and the US have to do with each other?” and “What do the musicians actually sound like?”

Vazquez begins with an analysis of Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez’s 1996 album Cuba Linda through the lens of early 20th century literary anthologies and revues; in doing so, she presents a far-reaching discussion of the production of knowledge. Vazquez demonstrates that Cuba Linda, like Cuba itself, resists coherence and cannot be neatly codified—the album disrupts the normal order of how Cuban music is understood. For example, Cuba Linda forces its listeners to hear the intertwined histories of jazz and Cuban music, a theme that is repeated throughout the book. Vazquez pushes for an understanding that does not place Cuban jazz as derivative of American jazz, but rather as branches of the same tree, with the same roots. In focusing our attention on the disparate people and places that somehow went into the creation of the album, and by extension, Cuba itself, the chapter produces a nuanced history that arrives at dark and unexpected corners. Vazquez ends the chapter with stirring backstories and evocative descriptions of the eight tracks on Cuba Linda.

The second chapter centers on the prolific career of Cuban singer Graciela Pérez (1915-2010), often relegated in history to the shadows behind her famous brother, Machito. In focusing on Graciela’s international movements, interactions, and musical stylings, Vazquez presents a transnational feminist genealogy of Cuban music. Graciela also influenced the author in many important and subtle ways, as Vazquez explains: “Graciela Pérez trained me to move past questions of access, to methodologically improvise, and to see vital intellectual diversions made by all of the subversive intellectuals who have not only shaped this book, but also its author” (125).

The signature grunt of mambo king Dámaso Pérez Prado is the subject of chapter three—the grunt’s various meanings, adaptations, and how it reflects the mambo genre itself. Through a history of Pérez Prado’s various extended trips, Vazquez emphasizes once again that Cuban bodies and music are products of transnational movement and collaboration. Furthermore, Vazquz uses the grunt to emphasize the limits of knowledge, naming, and writing, arguing that the grunt has the power to disrupt any attempt at making “Cuban music” knowable. Pérez Prado’s grunt “places exceptional pressure on such containment and differentiation by virtue of its extramusical, off the page, and unpredictable, though perfectly timed entrances and exits in music” (141).

The fourth chapter examines musical details from two documentaries: Nosotros, la musica (1964) and Y…tenemos sabor (1967) directed by Rogelio París and Sara Gomez, respectively. The details Vazquez brings to the fore are used to explore the possible relationships to Cuban music and the polemics of the revolution. Both París and Gomez embrace the unstable geographies and identities that comprise Greater Cuba in their films. The music of their films not only celebrates that instability but also focuses attention on the long history of collaboration that Cuban musicians have had with non-Cuban musicians.

In the final chapter, Vazquez does important work in that she analyzes Cuban relationships with Cuba alongside Korean and Vietnam experiences. I see this as Vazquez trying to push the field open between these seemingly disparate places. Vazquez discusses the fallout at a Los Van Van concert in Miami, where there was a group of people protesting. She also shares the hopeful poetics of X Alfonso, a fusion rocker.

With this book, Vazquez has made an important step in altering the discourse on Cuban music. She challenges the idea that Cuban music as a monolithic entity that can be known; she challenges the de facto sexism embedded in its history. She demonstrates how one can write poetically and rigorously about music. She reminds her readers that it is as important to ask questions as it is to answer them, and that sometimes it is necessary to dwell in that which cannot be known. However, Vazquez repeats the mistake frequently made in Cuban studies of using the term “Afro-Cuban” to refer to individuals. I take issue with this term because darker skinned Cubans almost never use “Afro-Cuban” or “afrocubano” as a way to identify themselves. Vazquez glosses over this important detail and, in doing so, imposes a US-based racial understanding on the Cuban context and weakens her overall discussions on race.

With its imaginative, beautiful prose and broad themes of post-colonialism, race, feminism, and the production of knowledge, Listening in Detail would be an edifying read for most, although Cuba and Cuban music specialists stand the most to gain.

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