"Dame dame dame, que te voy a dar ... una guayabita de mi guayabal."


Get an identity!

Here's something I presented at the Society for Ethnomusicology meeting in Atlanta last year. The photo is by François Graf, of the Petronio Álvarez Festival of Music of the Pacific in August of last year.

“Music, multiculturalism, and ethnogenesis: Blackness and credible identity in Colombia”
Michael Birenbaum Quintero
Ph.D. Candidate
New York University

On the 50th anniversary of ethnomusicology, we might consider the change in the discipline’s standing since the adoption of multiculturalism by the US academy. Multiculturalism, by which I mean a field of discourse rather than the pre-existent condition of multiculturality, is a tide that has lifted the boats of many of the ethnological disciplines, ours among them. Multiculturalism depends on us ethnologists, as producers of the logos about the ethnos that multiculturalism needs to exist. Ethnomusicology is particularly important because the wide circulation of music in the age of digitalization and the cultural market gives special weight to our representations of musical culture. But even as multiculturalism has incorporated us into the academic job market as the purveyors of Music of the World 101, we are often ghettoized within music departments still frequently centered on European classical music. Our disciplinary imbrication in multiculturalism makes it necessary for us to look at some of its underlying principles. A good way to do so is to look at some of its manifestations in other parts of the world, where its instantiations under specific local dynamics reveal aspects of the multiculturalist ideology more difficult to see in more familiar domestic settings.

One place to look is Latin America, where in the last 15 years, nation-states across the region have redefined their national identities through new constitutions which replace the myth of homogeneity through race mixture with the (equally constructed) notion of peaceful coexistence in the “multicultural, pluriethnic” nation. In Colombia, which French anthropologist Cristian Gros calls a “hero of multiculturalism” (quoted Agudelo), the “multicultural” Constitution of 1991 recognized special rights for indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and Rom (or gypsy) ethnic minorities.

The Afro-Colombian claims to official ethnic minority status (and rights) were not easily conceded by the state. Afro-Colombians do not exhibit the clear alterity of indigenous people, who with their distinct languages and cultural practices have long embodied the role of the Other in the Colombian imagination. Black Colombians occupy a more liminal space, largely incorporated into, if marginalized within, mainstream society (Wade 1993) and with pronounced regional, generational, and cultural differences. This lack of a clearly delineated black identity threatened to exclude Afro-Colombians from the space offered within the multicultural state. The resultant need for a unified ethnocultural identity has spawned a process of identity creation by local activists and academics, which Colombian scholars (Cf. Pardo, ed.) have called “ethnogenesis.” It is no coincidence that the traditional music of Colombia’s largely rural and majority black Pacific coast has played an important role in this process of ethnogenesis.

I want to suggest in this paper that multiculturalism deals with those kinds of difference that are recognizable (Keane) as different; as anthropologist Livio Sansone puts it, while there are “increasing opportunities to manifest oneself as different, the ways in which difference is expressed are remarkably similar.”(5) If multiculturalism consistently demands particular kinds of difference, then our task is to look at what those kinds of difference are, and how they are constructed. This is especially true because the ethnographer’s delineation of a subject for ethnographic research has frequently obeyed a similar logic. (Cf. Gupta & Ferguson, Clifford, Clifford & Marcus) The Afro-Colombian case is interesting (but far from unique) in ethnomusicological terms because music is central to this process in which identity is legitimized in order to enter state institutions and the market. I want to highlight two questions of particularly ethnomusicological interest within this process. Firstly, why is it that music is so central in this process? Secondly, I want to look at the ways in which music is put to use in the legitimization of identity in order to answer a more fundamental question lurking within multiculturalism: what exactly makes an identity credible? Our ability as a discipline to address this question is a way to think through ethnomusicology’s complex relationship with multiculturalism.

I. Music and the demonstration of difference
An anthropologist who served in the assemblies that debated the official recognition of an Afro-Colombian ethnicity in the 1991 Constitution, remembers that for the state, “there was a paradigm of negation, [... in which] Afro-Colombian or black cultures ... did not exist. They very explicitly expressed the idea that the notion of Afro-[Latin] American ethnicity and culture was an opportunistic invention [... and that] in Colombia there was only a mestizo culture and an indigenous culture, and that indigenous culture ... could be considered profoundly differentiated, but that the rest was a uniform mass ...” (Jaime Arocha, Interview, March 31, 2005, Bogotá) In the middle of one debate on the subject, a group of black activists who also participated in the assemblies made their presentation. “What we did,” recalls one activist, “was bring the culture right there into the session. We sang alabaos [traditional funeral songs from the Pacific coast] ... And that just stopped the debate. They just sat their with their mouths open because we’d demonstrated that we do have a cultural identity, that we do things that the rest of Colombians don’t.” (p.c., May 1, 2005, Bogotá)

In this session, there was no dead community member to sing funeral songs to. But easing a spirit’s journey to the afterlife was not the point – what was at stake here was the demonstration of difference. This exemplifies the relationship between two concepts that are blurred in the word “culture.” One is material or expressive culture, that is, handicrafts, music, dance, and narratives produced within a certain cultural logic. The second is cultural logic itself: ways of being, understanding the world, and relating to other people. Under multiculturalism, it is increasingly aspects of material/expressive culture that are evoked to delineate, identify, or justify the existence of a particular cultural logic, a kind of “we dance (differently) therefore we are (different.)”

This fits with the definition of culture put forward by Unesco: “culture should be considered the compound of distinctive spiritual and material, intellectual and affective features that characterize a society or a social group ... Diversity is manifested in the originality and plurality of the identities that characterize the groups and societies that make up humanity.” (Unesco, quoted Pizano Mallarino, et al.) The key word here is “characterize” which next to the constant references to diversity and distinction, implies a recognition and valorization of the fundamental difference of unproblematically delineated “groups” or “societies.” Here, in typically multiculturalist style, culture is less a way of being than a logo that legitimizes a group’s position as different from other groups. Within this logic, the act of exhibiting a culture to some unmarked and panoptic interlocutor is as important – if not more so – than the act of living it.

It is not coincidental that music is the cultural logo that is used to demonstrate the existence of Afro-Colombian cultural difference. Music is visceral in such a way that difference is easily perceived even in intercultural settings. Let’s listen to a snippet of this music of Colombia’s southern Pacific coast, commonly called “currulao,” which includes marimba, percussion, and female singers. In the case of “currulao,” the exotic timbres of the singer’s voices and the marimba, and its rhythmic but unfamiliar 6/8 meter embody the cultural difference the music stands in for. Music is also an ideal vehicle for claiming cultural difference because of its plasticity, particularly with the rise of digital technology. Whether as CD, performance, video, transcription, or mp3, music is eminently transportable, and as a presence in the market, allows for the diffusion of representations of cultural difference. This last is particularly important within “neoliberal multiculturalism” (Restrepo 280, Hall 210), in which participation in the market (whether as product or as consumer) is seen as the way to solve problems of cultural difference. Finally, as Radano has noted, notions of musicality and blackness have been linked since the first contacts between Europeans and Africans, making music present in representations of black alterity worldwide. Colombia is no exception, and it is largely for this reason that Afro-Colombian cultural activists first began politicizing “currulao” in their claims to cultural difference and particular cultural rights. What they have used music to show, and what the multicultural state has asked them to show, are the criteria for credible identity, and it is to these criteria and their functioning in the musical discourse around Afro-Colombian ethnogenesis, that I turn now.

II. What is credibly different?

The cultural forms mobilized to establish black specificity derive not from all cultural forms practiced by black Colombians, but specifically from those which exhibit the most African, or African-sounding characteristics, primarily Pacific coast “currulao” and certain Atlantic coast musics like bullerengue. Despite the fact that 70% of the Afro-Colombian population lives in large cities, mostly outside the Pacific coast, or that the 30% that live in rural areas have long since adopted musics like salsa, reggaetón, rap, and vallenato, the incorporation of these transnationally-disseminated musics into local black forms of sociality, space, and ludic practice lacks the kind of demonstrable specificity that would delineate black communities from the rest of Colombian society, which also enjoy these musics, if in different ways.
Even those traditional musics practiced by black musicians in other regions of the country which exhibit more creolization with non-black groups play a marginal or non-existent role in the consolidation of black identity in Colombia, even though a major part of the Afro-Colombian experience has been precisely these processes of cross-ethnic cultural mixture, interaction and mutual appropriation. This erasure makes the particularity of the “blacker” Pacific coast stand in for Colombian blackness in general.

That is to say that the etic and academic notion of “which Colombian musical practices are really black” trumps the emic and everyday idea of “which musics black Colombians really practice.” (Cf. Wade 1995) This is not only because “what musics black Colombians practice” frequently overlaps with the music that other Colombians practice, but because alongside difference, another criterion of credible identity is that of historicity.

A history (even if unknown or invented) stretching back to before the Conquest is an important part of indigenous claims to difference. In the Afro-Colombian case, historicity is established by emphasizing links to an African past. This historicity is essential to Western notions of “peoplehood” because, as David Harvey explains, since the Enlightenment, Westerners have understood time as an arrow moving inexorably from an infinite past into an infinite future. The 19th century discipline of philology, the theory of evolution, and the invention of folklore and its use in nationalism speak to the importance of historicity in Western modernity as a central trope in narratives of peoplehood.

Traditional Afro-Colombian forms of social reproduction, however, do not share that obsession with history, and thus the past which is evoked in the present is far shallower than the monumental sense of time evoked in Western thought. In traditional Afropacific collective memory and oral literature, explicit references to Africa and slavery are not only unmentioned, but perhaps deliberately excised. (Losoczny) However, in the 1980s, the black intellectuals who founded the first currulao festival began to reconstruct their history, representing slavery explicitly in “currulao” choreographies. These choreographies were montages, relying on written histories more than on the teachings of the older generations. Nonetheless, they have now entered oral knowledge, as many culture workers today assume that the dances they learned in the 1980s have in fact been passed down through the generations. This not only projects a particular history, but suggests the kind of historical self-consciousness deemed a necessary criteria of credible ethnicity.

Another element of these cultural activists’ self-representations is anthropological accounts of New World Afrodescendent traditions which emphasize cultural continuity reaching back to distant Africa. (Cf. Losonczy 2002; Wade 2002) For example, they have incorporated a heroic narrative of cultural resistance and preservation derived from the Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban religions in which Yoruba deities are thinly disguised as Catholic saints. Instead of assimilating these into the historical particularities of Colombia, where these overt Africanisms are more latent, symbols deriving from the anthropological canon of neo-African cultures have been adopted wholesale, and often counter-factually imitated, as in one tellingly-titled anthropological essay, “The Afro-Caribbeans of the Colombian Pacific.”
This points us towards a third criterion for credible ethnicity: resemblance. A credible ethnicity should resemble other credibly ethnicized groups, in this case transnationally canonical examples of blackness. While transnational symbols of blackness, like rap, may not be deemed valid because of their modernity and lack of rootedness in the Colombian national territory, transnational heuristics for identifying and understanding blackness are. (See Sansone, Wade 2004) Constructions of black musicality and sexuality from the United States and the Afro-primitivism of Jazz Age Europe have been recycled into the process of Afro-Colombian ethnogenesis. (Wade 2000) An example: “La caderona,” a traditional song whose lyrics call a big-hipped woman to “shake it” is one of the few musical pieces of the southern Pacific with a vaguely erotic lyrical content. “La caderona” was first documented in 1885, by a traveler who also mentions that it is danced “without the man and the woman touching each other at all.” (Davidson) Although eroticism is important in other practices in the southern Pacific, anthropological accounts (Whitten) and older informants (p.c., José Torres, June 2005, Cali) concur on a taboo of eroticism in “currulao,” frequently called a “dance of respect.”

However, in keeping with the transnational currency of representations of black sensuality through musical practice, this music is increasingly represented in terms of “rhythm,” “hotness”, and sensuality.” “La caderona”, which by the mid-20th century was “almost in disuse” (Pérdomo Escobar) has been revived as perhaps the best-known song from the repertoire, and has been recorded in several pop versions. The emergence of “La caderona” from near abandonment to the forefront of the music of the southern Pacific, suggests the degree to which local blackness is understood through a global heuristic of black sexuality and black musicality.

III. Some conclusions

My point in this talk is not to beat the dead horse that identities are constructed but rather to look at how they are constructed, or (perhaps a better term) assembled within what Claudia Briones calls “(meta)culture,” that is, how distinctions between culture and non-culture, difference and sameness are made in a given historical conjuncture. Under multiculturalism, ethnogenesis has taken the form of isolating cultural elements from their traditional contexts and reintegrating them into (meta)cultural criteria such as historicity, territorial boundedness, correspondence to a particular (homogeneous) population, and familiar kinds of difference. By identifying the criteria within which music is used in multiculturalist identity claims, I hope to center this concern within a discipline as imbricated in multiculturalism as ours.

I also wish to suggest that multiculturalism as a field of discourse has its problems –the collapse of intra-group variations and specificities (as in the marginalization of urban or non-neo-African black cultural practices) in favor of transnational and canonic logics and the substitution of dismembered cultural products for entire cultural logics, the replacement of egalitarian socioeconomic policy with cheaper cultural recognition by increasingly weak states like Colombia seeking to bolster their crumbling legitimacy, and the potential for abuse when culture becomes subject to cannibalization in the market.

However, I don’t want to exclude progressive actors or agendas. The musical mobilizations I have mentioned today have been propelled not only by a cartoonishly cynical state or bloodthirsty market, but by more sympathetic and often quite tactically savvy actors, from cultural promoters to cultural activists to state functionaries – and even ethnomusicologists! If these more abject actors cannot work entirely outside a field of discourse like multiculturalism, their object is to position themselves as legitimate interlocutors within multiculturalism via ethnogenesis or what have you – in order to subvert its logic to more progressive purposes. Perhaps our role is not only to understand the criteria by which these interlocutors are legitimated, but to act upon that knowledge and share it with other actors, so that we can work towards a more egalitarian, more respectful, more active, more flexible and less hypocritical way of reconciling power with difference. The more immediate question is how to do so. If we are bound by multiculturalist discursive conventions (and niche in the job market), we must invent a way to speak and be understood without replicating the problems of multiculturalism, to insert within multiculturalist discourse the more subtle diacritics that allow us to move beyond it.


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