Si Me Quieres:
Latin American Transnationalism and Musical Identities
Max Emiliano Panconesi
Special Thanks to:
All those in Sociology 410.
In the past decade, globalization and transnationality have become anthropological hot topics: as the pace of the world quickens in the New Capitalist system and the mobility of information becomes increasingly fluid, questions about shifting economics, culture and identity become pressing and heavy. The scope of this paper is to provide the economic and historical backdrop to Latin American transnational cultures, in relation to how these factors influence the negotiation of their identities, collectively and individually, as expressed through the adoption of traditional and non-traditional approaches to music.
The world has become increasingly inter-connected, with the option of high-speed travel facilitating the migration of millions of people every day, with the spreading out of multinational corporations. The development of the Internet and satellites has made information and media accessible and transferable simultaneously 24 hrs a day, potentially everywhere. These are some of the factors have quickened the pace and mobility of society, as argued by sociologist Richard Sennet (1998) in The Corrosion of Character.
Social theorists Lash and Urry (1994) suggest that late twentieth-century societies are characterized by flows of capital, labor, commodities, information and images, while Arjun Appadurai (1990) similarly describes these flows as the five dimensions of ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes and ideoscapes. The fluidity of these scapes makes migration not only become possible, it integrates it into a capitalist mode of competition, with workers migrating to new cities and sometimes to other countries in search of better employment.
Through the increased liquidity in ethnoscapes and finanscapes, remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean have reached $60 billion annually, according to data from the Inter-American Development Bank (2009). In the meantime, developments in technology have transformed the availability of cheap communication, creating stronger fluidity to the transnational movement, by the increased availability of people, and thus, music.
On one side, globalization and the increased flow is viewed as a sign of modernity and progress, as it creates and reinforces trade and labor patterns, and creates a possibility for unity. On the other hand, the pace of new capitalism weakens the moral values of consistency and responsibility, with its risk-based, inconsistent and fast-paced characteristics and utopian vision of the future. This great increase in flexibility of capital of all kinds has traditionalists scared to see Immigrants in their city or street. Samuel Huntington (2004), in an article for the journal Foreign Policy, argues that "transnational cultural diasporas" and "immigrants with dual nationalities and dual loyalties" are among the forces that represent "the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity." But what exactly are tradition and cultural identity? Are they stable concepts based on biological facts, are they based on history, and in that case, who's history are they reclaiming? According to Stuart Hall (2000: 22-3):
Cultural identity is a matter of 'becoming' as well as of 'being'. It belongs to the
future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists,
transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from
somewhere and undergo constant transformation. Far from being in mere
'recovery' of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will
secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities the names we give to the
different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives
of the past."
Through this definition of cultural identity, with examples from Latin American history, I will help explain how different social groups, technically labeled as Latinos and Hispanics in the United States negotiate and construct their transnational sense of identity through music in a rapidly changing and shrinking world.
METHODS AND LIMITATIONS OF THE RESEARCH
I focused my research study in the Miami metropolitan area, in Florida, a city described as "the cultural capital of Latin America" (Yudice 2003:495). Though the city of Miami itself only accounts for 440,000 inhabitants, the metropolitan area is a perfect example of a largely Hispanic city: out of a total population of just over 5 million people, the Latino population represents almost half of the entire city's population, at 2 million people. Thirty seven percent of the people living in the area in 2005 were foreign born, with 48% of the population speaking a language other than English at home. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005-2007 American Community Survey).
I conducted mostly qualitative research, by formally interviewed six musicians all between the ages of 20 and 60, all of which were of Latin origins or cultures, encompassing different musical styles and philosophies. Some quantitative research took place in terms of gathering immigration figures and statistics, as well as a blueprint of the Hispanic/Latino demographic in the United States. I met each one of my participants at a different location, mostly visiting them at their homes, with a couple of exceptions at coffee shops on Calle Ocho, Miami's famous 8th Street. I conducted a variety of informal interviews that took place as conversations for which I took brief notes to identify the main themes, some of which I transcribed or took notes on, both in Miami and in Asheville, North Carolina. All together I attended four concerts in Miami: the first, at the Brazil on the Beach Festival in Hollywood, FL; the second, at Tap Tap Haitian Restaurant on South Beach, FL; the third at The Abbey, a venue on South Beach, FL; and the fourth at the co-op house The Firefly, which doubles as a music venue and library in Downtown Miami. I was present at various informal jam sessions as well, and in order to gain the trust of the subjects, I conducted participant observation, as I was also playing music with some of them. For most of these concerts I hardly took notes, as the shows were often quite small and comprised of friends and relatives, and related little to no literal information on the meanings that the music was taking. However, I also conducted research in New York City, at a cosmopolitan music and beer venue in Brooklyn, Barbes, named after the historically artistic and eclectic neighborhood in Paris, France and was able to gather research to support my thesis in this paper, that musical identity is negotiated globally.
Most of my informants identified themselves as Hispanics, though some are uncertain, they perceive that they are between white Hispanic and Mestizo.
One of the main difficulties with conducting research of this type in the context of Miami, Florida, is that it being the place where my first American roots developed, I have a strong sense of connection with many of the musicians interviewed, most of whom I had either met or befriended years before I began to write this thesis. Some of them had issues with asserting their cultural identity, being that they were second generation immigrants, and found the qualifying definitions and scope of this paper to be, as Gyr, a first-generation American, said: "heavy on the ethnic end." Being that I am also a friend as well as an aspiring anthropologist, I had second thoughts about loosely and statistically defining a Cuban-American as a generic 'Hispanic'. As I informed him of my decision to include him in the study, I pointed out how the United States Census Bureau had included Cubans as Hispanics, and articulated to him how in the sense of my paper, the terms of Hispanic or Latino ambiguously define a social class-based reality as well as an ethnic and/or cultural one. Though the ties of friendship made certain subjects a little more personal, in the end I feel like it only enhanced my description and focus on the varieties naturally embedded within different style of Latin American music.
This variety of styles of music ranged from Electronic, to Bossa Nova and MPB, to Hip-Hop and Rap, to Chicha music, Indy-Rock, and Pop Latino. For the field notes I wrote down quotes, descriptions of the venues' atmosphere, audience, arrangement and style, both through the music and through the decoration and architecture.
MUSICAL CULTURES, HISTORIES AND IDENTITIES
Historically, the Americas have become the epicenter of immigration since their "discovery" by the Spanish in the 1500s. The original demographics of the continents had indigenous people in high numbers, and colonizers from Europe understood the situation as fertile grounds for slavery, as they believed these indigenous people were, in fact, "inferior, ordained for slavery or subjection." (Reilly, Kaufman & Bodino, 2002: 73). These lead to the great genocide of the Native American populations, particularly those conquered by the Spanish and the Portuguese, occupying the most densely populated parts of Latin America, that is Central Mexico and Peru, as well as the lost populations of the Amazon river basin. (Lopez de Velasco  1971). Through the work of 16th century Spanish cosmographer Lopez de Velasco, it is possible to count the native "tributaries" to the Spanish Empire, which according to tax reports from the era, were in the proximity of 8-10 million people for all of what was to become Hispanic America (Livi-Bacci 2006). Tributaries at first were not legally-owned slaves, instead they were forced into laboring for Europeans in their haciendas, as mules for transport, as construction workers, as well as in the gold rush (Simpson 1966; Alchon 2003: 242). Others were taken in by the church, or returned to the forest, often bringing new diseases back to the innermost part of the Amazon, spreading disease, the deadliest weapon in the Conquest (Livi-Bacci 2006).
In 1516, Bartolomeo de Las Casas, a spanish priest who had witnessed first-hand the atrocities of the Conquest, was so overwhelmed by the carnage, as to petition to the Spanish king that slaves be imported from Africa and Spain, to substitute the inhumane treatment of the natives. By 1518, the Spanish monarchy accepted this demand, and began spreading Mediterranean-style plantations in the Americas. Though Las Casas eventually changed his mind and refuted publicly all kinds of human slavery, it was too late, and "the institutional interests of slave owners, the emerging plantation class and the conquistadores won out." ( Reilly, Kaufman & Bodino, 2002: 74). Thus, African slaves then began to be imported throughout Latin America, with particularly high concentrations in Brazil, of various different West African cultures and languages. It is estimated that Brazil "imported about a half million to a million more [African] slaves than did all of Spanish America" (Burns 1993: 210). After the colonies and periphery slave states of the continent became largely economically independent from Europe, in the 19th century most countries fought for independence and gained with it a new sense of identity, by engaging in cultural creation through synthesis. In the mix of this were different traditions and music identities.
This is how Latin American music came into existence, through the influence of many different styles and backgrounds of music into the creation of new hybrid genres, all authentically Latin American, with roots in Africa, South and Central America and Europe. Also, unlike in the British colonies of North America, male immigrants from Portugal and Spain were not encouraged to bring their wives and families along to the colonies. This helped spawn the hybrid identity of Latin America, as Iberian conquistadores took wives and lovers of both African and Native American tribes, and often forcibly but sometimes not, creating a mixed sense of ethnic identity in the generations to come. This behavior in North America was largely frowned upon, where slaves were mostly all of African descent, and completely excluded and marginalized from white society.
In Latin America the mixed nature of society influenced the development of hybrid culture and identity, with a flux of percussive poly-rhythmic backgrounds, and with scales, melodies and instruments from every country in Europe represented, thus setting the basis for the "Latin beat". Mixed with these was an array of different styles and melodic backgrounds, such as the Iberian melodies played on cavaquinhos (a very small five string Brazilian guitar) that denote the particularly avant-garde Choro style of the 18th century born on the shipyard and docks of Rio de Janeiro.
It is important, in this context, to understand the epistemological problems in the concept of "Hispanic/Latino", as it is mostly commonly symbolized and stereotyped, as well as to recognize the underlying threads of identity that are rooted in different social/economic classes and in racial/ethnic backgrounds. In the United States, the word 'Latino' themselves only emphasize the European ownership of the cultural identity, thereby excluding other influencing cultures and forces, which are loosely included in the concept of "Hispanic". Maguinha, 59, a Brazilian singer speaks on her opinion on the cultural "framing" of the Latino/Hispanic stereotypes and implications:
If Latino refers to people whose languages derive from Latin, then why aren’t
Haitians or Brazilians included? Its because Latino implies a mestizo, with a
background that accents the whiter side of the spectrum.
The United States Census that took place in 2000, attempted to craft a 'one size fits all' definition of what the ethnic class might imply. They describe a 'Hispanic/Latino' as "a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race." The Bureau however refuses to acknowledge Brazilians as part of this category, as well as Haitians. As Mignolo points out in his article The Larger Picture: Hispanics/Latinos (and Latino Studies) in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity, "the designation of 'Hispanic/Latino' hides from view the large number of Afro-Latin Americans in Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Martinique." (De Greiff 2000:105).
Mignolo also argues that the use of these concepts in the United States began during the Spanish-American war, where "a distinction between Anglo-Saxon white and Spanish-Christian white became significant". (De Greiff 2000:7:99). However, Linda Alcoff suggests that this label of Latino becomes a vehicle to empowerment for marginalized members of society, loosely lumped together by a racial label that doesn't fit adequately the variety of their cultural background. Alcoff further says, "people may talk culture, but they continue to think race." (De Greiff 2000: 24). In Miami, white Hispanics represent the largest percentage of the population, while the black Hispanic population is disproportionately less numerous and unemployed. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the people of the lowest economic classes that immigrate to Miami (legally or illegally). For some Latinos, in fact, asserting their identity on a spectrum of whiteness can help them to reclaim their social class, as it puts them in a good position in the dominant discourse. In most Latin countries, African descendants are in fact the poorest of the poor, and thus their racial identity is associated and defined by poverty and a lack of social mobility.
An example of this is the particular case of baseball player Sammy Sosa, a baseball player of Afro-Latin descent from the Dominican Republic. On a Dominican-American Internet forum, various people got together to discuss the possible race of the notorious player. Though a couple of Dominicans (Mr. DR and FuegoAzul21) wrote that "there is no racism in the country", another debater named Deelt, stated "that money and fame equal whiteness in the Dominican Republic". (http://dr1.com/forums/dr-debates/36017-sammy-sosa.html). Bernardo, a twenty-six year old aspiring musician and English student at Florida International University from the Dominican Republic, on a short interview at his campus, explained to me the differences between being white or black in his home country, and its implications and associations with economic and class status
In the DR, if you're not too black, you've got an easier chance of making a name
for yourself, of looking the part. Most blacks in the DR don't have enough money
to go to school, and so they're always broke man, because its hard to get a job if
you're black. The more white you are in DR, the less the cops pay attention to you
bro.. If you make a lot of money and earn people's respect that way though, they
leave you alone, they treat you same.
The distinction between Afro-Latin and European Latin, particularly in the case of a small island shared between two countries (Dominican Republic and Haiti), is one of the results of centuries of slave culture, and is reminiscent of plantation ethics, with an emphasis on the struggle for racial equality. In Cuba, black musicians like Arsenio Rodriguez found it "blasphemous to proclaim their blackness and their patriotism" (Helg 1995:7), as the two could not function together because of ingrained racism against the black minority by predominantly white European immigrants relocated there in the early 1900s. Rodriguez, in fact a pioneer of his time, in ways of singing about what DuBois refers to as "double-consciousness". This, for, Rodriguez, was the dichotomy between his African roots and his Cubanismo.
In his song, "Aqui como alla" (Here same as There), he articulates the great pain of a split and contradicting hybrid identity:
"En Africa y en el Brasil / igual en Cuba como en Haiti / igual al Sur que en
Nueva York el negro canta su dolor"
(In Africa and in Brazil, the same in Cuba asin Haiti, the same in the South as in
New York, the black man sings his pain)
Rodriguez sang his African pride through his songs, which reclaim the glory of African Kings and culture at a time when syncretism and African roots were ignored and passed off as backward.
However, since then, with the global progressive movements of the 1960's, the syncretic and marginalized musical subcultures of Latin America have actually become symbols of authentic Latin musical identity. Thus, "black and indigenous people are seen as the eventual repositories of true tradition...but as a result [of the contradiction between mestizaje and the persistence of African-derived or Amerindian cultural traditions and ways of life] they can be seen as both backward and authentic" (Wade 2000:66).
The rhetoric of mestizaje does, in some ways, involve a paradoxical and relentless reiteration of racial difference, helping to maintain strong underlying convictions of white supremacy (Brock 1999: 18). Most of these convictions aren't based in racist assertiveness, yet they reinforce cultural and multi-ethnic flows as the influencing factors. In an informal interview in downtown Miami, Diego, a twenty-five year-old film student at Miami-Dade College of Argentinean descent, when asked to describe his opinions on African influence on Latin music, stated: "They [the Africans] brought their muscular rhythms, we [Hispanics] organized them". This particular historical discourse, reinforces ideas of European musical superiority, and reflects a perception of history and geography, which empowers the white Hispanic narrative over that of other perspectives. However, the origins and rights to a musical style cannot be simply understood in terms of center-periphery models (Appadurai 1990:6), as its influences are vast and various. It becomes then more important to understand the expression in music as a mode of ritualizing reality, of 'living ideas' (Chernoff 1979), of expressing political sentiment and of reinforcing identity through racial distinction and its involvement and musical action.
MUSIC ECONOMICS, TIME AND IDENTITY
To better understand how the role of identity functions today, its important to see how the world economic system is organized, and how these structures influence individuals' perception of themselves and of the world. According to Immanuel Wallerstein (1975: 347-57), it is:
"...A social system, one that has boundaries, structures, member groups, rules of
legitimation, and coherence. Its life is made up of the conflicting forces which hold it
together by tension and tear it apart as each group seeks eternally to remold it to its
It is in this framework, in the global market, that individual people compete for positioning, and ultimately, for their identity within the system. For people living in 'peripheral' countries, from where material resources are cheaply gathered by multinational corporations from wealthy 'core' countries, the hope of becoming themselves lies in a journey, an emigration to a better, more prosperous, existence. These 'pull factors' are symbols of affluence and modernity marketed by 'core' Capitalist societies throughout the world, and are incredibly powerful in the simplicity of their enchantment and appeal. In this section I will describe how economic forces and social structures in the modern transnational capitalist system are affecting ideas of time and identity, and what the role of music is in negotiating this identity within the limitations imposed by tradition or modernity.
One of the subjects I interviewed, Paulo de Carvalho, 45, is a Brazilian classically trained guitarist from Sao Paulo. He immigrated to Miami, Florida in 2000, almost exactly two years before September 11th, and because of this, he has been unable to gain residency, and has been living as an illegal immigrant for the past ten years. This refusal to grant him social legitimacy through 'naturalization' has diminished his sovereignty and sense of identity, to the point where music has become his only tool in creating a life-narrative. Paulo says:
Back in Brazil, my life was impossible. I had three jobs playing guitar in different
bars, but the money was hardly enough to live a good life...I couldn't afford
cellphones, not to mention a car or a nice TV...when I moved to Miami, things
started to change, I thought I could make some money. Then I met Malu and we
decided to get married and start a family...we had just had Gabriel when it
[Sept.11th] happened...now its harder to get papers, I sometimes work in
restaurants, I take any job...the pay [in U.S.] is better but everything is more
expensive too. If I wasn't a musician I could make more money, but I don't know
who I'd be without it.
For Paulo and Malu, both incredibly skilled musicians, the 'American Dream' turned out to be a fantasy, something almost impossible but for which they continue to reach, as they attempt to assert their dreams of a better life in a different land. However, the economic landscape of the United States has not reaped them many benefits, and has in fact left them with a sense of temporal detachment, as Paulo switches from job to job, unable to get long-term work, because of both his immigration status and the rules of new capitalism in the world today. These rules are based on the maximization of profits: by offering temporary work instead of long-term work, for example, an employer can have more clout over its profits and over its workers.
This cultural/economic shift from the emphasis on ideals of consistency to the ideal of mobility, threatens to undermine the importance of a linear narrative in the development of identity for workers everywhere, particularly migrant workers, (Sennet 1998) as their narrative seems to reach a stand-still. In fact, there is for some an underlying feeling of powerlessness in the new economy, as workers take it upon themselves to feel guilty and responsible for the actions of larger forces at play: corporations, employers, etc. Richard Sennet, in his book The Corrosion of Character discusses these things as overarching themes in new capitalism. The object of his study, a young 2nd generation Italian-American professional named Rico, states that he takes full "responsibility for moving around so much" (Sennet 1998: 29), even though it is often not by his choice that this occurs.
This sense of responsibility, Sennet interprets as a kind of "cultural conservatism to which he [Rico] subscribes forms a testament to the coherence he feels missing in his life" (1998: 28). As the economic forces that control his life threaten his identity, the worker attempts to create a type of consciousness that will give his life coherence and a sense of somewhat linear progression. As he is constantly shifting jobs, he loses his sense of coherence; he loses his sense of identity, not just individually but as a member of a cultural group (in the protagonist’s case, Italian-American), as well. Sennet adds to this point by stating: "short-term capitalism threatens to corrode particularly those qualities of character which bind human beings to one another and furnishes each with a sense of sustainable self." (1998: 27).
Maguinha, for example, has been living in Miami, Florida for the past 10 years, and has also had to work all kinds of jobs to generate money and provide for her family. Because she was educated in the United States and has a green card, her situation has been easier than Paulo, who since 2003 plays shows with her wherever she finds a gig. Maguinha (which means "little magician" in Portuguese) recounts the variety of her job experience in the past:
I've worked all kinds of jobs to make ends meet...I've worked as a translator, as a
concierge, as a cashier in a book store...I even started to sing with a Haitian
band... I had to learn to sing in Creole, but half the time I didn't know what
I was saying!
Unable to find demand for Brazilian music, Maguinha is forced to re-establish and broaden her idea of identity and take on a role that isn't natural to her. Though, after fifty years of playing music, this it is not a testament to her identity, she mentions, "it’s strange to have to sing in a language that doesn't reflect my heritage, but it’s still beautiful." As Jonathan Ree (1990: 1055) puts it: "The problem of personal identity, one may say, arises from play-acting and the adoption of artificial voices; the origins of distinct personalities, in acts of personation and impersonation." These 'artificial voices' are the adaptive attempts towards instrumentation, to the manufactured roles that economic society can temporarily offer us, detaching our sense of identity from a strictly linear narrative, and creating justified version of our identity as consequential to us by the economic system, as subordinate and subsequent to the interests of the white ruling class.
However, through the ritual creation of music it is possible to reach a sustainable narrative of identity which can be used to make sense of our lives, as well as to re-claim ownership of our time. Frith (1996: 116) states that "in temporal arts the value of work is experienced as something momentary, and the analytical emphasis is on process; 'subjective' reading is necessary". In the production, recording or performance of music, time is not necessarily stopped, it is slowed down to a level where it can be measured and understood. It’s no longer incalculable, overpowering; it becomes negotiable. It is in this space where narratives are constructed and cultural values and ideas of identity are reinforced. This space in time, this chronotope, is a medium by which artists take time for themselves and their ideals, learning to better understand themselves as they would like to be understood. Nacho, a 24-year-old Colombian musician living in Miami, describes the connections between music, time and identity:
It’s like this: when I'm playing my guitar everything goes quiet, everyone just has
to listen to me. Time? Time stops.. its like, all the voices in my head, telling me
to go somewhere, to talk to someone, to buy something, just have to wait for the
song to be over...everything gets put in the right place, and I feel like myself
again, I know who I am and what I should be doing.
MUSIC AND TRANSNATIONAL CONSTRUCTIONS OF IDENTITY
"To ask for the 'authentic' print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of
authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art
is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another
practice - Politics."
- Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935
Benjamin's quote relates to my argument by its emphasis on the essentially vacuous-ness of the word authenticity by itself in an age of mass production. In many of my interviews and research work, the question of authenticity was the underlying thread of the conversation. During my interviews, it became clear that the question of authenticity remained tied to their concept of cultural identity, as it was the marker that separated them from Latin-pop musicians, which simply supplied music to the masses for a generic demand. Authenticity is generally defined as the "opposite of generic" (Florida 2002). Most of the musicians I interviewed were not successful or particularly well known in their immediate geographical communities, yet they all had links to different cultural streams in different places. Their artistic pride and sense of identity were based on and reinforced by their musical knowledge, and also through their sense of originality. Sarah Thornton argues that sub-cultural capital is dependent on its originality and difference from the mainstream (Thornton 1995). This statement however implies that there is a binary system, limited to the two levels of culture and subculture. In a transnational context, however, it becomes clear that culture and subculture overlap, and are at times hard to distinguish from one another, depending on the context of the perceiver and the place.
In this section, I will describe how the different musicians I observed and interviewed constructed their identity through the use of music, and the various social, cultural and economic implications of these imagined identities and "at large" communities (Appadurai 1996).
On the night of Monday, December 29th, 2008, I made my way out towards Park Slope, an upscale neighborhood of Brownstones in Brooklyn, NY, looking for a The night was warm and humid, as winds from the Atlantic rushed in to an empty neighborhood, most people staying inside in limbo between Christmas and New Years' Eve. I was searching for a venue named Barbès, a place that on their website self-advertised a reputation for its taste and appreciation of the styles of music of the world, and for all the varieties of improvisation and creativity that encompass the post-modern categories of "world music" and/or "fusion". The place, Barbès, was named after a neighborhood in northern Paris famous for its discount stores, its large North African population as well as the record stores which helped launch the Rai music explosion of the mid 80's. By naming this locale after a well-known neighborhood in Paris, the owners were in fact connecting their identity to an imaginary global community of artists and bohemians, and asserting their identity in this imagined community (Anderson 2006 ).
As I arrived, I noticed the place was very small and packed full of people, most of which were standing around, as there were not enough seats and that the price range of the locale was between $7 and $10 a pint, making it too expensive for the majority of New York's Hispanic populations, which is of over two million people (U.S. Census Bureau 2005). The ceilings are low and decorated with the artistic style of 16th century France, with tiles covering the walls in puzzling patterns. The floor is slick with spilt drinks and the band, Chicha Libre, is casually setting-up in the back. There is not a clear demarcation between the performance space and the audience space, this reflecting the populist ethics from which the style of music was born in Peru. Born out of socio-political necessity in the rapidly changing landscapes of Latin American societies of the 1960s, Chicha music adopts Iberian styles of guitar, Andean pentatonic scales, African-influenced Cumbias and modern synthesizers creating a bricolage of musical knowledge and style that reflects the hybridity of the post-modern individual in cities. It reflects themes of identity, sexuality, freedom and community, and is "frequently identified as a hybrid cultural product of urban neighborhoods"(Aparicio 2003). Chicha Rock has traditionally been used to voice the social experience of urban migration and racial mixture, as well as of class subordination: "associated with the working class and the marginalized sectors" (Aparicio 2003). The songs that Chicha Libra played that night, however, reflected none of these specific dimensions from which the music genre originally developed: as it was of no interest to these specific musicians, all of which were white U.S. citizens, with steady jobs and expensive instruments. The group is composed of six, Olivier Conan on cuatro, Vincent Douglas on guitar, the co-owners of the bar (which doubles as a record company), keyboardist Joshua Camp, Nicholas Cuday, the renowned bassist, and veteran percussionists Greg Burrows and Timothy Quigley. They played chicha classics that were meaningful and relatable to their sense of identity, such as the song Ya se ha muerto mi abuelo ('My grandfather has died', originally performed by the more psychedelic band Juaneco Y Su Combo) which speaks of a lifestyle of too much work, and the consequences of excessive harmful smoking and the evils of alcoholism. In this song are social problems that related to the life experience of these artists, making the 'culture leap' possible.
The last song Chicha Libre performed was the only original piece written by the band, by the same name as the band. It consisted musically of a pentatonic scale on bas, heavy percussion and accordion, with a sudden break where the band would shout the only lyrics: "Chicha Libre!" ("free drinks/free music"), themes which contrasted with the heavier song spoken of above, concerning alcoholism. They then broke off and went to the bar to get their free drinks, while the audience went on ordering pints of beer at a minimum price of seven dollars.
In an introduction written by Malinowski (1940) to his friend, Cuban ethnologist Ortiz, he defines transculturation as "a process from which a new reality emerges, transformed and complex, a reality that is not a mechanical agglomeration of traits, nor even a mosaic but a new phenomenon, original and independent." This is the case of Chicha Libre, which creates a new identity that distinguishes it from anything in American music or chicha' s origins in Peru. The sound is a new one, rooted in our times and yet not fully at home in the United States or in Latin America, catering to the ears of young and old "rootless cosmopolitans" in search of a narrative for their identity that is free and independent from any nation or particular groupthink, thus easily adaptable to their lives and to their sense of imagined community.
How is this community expressed through the attitude of the performance, vis-à-vis the audience? According to Mikhail Bakhtin (1985) "the nature of understanding is dialogical", by which he means that by itself meaning is nothing, it only becomes meaning when comprehended and connected with other meanings. In this light, it is important to understand how the audience perceives the spatial and temporal elements of a musical performance to get the full picture of its social impact and relevance.
Vanessa, a 23 year-old girl from Long Island, coming just to see the band, thinks the place is "cool, but way too trendy and expensive". She sees the music as "legit" and thinks the musicians are "cocky but fun". Along the same vein, a comfortable Brooklyn local named Josh, 32, says "Its a great place to meet interesting people and listen to fun music". It becomes then apparent that the identity and meaning that is being negotiated in this dialogue is centered on fun, dancing and celebration. Though these are not reflective of the musical tradition of chicha, it certainly relates to, but also excludes many of the themes historically defined as part of the style. Thus, a new style is created which is not quite chicha or rock and roll, and that gives birth to a new identity beyond the limitations of a nation-state based identity.
However superficially adopted the meaning of the music becomes negotiated in the terms of its adoption by these musicians. Through their performance, they demonstrate their comfort with the roots of Chicha music and its stance against systems of abuse and hegemonic control, through the emphasis on syncretic themes of community and family, sexual liberation and the use of psychedelics and rock & roll. By adopting this musical style, they are picking and choosing what elements of that style best suits them, as well as which styles they could most easily change for (Frith 1996). They are like actors, interpreting a script that will guide them through their borderline theatrical performance, establishing themselves and their own cultural identity. In this case, through the imitation of the style of Chicha music, the artists are both mocking and re-inventing themselves and manipulating the music. (Wade 2000). Though they are not drinking Chicha fermented from Peru, to follow a literal metaphor, they are adopting the Peruvian methods and techniques towards fermenting their own product, from their own land and experiences. They are then getting 'drunk' off the learned ritual mode of thinking that is ingrained in the music. (Becker 1963). Though not racially Latin Americans or Hispanic, by taking on the culture of Chicha and the narrative and making it their own, they are becoming themselves (Hall 1996).
In Miami, Florida the cultural scene that I explored is very different from that of New York, with all of the musicians' origins coming from Latin America. However, contrary to the stereotype, I found that the majority of Hispanic musicians I interviewed had a strong desire and inclination towards adopting other forms of sub-cultural music. Many of the people interviewed identified "Latin music" as redundant, cliche' and mainstream, and preferred to negotiate their cultural identities through other sub-cultural forms of musical expression, such as hip-hop and rap, psychedelic music or punk rock.
These were some of the thoughts on my mind as I began interviewing musicians in Miami from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but that in some way or another were all identifiable as Latino/Hispanic. I interviewed six musicians in Miami, some of the interviews proving to be very fruitful while others just skimmed the depth of the realities at hand. Interviews were conducted with psychedelic hip-hop band Space Voodoo Crystal, with Brazilian Bossa Nova and MPB musicians, such as Maguinha, Ivo de Carvalho and Paulo de Carvalho and an Indy Latin pop-rock band named Arboles Libres. These interviews were often short in nature, but were repeated over some period of time and took place in different areas of the Miami music scene.
In downtown Miami's cheap gritty streets, an area of on-going rapid urban development and economic transformation, is where the band Space Voodoo Crystal hangs out. As I interviewed Gyr, 21, he described to me how his band Space Voodoo Crystal had formed, and what its influences were. He outlined to me that it had all started with an attempt to develop a new style of "psychedelic hip-hop", that takes place in space. His justification for the music taking place in "the great cosmos and not on earth" reflects his understanding of cultural and nationalistic contention. As he articulated to me:
Yeah, space...think about it, its the one place that nobody can claim, its nobody's,
nothing is native there, and so it’s ours to do whatever we want with it.
The element of 'space', symbolically representing the emptiness by which we can create musical matter, is represented also through the use of psychedelic drugs and through the entrancing effects in psychedelic music, particularly with the use of instrumental distortion effects. The instruments they use are keyboards and drum machines; something that the band feels demonstrates their Latin roots, though through the music itself you would never assume that there are ethnic identities here at play. According to Gyr, who orchestrates the band's rhythms, all the lyrics are purposefully whispered or sang in an intelligible manner as to reproduce the psychedelic effect of ambiguity: "is it singing or whispering? Can I really hear that shit, or is it in my head?" However, though the style reinforces the principles of originality and authenticity, there are many elements to the music that are unaccounted for. As I asked Gyr what the reason is behind him playing music, and how that reflects with his heritage and origins, he stated:
Its like, when I play music with Space Voodoo Crystal, I’m choosing what I want
To do and I get to represent my culture by playing rhythms and melodies that
came to me from who knows where… but it doesn’t matter, because they’re mine
now...I don’t like playing Latin music, its not my thing…I grew up here [in
Miami] and we got lots of hip-hop and punk rock too…so I mixed the two
together, and now we’ve got this psychedelic groove going on, we’ve got
our own sound.
Thus, there is a sense of reinvention, and Stuart Hall's definition of Cultural Identity comes into play once more, not as indicative of a simple relaying of the cultural torch, but in the idea of choice and its influence on the creation and establishment of cultural identity, through music and the cultures surrounding it, associated with it.
In the same way, Ivo de Carvalho, a musician involved in playing often with Paulo de Carvalho (to whom he is not related) as well as with Maguinha, finds that he has much clout on the styles of music he likes to play, because they don't only reflect the limitations of his genetic and cultural heritage. Though he is a Brazilian musician that is classically trained and an expert at strumming Bossa Nova guitar chords, he is very well inclined towards playing different genres such as blues and rock and roll. However, he often has a problem at exotic venues in Miami, where he is only paid to perform the styles of music that best represent his cultural stereotype. In an interview with him at a small Brazilian market in Miami, he stated:
The boss thinks that because I’m Brazilian, I’m going to only want to play
Brazilian or Latin music. To me being a musician is more, it’s a big family,
much bigger than Brazil or Latin America. If its music, I’ll play it, with anyone.
For Ivo, as well as for Gyr, the frame by which society uses his kind is limiting. The first, a middle-aged married man with no children, chooses to comply as he is a professional musician and gets paid for playing Bossa Nova, Samba and MPB. The second, a young man with few responsibilities, is content to reinvent his musical identity regardless of the extraneous pressures for playing in the limitations of a cultural style. Though Gyr complains that "its hard to find paying gigs for this kind of music", he is still happy to be free from the frivolous expectancies of employers and gig organizers, and is free to create "magical rainbows of happy baby unicorns".
In his free time, Ivo composes his own songs, about his past, his love life, his sadness and his nostalgia, as well as his hope. These themes in his songs help him, once outside of the music market, to identify a narrative in his life that makes the most sense to him. Music provides him with the opportunity to engage in this narrative, and to create his ideal reality and an artistic version of his life. This act, which he records onto his computer, becomes an immortal relic of a moment of time that he has claimed. He composes songs that take on a "bluesy feeling"; as he describes it, and that make him content to be whom he is. If those songs don't provide economic surplus, he is “still happy with his fate”, because it has given him what is sacred to him: his identity.
Similarly, when interviewing Eduardo Moreno, 23, guitarist for the band Arboles Libres, I had the experience of witnessing the dichotomy of musical identity vs. economics in a particularly abrasive way. Eddie's father is a well-to-do merchant from Colombia that trades in cheap Chinese goods to the United States and Latin America. He insists on his son's development in music but refuses to treat it as a career interest, often telling Eddie that being a musician is in no way economically rewarding in today's society. However, Eddie's attitude is a lot different, as he believes his music to be the main source of his identity, and strictly:
If I wasn’t a musician I’d make more money, but I don’t know who
I’d be without it or what I'd be like with a bunch of money.
Though Eddie firmly states that the economic aspects of music aren't very appetizing, he mentions that he would like to be able to make a living off of creating and playing music. In this vein, he and Nacho, both Colombian-Americans, decided to transform the original project of Arboles Libres, (which had started off as an eclectic collective of different musical styles and backgrounds) into a more simple and marketable project. The songs are focused on themes of love, loss and innocence, and the band has, since its creation in 2008, performed at various mainstream events, including a 'Starbucks Rocks' competition, and at a Hard Rock Cafe', with a special private performance for the owner of Gibson guitars. Though most of the lyrics and chord arrangements are arranged by Nacho, who plays for his "heart's past, body's present and mind's future", Eddie feels as though his influence and bluesy style of improvisational guitar adds a lot of the originality of the band, and sets them apart as modern group. In an informal interview with him over the phone, Eddie stated "People are really seeming to like us, If we keep tweaking and fixing our sound, I think we can make it big". However when I asked the question on whether this "tweaking" is merely an example of another band attempting to fit into the music industry's mainstream, Eddie abruptly replied:
No, bro...The style we play is not completely original but nothing is in this world.
If anything we are just honest entrepreneurs, and taking our heritage to the next
level, making it accessible to anyone who wants it, without being a dick cause
they're not part of our crew, like we would have done before...I think the style
we've created represents the interests of Latin people and we're gonna write an
album on policy and immigration politics soon.
Thus, there are many economic, social, artistic, and cultural forces at play in the creation of identity for transnational musicians in this day and age, and though sometimes the music is used as a form of creation of identity and establishment of interests and personality, at times it is also used as a way to reaffirm existence and identity as forces beyond an individual's control.
In the process of researching for this paper, after having the privilege of interviewing so many different Latin American musicians from all kinds of backgrounds, I became particularly disenchanted with the Census definitions of Latino/Hispanic, and its racist/classist undertones. I met so many different musicians, some black some white, who all hesitated under these labels and felt the particular need to stress the individual variation within the categories, at times refusing the category whole heartedly, or speaking of these categories with such detachment as to make me wonder whether they were speaking of themselves at all.
Stuart Hall's Modernity at Large articulates shades of this dilemma, in that the terms Latino/Hispanic describe an ambiguously multiethnic and multicultural community of ‘individuals at large’, and not the dominant perspective that they represent one mostly homogeneous cultural group. Surely, the perspective of certain "Che" Guevaras and Bolivars have it so that Latin America is largely one place of one mestizo people, united by the elements of exploitation that are articulated in world system's theory. However, the reasons why these philosophies did not succeed in unifying the continent are grounded in the fact that there is much socio-cultural variety in Latin America, and that to generalize some commonalities into proof of group identity, does not placate the different interests of individuals, and their particular agency in creating their own ideas of culture, identity, and ethnicity. After all, nobody is really a full native born in a vacuum, and everyone's ancestors, if you trace far back enough, came from somewhere else and has tweaked their identity in juxtaposition to the dominant forces of society.
Through music, it is possible to negotiate identity, and though this can be done in independence of major economic and social forces at work, the trend is that musicians will be more quick to compromise or to adapt their musical ideals and desires to be able to get paid for playing what is in demand. However, even these musicians which compromise their authenticity to fit into the system, often maintain a sense of life-narrative through their personal expressions of music that demonstrate and reflect the common thread in their quest for identity.
As Maguinha believes, "music unifies people of all types". It demonstrates how common certain experiences are among humans, and establishes solidarity and group identity, by connecting and assembling different styles and messages, as well as the cultures that follow along with them, whether they be ultimately be progressive, traditional, mainstream, experimental or innovative.
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