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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Localizing Hybridity: The Politics of Place in Contemporary Cuban Rumba Performance

  • Author(s): Bodenheimer, Rebecca Marina
  • Advisor(s): Guilbault, Jocelyne
  • et al.

This study examines a range of innovations that have emerged in the performance of the Afro-Cuban music and dance genre rumba during the last three decades. Rumba, which emerged in the mid-nineteenth century within black and racially mixed communities in western Cuba, is a hybrid musical practice that integrates Central- and West African-derived percussion instruments and rhythmic patterns with European melody and Spanish poetic forms. Recent innovations include the creation of fusions with a variety of Afro-diasporic musical practices, the incorporation of Afro-Cuban sacred music and dance into the repertoires of rumba groups, and the invention of a new percussion style. Rather than employing an indiscriminate approach to their fusions, I posit that musicians from different provinces in Cuba have drawn on specific, locally-defined traditions in their respective innovations. I propose that recent rumba fusions can be viewed as an example of the entangled relationship between regional identity formation and musical innovation.

The main theoretical focus of my dissertation is an exploration of how racialized regional identities are performed through the rumba innovations emerging respectively from Havana and Matanzas, the two western Cuban cities with the longest and most influential histories of rumba performance. While Havana and Matanzas share many of the same Afro-Cuban musical traditions, the two cities have been inserted into polarized cultural discourses: whereas Havana is represented as the cosmopolitan center of innovation and racial/cultural hybridity, Matanzas is known as "the cradle of Afro-Cuban culture" and constructed as the site of "authentic" blackness. My fieldwork with rumba groups in both Havana and Matanzas leads me to complicate these widely held assumptions about where tradition is "located" and where hybridity "takes place" in Cuba, as they paint incomplete portraits of the two cities' respective folkloric scenes. Although these tropes of place result in a problematic essentialization of the cultural identities of the two cities, they enjoy widespread currency both in Cuba and abroad and cannot simply be dismissed. The government's investment since the mid-1990s in cultural tourism centered around Afro-Cuban music and dance has significantly raised the stakes for folkloric musicians in terms of representing themselves as "authentic." Competition between Havana and Matanzas for cultural tourism, mainly in the form of music and dance lessons, thus presents a concrete example of how racialized discourses of place and related claims of authenticity have material effects on the livelihoods of folkloric musicians.

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