Book Review: Rebel Dance, Renegade Stance: Timba Music and Black Identity in Cuba, written by Umi Vaughan

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

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Umi Vaughan, Rebel Dance, Renegade Stance: Timba Music and Black Identity in Cuba. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. xii + 203 pp. (Cloth US$70.00)

The image and aesthetic of the maroon—or, as they say in Cuba, el cimarrón—is almost always associated with ideas of resistance, nonconformity, freedom, and rebellion. Developing an argument based on the aesthetic of the maroon to refer to a sound that in Cuba is often associated with mercantile ideals is quite a challenge. Yet, this attempt to locate timba music and dance within a discourse of African diaspora and rebellion is interesting and engaging. Umi Vaughan—male, African American, middle class, scholar, photographer—defines himself as being connected to Africa and by extension to the Afro-Cuban family. This bond to the African diaspora deeply influenced his approach and perspective—he mentions it right at the beginning of his introduction, and several times throughout the book. His overarching motivation is to explore timba music and dance from a diasporic and personal perspective, to “tell our stories so that everyone may hear” (p. viii).

This ethnography of contemporary Cuba, which adopts a strongly reflexive approach, concentrates on timba music and its associated dance spaces in Havana. In the first chapter, Vaughan argues that music and dance—approached as one combined form of expression—represent a mirror of the national Cuban culture and an active medium in its creative construction. This assumes that timba music corresponds to a “maroon aesthetic,” which means that it exists in both conflict and complicity with the state and mainstream culture. Timba music and dance provide a space of contestation for Afro Cubans to articulate their identity and increase their recognition within Cuban society. It is therefore through a maroon aesthetic represented by timba music and dance that Afro Cubans claim their belonging in Cuban national culture. As Vaughan argues, “Timba seeks integration, not separation, through sound” (p. 15). In terms of black identity, this implies that timba is about nation-building rather than separatism. Chapter 2 explores the origins of timba, its relation to dance music in Cuba, its connections with the African diaspora, and some of its stylistic elements such as its structure, its timbre and texture, its content and context. Features of timba music and dance include call-and-response, collective participation, and behaviors that are actively produced during the musical event and in everyday life. The third chapter provides a concise overview of “Afro Cuba” in exploring the notion of race and blackness in the Cuban context. A series of staged photographs—part of a larger visual project—illustrate popular terms used to define skin shades in Cuba, and by extension, the way they are associated with various social stigmas. More concretely, Vaughan wrote popular terms such as café, mora, and mulata with chalk on walls and photographed Cubans in front of them. These photos contribute to his depiction of a particular Cuban racial terminology in relation to a larger Afro diasporic experience.

Chapter 4 scrutinizes the figure of the especulador who is at the center of the maroon performed identity. Vaughan uses the anthropology of performance to explore the role of this pivotal character in dance spaces of the capital. He compares the especuladores to negros curos, the flamboyant and unique nineteenth-century free-class Negroes of Havana reported by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz. This character, which is tied to notions of blackness, is said to articulate two poles: wealth and revelry. It both contests and reaffirms some dominant modes; it is about freedom and oppositionality. The especulador is also about “showing off”; it is an aesthetic that many young Afro Cubans aspire to, and is communicated through timba music and the general aesthetic of Afro Cuba. It represents a way for Afro Cubans to escape perceived inferiority. The figure assumes its full significance when Vaughan makes a strong parallel between the especulador and the maroon. Both articulate a renegade stance, but the especulador is located during and after the economic crisis of the 1990s.

The fifth chapter enters various dance spaces associated with timba in order to look specifically at the way space is negotiated in the ongoing evolution of Afro-Cuban identity. Vaughan divides timba dance spaces in Havana into three main categories: tourist-oriented, intermediary, and (at the end of the spectrum) public dances. He positions the public dances in the same historical trajectory as the cabildos or sociedades, and defines them as the “black cultural spaces par excellence of contemporary Cuba” (p. 108). Public dances contribute directly to the preservation and promotion of both Afro-Cuban culture and, by extension, the maroon aesthetic. In comparison, commercial dance spaces have, according to Vaughan, no direct precursors in the African past.

In the sixth chapter, Vaughan digs into a reflexive description of his fieldwork experience in Cuba. As an African American scholar, the performance of his own identity revealed various aspects of the way racial differences are expressed in Cuba. His presence and experience intensified the connections between his body and the broader African diaspora. The focus of this chapter is on why his personal identity attracted so much uncertainty and confusion in Cuba, and what this may say about how race is socially constructed in this specific context.

The book’s conclusion repositions timba as an Afro diasporic phenomenon represented by the maroon aesthetic. There follows an epilogue about the migration of the famous timba singer Manolín, “El Médico de la Salsa,” in the United States and the loss of his “tongue of fire.”

One of the strengths of this dynamic book is Vaughan’s depiction of himself as part of the landscape he explored while in Cuba, revealing tensions which could otherwise have passed unnoticed. However, the general tendency to equate the African diaspora with a certain form of authenticity and anticommercialism (such as in the dance spaces chapter) is somewhat problematic. Like reggaetón, referred to in the book on one occasion, timba is commercially driven and Vaughan’s presentation of the maroon appears to be rather utopic in this context. Yet, he succeeds (in line with other authors such as Ariana Hernández-Reguant [2006]) in placing timba music and dance within “Afro Cuba” and a discourse of renegade empowerment.

Reference

Hernández-Reguant, Ariana, 2006. Havana’s Timba: A Macho Sound for Black Sex. In Kamari Maxine Clark & Deborah A. Thomas (eds.), Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness. Durham NC: Duke University Press, pp. 249–278.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

Book Review: Rebel Dance, Renegade Stance: Timba Music and Black Identity in Cuba, written by Umi Vaughan

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

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