Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Directionality of Time and Sound in the Work of Fernando Ortiz

By David Garcia

When I began the work of translating Fernando Ortiz’s essays on the instruments of the Cuban Congo and Arará, I had been thinking a lot about the nature of time as it factored into the research of Ortiz and his contemporaries Melville Herskovits, Katherine Dunham, Richard Waterman, and others. Time, it was clear to me, was a necessary epistemological construct for him and others to do their work, the bulk of which involved tracing the African origins of New World Black music and dance. As I was tasked to translate and edit Ortiz’s Spanish into English, I couldn’t help but to also desire translating his utilization of time (Cartesian, Christian, capitalist, national) in tracing the origins of Congo and Arará drums. Could it be that developing proficiency in research temporalities is as important as developing proficiency in research languages? Consider the following passage from Ortiz’s essay on the makuta drums of the Cuban Congo:
Makuta drums, at least the nsumbí, probably had a rope-based system of tightening the heads in the past. But today some of them have been replaced by drums with nailed-on skins that are tuned with fire, as with many other drums. In some cases, makuta drums today have threaded tuning bolts, such as the nsumbí drum of the Kunalumbu cabildo of Sagua la Grande. I do not know for certain the reason for this local adoption of threaded screws on the nsumbí of Sagua, but I imagine that the importance of the railroad in the area must have played a part. Since the time of slavery the region has been home to machine shops that repaired parts for sugar mills and rail cars. All of that probably influenced some black man in the Kongo cabildo there, resulting in the substitution of the primitive roped system of the large nsumbí for its current system of six threaded lugs. And this morphological transculturation of the nsumbí, its tuning by threaded screws, must have occurred after 1880, following abolition. At that time there emerged a violent and foolish repression of all African survivals in Cuba, even cultural, aesthetic, and deeply rooted or widespread popular practices. It was as if the Bourbon colony wanted to rid itself of its conscience and its deeply held sense of culpability for having perpetuated slavery in the Americas much longer than the metropolitan nations of Europe.<1>

In researching why so much scholarship on the African origins of music and dance took hold in the 1930s and 1940s, I came across the notion of subjective assurance in Kurt Koffka’s Principles of Gestalt Psychology.<2> What I settled on, in part, was the idea that excerpts like the one quoted above had less to do with origins and more to do with modernity’s promises of freedom, progress, and equality at a time when the world was under the yokes of fascism, racism, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Moreover, I saw that Ortiz and his colleagues produced scholarship as privileged purveyors of knowledge and, thus, brokers of modernity’s promises. By their own admission, they researched the African origins of New World Black music and dance in order to debunk the theories that buttressed fascist and racist beliefs. Yet, access to the privilege of working as a scientist was forestalled for their women colleagues, including those of color such as Katherine Dunham, Zoila Gálvez, and Zora Neale Hurston.

The idea is this: ontological freedom from modernity’s formations of race was a disorienting or absurd proposition for most, one notable exception being the Frantz Fanon of Peau noire, masques blancs. Again, I drew from Koffka’s writings on audio psychological phenomena to understand the stabilizing forces engendered by race. When we know from what direction a sound comes, Koffka states, we are able to anchor ourselves subjectively in a physical space. When we can’t perceive the direction from which a sound comes, however, we lose subjective assurance. We become, according to Koffka, disoriented and lost.<3>

Perhaps this means that when we engage music making in terms that are temporal (see Ortiz’s words and phrases in italics), we are engaging in subjective acts of anchoring ourselves in the present by virtue of the privileges modernity affords to us. It also means that these privileged positions can preempt un-raced living, as Ortiz, his scholarship, and the Cuban national project more generally did to Cubans racialized and temporalized as Black, Congo, and Arará. In other words, Ortiz’s work, most readily recognized in his notion of transculturation, constituted one kind of Cuban national project, perhaps the most pernicious in that it denied the Cuban Congo and Arará and their music a space in modernity’s present, a space that the modern Cuban nation and he not only inhabited but embodied.

I’ll conclude with a quote from a review of a lecture-concert that Ortiz organized in 1937. This event is notable for being the first time the batá drums of the Yorubá were performed for the Cuban public. Writing in the popular Cuban magazine Carteles, one reviewer reflected on his experience in the following way:

The jungle suddenly arose imaginatively under the spell of the ancestral voices. And the noble audience…felt that unknown gods had entered the temple of the theater. […] A voice started the song, and the others followed it pushed by the jungle’s black wind. […] There were two worlds facing each other.<4>

Directionality, in this instance, is both spatial and temporal: the racialized voice transports the “jungle” and “unknown gods” from the ancestral past into the modern nation’s present and future. The time and place from which the voice comes are irreconcilable with modern Cuba. In short, Ortiz’s transculturation project sustained the Cuban nation’s project wherein whiteness functioned to serve modernity’s goal of preempting un-raced living for certain groups of people.
<1>The original text appears in Fernando Ortiz, Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana, vol. 3 (Havana: Ministerio de Educación, Dirección de Cultura, 1952), 430–445 (my emphasis).
<2>Kurt Koffka, Principles of Gestalt Psychology (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935), 220-221.
<3>Kurt Koffka, “Perception: An Introduction to the Gestalt-Theorie,” Psychological Bulletin 19, no. 10 (October 1922), 531.
<4>Ángel Lázaro, “La academia y los tambores,” Carteles, June 20, 1937, 11 (my emphasis).


David Garcia is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology in the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on the music of the Americas with an emphasis on African diasporic and Latinx music. His publications include Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music (Temple University Press, 2006) and Listening for Africa: Freedom, Modernity, and the Logic of Black Music’s African Origins (Duke University Press, 2017). He is currently editing a critical reader on the history of Latinx music, dance, and theater in the United States, 1783-1900.

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