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 But today some of them have been replaced by drums with nailed-on skins that are tuned with fire, as with many other drums.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.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

An Introduction to Fernando Ortiz on Music

By Robin Moore

In conjunction with David Font-Navarrete, David Garcia, Susan Thomas, and others, I have recently been involved in the translation of selected writings by Fernando Ortiz. The resulting book (Fernando Ortiz on Music) will appear in February, 2018 from Temple University Press. Work on the project raised many issues about the purposes of translation, the intended audiences for translation, the semantics of translation,  and the appropriate framing of translation in terms of background information, among others. I discuss a few of those issues with you as part of my post, as do the others that follow.

The cover image of the book reproduces a photograph of Fernando Ortiz alongside batá drummers Pablo Roche (center) and Aguedo Morales (left). It was taken on May 30, 1937 as part of the first-ever public lecture and demonstration of Afro-Cuban religious drumming and dance entitled “The Sacred Music of Black Yorubas in Cuba.” As reflected in the visual composition of the photograph that places Ortiz at the center, he dominated these presentations; his academic voice directed all activity and mediated between the Afro-Cuban religious community and the predominantly white middle class.

Here is another photograph of Ortiz from the mid-1950s in the Aula Magna of the University of Havana. It gives a feeling for the many communities and spheres of interest Ortiz engaged with during his career. The photo depicts Ortiz (center, in a black suit) with his collaborators and admirers. To his right stands Afro-Cuban religious devotee and singer Merceditas Valdés, and next to her Dr. Clemente Inclán, Rector of the University of Havana for many years. To Ortiz’s left stands his youngest daughter, María Fernanda Ortiz, and to her left world-renowned ballet dancer Alicia Alonso. Behind Inclán and to the right in the back row stands modernist painter Wifredo Lam. In the front row (third from left) with the large iyá drum sits Raúl Díaz, a key Ortiz informant. To his immediate left is another percussionist he worked with frequently, Giraldo Rodríguez; drummer Pablo Roche is in the second row fourth from the right, in a white shirt. Through his work and public scholarship, Ortiz clearly hoped to bridge the divisions of a racially stratified society, and engaged with academics, artists, and performers of many sorts.

Perhaps the most fundamental question that arose as we initiated this project was how to justify translating the work of a white, privileged scholar and his frequently dated views on black heritage in the present day. I would argue that if one is interested in music of the African diaspora in any country, it is hard to justify a lack of familiarity with Fernando Ortiz and his scholarship. Ortiz essentially created the field of Afro-Caribbean studies and helped establish a foundation for Afrodiasporic studies more generally. Virtually everyone else interested in these topics — Roger Bastide, Harold Courlander, Melville Herskovits, Alfred Métraux, Pierre Verger, etc. — began their studies significantly later than Ortiz and in dialogue with his work. In the Caribbean and beyond, he mentored generations of researchers. Beyond this, he was one of the first authors to focus on varied forms of cultural transformation in post-colonial, post-slave societies, famously championing the notion of “transculturation.” Perhaps most significantly, Ortiz’s changing views through the years correspond to the trajectory of modern Western thought as regards Africa and race. He began his academic career as an evolutionist thinker heavily biased against Afro-descendant expression and ended up being considered one of its first advocates. I view one of the principal contributions of the introduction to the volume as documenting his conceptual shifts in this sense and contextualizing his views within a broader historical framework, as can be seen in the Table of Contents, below.

Those of us involved in the translation project struggled with what representative works of Ortiz to reproduce, on what topics, and from what periods of his life. The decisions ultimately involved reflection on which texts would be useful to English-speaking readers today. Ortiz was extremely prolific; his writing on African-influenced music, dance, and expressive culture alone (as he wrote on countless other topics) would fill at least a dozen 600-page books. Late works are less ideologically fraught, but the early ones provide important insights into his intellectual development. In the end we decided to include one essay from Ortiz’s early “criminology” phase (decidedly racist), one from the early 1920s, and the remainder from the 1940s and 1950s, the apex of his career. A number of works would have been included but for lack of space: on the history of the timbales, the history of the claves, on carnival traditions, essays on iyesá drumming, tumba francesa, yuka, bembé music and dance, Abakuá instruments, and others like the bongó, etc. Certainly many translations projects of Ortiz’s writings could yet be undertaken.

Those interested in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music will undoubtedly find important material to study in the volume. But we also hope that students and scholars of more varied research specializations whose languages do not typically include Spanish — for instance those in fields such as in African studies, African American studies, dance, diaspora studies, folklore, subaltern studies —may be interested in Ortiz’s writings as well. Those drawn to the history of anthropology may also find the writings useful, given that they provide information about early ethnographic endeavors by scholars based in locations other than the United States and Europe. Ortiz’s work decenters existing anthropological histories and provides alternate perspectives from the developing world.

As mentioned, the introduction to the book explores Ortiz’s changing views toward Afro-diasporic heritage, when such changes took place, to what degree, and why. The significant shifts in his views on the topic are especially evident in the mid-1930s. Ortiz became a much more outspoken advocate of black heritage and its study at that time, though a substantial degree of ambivalence towards it can still be found subsequently. One issue complicating a discussion about his changing views is that Ortiz never admitted to the overtly racist presumptions in his early publications. Another is that his most controversial statements often come in the form of the citations of publications by others, without comment. I reference only one of Ortiz best-known works from the 1950s here in order to represent his late views.

It is clear that Ortiz was aware of arguments against evolutionist theories of culture as of the 1940s. At one point he states “I am not unaware that studies and analysis of the music of ‘our historical contemporaries’ must be undertaken with caution. So-called ‘primitive’ cultures cannot necessarily be considered antecedents of other more civilized ones that could be viewed as chronologically ‘secondary’ or ‘subsequent.’”<1> Here he makes a statement against evolutionist thought, yet also describes white/European culture as “more civilized.” It appears he was wrestling with the work of younger scholars, trying to make them jibe with his earlier beliefs about global stages of cultural and intellectual development.

One finds many quotes in Ortiz’s later books that suggest condescending views of black heritage (even if unintended), that reinforce negative stereotypes, and that still ascribe, at least implicitly, to evolutionist views. In the same publication cited above, for instance, Ortiz suggests that black African music is much more ‘backwards’ than white music, if we consider it from an evolutionary perspective, but more ‘advanced’ than that of whites in particular aspects…”<2> Quoting the work of archdeacon of Niger, George T. Basden, he writes “Considering what black Africans are and the environment where they live, the value of their music is as impressive, relatively, as the creations of the great masters employing perfected instruments.”<3> A more extended quote by Basden is included shortly thereafter: “The more one hears African music, the more one is conscious of its vital power. It strikes the most intimate cords in human beings and stimulates their primary instincts … Even the white European who has the most basic affinity for music will feel the elemental forces of his nature shaken by the passionate fervor of black musicians, the purveyors of their art.”<4> Given the lack of commentary surrounding such statements, one can only presume that Ortiz agreed with Basden’s views and did not interrogate the problematic terminology and viewpoints found in them.

A more extended quotation taken from the work of Percival Kirby in the 1930s and reproduced below appears to contradict Ortiz’s alleged support of cultural relativism; instead, it suggests ongoing belief in an evolutionist view of culture, despite attempts to nuance that position. The quote and those above also underscore the fact that references to blacks, Africans, and black descendants in the Americas are frequently conflated in Ortiz’s writing, so that it is unclear which critiques apply to which groups.

African music lacks the technical and instrumental possibilities that European music has today. Considering it from an evolutionist perspective, Kirby has said, referring to the music of certain Bantu peoples, that when they initiated their contact with occidental music it was comparable to European music as it existed in the tenth and eleventh centuries. They [African musics and their culture] are merely a few steps behind. And it is not deluded to say that white music, despite its sublime creations, still lacks certain possibilities achieved by blacks. European- and African-derived musics are at different levels, used for different social functions, and expressed in different vocabularies too. But both possess universal appeal and individual merits.<5>

These textual citations underscore some of the issues I have been grappling with related to the Ortiz translation project: how to frame Ortiz’s writings, how to evaluate his legacy, how to situate his work vis-à-vis that of other academics of the early and mid-twentieth century in Latin America, the United States, and Europe, and how to assess his views on race relative to other prominent intellectuals of the day. Certainly Ortiz along with other seminal figures of Latin American musicology (Mário de Andrade, Carlos Chávez, Carlos Vega, etc.) have become “sacred cows” in many respects; scholars even today are loathe to evaluate their works critically. Ortiz and others must be understood as groundbreaking thinkers, but with many ideological limitations. Their work should be included in broader historiographical discussions, put into dialogue with contemporaries around the world, and understood in relationship to broader social and political trends. As Steven Loza (2006) and others have suggested, comparative academic work of this nature extends current understandings about race, nation-building, and music, and provides an important counterbalance to existing literature too heavily focused on the developed world.

Loza, Steven. 2006. “Challenges to the Euroamericentric Ethnomusicological Canon: Alternatives for Graduate Readings, Theory, and Method.” Ethnomusicology 50(2): 360–371.
Ortiz, Fernando. [1950] 1965. La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba. Havana: Editorial Universitaria.

<1>Ortiz [1950] 1965, 106, “No ignoramus que los estudios y aprovechamientos de la música de ‘nuestros contemporáneos históricos’ han de hacerse con cautela. No siempre pueden considerarse las culturas llamadas ‘primitivas’ como antecedentes necesarios de las que por más civilizadas se podrían tomar por cronológicamente ‘secundarias’ o ‘ulteriores’.
<2>Ortiz [1950] 1965, 107, “mucho más ‘atrasada’ que la de los blancos, si la consideramos en las perspectivas de una evolución, pero más ‘avanzada’ que la de éstos en algunos de sus valores…”
<3>Ortiz [1950] 1965, 154-55, “Considerando lo que el negro africano es y el ambiente en que vive, los méritos de su música son tan maravillosos, relativamente, como las producciones de los grandes maestros mediante los instrumentos muy perfeccionados.” The quote comes from Caridge’s Black Bush Tribes of Africa London: Seeley, Service, an Co., Ltd., 1922), 222-23.
<4>Ortiz [1950] 1965, 154, quoting Basden’s Among the Ibos of Nigeria from 1938: “Cuando más oye uno la música africana, más adquiere uno la conciencia de su vital poder. Ella hiere las cuerdas más íntimas del ser humano y estimula sus instintos primarios … Aun el blanco europeo, si tiene en él la más humilde susceptibilidad por la música, sentirá las elementales fuerzas de su naturaleza extrañamente sacudidas por el apasionado fervor de los músicos negros, posesos de su arte.”
<5> “Indudablemente, la música africana carece de las posibilidades técnicas, instrumentales, que hoy tiene la música europea. Considerándola de una perspectiva evolucionista, Kirby ha dicho, refiriéndose a la música de ciertos pueblos bantús, que cuando se inició su contacto con la música occidental, era comparable a la europea tal como ésta era en los siglos XI y X. No se trata en esto sino de pasos de distancia. Y no es iluso afirmar que la música blanca, a pesar de sus sublimes creaciones, aún carece de ciertas posibilidades logradas por los negros. Son músicas en niveles distintos, para funciones sociales distintas, y expresadas en lenguajes distintos tambien; pero todas poseen valores de captación universal y sus méritos particulares.” Ortiz [1950] 1965, 154.


Robin Moore is Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include music and nationalism, music and race, music and socialism, philosophies of music pedagogy, and music of Cuba and the Hispanic Caribbean and Latin America more generally. His publications include Nationalizing Blackness (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), Music and Revolution (University of California Press, 2006), Music of the Hispanic Caribbean (Oxford Press, 2010), Musics of Latin America (W.W. Norton, 2012), Danzón: Circum-Caribbean Dialogues in Music and Dance (Oxford, 2013, co-written with Alejandro Madrid), College Music Curricula for a New Century (Oxford, 2017), Fernando Ortiz on Music (Temple, 2018), and numerous articles on Cuban music. He currently edits the Latin American Music Review.

Translation and the Musicologist: A Case Study in Four Parts

The place of linguistic translation in the musicological enterprise is a topic that attracted a great deal of attention among members of the American Musicological Society this past fall, in response to queries regarding the role of translation examinations in the graduate curriculum.  This week, Musicology Now takes on the issue of translation, not in regard to curricular imperatives but rather exploring the issue of translation itself.  The platform for this discussion is the recent publication of Fernando Ortiz on Music: Selected Writing on Afro-Cuban Culture, a collection of English-language translations of selected writings by the noted twentieth-century Cuban ethnologist.  In a series of four essays, by editor Robin D. Moore, David García, Susan Thomas, and David Font-Navarrete, the authors explore the politics and the ethics of translation, its impact on musical and cultural understanding, and the opportunities, challenges, and risks associated with curating and translating the work of a dominant figure in Latin American scholarship whose work also reveals deeply problematic ties to racist ideology.

Quick Take —The Future of the Souls is the Present: Sounds and Cultural Memory

By Guadalupe Caro Cocotle

I resisted as long as I could before going to  see Coco (Pixar, 2017). Since my son was born we have watched every children’s film that has come out and some of them, I must confess, I have enjoyed. My reticence to see Coco was caused by the multiple comments and the innumerable tears and wails the film provoked from several of my friends. I did not want to see a movie that would make me cry. I became interested in seeing Coco when I learned that two versions had been made in terms of editing and post-production: one for Mexican and Latin American audiences and one for the U.S. public. Intriguingly, the version released in Mexico was not the dubbed version of an English language original; for the first time, Pixar produced a film in Spanish featuring the vocal stylings of popular Latin American performers. In this essay, I am interested in reviewing the codification of sound culturally speaking, rather than the specifics of the music itself. I am interested in explaining how the processes of memory and forgetting are relevant in Coco beyond life and death as central topics of the film.

Coco is a film about death, life, and family legacy,all articulated through music. Pixar has embarked on the difficult business of explaining to children the complicated subject of death. For this, it draws from the folklore and culture of the Mexican celebration of Día de los muertos, a tradition that happens every 1st and 2nd of November. Día de los muertos is a day in which both the streets and homes are filled with light and color, music and flowers, and, above all, offerings, which indicate that the people that we love have not been forgotten. The idea of the offering is that of a welcoming for those souls that visit the world of the living once a year. Entire families gather in the warmth of the home to pay homage to their deceased and to remember past times placing la ofrenda (an offering) that usually is made of cempasúchil flowers (Tagetes erecta), food (such pan de muerto, candies, mole, tamales, and so forth), candles, pictures, incense known as copal, and several other objects. Coco shines; it takes on the colors of the Día de los muertos. For this film, instead of using Pixar´s technique of world-building, like in Monsters Inc., director Lee Unkrich relied on several research trips to Mexico and personal stories from Mexican team members. Thus it is possible to identify elements from the Día de los muertos celebrations in Mixquic (Mexico City) and in Pátzcuaro (Michoacán).

Cultural memory and sound memories

For the English version, an actor of Latin descent, Benjamin Bratt, was chosen to voice Ernesto de la Cruz, the film’s main antagonist, while the Spanish version featured the Mexican singer and songwriter Marco Antonio Solís, a.k.a. El Buki, in the role. The character of Ernesto de la Cruz is important because in him the iconic images of at least two of the most popular Mexican singers in the cinema are evoked: Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. The choice of Solís is interesting because although he performs the main song, “Recuérdame,” his performance utilizes a completely different vocal style from the one that has marked him as one of most popular singers in the Mexican music industry.

Marco Antonio Solís was the lead singer of Los Bukis, a Mexican grupero balada band characterized by a pop sound with a wide use of synthesizers, and romantic and even corny songs.<1> One example of Los Bukis style is the song “Tu cárcel” in which it is possible to appreciate the nasal vocal style of Solis as well as the extensive use of the synthesizer.(

In 1996, Marco Antonio Solís launched a solo career. Since he was the main voice and songwriter of Los Bukis, he was identified as “El Buki.” His solo career was marked by the support of Televisa, the Mexican Television public broadcaster, and many of his songs were recorded by mainstream singers. He also became one of the major composers for telenovela theme songs. In his songs, Solís sings about love, lack of love, disinterested love, and exploits the idea that being poor means being morally good. In terms of his voice, Solís has a recognizable nasal vocal style, somewhat opaque and with exaggerated vibrato, and he utilizes an average vocal tenor range. Solís himself has commented on his characteristic sound, stating, “my singing is ugly but it has style.”<2>

The use of Solís’ voice for the character of Ernesto de la Cruz is peculiar because his performance  deviates entirely from the vocality that had made him a ubiquitous Mexican pop icon.  His performance of “Recuérdame” ( presents a mix between mariachi song (canción ranchera) and musical theatre, styles that Solís had never been associated with in the past. This new vocality allows him to be placed in a different cultural position, transitioning from a popular grupero icon to a singer that synthesizes mariachi and musical theatre practices. The shift between Solis’ two vocalities recalls the voices of Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, emblematic figures of popular music and film, both of whom are called up in the character of Ernesto de la Cruz, as Jacky Avila notes here. While the two actors embodied a similar persona and even appeared onscreen together, the first was an untrained singer while the the second had formal vocal training and a more polished sound.

Solís’ performance in Coco is useful for understanding how both memory and forgetting works in popular music. In order to accept the authenticity of El Buki’s/Ernesto de la Cruz’ musical performance, viewers need to forget the previous vocal identity of the singer who transforms “Recuérdame” into the film’s hit song. This necessary choice to forget El Buki’s previous musical and cultural associations can be explained using Aleida Assmann´s concept of cultural memory. Assmann analyzes the relationship between remembering and forgetting as part of social transformations and notes that in order to remember some things, to construct  a particular narrative of the past—or of the present—other things must be forgotten (Assmann, 2008, 98).<3> Cultural memory accounts for the ways that individual memory enters into a larger social compact regarding whether to forget or to remember key elements or symbols of the past in order to construct meaning in the present. According to Assman, cultural memory is necessary because it is linked to the process of identity formation.

Cultural memory is embodied and transmitted through performances and practices. Solís’ signature voice and its embodiment in the grupero vocal style is part of the symbolic order forming Mexican popular music and its canon. The audience remembers Solís as the singer who came from nothing to be a superstar of the contemporary Mexican grupero style.<4> As Ernesto de la Cruz, Solis’ voice is transformed and resignified through a process of disembodiment. Not only is his voice attached to a deceased character through the animation process, but it also represents a severing of his familiar vocal practice.  Gone is Solis’ usual nasal, middle vocal range. Instead, he sings in the bel canto style, able to reach beautiful high notes.
Solis’ voice thus moves away from the mainstream pop sentimentality and romanticism that had previously characterized him and instead presents a new sound capable of transcending the mass-mediated pop sound with which he was associated and crossing into another type of musical canon. Solís himself has declared that his vocal performance of “Recuérdame” represented a notable shift.  “Lo disfruté muchísimo porque fue muy divertido. Canté, pero diferente a como lo hago [. . .]—I enjoyed it a lot because it was really fun.  I sang, but differently than I normally do [. . .] ”.<5> In order for the audience to appreciate Solis’ new vocal virtuosity in “Recuérdame,” they must forget his previous grupero sound.
Audience awareness of and appreciation for Solis’ vocal transition is evidenced by the multiple comments that appear following videos of the song on YouTube. For example, a user declares, "Mr. Buki, what a beautiful voice you have!” Another says, “Now I respect Marco Antonio [. . ..] when he sings, you don't realize that is him.” A third person points out, "it [“Recuérdame”] has nothing to do with his original voice.”"<6>

This “forgetting to remember” forms the  turning point of Coco´s pathos and narrative, a necessary and inescapable negotiation of cultural memory that is as much as the requirement placed on the film’s protagonists as they process their connection with the past as it is on the contemporary viewers who must process the film’s interweaving of sonic and visual signs from the near as well as the distant past.   Ultimately, Coco asks us: what do we remember and what do we forget, a process that moves beyond the living and dead.
<1>The grupero balada group  took on the role of what is called as the grupo versátil, live bands that perform at parties such as quince años, weddings, proms and so forth. They are called versátil (versatile) because they are able to perform many different kinds of styles and genres. Alejandro Madrid has analyzed ties between the development of the balada movement and Televisa, the major Mexican television public broadcaster. However, as Madrid explains, in its beginnings the grupero balada did not have the support of televised media and was “music by low-income working class musicians for low-income working-class people”. Alejandro Madrid, Music in Mexico. Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (New York: Oxford, University Press,  2013, p. 63).
<3>Aleida Assman, “Canon and Archive”, Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning eds., Media and Cultural Memory, Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008, pp. 97-107.

Guadalupe Caro Cocotle, is a Mexican musicologist and singer. She has a master degree in musicology and she´s is finishing her PhD. She is a professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey Campus Estado de México.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Quick Take — “I am not like the rest of my family”: Miguel Rivera as Queer-Musical Figure

By Matthew J. Jones and Martín Vega Olmedo

Is Miguel Musical?

Philip Brett once winkingly asked “Are you musical?” noting the historical slippage between musical and gay identities which “exist in an uneasy relation.”<1>  Both represent dissident forms of being in a macho-normative culture, and as Brett trenchantly put it, “All musicians are faggots in the parlance of the male locker room.”<2> For LGBTQ children who experience disproportinate amounts of bullying from peers, disapproval from parents, and the scorn of community and political leaders, “music appears as a veritable lifeline.”<3>  Reflecting on his adolescent habit of listening to Broadway soundtracks in a suburban basement, D. A. Miller wondered how many other  young queer boys harnessed “the strength to endure a depressive status quo” and realized through music’s “interruptive mode-shifting” their fantasy of “sending the whole world packing?”<4> Miguel Rivera, the protagonist of Disney/Pixar’s Coco,  is one such boy.

Generations ago, the premature death of her musician husband left Miguel’s great-great grandmother, Imelda, brokenhearted with a child to raise on her own and a smoldering hatred of musicians. Banishing music forever, the Riveras stewarded subsequent generations away from the dishonorable musical lifestyle, toward the sensible family shoemaking trade. Although his family reprimands him that “a Rivera is a shoemaker, through and through,” Miguel resists, insisting that “I am not like the rest of my family.” He longs to escape the humdrum banality of a cobbler’s life and dreams of becoming a famous musician, playing to huge crowds, and sharing his talents with the world. While Miguel’s desires clash with those of his family, he embraces his innate musicality and, deus ex Disney, embarks on a fantastical quest to pursue his destiny. Miguel’s plight constitutes a queer narrative framed as a specifically musical struggle.

Miguel’s Musical Closet

Closed spaces factor in the lives of many Disney characters who face tensions between social norms and their identities. For instance, Ariel stores a vast collection of human stuff in a secret grotto concealed behind a massive stone door whose metaphorical suggestions myriad: the tomb of Christ from which the transfigured savior emerges or the homosexual closet which Sedgwick identifies as the central trope of contemporary culture. Ariel’s closet provided her comfort but also elicited anxiety that she would be discovered.  Upon discovering Ariel’s secret space, Triton panics, destroying her collection in the process and propelling Ariel’s quest to inhabit a body that feels natural to her, a journey Spencer interprets as a transgender narrative.<5> Miguel, too, has a secret hidden behind an old sign above the family workroom. There, he escapes his music-hating abuela to find solace among musical bric-a-brac: album jackets, photographs, and VHS tapes containing black-and-white movie musicals starring his idol, the late Ernesto de la Cruz.

Weston identifies three salient characteristics of coming-out narratives, all of  which are embedded in Miguel’s story: 1) a sense of deep and enduring social isolation, 2) searching for LGBTQ traces in a variety of media forms, and 3) a draw toward urban spaces.<6>  Surveying his ancestors on the ofrenda and in family stories,  Miguel can find few traces of a musical past; therefore, he feels isolated and alone, like he might be the only musician in his entire family. Although he identifies as musical deep in his bones and makes numerous direct statements about the queerness of his desire, Miguel fears that his family will neither understand nor accept this part of his identity. So, he turns to Weston’s second stage, “tracking the gay imaginary” in print and broadcast media.

By collecting de la Cruz ephemera, Miguel constructs his own musical/queer genealogy using popular culture for guidance. According to Halperin, LGBTQs “routinely cherish non-gay artifacts and cultural forms [because they] offer a way of escaping from their particular personal queerness into total, global queerness. In the place of an identity, they are offered a world.”<7>  Decoding heterosexual artifacts like movies, plays, songs, and music videos, queer folks empty them of straight meaning and refill these cultural vessels with their own meaning. Strong identification with powerful musical figures is a hallmark of queer identity. Opera and musical theater queens obsess over biographical trivia, collect ephemera, and seek out rare recordings—all venerated objects in rites of diva worship.

While the typical diva is female (Maria Callas, Barbra Streisand, or Madonna; Bette Davis and Joan Crawford), de la Cruz presents a masculine spin on the diva figure, a male diva. Modeled after Mexican singer-actors Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, who rose to fame in Mexico’s cinematic golden age during the 1940s, De la Cruz at first appears wholly unreachable, visible only through the fuzzy glow of the television. In his secret altar to de la Cruz (a name meaning, literally, “of the Cross”) centered around the television screen, Miguel performs the rites of diva worship: he practices on his makeshift guitar and mimics the language, vocal inflections, gestures, and sounds of his musical idol.

Rivera Family Ofrenda

Miguel’s family, in turn, traces their heritage through another, older media form: the photograph. Ancestors appear in black-and-white portraits on the family ofrenda for the Day of the Dead. Atop the altar stands a picture of Mamá Imelda, her infant daughter Coco, and the headless body of a great-great grandfather, whose name cannot be uttered. When Miguel accidentally shatters the frame holding this photograph, he discovers that the headless male figure holds a guitar, which Miguel recognizes as the famous instrument of Ernesto de la Cruz who he wrongly surmises is his great-great grandfather.

Miguel Discovers the Photograph

Emboldened by the discovery of his own musical legacy, Miguel flings open the closet door, proudly coming out as a musician. Like King Triton, Miguel’s abuela flies into a rage, denounces his newly-proclaimed identity, tosses his collection of de la Cruz ephemera into the trash, and destroys her grandson’s guitar with a terse rebuff: NO MUSIC!  Following Brett’s musical-queer calculus, this action is not simply a rejection of Miguel’s desire to be a musician but also a rebuff against his queerness. Over the ruins of his guitar, a distraught Miguel fires back at the matriarch, “I don’t want to be a part of this stupid family!”

Miguel in his Attic

The explosive confrontation with his family motivates Miguel’s flight from the Land of the Living in search of a broader, musical family in the Land of the Dead. That flight, at the same time, takes Miguel from village to city. For many LGBTQs, the city “represents a beacon of tolerance and gay community [because] its anonymity [offered] a refuge from the discipline of small-town surveillance.” Like another famous queer media icon, Miguel follows his own Yellow Brick Road—in this case, a magical marigold version of the Golden Gate Bridge that leads to the City of the Dead, a necropolis populated with queer figures including the ghost of Frida Kahlo and plenty of musicians, including Ernesto de la Cruz and Miguel’s own great, great grandfather, Hector Rivera. Carrying the stigma of a soiled identity, Miguel flees his family, and like generations of LGBTQ refugees, hopes to discover his heritage and forge a future on his own terms.

The Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco

Marigold Bridges to the City of the Dead

When Miguel crosses over into the Land of the Dead, he enters a Disneyfied version of Halberstam’s “queer time and place,” a neon-infused landscape that turns Mexico’s ancient topography inside out. Monolithic temples anchor the bustling metropolis but also blend into its architecture. The ruins of indigenous empires, literal building Blocks for modern cities, are reconstituted in The Land of the Dead, bringing past and present into direct contact. Miguel’s crossing-over into “musicality” is facilitated by his temporal border crossing into a space where past becomes present. This collision between life/death and past/present parallels the formation of queer identities out of the detritus of straight, mainstream culture, using the passé to refashion fabulous futures. Miguel finds himself caught between two worlds. If he remains in the Land of the Living, he cannot live as a musician. Yet if he remains in the land of the dead, his animated flesh transforms to skeleton and bones. We can literally see inside Miguel and discern his essential resemblance to his musical/artistic/queer ancestors in the Land of the Dead.

Whereas Miguel felt queer in the Land of the Living, he finds support in the Land of the Dead; he even receives the appellation of “artist” from Frida Kahlo. Her validation inspires Miguel to embrace his musical identity by singing a “coming out” song, “Un Poco Loco,” in the Plaza de la Cruz, an inverse of the Mariachi Plaza stage upon which he is forbidden to perform by his living family. Among the dead, Miguel finds the queer musical family he has searched for, exemplified above all by Hector Rivera, Miguel’s true great-great grandfather who first appears as Frida Kahlo in-drag. This cross-dressing ancestor helps to redirect Miguel’s fixation on the ultra-masculine De la Cruz towards a recognition of an even broader musical family that includes Mamá Imelda, whose musical performance toward the movie’s finale helps to expose De la Cruz as a false diva.

Once redeemed in the Land of the Dead, however, Miguel must return to the Land of the Living by securing the blessing of an ancestor before sunrise, when the Day of the Dead ends. Miguel’s race against cosmic time mirrors the mythological journey of the Quetzalcoatl, the mythological Mesoamerican “Plumed Serpent” who sets out to recuperate human bones from the Land of the Dead to repopulate the earth. Miguel will act as such an agent of change in the film’s final scene, bringing with him the lessons of his ancestors to create a new normal in which his queer identity as a musician is accepted and even celebrated.

Miguel and Hector perform “Un Poco Loco”

Miguel receives ancestral blessing

Animal companions are common in Disney films; heroines from Snow White to Ariel have plenty of animal friends but few meaningful human interactions. Miguel befriends a dog called Dante, surely an allusion to the author of the Divine Comedy whose portrayal of purgatory remains one of the most terrifying literary expressions of the Catholic hell. Similarly, the ancient Aztecs, the Land of the Dead (Mictlan in Nahuatl) consisted of nine layers through which a soul journeyed to reach their final resting place. The Mexican hairless dog xoloitzcuintli, xolotl for short, served as a guide for the deceased, taking its canine form from the belief that when burying or digging for bones, dogs dug a path to the underworld. A loyal companion who is easily distracted by the lure of his next meal, Dante is on his own transformative journey to become a fluorescent, rainbow-colored alebrije (spirit guide). In this way, Dante, too “comes out” to reveal his true self and facilitate Miguel’s own self-actualization.

Proud Corázon: Coming Out and the New Family Normal

In the final scene, Miguel’s voice sings over bustling family action: food preparation, gathering of objects for the ofrenda, including a portrait of Mama Coco who died during the intervening year. People spread Marigold petals to guide ancestral spirits home. The camera pans across the Rivera family yard, coming to rest on Miguel dressed in a Mariachi costume. Surrounded by his living family and his departed ancestors, Miguel’s coming out is complete. He sings a song, “Proud Corázon,” about the importance of family bonds, love, and the “song played on the strings of our souls.” The Rivera family has accepted Miguel’s new identity and integrated it into a new family normal in which musical/queer identity registers as an important part of their lineage and, importantly, their future.

The final Scene: Miguel as Mariachi on the Day of the Dead

Works Cited

Brett, Phillip. “Are You Musical?: Phillip Brett Charts the Rise of the New Gay and Lesbian Musicology.” The Musical Times 135/1816 (1994): 370-374 + 376.
---. “Musicality, Essentialism, and the Closet” in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, eds. Brett, Thomspon, and Wood. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Space: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press, 2005.
Haplerin, David. How to be Gay. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.
Miller, D. A. Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Spencer, Leland. “Performing Transgender Identity in The Little Mermaid: From Andersen to Disney.” Communication Studies 65/1 (2014): 112-127.
Weston, Kath. “Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration.” GLQ 2 (1995): 253-277.

<1>Philip Brett, “Are You Musical?” and Brett, “Musicality, Essentialism, and the Closet,” 17.
<2>Brett, “Musicality,” 17-18.
<3>Brett, “Musicality,” 17.
<4>Miller, Place for Us, 7-11.

<5>Spencer, “Performing Transgender Identity in The Little Mermaid.”
<6>Weston, “Get Thee to a Big City,” 257-258.
<7>Halperin, How to Be Gay, 112.

Martín Vega Olmedo is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 2016 he graduated from the University of Michigan with a PhD in Romance Languages and Literatures and went on to teach at Harvard University as a College Fellow. Currently he is writing a book on the role of beauty, colors, and cosmetic techniques in the conquest of Mexico. His work deals broadly with indigenous cultures, colonialism and gender in Latin America and the US borderlands.

Matthew J. Jones (PhD: Critical & Comparative Studies of Music, UVA 2014) is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Miami University of Ohio. His work explores intersections of American music, sexuality, illness, and social justice. He is a recipient of the 2017 ASCAP Deems Taylor/ Virgil Thomson Article Award for Concert Music Criticism for his essay “Enough of Being Basely Tearful: ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ and the Camp Politics of Queer Resistance” in The Journal of the Society for American Music. His work also appears in Women and Music and The Journal of Popular Music Studies as well as the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Music and Queerness and Joni Mitchell: New Critical Readings. He is currently at work on a book project about music, affect, and AIDS activism.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Quick Take — Mexico’s epoca de oro and Music in Pixar’s Coco

By Jacqueline Avila

Día de muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the memory of the dead, taking place the evening of October 31 and ending November 2. During this period, people remember their departed loved ones, creating ofrendas (altars) adorned with marigolds, photographs of the deceased, sugar skulls, and pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread). Although a popular tradition, its incorporation in Mexican cinema is underwhelming. Films from the 1930s, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México! (1931) and Janitzio (1934, dir. Carlos Navarro) incorporated Día de muertos into their narratives, exhibiting rites and rituals of the event. Later fictional films featured narratives about crossing over to the Land of the Dead, including El ahijado de la muerte (The Godson of Death, 1946, dir. Norman Foster) and Macario (1959, dir. Roberto Gavaldón). Recently, the practices and iconography of Día de muertos has swept through the United States. Hollywood, whose visual and narrative representations of Mexicans and Mexican culture have focused on narco violence, kidnappings, and brutality, have jumped on the bandwagon to provide their own cinematic representations of the holiday.<1> The newest film to take up the reins is Pixar Animation Studio’s Coco (2017).

Coco is a visually stunning film that tells the story of young boy named Miguel who ventures into the Land of the Dead. Miguel aspires to be a musician much like his deceased idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), but his family, who have been forbidden to perform music by the deceased matriarch Mamá Imelda (voiced by Alanna Ubach), encourage him to continue in the family business of shoemaking. In pursuit of his dream, Miguel is magically transported to the Land of the Dead during Día de muertos where he encounters his deceased family members transformed as calacas (skeletons), who again forbid him to become a musician. He evades their clutches with the help of the calaca Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal), who encourages his musical talents and guides him through the Land of the Dead. What follows is a narrative that explores familial relationships, the precarious nature of tradition, and the process of forgiveness. In addition to this, Coco is brimming with fantastic references to Mexican popular culture, including popular colloquialisms (“No manches”), luchadores (masked wrestlers), la chancla (the infamous flip flop that functions as a threatening tool used by mothers), and humorous cameos of surrealist painter Frida Kahlo (1907—1954), whose paintings have been the subject of numerous exhibitions internationally, and whose image has become part of the cultural capital of Mexico. While all these elements and references paint a vibrant tapestry of Mexican culture, at the heart of the film is music and Mexico’s cinematic epoca de oro (Golden Age).

The epoca de oro is a period in cinematic history (roughly 1936—1952) that showcased a rising star system, box office success, and the development of film genres that became crucial components of national filmmaking, such as the comedia ranchera (ranch comedy) and the revolutionary melodrama. The films, players, and music from this period are still significant fixtures in Mexican popular culture and Coco evokes this in numerous ways.<2> The most apparent is through the characters and their musical performance, which pay homage to the musical film genre the comedia ranchera and its singing macho charro (Mexican cowboy). Miguel wants to follow in the footsteps of actor and musician Ernesto de la Cruz, whose character is loosely inspired by the career of epoca de oro actor Pedro Infante (1917—1957). Infante personified the charro in comedias rancheras and provided his velvety voice and signature gritos (cries) to many rancheras and ballads. His tragic death in 1957 sent the country into national mourning. De la Cruz mirrors Infante. His persona, his confidence, and his ability to charm the crowd construct him, much like Infante, as a cinematic and musical icon, and a national treasure.

De la Cruz’s legacy is initially shaped by the film’s theme song “Remember Me,” which also functions as a nostalgic anthem for the protagonists, but in contrasting ways. De la Cruz’s ranchera-inspired interpretation is introduced in a black and white film clip, which shows him performing on a large stage. The lyrics, written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, describe the bittersweet parting of two people and the desperate need to live on in one’s memory:

Remember me
Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
Don’t let it make you cry
For even though I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart.

The lyric’s melancholy sentiment becomes buried underneath the quick tempo and vibrant orchestration, complete with blaring trumpets, strummed guitars, gritos, and female backup singers. The music here moves away from the musical characteristics of the epoca de oro, which typically did not consist of such heavy instrumentation and dramatic flourish. This performance, rather, mirrors more of a Hollywood musical construction from the same period. As De la Cruz sustains the final note, the large decorative bell above his head comes crashing down on him, sending him to the Land of the Dead and forever associating “Remember Me” as both his signature (or exit) song and his last words. Although the song ends tragically, it is no question that De la Cruz’s polished performance showcases him as an attention seeking star and a darling in the national imagination.

Other iterations of “Remember Me” offer more emotional significance. Héctor, we find out, is the song’s real composer. The song was originally intended not as a showy piece for the stage, but as a slow and charming lullaby for his daughter Coco, who is Miguel’s great grandmother. In a flashback, a living Héctor sings the first two verses accompanied by acoustic guitar to the young Coco. This segment is brief and encapsulates the tenderness and love that the song’s lyrics depict. This feeling continues when Miguel, back in the Land of the Living, sings the song to Coco, now elderly and confined to a wheelchair. It is here that the film tugs unmercifully at the heart-strings as Miguel slowly sings the lullaby to coax Coco into remembering her deceased father. Coco (voiced by one of most well-known actresses of cine mexicano, Ana Ofelia Murguía) gently begins to sing along, her deep and raspy voice blending with Miguel’s, bringing the memory of her father back to the living while preserving his existence in the Land of the Dead.

Coco’s song list consists of mainly original music by the film’s numerous composers.<3> One exception, however, is “La llorona” (“Weeping Woman”), a son istmeño from the Isthmus of Tenhuantepéc that is performed in the film entirely in Spanish. Based on a popular folk legend, “La llorona” tells the dark story of a woman who kills her children by drowning them in a river after she is betrayed by her lover. Her ghost wanders the countryside typically at night, crying out for them. Ana Alonso Minutti notes that while this son is well-known and traditional, there is no “authorative” version; verses are added and/or reordered in performance.<4>

In Coco, “La llorona” is performed by Mamá Imelda who turned into a calaca Catrina (an elegant or well-dressed woman), reflecting the art of José Guadalupe Posada (1852—1913). While she was alive, she believed her musician husband left her and their child. In her grief, Mamá Imelda forbids her family from listening to and performing music, believing music to be the root of evil. Mamá Imelda’s interpretation comes at crucial moment in the narrative, taking place at the Sunrise Concert that commemorates the beginning of Día de muertos. In escaping De la Cruz on stage, she begins singing self-consciously and timidly. While beginning slowly and with rubato, she quickly speeds up the tempo and is joined by the orchestra, turning the ballad into a lively and rhythmic number with implied zapateando (tap dancing). She is soon accompanied by De la Cruz, who takes over the performance and brings the son to a dramatic end with his declamatory gritos. Mamá Imelda’s performance serves as a turning point for her and her family. In singing this son, she becomes La llorona; she was, in her mind, abandoned by her husband. Although she did not kill her children, she did kill music for her family, filling them with her own bitterness and resentment.

The performance of “La llorona” by Mamá Imelda links to other cinematic interpretations in both Mexico and Hollywood. Variations of this son have been interpreted by performers including Eugenia León in the Día de muertos inspired short film Hasta los huesos (To the Bones, 2001), which features a calaca catrina melodramatically singing the son; and also two crucial performances in the pseudo bio-pic Frida (2000, dir. Julie Taymor), one by the versatile Lila Downs, and the other by Chavela Vargas (1919—2012). Vargas’s performance of “La Llorona” and her intimate relationship with Kahlo have recently been part of a presentation completed by Ana Alonso Minutti for the University of New Mexico Art Museum.<5> In these performances, “La llorona” becomes an anthem for women, and an anthem for the dead and Día de muertos. Its inclusion in Coco as well as the other embellishments of Mexican popular culture function together to create a love letter for Mexico, making this Pixar’s most culturally relevant film to date.
<1>Films that have references include Frida (2000, dir. Julie Taymor) and Spectre (2015, dir. Sam Mendes). The animated feature Book of Life (2014, dir. Jorge R. Gutiérrez) is more specifically set during Día de muertos.
<2>In addition to cameos by a calaca Frida Kahlo, the film also references a calaca Mario Moreno “Cantinflas” and the luchador Santo.
<3>Michael Giacchino composed the original score while the songs were composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Germaine Franco, and Adrian Molina.
<4>Ana R. Alonso Minutti, “Chavela’s Frida: Emancipatory Songs of Love and Pain,” University of New Mexico Art Museum Insight Lecture Series in conjunction with the exhibition “Frida Kahlo—Her Photos” and the 15th Annual Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, October 17, 2017.


Dr. Jacqueline Avila is an Assistant Professor in Musicology at the University of Tennessee. Her research focuses on film music and sound practice from the silent period to present and the intersections of identity, tradition, and modernity in the Hollywood and Mexican film industries. She is currently writing her book manuscript titled Cinesonidos: Cinematic Music and Identity in Early Mexican Film (1896-1952), which is an examination of the function and cultural representation of music in the Mexican film industry.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sacred Traditions, Gender, and the Choir that Ate Hot Chili Peppers

By Jacob Sagrans

On December 13, 2017, Danish entertainer Claus Pilgaard (stage name: Chili Klaus) released a YouTube video he made with the Herning Boys Choir, the main church choir in Herning, Denmark. Pilgaard explains that he grew up singing in the choir and is now returning “to add a little extra passion to the music.” He and the choir then begin singing the Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in a rather reserved manner. At the end of the first verse, the mood changes: the conductor holds up a chili pepper, the cue for the singers to take out their own peppers and ingest them. The description for the video alleges that they are ghost peppers, one of the world’s spiciest.<1> As the choir continues to sing, the boys increasingly feel the effect of the peppers: their faces go red, their eyes water, and they cough, pant, grimace, shift weight, and shake in discomfort. By the end of the performance, many are no longer able to sing, although some of the older boys manage to sing loudly and look unfazed. After finishing the carol, the singers frantically run off to get ice cream, milk, and bread in hopes of neutralizing the spice.

In the month after it was released, the video scored nearly 1.4 million views on Pilgaard’s YouTube channel. Classic FM also shared it with 2.5 million Facebook viewers. Popular newspapers, magazines, and websites ran stories on the video, including the Independent, People, and BuzzFeed. The video’s novelty and humor appealed to viewers. I also believe the video resonated by upholding sacred choral traditions, particularly the tradition of all-male sacred singing. In addition to seeing and hearing boys in a church, accompanied by an organ, we witness male bonding and competition through the challenge of singing after eating hot peppers. The stereotypical notion of a “real man” or “real boy” is one who is tough and can withstand pain, and the members of the Herning Boys Choir fit the mold by standing in place and singing (or attempting to sing) until the end of the carol. The choir, then, is not only exclusively male, but the singers behave as expected of boys and men (in other words, they “perform” masculinity in a traditional/stereotypical way). The overwhelming maleness of the choir can assure us that, at least in Herning, the long tradition of all-male sacred singing is continuing, despite greater participation of women and girls in church choirs and religious life as well as increasingly secular societies.

The ways in which the Pilgaard/Herning video evokes issues of gender and religious tradition become more apparent when it is considered in relation to similar depictions of other all-male church choirs. For example, in 2014, The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge released a prank April Fools’ Day YouTube video entitled “King’s College Choir Announces Major Change.” The college chaplain explains the “major change”: due to complex new regulations, the choir can no longer employ underage boy trebles. But thankfully, a chemistry professor came up with an ingenious solution to keep the choir all male—and no, not the surgery that produced the castrati that sang high parts in church choirs and opera in the 17th and 18th centuries. A quartet of undergraduate choral scholars demonstrate the “solution” by singing a verse from Allegri’s Miserere. Before the countertenor’s high C (a challenging note for even child singers and women), he breathes helium from a large yellow balloon, allowing him to reach the note, albeit with a comically squeaky sound. Over 3 million people have viewed this video, making it the choir’s most popular on YouTube. Like the Pilgaard/Herning video, the King’s College video is original and comical. It also draws attention to the all-male nature of the choir, although here the issues of gender and tradition are more explicit. The choir’s exclusion of female singers in an increasingly egalitarian age may be problematic, but the popularity of this video suggests that viewers/listeners value the tradition of all-male sacred singing and want it to continue.<2> Several other depictions of the King’s College Choir also reinforce the sense that the choir’s all-male composition means it embodies longstanding sacred choral traditions and that these traditions “should” be preserved.<3>

The Pilgaard/Herning video and the King’s College video are humorous and creative. They also bring our attention to the choirs’ male personnel and assure us that the tradition of sacred male choral singing is still going strong. It would be worth considering in more depth how all-male sacred choirs project their gender identity to foster a sense of tradition. One could look at other popular portrayals of sacred choirs of men and boys, such as the annual Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols service sung by the King’s College Choir and broadcast on radio and TV around the world. To what extent are all-male sacred choirs trying to reference concerns about gender and tradition (while also trying to be innovative)? How important are gender and tradition in attracting listeners to these choirs? How do sacred choirs with female singers negotiate concerns that they are breaking with tradition? More research is warranted, but based on what I have found so far, I believe that issues of gender and tradition greatly inform the modern performance and reception of sacred choral music.
<1>Pilgaard later admitted that some of the peppers were milder, specifically the ones given to the youngest boys.
<2>One could also read the King’s College video as saying it would be futile to exclude female singers “at any cost” and maybe someday girls and women will sing in the choir.
<3>See the discussion in my doctoral dissertation, pages 87–96.

Jacob Sagrans studies sacred choral music and traditions, the early music revival, and music and medievalism. In 2017 he received a PhD in musicology from McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, where he wrote his dissertation on “Early Music and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, 1958 to 2015.” Jacob has taught music history and music appreciation at McGill, Tufts University, and Brown University. An active chorister, Jacob sings in Coro Allegro, Boston’s acclaimed LGBTQ+ and allied classical chorus. See more here.