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Heard in the Echoes of African Drums
In the ebb and flow of the trans-cultural tides, the three major hubs; Rio, Havana and Buenos Aires were actively embracing and contradicting the neo-African dance, tradition and merriment that was incubating in the warmth of the Latin American sun and in the heat of the dance-halls, Carnival parades and brothels. Sharing some key aspects of heritage, the dance and rhythms found in these three ports truly explain the queer relationship that the dances have in the ways of transferring culture across both continents, races and social castes, fomenting both reprisals and nationalism at various times. In this book John Charles Chasteen does great service, and in style, to illuminate the Pygmalion-like rise of neo-African dance in the Latin ports of call.
National Rhythms, African Roots states from the beginning (page 5-6) to divulge to the reader just “How did transgressive become official national rhythms” and seeks to answer how these dances of such lowly infancies, comprised of what appeared as very base and primal movements ingratiate themselves into the national theatre. It is these questions and more that Chasteen builds a great interest of into the pages, complete with the personal accounts of first-hand observers, written views of moralist of the time and periodical accounts. With great verve does Chasteen intersect his points with those of the peoples immersed in the cultures that were facing the “weird and well-nigh savage” assaults to their respectability and responsibility (154) The basic points of interest in the travels and travails of the dances at hand, lie in the transcendence of the phenomenon through caste and racial lines, from pariah to nationalistic symbols, and as a part of the tradition of religion, yet exemplifying anti-dogmatic themes and postures.
One would be hard pressed to find such a dichotomous piece of culture to exist as dance does in any region. This conspicuous honor is held in part, I think to the geographic/political/economic forces that placed many different cultures in a nexus outside of the conventional settings that tradition and constraint could not overcome a melding there within. The confluence of the European, native, European of New World birth and the African bred a new culture. As cited in the book, the slaves started the dances, not in the fashion found in Africa proper, but in a slightly new manner. Where non mixed-gender dances of groups were dominant there, on the new continent, and perhaps due to the contact with Europeans, the “dance of two” came into play. In all three ports and environs, African drum and cadence meshed with the dance, as well as wind, string and other percussion instruments. The cross-pollination of African drums and European dancing and instruments gave birth to dance unknown in either continent.
These dances moved from the fields, forests and beaches and into the brothels, dancehalls and private gatherings of low repute. One of dance’s other clandestinely intriguing nature was that it drew to it people of higher classes. Though they “seemed to encourage insolence among…blacks, making it harder to …instill a proper understanding of their lowness.” (101) Men of the middle and upper class found themselves both observers and participants in the dances that were conspiring to overwhelm the propriety and upbringing of the “bad boys” that would come to mix with the morenas. These men would learn the dances of the blacks, the neo-African roots would entwine their bodies with the darker races, mixed or otherwise, thus offering a fun contradiction. In a world based upon caste and social structure, these young men would learn, and yearn for the guilty pleasure of the dances, some abetting the mixture of the races. It is so, that the sewing of the classes and races together became more than servant and master, more than geographic.
The New World hosted such aplomb and applause for the black-faced entertainer, held up the style and elan of the darker cultures as to emulate them in caricature and mime, yet wished to be above them also. This was not to last, as the appeal of the dancers and their movements lured more and more members of the higher society into their realms…effectively drawing them out into their own arenas.
So much of this book is poignant to the reader, but in the name of brevity, I only try to outline some of the more auspicious facets, the evidence of just how dance was to become the transient drifter through the mixed culture of the Latin American world. That the dances of slaves, blacks and mixed races, long snubbed or subjugated by the powers that be, either church or state, became national symbols is quite a feat. Over time, the Samba, the Danzon, the Tango and others became both pawns in politics (as a means to rally the darker races to a movement or side in times of revolution or upheaval). Needing the support of certain populations, dance and performance was enlisted to garner momentum and adherence of classes and races. That later, they would become the cultural symbol of the nations, tailored in the individual outfit of the different lands, they espouse current day people in different countries. Whether it is the Rumba, Samba, Tango or Bolero, the many styles and movements or the dance-aliases of their respective lands. I found it funny that neo-African dances sometimes became miss-applied to their European masters due to their popularity…see Fado
The movement of the dances up the social ladder; from their beginnings at the brothels and dancehalls, into the homes and streets of the middle classes, and finally into the pomp and favor of the social and political elite is a commentary to the transience of cultural states and status over periods of time. I would be remiss not to liken the rise from the depraved to the raved life of the roots and rhythm of the American Blues, Jazz and their rock and roll offspring that similarly were bred from the cross-cultural flirtations in bawdy settings, then jettisoned into the popular culture of the common American. What more evidence of what time and cultural shifts does to the cultural embrace of song and dance (and their respective mirroring and nurturing of mixed-races) than the presence of Kanye West (rap star) on the top ten list of Barrack Obama’s music of choice?
Carnival lies in the odd space that coexists in the Latin world where religion and the behavior contrary to the tenets and tsk tsk of the church. This is where embigada and a masked Diabo mingle with the spirit of a religious festival. Where the masked white elite seeks to embrace the feverish rhythms and mingle with the mestizos, Indians and blacks…emulating the undulations and sway of their steps. In nations where impiety is decried and the church holds much sway over the policy and policing of the populace, it is incongruous to also host such pageantry and sultry salutations.
Yes, the Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance hosts as incongruous a story as can only be written by man. Laced together by the mixing of races and cultures, the birth of the neo-African dance medium built momentum over time and space and eventually would become the very symbol of nationalism, pride and Latin identity. Chasteen has shown the world more than he needed to prove his case. All he needed to do was to point out examples in modern day popular culture to sway the audience to see that where the transmission of people and cultures exist, so will those cultures blend into a formidable neo-culture of their own which has the potential to change the perspectives, politics and pelvic-positions of the peoples that choose to be swept up in their respective “dances”.
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