Timothy Brennan


On his book Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz

Cover Interview of December 05, 2008

The wide angle

A great deal of what I am saying depends on the claim that black musical genres and belief-systems are part of a single, unified complex in the Americas from Brazil to the southern United States.  It is not the case, in other words (as many argue) that U.S. black musical forms like jazz, R&B, ragtime, and rap are part of a different musical family than their Latin America and Caribbean counterparts, although that is the impression one gets without exception from radio announcers, popular films, and the holdings of any decent research library.  There one finds hundreds of books and articles on ragtime, delta blues, New Orleans jazz, swing, big-band, bebop, rock & roll, r&b, do-wop, Motown, soul, gospel and hip-hop.  There are little more than a handful on samba, beguine, soca, son, bolero, tango, foró, charanga, merengue, danzón, calenda, tejano, conga, bachata, vallenato, plena, cumbia, norteño, pachanga or reggaeton. Afro-Latin and African American music belong in the same discussion, and the unwillingness in most writing on popular music to treat them this way has, among other things, prevented people from appreciating the message of neo-African form and its secular rituals.

This is why my primary focus in many of the chapters is Afro-Latin music, especially the Cuban son.  We notice something striking and significant about Afro-Latin music from the outset that separates it sharply from the various black musical genres of the United States.  The degree of the latter’s deeply Christian and revivalist surroundings is an obvious difference, and it certainly mitigated the more overt African-ness of the popular idiom—partly overcome, though it was, by the constant influx into the United States of Latin musical forms under assumed identities.  But there is another factor I would like to highlight at this point.

The global spread of Latin music took place without occupying armies, high-tech distribution networks, or a well-developed advertising apparatus.  It did so, some have argued, because of the pathways laid down by the publicity networks of North American jazz between World War I and the late 1930s (the United States being in those years, as now, highly skilled at training foreign ears).  But there is at least one important reason to modify the view that jazz played this leadership role or that the United States paved the way for commercialized global popular music by establishing itself as the model for everything that followed.  For it could only have been a highly developed outlook, a coherent body of thought and feeling, that gave Latin music its global reach and staying-power without any of the assistance given jazz by Madison Avenue, military occupation, and a media mobilized to instruct the global public in matters of taste.  It needed a worldview in order to be passed on and to circulate intact.  From a variety of angles, this book is an attempt to describe and assess that worldview.

The idea that black music of the Americas should really be talked about as a single thing – that its many forms have more in common with one another than is usually supposed – is not just based on the accidental fact of slavery, or on the similarities among New World societies (the U.S. included), which developed as colonial settler states.  There’s a very intricate set of stories, for example, that directly show that Jazz was to a large degree, and from the start, Spanish Caribbean at its core.  A growing number of scholars and musicians have been able to demonstrate that jazz had Caribbean rather than North American origins – that, in fact, its history is inseparable form the Spanish-American war (in Cuba and Puerto Rico), which provided most of the technical expertise of the early performers, from the migrations to New Orleans from Haiti at the end of the 18th century, and by the huge influence of 19th century Cuban forms like the contradanza and the habanera.  In one chapter, I explore all this material but add to it another dimension: namely, that the huge significance and beauty of jazz (which in some of its later version is, of course, distinctly North American) is military.  The links between the rise of jazz and U.S. military conquest abroad are very pronounced.

Even though they are never included under its rubric, one could argue that only European classical music and jazz are “world” music, for they are the only forms known everywhere as a result of first-world marketing muscle and military occupation.  By contrast, Latin music (primarily Cuban) has for many decades played the role of “background music” in American popular culture, especially on Broadway and in popular film.  Through these venues it became deeply familiar to U.S. ears but was not recognized as coming from the culture that made it.  The history of the rise of jazz in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s coincides with the rise of the Cuban son whose history is deeply intertwined with the former, and for many early audiences was inseparable from it.

We can see, then, that there are dimensions of popular music (its appeal, how it circulates, its social role) that tell a hidden history of the imperial past.  As I said above, one of the points about secular devotion is that the politics of popular music, unlike what many today argue, is not found in transgressive underground youth cultures (with which it has been closely associated by numerous critics since at least the rock invasion of the 1960s and 1970s).  If music is subversive, it is because of the traditional and conservative gestures of the African religious element.  That’s one element of the imperial past I am referring to.  But there are others.  The prevalent idea, for example, that the West is culturally superior to the rest of the world is in part based on the belief that literature is superior to music.  Countries in which music is the primary expressive mode are considered backward, involved in mere pastimes, and unserious.  What I call in one chapter “the war of writing on music” is in the end based on a conflict between monotheism and polytheism.

For this reason, I consider the term “classical” to be one that belongs to certain popular and commercial forms.  There are various Afro-Latin popular genres, for example, that share every feature of European classicism – highly complex performance protocols, a developed literature of appreciation, a pantheon of venerated innovators, and an intricate compositional repertoire.  Popular music to this degree cannot be considered the other half of an invidious divide.  It is very important, also, that we resist those who try to discredit the idea of authenticity in popular music, which is very often done these days.  The notion of the “authentic” is still valid.  In fact, it is essential to any challenge to the negative effects of the market on musical creativity.