Grit Kümmele



Popular music is popular because it is influenced by neo-African religious practices

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In a nutshell

The main argument of Secular Devotion, I suppose, will appear to some people as outrageous. I am saying that popular music in the Americas is popular in part because it is so heavily influenced by neo-African religious practices that attract listeners who want to escape monotheistic certitudes and the rhythms of the modern market. Not all popular music is black in inspiration, obviously, but a disproportionate amount of it is, even in genres like disco, ballroom and Broadway, where the African elements are far from obvious.

At any rate, the living presence of new world African religion in popular music is widely denied. It is thought to have died out in the musical passage from early devotional hymns to the nightclubs, speak-easies, and pop charts of later commercial fame. I spend a number of chapters looking at actual songs, styles, and locales to suggest this assumption is not true. One can even say that there is a scandalous fact underlying the largely negative images of Africa in today’s media: namely, that in the face of this wholesale dissing of the region, there is a massive African unconscious to everyday life and leisure. This is significant. The feel and sense of “Africa” becomes a kind of ethical destination – the place to flee all associations with an earlier and tainted colonial relationship. The listener embodies this unacceptable status, and freely takes it on.

It is important to add, though, that the devotion that fans of various popular styles show (their crazy knowledge of all the minutiae surrounding an artist or group, their emotional investments in sharing music with friends, etc.) is not itself a religious practice. New World African religion presents itself under cover, and as a matter of form rather than content, and so it comes off as secular, and not religious at all. African spirituality in today’s music, in any case, is not what is generally meant by the word “spiritual.” Music is devotion in African religion. Its value system is rooted in relaxation, sexual release, collective oral expression, and satire. All of these are deliberately posed, I am arguing, against the discipline and orthodoxy of Judeo-Christian modernity, which listeners fully understand in the hearing of it. In fact, there is something deeply conservative about the message, but also liberating. Some popular music suggests, among other things, that in a neo-liberal era advertised as the “end of history,” anti-capitalist sentiments still manage to circulate freely in the leisure economy.

“There is a scandalous fact underlying the largely negative images of Africa in today’s media: namely, that in the face of this wholesale dissing of the region, there is a massive African unconscious to everyday life and leisure.”

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.

December 5, 2008

A close-up

There are a number of individual moments in the book I would want a reader to find on first browsing, so it is hard to choose only one. On balance, perhaps, it would be the opening pages of Chapter 4 on “Rap and American Business.” Part of the fallout of segregating Latin and U.S. black musics is that almost no one comments on the fact that rap and salsa grew up in the same areas of New York, only miles apart, during exactly the same period (the late 1960s and 1970s). The former was a retaliation against postmodern cynicism using the elements of urban consumer culture; the latter, a deliberately old-fashioned rural looking-back in hostile urban surroundings. The tragic forms that African spirituality was forced to take in the United States are exemplified by rap’s ambiguous business ethic – the inseparability of its message from the desire to get rich. Salsa, by contrast, carefully tried to hold on to naivety and humor.

The two genres represented very different approaches to dealing with the pressures of American business and its commercialization of art. So here is a very concrete example of what I meant above about the need to see black music of the Americas as a unity. For, what I show here is that hip-hop arose when it did in order to make up for a lack in U.S. neo-African music as compared with its Latin counterparts. In Latin America, there were always a number of available musical forms like calypso and guaracha that had a strong verbal component – an element of political exposé, poetry, and dance all rolled into single form. This is an essential component of African holism lost in the U.S., where jazz has become essentially a spectator sport and R&B an impoverished verbal idiom. We like to think of hip-hop as a heroic creation of embattled black youth with their backs to the wall, and of course it is. But it also had to be created in order to fill a void in African secular devotion.

“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.”


I’d like the book to be seen as a love song of sorts to the immense achievements of Afro-Latin music. Its pervasive, and still invisible, presence in so much of everyday life in America is still not fully appreciated, I think, even though this state of affairs has finally begun to change. We are talking here about an extremely supple music, classical, serious, ecstatic, playful, operating in myriad genres performed everywhere from the street corners to the concert halls. Its enormous influence at all levels is still, even now, written out of most musical history books. But I see the book also as trying to establish that even enjoyment and leisure can be forms of protest when they bring us face-to-face with the clashing outlooks of former colonial encounters that are continually replayed in code, and at the level of musical form. People never entirely forget the traumas of the past. They are looking for salvation from the dreary pursuit of spoils. The African presence in the new world has found a way to live, and is profoundly ethical in its resistance to the big commercial now. In a world of religious extremes, it gives us a different kind of ritual – the rituals of secular pleasure.

© 2008 Timothy Brennan
Timothy Brennan Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz Verso 320 pages, 6 x 9 inches 978 1 84467 291 2 Cover design by Tim Heitman, Heitman Design, LLC. (Photo: Collection F. Driggs/Magnum Photos.)
Grit Kümmele

Timothy Brennan is the author, most recently of Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right (2006). A journalist in Central America during the 1980s, and a former consultant for Public Television, his recent books include At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (1997). He edited, introduced, and co-translated Alejo Carpentier’s mid-century classic, Music in Cuba (2001). His essays on literature, cultural politics, and American intellectuals have appeared in a variety of publications including The Nation, the Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books.

Cover Interview of
December 5, 2008