The Afro-Cuban music and dance genre rumba has historically been considered una cosa de negros (a black thing) and reviled due to racialized stereotypes that link the practice with el bajo mundo (the low life), excessive alcohol use, and violence. Nevertheless, the socialist government has sought to elevate rumba’s status during the past half century as part of a larger goal of foregrounding and valorizing the African contributions to Cuban identity and culture.
Rumba is the most significant and popular black-identified tradition in Cuba; in addition to its association with blackness, it is often portrayed as a particularly potent symbol of the masses and working-class identity, another reason why the government has aimed to harness rumba to its cultural nationalist discourse.
Despite the discursive valorization of the practice found in much Cuban scholarship and political rhetoric, rumba continues to be identified with a particular and marginalized sector of the population. In many ways, the complex situation of rumba performance conforms to the more general trend of contemporary racial politics on the island.
This according to “National symbol or ‘a black thing’? Rumba and racial politics in Cuba in the era of cultural tourism” by Rebecca Bodenheimer (Black music research journal XXXIII/2 [fall 2013] pp. 177–205). This issue of Black music research journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above and below, street performances of rumba.
Most narratives on Los Angeles hip hop begin with gangsta rap, but recordings, videos, news articles, photographs, interviews, fliers, and memories detail a different story.
Electro hop, or techno hop, was the direct precursor to gangsta rap. This multifaceted and complex period emerged in the early 1980s and was developed on the streets of Los Angeles by adolescent black males. Expanding from mobile disk jockey crews, electro hop artists produced a musical soundscape and cultivated a cultural landscape that drew from both electro funk and hip hop, demonstrating both how intramusical components are linked to extramusical factors and how Afrofuturist concepts (re)envision (sur)realities. Electro hop sounds off on other/outer ways of reconsidering and reinvigorating planet rock.
This according to “Something 2 dance 2: Electro hop in 1980s Los Angeles and its Afrofuturist link” by Gabriela Jiménez (Black music research journal XXXI/1 [Spring 2011] pp. 131–144). This issue of Black music research journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, Uncle Jamm’s Army, a seminal electro hop group, in the 1980s; below, UJA’s signature hit Dial-a-freak.
Celia Cruz’s diverse musical repertoire served as a performative locus for the negotiations of both her Cubanness and her broader Latin American identity.
Likewise, her construction of blackness as an Afro-Cuban woman transformed and was transformed by her collaborations with African American musicians and singers, in styles ranging from jazz to hip hop.
Cruz also crossed racial and cultural boundaries by collaborating with Anglo musicians and by tropicalizing rock music. Her staged persona and her body aesthetics also reveal the fluidity with which she assumed diverse racial, national, and historical identities while simultaneously asserting her Cubanness through the use of Spanish onstage.
This according to “The blackness of sugar: Celia Cruz and the performance of (trans)nationalism” by Frances Aparicio (Cultural studies XIII/2 [April 1999] pp. 223–236).
Today is Celia Cruz’s 90th birthday! Below, Cruz performs with the Fania All-Stars in 1974.
Aided by her extraordinary voice, technical proficiency, and mastery at adopting multiple performing personas, Sarah Vaughan obscured conventional divisions between jazz and pop, masculinity and femininity, and blackness and whiteness. By transcending these binary oppositions, she crafted a vocal identity that was commercially viable, artistically satisfying, and which undermined racial stereotypes. In so doing, she reconfigured how American audiences understood the black female voice.
In American jazz criticism of the 1940s and 1950s, discourses on vocal timbre became a means to maintain boundaries between style, race, and gender, and anxiety was expressed by critics when a voice did not match the expectations created by the body that produced it or vice versa. Given that Vaughan’s voice was constructed as neither distinctly black nor white, and neither distinctly jazz or pop, this provides some explanation for her dramatic transformation, including plastic surgery, to create a physical appearance appropriate for her voice.
The roles of recording technology, the suburban home, and the contrasting domain of the nightclub all must be considered in terms of the politics of crossover in Vaughan’s career.
This according to To bebop or to be pop: Sarah Vaughan and the politics of crossover by Elaine M. Hayes, a dissertation accepted by the University of Pennsylvania in 2004.
Today is Vaughan’s 90th birthday! Above, the singer in 1946; below, in 1958.
The development of the Lindy hop must be understood within the context of Depression-era black culture and the Savoy Ballroom in New York City.
For some young black dancers the Savoy became a way of life, and for serious Lindy hoppers the crucial part of the evening was showtime, when the best dancers took the floor and tried to eliminate each other. The improvisational section—known as the breakaway, when couples broke into solos—spawned many new steps and maneuvers that were subsequently incorporated into the dance.
This according to “Swinging at the Savoy” by Barbara Engelbrecht (Dance research journal XV/2 [spring 1983] pp. 3–10). Above, a moment at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s; below, a tribute to the great Frankie Manning includes vintage footage from the Savoy.
Songs of Sam Lucas by Sandra Jean Graham is an open-access resource that streams recordings of 12 songs attributed to Lucas (ca. 1840–1916), one of the most celebrated entertainers of his generation, supplemented by a background essay, extensive liner notes, and illustrations.
Lucas created a significant body of black popular song that serves as an important window into the post-Civil War era. His songs illustrate a range of strategies: conformity to minstrel stereotypes, an attempt to recuperate the dignity of black traditional song, and ultimately liberation from minstrelsy through the adoption of white popular song style.
Recordings of Lucas’s songs are extremely rare; this site gives the public a chance to become acquainted with the music of this performer whose career spanned minstrelsy, variety, vaudeville, theater, and silent film.
Above, a newspaper photograph of Lucas from 1911; the full article is here.
Charles “Cholly” Atkins was a tap dancing star before the bottom dropped out for the genre in the 1940s.
In 1953 he was hired to coach the Cadillacs on their stage presentation, and he was so successful that he was given a steady job at Motown Records in the early 1960s; he went on to coach and choreograph for their top groups, including The Supremes, The Temptations, and Gladys Knight and the Pips, almost single-handedly keeping much of American vernacular dance alive for a new generation.
This according to “‘Let the punishment fit the crime’: The vocal choreography of Cholly Atkins” by Jacqui Malone (Dance research journal XX/1 [summer 1988] pp. 11–18).
Today is Atkins’s 100th birthday! Below, rehearsing with The Temptations in 1986.
BONUS: A performance with Charles “Honi” Coles from the early 1950s.
Related article: James Brown’s Deleuzian idiocy
Tuk, a syncretic fife and drum tradition of Barbados, may have roots stretching back to the first stationings of British troops there in the 17th century; it was the music of the black plantation slaves until Emancipation in 1838.
Two specific functions for tuk developed subsequently: as entertainment for the working classes and as the music of Landship, a music and dancing society. The tradition declined during the 20th century due to several cultural factors, but a revival began in the 1970s, and in the 1990s the government started to promote tuk as a uniquely Barbadian tradition.
This according to “Tuk music: Its role in defining Barbadian cultural identity” by Sharon Meredith (European meetings in ethnomusicology VIII  pp. 16–25).
Above, a tuk band and their stock character Mother Sally interacting with their audience; below, a tuk band at a local festival, first in a parade and later joined by dancers (ca. 4:50).
Before the 1950s, all railroad tracks in the U.S. were laid and maintained by hand labor. In the segregated South, this work was mainly done by black men.
The section crews responsible for maintaining the tracks were sometimes known as gandy dancers, probably because of the coordinated rhythmic movements required for repositioning tracks that had become misaligned. They synchronized their movements with call-and-response singing of improvised couplets and stock refrains.
The tradition is documented in Gandy dancers by Maggie Holtzberg and Barry Dornfeld (Cinema Guild, 1994). Below, the trailer for the film; the complete 30-minute film can be viewed here.
Religious African Americans saw the sinking of the Titanic as an example of God’s intervention in human affairs, as a divine overriding of the advantages conferred by wealth and mastery of technology.
Their secular songs about the disaster either nihilistically stress the fact that terrible things can happen at any time and when they are least expected, or take up the trickster theme. This latter type, which implies that blacks can survive in the white man’s world even when whites do not, often features Shine, a trickster figure created by blacks for blacks.
Shine—a derogatory form of address invented by whites—is the first to warn the captain of the ship of impending disaster, but is ignored. As the ship is sinking, desperate white women offer him sex or money if he will save them, but he determines to abandon ship at once and save himself—a mocking comment on the white supremacist fantasy of the black man always to ravish white women.
This according to “The Titanic: A case study of religious and secular attitudes in African American song” by Chris Smith, an essay included in Saints and sinners: Religion, blues and (d)evil in African-American music and literature (Liège: Société Liégeoise de Musicologie, 1996, pp. 213–27).
Today is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic! Below, Willis Lonzer performs a comparatively chaste version of the classic tale.
Related article: The Britannic organ (sister ship of the Titanic)