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With this masterful work, Louis A. Pérez Jr. will transform the way we view Cuba and its relationship with the United States. On Becoming Cuban is a sweeping cultural history of the sustained encounter between the peoples of the two countries and of the ways that this encounter helped shape Cubans' identity, ...
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With this masterful work, Louis A. Pérez Jr. will transform the way we view Cuba and its relationship with the United States. On Becoming Cuban is a sweeping cultural history of the sustained encounter between the peoples of the two countries and of the ways that this encounter helped shape Cubans' identity, nationality, and sense of modernity from the early 1850s until the revolution of 1959.
Using an enormous range of Cuban and U.S. sources--from archival records and oral interviews to popular magazines, novels, and motion pictures--P,rez reveals a powerful web of everyday, bilateral connections between the United States and Cuba and shows how U.S. cultural forms had a critical influence on the development of Cubans' sense of themselves as a people and as a nation. He also articulates the cultural context for the revolution that erupted in Cuba in 1959. In the middle of the twentieth century, Pérez argues, when economic hard times and political crises combined to make Cubans painfully aware that their American-influenced expectations of prosperity and modernity would not be realized, the stage was set for revolution.
The expanding tourist presence introduced changes that were both profound and permanent, transformations to which the Cuban people adjusted as a normal part of daily life. But some of the most noteworthy changes involved what tourists returned home with, impressions made and tastes formed as a result of their experiences in Cuba. Travel on this scale served as a source of dynamic exchange by which cultural forms were transmitted in both directions.
Such travel played a substantial role in shaping the way "Cuban" was rendered in the United States. This involved a complex transaction by which the North American notion of "Cuban" acted to change or otherwise modify Cuban self-representation as a means of success and advancement. Music was an important medium of this encounter and often gave "Cuban" decisive form in the popular imagination.
The cultural transformations of the 1920s carried North Americans deep into the realms of previously forbidden musical idioms, where melody mattered less than rhythm and dancing was expressed less in prescribed steps than experienced through permissive body movements. The fixed choreography and dance etiquette of Victorian social dancing were abandoned for dances that allowed improvisation, syncopated rhythms, and the physical intimacy of the dance floor embrace. Men and women assembled together in public places to move their bodies to the rhythms of such new dances as the turkey trot, camel walk, bunny hop, fox-trot, and tango. Dance became a way to explore the exotic and the primitive, an opportunity to experiment with personal freedom, a way to assert being. "Not to dance was not to exist," declared music publisher Edward Marks in 1934.(51)
Between the 1920s and the 1950s Cuban music was a pervasive force in the development of popular dancing in the United States. North American appropriation of Cuban musical idioms was accompanied by adaptation and alteration, largely commercial transformations to meet local market conditions. The music arrived loaded with images, and therein lay its appeal: license to deploy energies associated with the tropics. In the course of successive adaptations and arrangements, substance mattered less than form, from which emerged the representation of "Cuban" on North American terms.
Music in Cuba was in transition. The son arrived in Havana during the late 1910s and within a decade had gained widespread popularity. With its origins in Oriente province, the son fused Spanish melody and African rhythm. And for this reason, the son was rejected by fashionable society. It was oriental, a polite way to imply that it was African; it was unsophisticated, another way of saying that it was of the underclasses. In 1919 soldiers dancing the son in Guanabacoa were arrested and charged with immorality. As late as 1929, composer Luis Casas Romero denounced the son as a "true disgrace" to national music, a reflection of the "ignorance and degeneration" that had contaminated Cuban music.(52)
Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the son spread. From simple origins, the son continued to strengthen its style through the 1920s and early 1930s and soon became the standard fare in local nightclubs and cabarets, in theaters and music halls. The number of son bands increased. Between the 1920s and 1940s, nearly fifty bands (conjuntos) were performing in a variety of venues in Havana. This was part of the musical ambience that delighted North Americans. The son offered precisely those qualities U.S. tourists sought in Cuba: it possessed melody and rhythm, it was polished and primitive, it was lush and sensuous, eminently danceable--the perfect musical accompaniment to romance, "a dance of Dionysian movement," wrote musicologist Crist¢bal D¡az Ayala.(53rMDNM_)
North Americans were captivated by the son, which they often mistook for the rumba and misspelled as rhumba. The rumba was actually an exhibition dance performed by a man and a woman, typically as a sexual pantomime. People danced the rumba in working-class bars, waterfront cafés, and dance halls, the dockyard clubs (fritas)--in "the darker dives of the city," commented Sydney Clark. The rumba was explicitly sexual, as the performers danced to a script of courtship and consummation. "Lewd and licentious," wrote music critic Earl Leaf; "remarkably lurid . . . candidly sensual and of generative inspiration" and "danced to orgiastic music in some hot little bohio . . . undeniably frank," echoed Clark.(54)
The rumba was distinctly African and dismissed contemptuously by the Cuban middle class. Edith Pitts remembered that it was popular only among "the lower social elements," a "dance seldom mentioned in polite circles." Sydney Clark described the rumba as a "writhing African jungle dance . . . never countenanced on the island except in the lowest negro halls." It scandalized delicate sensibilities and evoked racial phantasms. In a letter to the State Department in 1920, U.S. minister Boaz Long objected to the "syncopated music of Africa" that seemed to be gaining popularity. "The 'rumbas,'" he warned, "are danced with sensuous music and the dances themselves often become indecent. . . . It is undeniable that sensuous songs and dances have the effect of developing a mob spirit. In the case of the negro they may arouse a sense of racial solidarity."(55)
The popularity of the son and the rumba might well have remained confined to working-class neighborhoods, among the poor, and in the bars and fritas along the waterfront. However, such Cuban musical genres attracted a wider audience, which is to say that they found a market and acquired commercial value. They conjured up exactly what many North Americans traveled to Cuba for: sex and sensuousness, the lewd and libidinous, the quintessential representation of the primitive, the exotic, and the erotic. "There is something about [rumbas] so reminiscent of voodoo," mused Edmund Whitman after a visit to Cuba, "of drums beating up the misty valley, of dark-skinned men and women prancing around the bonfire, that once known . . . can never be forgotten." One tourist came upon a band playing "native Cuban music with the native instruments, and it made you feel you were off in the jungles." Ted Shawn recalled his first encounter with the rumba: "I felt as if I could not possibly remain a spectator, but must spring out onto the floor and to the strains which seem to move in my blood like some rich, old heady wine." Shawn vowed to return to Cuba, convinced that "here I know I will find something near to Nature's breast, a measure of the cosmic rhythm that I seem to hear calling me from afar during those enchanted Havana nights."(56)
North Americans filled the cabarets and local dance halls to observe and to participate. In one such cabaret in Havana, Joseph Hergesheimer came upon "men and women doing [the rumba], galvanized by drink and the distance from their responsibilities, animated by the Cuban air, . . . prodigiously abandoned." The men were mostly "commercial gentlemen and stiff brokers," the "genial obese presidents and managers of steamship companies . . . invariably accompanied by their wives, who, for the most part, endeavored to re-create the illusions and fervors of earlier days." Herbert Lanks visited a club where a "gal in close-fitting bronze skin" whirled "out on the patch of floor and melts into an ultra-seductive version of the sensuous rumba." Lanks continued:
Her slim, tense, dancer's body weaves and melts its way into the music and into the senses. A tom-tom beat in the savage, sensual music beats every trim line of her body into every tired brain. . . . The tourist . . . forgets that he is a bald-headed businessman from Manitowoc; he is swept away by the tropic night and the tom-tom beat and the weaving bronze body; he is part of something young and strong and fierce and ageless as the jungle and unquenchable as the fiery heart of Africa.(57)
Music served as both source and setting of the North American meditation on sex and sensuality. Emphasizing the movement of hips and lower body, Cuban dance offered a powerful representation of tropical sensuality. The music was necessary to the pursuit of romance and seduction. In the motion picture Weekend in Havana, Nan Spencer (Alice Faye) was downright rapturous about "romance and rumba," the "enchanting rhythm" and "the primitive beat of the bongo drum and the sensuous sigh of the violin."
|Ch. 1||Binding Familiarities||16|
|Sources of the Beginning||17|
|Meanings in Transition||39|
|Affirmation of Affinity||60|
|Nationality in Formation||83|
|Ch. 2||Persistence of Patterns||96|
|The Long War||97|
|Design without a Plan||104|
|The Order of the New||125|
|Terms of Adaptation||161|
|Ch. 3||Image of Identity||165|
|Travel as Transformation||166|
|Representation of Rhythm||198|
|Ch. 4||Points of Contact, Sources of Conflict||219|
|The Meaning of the Mill||220|
|The Presence of the Naval Station||238|
|The Evangelical Mission||242|
|Baseball and Becoming||255|
|Ch. 5||Sources of Possession||279|
|Between Image and Imagining||280|
|The Promise of Possibilities||325|
|Configurations of Nationality||343|
|Ch. 6||Assembling Alternatives||354|
|In Pursuit of Purpose||355|
|Between Arrangement and Arrival||399|
|Ch. 7||Illusive Expectations||445|
|The Reality of Experience||446|
Posted June 6, 2002
An excellent overview of what it meant to be a 'satellite regime,' long before the phrase was coined for eastern Europe. Some U.S. readers will find it offensive because of their milk and cookies approach to American history. More serious people who can see the world objectively will find it a compelling explanation of life as Uncle Sammy's footstool.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 20, 2002
Other than the fact Professor Perez uses seventy-five words to say what he could say in five, and thus makes the prose mercilessly dense, the real problem with 'On Becoming Cuban' is the anti-American slant. His thesis seems to be that we bad norteamericanos had done the evil deed of trying to turn the Cuban people into, yikes, consumers, over the first half of the 1900s. Conveniently, for Professor Perez, his 'history' stops in 1959. Wonder why that is? Oh yeah, I guess selling his thesis becomes a little difficult when for the past 40 years Cubans have tried, at great risk, to come to Miami in droves, and not a single one seems to want to make the return trip. Kind of throws the evil consumerism idea for a loop. If you're into hearing the phrase 'American hegemony' repeated till your ears ache, get this book. If you want an enjoyable and balanced history of Cuba, don't.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.