Bongo Explosion: The Rebellious Dimension of Latin Music

By Alex Nava, Ilan StavansAugust 11, 2019

Bongo Explosion: The Rebellious Dimension of Latin Music
LATIN MUSIC IS A UNIVERSE unto itself, with its own logic and its own mysteries. It allows us to gain a complex, multifaceted understanding of a number of dimensions, not only rhythmic, but also political and spiritual. This conversation between Ilan Stavans and Alejandro Nava, conducted in spring 2019, is part of a book-length project that also includes sections like “Rap to Heaven: Hip-Hop in the Americas,” “Salseros and Jazzeros,” “Mariachi Love,” and “Migrating Rhythms and Cultures.”


ALEX NAVA: It may be difficult to imagine, now in our post-rock-’n’-roll, post-hip-hop culture, how threatening the bongo explosion seemed to many throughout the Americas. African in concept, and Cuban in invention, the bongo drums were every bit as unsettling and jolting to polite society of the early and mid-20th century as gangster rap was to middle-class America in the 1990s. In North America, going back to the 19th century, the beats and rhythms of African drums were met with fear and suspicion, and eventually silenced lest slaves turn their instruments into a medium of communication and rebellion, or into a rite and incantation for the conjuring of their gods. Pious Christian society would not stand for as much. But even in Latin America, where a more relax and permissive attitude prevailed toward African music, dance, and religion, the ruling elites would commonly associate the bongos of the son or rumba, especially the tambores batá of Abakuá origins, with the stuff of the devil. Ned Sublette, in his Cuba and Its Music (2004), likens the sustained tone of a wet finger on the bongo head to a gang sign in pre-Revolution Cuba, so dangerous it seemed to the upper classes. Not surprisingly, the Cuban dictator, Gerardo Machado, president of Cuba from 1925 to 1933, sought to suppress the use of the drums in many public arenas, especially in the percussion-driven dancing parades called the “congas”; they represented all things immoral, all things sexual, all things African; they represented, in short, rebellious pleasures. An edict issued by the mayor of Santiago de Cuba, Desiderio Arnaz (Desi Arnaz’s father), put it in these terms in 1925, as quoted by Sublette:

I refer to as the “conga” that strident group of drums, frying pans, and howling, to the sounds of which epileptic, ragged, and semi-naked crowds run through the streets of our city. Between lubricious contortions and brutal movements, they disrespect society, offend the morals, cause a bad opinion of our customs, and lower us in the eyes of the foreigners.

In countless cases throughout the Americas, music has been an uncontainable force, eliciting alarm and even dread. In the case of Cuba, the marriage of African music, dance, and religion with Spanish traditions was a combustible mixture, like a marriage across caste or racial lines. If you listen close enough, you can hear the blending of contrasting cultures and religions, tones and timbres, rhythms and melodies. Almost all rumberos and soneros, for instance, were Abakuás, Santeros, and Paleros — Afro-Cuban religions that sampled and spliced together African, Catholic, and European traditions. This was part of the danger of the music: it abetted the crossing of cultural borders, the miscegenation of races, the blackening of European heritages.

And if you add to these things the fact that many of the rumbas of 20th-century Cuba arose out of the periphery of Cuban society — in the barrios of Matanzas, like “Las alturas de Simpson” — and the fact that it was associated with manual laborers, especially dockworkers, it isn’t surprising that rumba would be considered threatening to prevailing values. I want to explore with you, Ilan, the rebellious dimensions of Latin music. By rebellious I not only refer to ideology; I think of religion, too.

ILAN STAVANS: Modernity has conditioned us to listen to music as atmospheric background. It is constantly around us in anodyne ways, mostly as a distraction. Needless to say, this attitude deprives it from its true character: music is simultaneously an expression of individual search for meaning and of a societal drive to create communal experiences. In that sense, it is instinctual, often becoming a threat. The tradition of exaltation in music is as old as humanity itself; the same might be said of its rebellious drive. It isn’t surprising, for instance, that rock, in the 1960s, was seen as a vehicle of youth upheaval. Through its music, a generation sought ways to test — i.e., redefine — the parameters of culture.

In the case of Latin music, the drive is equally unsettling. You talk of rumbas as having a guerrilla quality: they unsettle, they denounce, they explode. The same might be said of salsa, merengue, bomba, and ragaetón. Think of the Mexican corridos, like the one about Gregorio Cortéz, in which an outlaw is celebrated as a folk hero. Or the canción de protesta, in particular the trend by the Nueva Trova Cubana: it was an anti-capitalist movement, focusing on the exploitation of workers. Latin Jazz, too, is refractory: it challenges traditional as well as untraditional ways of music, including the very notion of jazz as ungeographically rooted.

When one talks of “the Hispanization of Gringolandia,” the quiet revolution taking place in the United States, the main tool of change is music. That tool, on the surface, appears to be about dancing. But make no mistake: it is much more. There are dimensions in it that have to do with ideology. There are also aspects that are about a different kind of spirituality, at once old and new; and there are qualities that have to do with a new grammar, verbal as well as existential.

AN: I like the idea that music and dance are sparks of the “quiet revolution” in the United States, bubbling up from underground landscapes and experiences. Music smuggles with it alternative ideologies and beliefs, and contributes something polytonal — or the “sound of surprise” as jazz has been described — to the larger chorus of American voices and traditions. For those devoted to a monochromatic vision of the United States, this fact can be alarming, but it’s hard to stop. While societies and polities can issue economic and political decrees that privilege certain groups against others — the rich over the poor, white over black and brown, men over women — it’s much harder to control the invisible soundwaves of music. They tend to blow where they will, like God’s spirit over the camp of Israelites in Numbers 11, where Eldad and Meded, two humble elders, begin to “prophesy” and “speak in ecstasy.” Alarmed by the wanton scattering of God’s spirit, Joshua calls for their silencing and imprisonment. Moses objects: “Are you being zealous for me? I wish that the entire people of the Lord were prophets and that the Lord would confer his spirit on them all!” Countless episodes in the history of American music, of which Latin music is an integral part, have generated responses similar to Joshua, the fear that the spirit of music might be poured out on an unworthy group of people, the fear that musical modes and rhythms might swamp the moral centers of judgment, leading to irrational and crazed enthusiasms.

IS: Talk of the devil. As in baseball, Latin musicians are often devout believers. Their rhythms are forms of prayer. They sing to one divinity or to a pantheon of spiritual forces. Think of pop stars like Shakira, Juan Luis Guerra, and Juan Gabriel. Or think of the corridistas. And of figures like Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. Depending on the individual, their religious views are a hybrid: part institutionalized belief, part improvised appreciation. They either showcase that religious mix or they hide it, yet it palpitates in the background. And it can be seen as a threat. Latin music is often about being rebellious, about loving until death arrives and beyond, about seeing the body as a playful carcass, and about understanding fate as a directional force. Plus, Latin music is counter-establishment: it denounces repressive forces, it seeks to go beyond what is superficial, and it pushed for change.

AN: Indeed, which genres in Latin music haven’t endured the scorn and contempt, if not outright harassment, of the gatekeepers of morality? All, at one time or another, have been charged with offenses injurious to respectable society, charged with flirting with the devil. The scope and intensity of any one of the recriminations against it are evidence of these dangerous powers, of its capacity to excite the emotions, electrify the body, and produce panic among the civil order of society. While race is clearly a factor in such denunciations — every above genre was inspired by African aesthetics — there is also something deeply spiritual in the stuff of music, something mysterious and sacred that is disruptive and revelatory at once. Music can be a bearer of uncomfortable truths and defiant pleasures.

IS: Uncomfortable truths and defiant pleasures … There is something oracular about music, particularly among certain segments of the working class in Latin America. Semantically, the word “oracular” is connected with vision: the oracle, in Greece, was a priest functioning was a medium to deliver prophetic news. The biblical prophets engage in such action. They are the medium, the conduit through which the divine power makes itself apparent. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible are often bearers of bad news. They threaten the Israelites for their misbehavior. Latin music is visionary in that explores mythical stories while defying convention.

AN: In that vein, I say that music has both mystical and prophetic qualities: mystical insofar as it evokes something numinous and ravishing, something that must be felt to be understood, something ineffable; prophetic insofar as it has, on numerous occasions, kindled the embers of equality and justice, bringing not only light but fire to the histories of race and class relations in the Americas. Examples of its mystical qualities are almost too numerous to single out, but Ted Gioia’s description of jazz’s enigmas in How to Listen to Jazz (2017) is a good start: music begins, he suggests, where linguistic meaning ends.

IS: I love the idea. Music is nontextual storytelling; that is, the purest form of storytelling is musical. Music is also nonnarrative storytelling. For one thing, it does have a past and future tense. Everything that happens in it is in the present: ongoing, eternal, irrevocable. And one could describe music as nonlineal; or else, as only being lineal.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that the limits of one’s world are the limits of one’s language and that which cannot be said does not exist. Yet language is its own language; it exists beyond what can be said. Hegel and Schopenhauer believed music was the freest of arts, the least conformist. You can try to stop an orator from delivering a persuasive speech but you can’t stop music. Music spreads like light; it is unconfinable. That’s because music sets in where words no longer are effective. Of course, music and words are frequently married.

AN: In my opinion, as a fan of hip-hop, I think your observation about the marriage of music and words is a crucial point. In ancient Greece and many Central African languages, there were no words for “music” apart from speech, song, dance, and religion. The term mousike, in Greek, referred to the combined complex of music and poetry. Poetry was almost always lyrical; it was sung, chanted, or rhapsodized.

But even with the prominence of the spoken word in these traditions, they always recognized a mystical element in their music, something that defied language and intellectualization, something that attacked the body and soul. This is what Gioia calls the “magical element”: “[There is] a magical element in the music, especially in its rhythmic essence, that eludes intellectualization. This aspect of the music must be felt, and if it isn’t felt, academic dissection is futile. The scholar must become more than a scholar to grasp it.”

IS: The scholar’s task might be that of a cataloger, or a contextualizer, or an explicator. These tasks are essential. My own view is that they are reactive rather than active: someone else does the imagining so that the scholar can explain it. But there is something more: music is ineffable. It defies meaning, like the divine.

I look for the divine in art: in a novel like Of Love and Other Demons (1994) by Gabriel García Márquez, in a concert by Bach, in a painting by Rembrandt, in a film like Andrei Rublev (1969) by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. I don’t mean to say that through them I will find it. It will only be a tangential manifestation. Through beauty, through exaltation, I will feel enhanced, opening up to the elements of the universe. The moment I want to explain those feelings — as I’m doing now — they automatically vanish. For they themselves are beyond language. There is something beyond reason in art, something utterly emotional.

AN: Exactly, these encounters with visual or sonic beauty can be ravishing. Whether they provoke a life-changing shock of recognition, or a more modest epiphany or insight, the manifestations of art are forms of revelation in my opinion, hints and guesses of infinite beauty. And though the scholar cannot reproduce these experiences for the reader, the best critic will choose the right words to provide some direction and guidance to lead the reader on a self-exploratory journey of their own, sparking a lifelong passion.

The dilemma faced by music critics is similar to the task of theologians charged with speaking of G-d: how does one name the unnameable, describe the indescribable? This conundrum is ancient: Moses once beseeched G-d for a proper name, but had to settle for letters lacking in verbs (YHWH), a phrase that symbolizes the fragmentary nature of knowledge of G-d. Less an object of knowledge than a source of wonder and awe, the G-d of Bible is inscrutable and alluring at the same time, enigmatic and inviting. Biblical authors and scribes would always leave spaces and shadows for this intuition, even as they wrote furiously under the flaming heat of inspiration. Though they painted and embellished with language, resorted to symbols and metaphors, utilized allegories and secret signs, told stories in prose and poetry, G-d ultimately remained the One who must not be spoken of. For this reason, even a great theologian like Thomas Aquinas, known for his impressive systems of theology, would consider all words and commentary to be like straw compared to his own existential experience of the divine.

IS: Again, music as such cannot be tackled in words. That’s what in my view musicians like Mozart and Beethoven are about: offering their own interpretation of it. It is in liturgy, and in cantorial music, where an attempt to reflect it in direct theological terms is made. Maybe music can be about ideas. But music also transcends ideas in ways no other art can. I thoroughly admire music critics who use words to pin down those fleeting attempts.

AN: Yes, there is something admirable about the skill of music critics, how they squeeze meaning out of the incorporeal and elusive soundwaves of music. While their subject may be intractable to pure theory, they earn their keep by reducing sonic signatures to words. They bend and stretch language as far as it can possibly go — interpreting, explaining, expounding, revealing — but they almost always recognize that the fullest meaning of music is accessible only through experience, only to the degree that it penetrates the ears, races across the skin, seeps into the bloodstream, singes one’s eyebrows, wounds one’s spirit. Music is “mystical” in this way, too: it assumes the priority of feelings, moods, sentiments, and raptures over the dry bones of cerebral theory. Whether it waters the body and soul like a gentle and relaxing mist, or attacks the human person like a thunderous storm, music plays on the chords of the human heart. It delivers the kind of exhilarating grace that many fear for its hypnotic and incantatory qualities, as if it comes from the wand of a dangerous sorcerer.

In such cases, music appears to endanger the order and reason of a society, its Apollonian values and conventions; it is naturally transgressive, naturally Dionysian. No wonder that fresh discoveries of sound and style have often caused widespread anxiety. Consider this judgment on rock ’n’ roll by the evangelical minister and radio show host William Ayer in the fall of 1956. Writing for Youth for Christ magazine, he traced the origins of rock ’n’ roll — particularly the pounding drums — first to New Orleans and the Caribbean, and then further back to Africa (quoted by Randall Stephens, The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll [2018]):

Every low idea that can be raked out of the dives of New Orleans, the wild, unbridled sensuousness of semi-civilized Caribbean rhythms, and even in the dark and dank jungle of seething Africa, are being set to incendiary music to thrill the squealing mob and set them to moaning, groaning, twisting and twirling in empty-headed ecstasy.

IS: The bluntness is unavoidable: incendiary music is music that will burn down a civilization. It is a product of the barbarians, those for whom civilization is beyond their natural means. Ayer seems to be equating rock ’n’ roll with primitivism, with the sounds of the African jungle, which in his ears are atonal. He fails to see the religious dimension they provide.

AN: Yes, jungle sounds. Notwithstanding the bigoted judgment, Ayer’s comments bring to light, even more clearly than the partisans of rock ’n’ roll, the transgressive and rebellious character of much popular music in the Americas. He feared its seething “jungle” rhythms, its infernal drumbeats, its ability to light a fire in the bones and produce trembling and shaking, clapping of hands and stomping of feet, moaning and groaning. And there is no doubt, in view of its “dark and dank” origins in Africa, that he feared the racial contamination that it would beget if unchecked by pious white folk in America.

IS: But not everyone looks down at music as a rebellious drive. There are intellectuals who have applauded its rowdiness. In Cuba, novelist Alejo Carpentier, author of The Kingdom of This World (1949), understood the religious dimension of Afro-Cuban music. So did ethnographers Fernando Ortiz, author of Cuban Counterpoint (1940). Similarly, there are intellectuals like Josefina Ludmer in Argentina and Carlos Monsiváis in Mexico who celebrate either musical folklore like tangos, mariachis, and the songs of gauchos and orilleros. These are musical styles which deal with large existential questions — is life meaningful, can love transcend the moment, how to cope with death — in ways accessible to the masses.

AN: You’re right, surely there has been many writers and fans who welcomed the sublime and democratizing power of music. While Ayer lamented the spread of incendiary music in the United States, James Baldwin was writing at the same time about how these things might save the American soul, save it from the sins and hypocrisies of white supremacy. He, too, took note of the power of black music, whether sacred or profane, to reach deep into the inner sanctum of the human heart and cause a ruckus, but it was a holy ruckus that stood out to him. “There is no music like that music,” he testified,

no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to rock.

When the music blew the church into a euphoric and sweaty heap, and the preacher whooped like a rapper, banged out rhythms like a conga player, all individual identities seemed to fade away into the ether of mystical union; “the church and I,” says Baldwin, “were one.” For modern man and woman, there is nothing more mystical than these vibrations and enthusiasms.

IS: In my own life, music and religion have been intertwined. As a Jew, the rhythms of religious services on the Sabbath and High Holidays, transport you to another sphere. The entire community intones laments whose lyrics come from the Psalms and whose harmonies are ancestral. Being part of those laments is a mystical experience that repeats itself annually. On Yom Kippur, the prayer of Kol Nidre, the most important of the whole year, is repeated three times communally, each time with a heavier heart and a lighter soul. Philosophers like Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Abraham Joshua Heschel have written eloquently about the experience.

AN: As a Mexican-American Catholic, I, too, have known some of the cross-currents of music and religion that you describe, Ilan. Though the music of the Mass, originating in the Gregorian chant, is frequently restrained and reverential, sometimes dull, as a child I was exposed to the richness of mariachi services in my hometown of Tucson, especially on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12. We’re going to discuss mariachi music in a later chapter, but I have to say at this point that the mariachis brought a wider range of emotional tones and timbres to my experience of Catholic rites and ceremonies. The presence of violin strings and trumpets, vihuelas and flutes, and booming, sonorous voices enlivened and embellished my experience of the Mass, turning a measured and cool service into something spirited and exuberant. In the hands of the mariachis, the traditional chants and prayers of the liturgy — the Kyrie eleison, Gloria, or the Agnus Dei — were not only translated into Spanish, but translated into different rhythms, melodies, and vocal registers. I’m not saying that these Masses approximated the pathos of the black church in Baldwin’s description, but they were surely more poignant and haunting than the traditional Roman rite of Catholicism. (Denser harmonies, however, and even melismatic vocals, can be found in some Eastern Christian rites.) With the son jalisciense plucking at one’s heartstrings, and the rituals and prayers inviting transcendence, even someone foreign to mystical revelations might get a feeling for the sublime.

Martin Luther noted these intersecting threads of music and religion; in the spirit of your comments on music existing beyond language, he ranked music as one of the most sublime arts, just below the queen of sciences, theology: “Next to theology there is no art equal to music […] the prophets practiced no other art, neither geometry, nor arithmetic, nor astronomy, as if they believed music and divinity nearly allied.” I’m saying the same thing as Luther, but I would want to add that the musical revelations that we’re considering were often countercultural in the manner of biblical prophecy as well, revelations that came in rumbling basslines, clave patterns, or in the ineffable language of tongues; in the process, they unsettled and disturbed many of the hierarchies of society. They contravened the norms of society, culture, politics, and religion. In this sense, even more than Luther allows, music can unleash explosive and revolutionary emotions.

IS: You make me think of the hymn-like songs of Mercedes Sosa. Every time I listen to her delivery of “Alfonsina y el mar,” a song about the mysterious disappearance at sea of Modernista poet Alfonsina Storni, I feel I’m before a salute that reaches the divine courts. Storni’s end, as a 19th-century woman, is inescapably political; but in Sosa’s delivery, she is also an angel who looks over us at all times. As the song concludes, I feel as if I’m about to cry.

I feel something similar when I hear certain interpretations of classic mariachi songs, say by Jenni Rivera, José Alfredo Jiménez, and Vicente Fernández. Even by Selena. I think of mariachis as a type of gauchos: cowboys that are also outlaws, whose weltanschauung is about courage and revenge. There aren’t quite of this world; instead, they inhabit their autonomous, self-sufficient reality. A mariachi song can make you believe in a type of masculine hero that never really existed, even in the Mexican countryside. That fictional character is subversive just by virtue of its inexistence. Mariachi songs are anthems celebrating an emotional life not of this world.

AN: It’s true, mariachi music draws their rhythms and gritos from the deepest wells of emotion, as if they descend into the softer, subterranean parts of the soul, regions underneath the Stoic ground of Mexican culture. Mexican music has a way of peeling away our protective layers and exposing our aches and vulnerabilities. In my own life, it has played this part; it’s been capable of breaking open my feelings like few other genres.

I’m also fascinated with the peasant and charro origins of mariachi, its rough tongues and humble origins. Returning to the mariachi Mass, I would say that there’s something rebellious in the integration of Latin music in the Mass, as if the music adds a note of dissonance and difference into Roman Catholicism, a trace of peasants and manual workers. In my experience, in fact, most of these Masses are crowded with immigrants, day laborers, and the undocumented; the music speaks in their idiom and vernacular, a language of emotion and wordless yearning. And this seems to be a widespread trend in the Americas: in genre after genre, musical breakthroughs have often come from the peripheries of society, from the souls of outcasts, slaves, fugitives, and the underclasses. Like the prophetic oracles of the Bible, summoning humble shepherds, fishermen, and the like, musical visions are democratic and transgressive.

I’m reminded, for instance, of the remarkable musical life of the Cuban Arsenio Rodríguez, “El Ciego Maravilloso.” Though he was blind, poor, and the grandson of a Congo slave, music opened doors of opportunity that were denied him elsewhere in the Cuba of the 1940s. For this great tresero — the tres is a three-course guitar-like chordophone — music became his muse and mistress, a vehicle that enabled him, without ordinary sight, to see things that others overlooked. It was the instrument of his visionary and far-sighted wisdom, a perception that included in its scope the lives, dialects, and struggles of the barrio, especially the residents of Los Sitios, Havana’s lower-class neighborhood (also the home of Joseíto Fernández, the songwriter of “Guajira Guantanamera”). His song, “Los Sitios hacere,” included street slang of Afro-Cubans. (The “hacere” of the title means something like “bro” in the Abakuá neo-bozal language of Afro-Cubans, an African-laced version of Spanish used by first-generation arrivals.) The song paid homage to the disenfranchised people and culture of the barrio. His “Bruca manigua,” too, was a landmark in Cuban music (released in 1937). It beamed with black pride, and embraced the beauty of the “black nation” and carabalí culture. In neo-bozal language, the lyrics include the following lines: “Yo son carabalí / Nego de nación / Sin libetá / No pueo viví / Mundele acabá / Con mi corasón / Tanto maltratá / Cuerpo dan fuirí.” “I’m carabalí / Black man of a nation / Without liberty / I cannot live / White man finished off / My hear t/ So mistreated / They kill the body.” In such prophetic sentiments, “El Ciego Maravilloso” gave voice and vision to the oppressed lives and cultures of Afro-Cubans.

IS: Along the same lines, Juan Luis Guerra, the Dominican bachatero I mentioned before, uses his songs like “Ojalá que llueva café” (“Let Coffee Rain on Us”) and “Bilirubina” to talk about the hope for a utopian future or love as an unstoppable emotion that can put the world upside down. After writing the lyrics of these songs, Guerra became a devout Christian, de facto going into a nonmusical hiatus. It is as if his musical explorations had driven him to a spirituality that was connected with silence. Guerra’s religious odyssey divided his fan club: some believed he was off his rocker; others thought his journey was logical, even necessary. All this shows that musicians aren’t just manufacturing music, as people at times believe; they are marked by their artistic odyssey in decisive ways, just like the rest of us.

AN: Interesting, because similar odysseys were common among blues artists. Many of them began their careers, as the legends have it, by making deals with the devil. The churches seemed too confining and repressive to contain their restless emotions and anxious minds. They looked to music and dance as balms for their wounds, and to trains and railroads to take them away, but almost always ended up in the same existential predicament. Consequently, many of them would return, after rebelling against the church in their younger days, back in its bosom. And in many instances, they became preachers, ministers, and gospel songwriters, as in the cases of Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Charley Patton, Thomas Dorsey, et al.

While religion has been a key influence of many musical developments in the Americas, it’s also true that black and Latin traditions of music would test and expand the boundaries of religion, especially in the case of dance. I agree with your comment above, Ilan, that there is a particular grammar in dance, and I would add that this grammar speaks loudly against some disembodied forms of religious worship. In contrast to most liturgical and classical music — and according to many scholars, the complex superstructure of classical music was built on the kernel of the Gregorian chant — Latin music arouses the body as much as the spirit. The shoots of music that stem from the church, on the other hand, have been more transcendent and ethereal, stirring meditation and prayer but not dance. When church composers, in the 16th century, began to push the boundaries of what was permissible for a liturgy, they created complex, legalistic, polyphonic, and purely instrumental forms of music for listening. While it was aesthetically and intellectually brilliant, leading eventually to the sonata and symphony, these compositions assume a certain decorum, stillness, and cool contemplation. It was not music for dancing; it was not for rollicking and boogying; and it was certainly not for bumping and grinding on the dance floor.

Latin music, on the other hand, is all these things and more. By baptizing the drums of African music, and then marrying them with Spanish and indigenous customs, it would always stimulate the nerve centers of the body, hitting you in the chest with low-pitched bass, snapping your neck with high-pitched drums, sending chills down your spine with the resonant cracking of the claves. Instead of detached observation, Afro-Latin music typically demands full participation and absorption, a willingness to respond body and soul to the pulsing, booming, rumbling percussion. And this is true whether you’re a dancer or musician: to know how to set the rhythm of the music, as the famed Cuban bassist Cachao once remarked, you have to know how to dance.

Consider the case of Santería in Cuba: whatever else it is, Santería is a danced religion; the gods are conjured and worshipped through music, dance, drama, and poetry. At a toque de santo (a party for the gods), the orishas and saints are invited to take possession of the drummers and dancers, entering into and possessing them. Caught up in a whirlwind of ecstasy, the subjects wriggle on the ground, speak in glossalia, jerk and shake with convulsions, and vibrate their bodies. While mystics and prophets throughout the ages have manifested similar behavior (see 1 Samuel 19 for the ecstatic band of prophets associated with Samuel), these sorts of raptures would draw the wrath of Cuban authorities not only for their spiritual extravagance, but simply for being African, as I mentioned earlier.

And even when African gods and Catholic saints would become a distant echo, Latin musical idioms continued to speak in the rhythmic language of drums. This sonic legacy would eventually reappear in the guise of funk, soul, and hip-hop.

IS: The mistrust targeted at mystics has been a strategy to keep themselves on the margin. For the mystic, to accomplish his task, needs to be away from society. Juan Luis Guerra was somehow tempted by a mystical trait. His religious search led him in uncharted territory. The same might be said of scores of other Latin musicians.

AN: And it might be that there is a distinct advantage in being an outsider for a mystic or musician. Perhaps, as I suggested about “El Ciego Maravilloso,” they notice truths that others overlook or willfully ignore. In the gospel of Mark, for instance, the outsiders and minor characters — the poor and blind, the sick and despairing, foreigners and refugees, the deaf and dying — are far more perceptive than the inner circle of Jesus’s disciples. They seem to have a sixth sense, or third ear, that directs and concentrates their attention, enabling them to comprehend the parables of Jesus better than the apostles. And this principle was central to Latin American liberation theology: the belief that suffering or poverty, though neither desirable nor enviable, can school the intelligence and make it a soul (to borrow from John Keats’s phrase). No wonder that so many of the greatest artists have been tortured souls. The greatest of them learned how to squeeze joy and beauty out of tragic circumstances, how to create art that bleeds with a mixture of colors: sorrow and festivity, death and exuberant life.

IS: That tortured nature has pushed them to the margins of society. It has also led to exile. We are accustomed to think of exile as a form of punishment. For centuries, it was a strategic response to repressive, dictatorial governments. With a merciless tyrant in power, the best response was to seek shelter elsewhere. That could be in another Latin American country. The Mexico of my youth, for instance, was a safe haven for exiles from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Cuba, and other countries living under dictatorship. But exile is also a medicine to the soul. For the tormented soul, it is a way to seek distance, to find comfort in isolation. New York City has been a shelter for those running away from Caribbean extremist politics. Scores of them have been musicians as well as strong religious believers.

In large part, the bongo explosion came about became about because of a series of factors, some deliberate, others serendipitous, which resulted in bringing together talented artists from multiple backgrounds into an environment — New York — conducive for high musical productivity. The conditions that weren’t available at home were right at their fingertips. We are all lucky as a result.

AN: Yes, in too many cases to count, both mystics and musicians have turned their condition of exile into an aesthetic advantage. A classic case of this is the emergence of salseros and jazzeros — say Willie Colón, Mario Bauzá, Juan Formell, Rubén Blades, Eddie Palmieri, Johnny Pacheco, et al — out of some of the most impoverished barrios of 1970s New York. Working with broken English, and in neighborhoods like the Bronx known for their own brokenness, they would invent a new musical vocabulary as a way of communicating with this strange, new world. Their feelings of disaffection, discrimination, and diaspora were poured into music and then whipped into a potion or balm that might heal, or at least soothe, their maladies. They used their uprootedness as an asset; it became the source of their streetwise vision of “American” life, not unlike their neighbors in the South Bronx, the authors and inventors of hip-hop in Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. In salsa and hip-hop alike, the rich percussion of Afro-Latin legacies, joined with a tough barrio imagination, became the mediums through which black and brown Americans, long consigned to the edges of the United States, might announce their presence, affirm their dignity, and tell their story.


Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American, and Latino Culture at Amherst College, publisher of Restless Books, and host of NPR’s podcast In Contrast.

LARB Contributors

Alex Nava is professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the author of The Mystical and Prophetic Thought of Simone Weil and Gustavo Gutiérrez (2001), Wonder and Exile in the New World (2013), and In Search of Soul: Hip-Hop, Literature, and Religion (2017).
Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of the NEPR podcast In Contrast. He has written Quixote: The Novel and the World (2015), Oy, Caramba!: An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America (2016), Borges, the Jew (2017), and The Wall (2018).  He has recently written The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pittsburgh), and his book-long poem “The Wall” (also Pittsburgh) won the 2019 Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry.


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