restricted access The Rise of Son and the Legitimization of African-Derived Culture in Cuba, 1908-1940
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The Rise of Son and the Legitimization of African-Derived Cult ure in Cuba, 1908-1940

The rise of the Afro-Cuban musical genre commonly known as son is representative of Cuban society's ability to affirm through art its primary cultural influences: Europe and Africa. Despite the successful transculturation within the music, however, the events surrounding the creation and acceptance of son reiterate the struggle between Cuban elites and the masses to define lo cubano.1 While elites were looking to Europe and the United States for representations of culture and modernity, the black and mulatto masses were constructing an art form that ultimately gained acceptance worldwide and became a defining symbol of Cuban culture and identity.

In many countries with large Afro-descent populations, culture has been the primary means by which these marginalized groups have been incorporated into the mainstream. This has often come as a result of the appropriation of African-derived culture by those of European descent, through such categories as dance, music, food, and religious practices. However, such practices are by no means an indication that the people who created the culture have achieved political, economic, and social gains within their respective societies. In many instances, the cultural practices of the black masses are accepted, while the originators of the culture continue to exist in the lower stratum of society.

In this essay, I will show how the social and political conditions under which son became a representation of popular culture in Cuba served as a catalyst for the affirmation of Cuba's African roots, despite attempts on the part of the elite to exclude Afro-Cubans from establishing any connection to Cuban national identity.

The Roots of Cuban Son

Son came to be regarded as a highly sophisticated and culturally expressive popular art form in twentieth-century Cuba, despite historically originating from the most marginalized and disenfranchised group in Cuban society: the black masses. While mulattoes and poor whites contributed to the development of the music on various levels, it is the African-derived traditions of the black masses that constituted the foundation and early inspiration of son. These traditions had their origins in the many African nations and ethnicities transplanted to Cuba against their will throughout the duration of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. African traditions were transformed within the plantation environment, and retained in the Afro-Cuban cabildos de nación. The historian Philip Howard affirms that [End Page 497] these mutual-aid societies met in private and, because of their spatial distance from church officials, became very attractive to Afro-Cubans. The cabildos allowed them the means to enjoy much more religious autonomy than the Catholic-controlled cofradías, or religious fraternities (Howard 27). This religious autonomy was in many ways synonymous with cultural autonomy, in that cabildos proved to be a fertile ground for the nurturing of the Afro-Cuban musical tradition.

The enslavement of Africans in Cuba, as in most areas where the institution was prevalent, played a pivotal role in the development and retention of African culture among the enslaved population. Robert Jameson, in his Letters from the Havana During the Year 1820, writes: "none of the enslaved Africans have acquired an indigenous character; the African soil from which they were torn still clings to them, neither washed off in the font of baptism or stream of knowledge" (20).

Jameson's observation, that Africans still clung to their traditions despite being enslaved, advances the notion that African culture was strong during the period. Apart from Jameson's questioning of the civilized qualities of Africans, the description of festivals is reminiscent of some African religious ceremonies. This is important in explaining the cultural retentions of Afro-Cubans, because through detribalization efforts the Spanish colonial government attempted to supplant African cultures with that of the colonizer (Smallwood 191–92). This led to a clustering of traditions in which various African cultures blended with European culture, and allowed for the maintenance of many distinctly African traditions, which manifested themselves most notably in Afro-Cuban musical traditions such as son.

While the African ethnic groups represented in Afro-Cuban cabildos were numerous, four groups are recognized as having...