- She is Cuba: A Genealogy of the Mulata Body by Melissa Blanco Borelli, and: Spirit Song: Afro-Brazilian Religious Music and Boundaries by Marc Gidal
When music scholars consider the lasting effects of the transatlantic slave trade in Latin America, racial logic often stands out as an organizing principle. Centuries of slave trade resulted in widespread syncretism between Catholicism and West African religious traditions. The related complexity expressed through music (especially polyrhythms) and dance in ritual takes on unique shapes in local culture and popular music. Thus, the logic goes, the more 'black' the community, the more interesting the music will be. Two recent monographs provide compelling challenges to this logic through differing disciplinary perspectives—dance scholarship and ethnomusicology—for the Afro-diasporic musical behemoths of Cuba and Brazil. These studies explore the nuances of racial logics of traditions that draw explicitly on orishas/orisas (Yorúbà deities) while also directly confronting the temptation to tell stories with easy answers about the precise meaning of the 'other'.
She is Cuba: A Geneology of the Mulata Body by Melissa Blanco Borelli highlights its adventurous approach to dance and bodies in its title. Blanco Borelli is not a music scholar, so the emphasis on the types of knowledge conveyed through dancing bodies and corporeal theories may at first be jarring to readers of this journal. However, there has been a long tradition of cross-dialogue between dance and vernacular music scholarship in the Americas. Performance studies scholars such as Barbara Browning (Samba: Resistance in Motion (Bloom-ington and Indianapolis, 1995)) and Marta Savigliano (Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (Boulder, Colo., 1995)) have often been required reading for Latin American music specialists. Like Browning and Savigliano, Blanco Borelli foregrounds embodied ways of knowledge to arrive at a new way of theorizing the importance of the mulata, the iconic and sexualized Cuban woman of mixed race descent, in Cuba's national identity. As the title indicates, the dancing mulata embodies multiple, contradictory meanings of cubanidad—Cuban-ness—in that nation's discourse; she is at once a tragic figure in Cuban film and a source of feminine power and pride in Lucumí, Cuba's syncretic religion that maps worship of Yorúbà deities onto Catholic saints.
For many Cubans, the mulata is the essence of the county's complicated history of slavery and colonialism realized in the contemporary guises of international tourism and dance. To explore this, Blanco Borelli coins the neologism of hip(g)nosis to highlight embodied ways of knowing through dance. The swaying hips of the mulata can entrance the colonizer's patriarchal gaze as much as they demonstrate the contested terrain of the mulata body with her hips forming 'a boutiqued habitus' (p. 16); thus, hip(g)nosis 'addresses the political economy of pleasure and the consumption of certain bodies' (p. 17). It is a compelling idea, but scholars looking for more explicit connections to music and less jargon from French cultural theory might very well find themselves frustrated. Her theorization would have been easier to follow if she had stuck with one or two major strains of thought rather than juxtaposing so many ideas. Writing through theory is a convention in dance and performance studies scholarship, but it can still take some getting used to, especially for scholars more accustomed to arguments anchored in musicians, composers, and listeners. These are not the figures who populate Blanco Borelli's study. Instead the reader is treated to traces of mulata dancers as portrayed in letters, correspondence, and on film. In one of the most compelling chapters of the book, she explores rumours swirling around mulatas and their dancing partners at the academias del baile where mulatas were said to have engaged in prostitution. She complements the subtext about these women with photographs of...