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Afro-Cuban Music: A Bibliographic Guide by John Gray (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 3, March 2014
pp. 455-457 | 10.1353/not.2014.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This work fills a longstanding bibliographic void, covering an area only previously touched upon by more general Latin American music bibliographies. It also comes at an opportune time after an efflorescence of relevant publications in the 1990s and 2000s. It contains nearly 5,000 entries, ending at a cutoff date of December 2008 (though some items from 2009 are also listed), and includes works in most European languages. Sources include books, book chapters, dissertations and theses, articles from indexed periodicals, and even select online sources. Some audiovisual materials (DVDs and archival recordings) are listed but, unfortunately, compact discs were entirely excluded, even those with valuable liner notes. Gray has even attempted the difficult task of overcoming the disconnect in Cuban and United States library information sharing by listing many Cuban theses, though Cuban archival materials are not listed as readily as those from the United States.

Gray categorizes the entries into seven sections: (1) general works on Afro-Cuban arts, religion, and culture; (2) festivals and carnaval; (3) general works on music; (4) musical instruments; (5) genre studies; (6) geographical diffusion of Cuban music abroad; and (7) biographical studies, the largest of the seven sections. These divisions are intuitive and useful, and the section on Cuban music abroad is especially interesting. It is questionable, though, whether carnaval warranted its own chapter, consisting primarily of non-musical works, while the music of carnaval is listed separately in the chapter on genre studies. Other realms—such as Afro-Cuban religious practices—are not treated as extensively beyond the music itself.

In addition to these chapters, Gray also includes a list of sources, libraries and archives consulted, and two necessary indexes of subjects and authors. The subject index is especially useful for finding works on Regla de Ocha (Santería), Palo, Abakuá, and other practices grouped together as “Sacred Musics” in the genre studies chapter. In addition, he includes a musician and ensembles list, but the criteria for inclusion and the general purpose for the list are not clear since it is not indexed. For example, there are only thirty-two batá drum players and ensembles listed with no indication as to their locales. Missing are batá luminaries Andrés Chacón and Papo Angarica. Oddly, the African American batá player Bill Summers is listed but not his Euro-American brother in añá (i.e., batá drum lineage), Michael Spiro, who has been arguably more influential in the spread of Afro-Cuban drumming in the United States. Gray also marks some musicians’ names with a “dagger” symbol to indicate those “not of African descent.” This is tricky territory when talking about Cuba where “blackness” is less sharply delineated than in the United States. If it must be noted, however, why not also add these daggers to the author index?

My personal experience with this bibliography is one of thankfulness and pleasant discovery of new materials previously unknown. It was quite difficult to find fault with Gray’s bibliographic skills, although I was able to find eleven significant oversights from indexed sources (seven more if we include non-indexed print sources). Despite this, I often found myself locating hard-to-find sources while navigating this volume. Indeed, the main feature readers might find disappointing is the limited, factual approach to annotations. Although it is impressive that Gray has read the vast majority of the items well enough to annotate them, there is rarely comment upon the quality of particular sources. Exoticism, racism, and superficiality pervade many of the popular works on Afro-Cuban music, thus more information regarding the quality would have been useful to researchers considering purchasing or borrowing options.

The general presentation of the book is attractive, but Spanish copyediting should have been done as all diacritics are missing. The author attributes the problem to the “long gestation” of the project (p. xii), likely started years ago with a database incapable of handling diacritics. Still, the simplicity of “find and replace” commands in any word processing application should have made it relatively painless to change, for example, cancion to canción. The matter is more important, even embarrassing, when the meaning of the word changes due to lack of a diacritic: a...

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