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Reviewed by:
  • National Rhythms, African Roots. The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance
  • Robin Moore (bio)
John Charles Chasteen . National Rhythms, African Roots. The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004. 257 pp.

National Rhythms, African Roots is intended for an undergraduate or educated lay readership. Chasteen's writing style is accessible and the author conveys considerable enthusiasm for his subject matter. The book begins with a chapter introducing the concept of "transgressive national dances." It includes an anecdote from 1854 involving a concert organized by Louis Moreau Gottschalk in which classical artists played alongside a Cuban tumba francesa folkloric drumming ensemble. This event serves as a point of departure for discussion of music and dance as sites of intercultural contact, interclass contact, and other activities which test social boundaries.

Chapters 2 through 5 constitute the first segment of the book and include some of its most engaging essays. Chapter 2 provides a brief overview of popular music and dance in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, and Havana at the turn of the twentieth century. Specifically, Chasteen draws parallels between the maxixe, milonga, and danzón in terms of their dance choreography, mestizo origins, and contemporary social meanings. Chapter 3 provides detailed information on nineteenth-century Afro-Brazilian epiphany troupes in Rio and their influence on the emergence of twentieth-century escolas de samba. Chapter 4 offers interesting accounts of mid-nineteenth-century milonga events in Buenos Aires. It documents gradually increasing middle-class interest in working-class music, including the emergence of blackface traditions among elite youth. Chapter 5 links the rise of the danzón to the independence movement in Cuba. It documents early forms of the dance beginning in the 1850s, as it appeared in [End Page 191] Matanzas carnival events, and controversies in the press that ensued as it became more widely popular in the 1870s and 1880s.

Chasteen's study adheres to an unconventional reverse chronology. Chapters 6 and 7 take the reader back to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, describing traditions that gave rise to the dances previously discussed. Chapter 6 documents processional events involving African-influenced expression throughout Latin America. The author notes that Catholic holidays were used by African descendants as a means of performing genres that were otherwise repressed. He considers similarities between candombe houses in Buenos Aires and Havana's cabildos de nación, and associates each with other public contexts for African-influenced dance, such as Congo Square in the United States. Chapter 7 describes European bailes de cuadros and their impact on Latin American dance forms, and then contrasts them with closed-couple genres such as waltz and polka that became popular in later years. Chasteen emphasizes the importance of dances for women at the time, the fact that they represented one of the few public spaces for social interaction to which they had access. He concludes by emphasizing the importance of masking traditions to transgressive acts of various sorts.

Chapter 8 documents the emergence of mestizo forms from many countries including the Mexican son, the Peruvian zamacueca (or zambacueca), the Brazilian lundú, Cuban danza and zapateo, etc., as well as ongoing campaigns by the church to discourage their performance. This section also describes the populist politics of Argentine president Manuel de Rosas and his acceptance of candombe drumming. Chapters 9 and 10, which are relatively brief, consider the little that is known about Latin American dance history before 1800. Commentary focuses on wedding celebrations of the elite, processions associated with Corpus Christi, and the emergence of the chacona and zarabanda. A final segment considers the relationship between dance and mestizaje discourse, and comments on the figure of the morena as an important archetype linked to this ideology.

As the author notes, little academic literature currently exists on Latin American dance history, and Chasteen's study is a welcome addition. It provides a great deal of previously uncollected information in a form that is easy to understand. The breadth of the study is unusual, with a focus on three countries simultaneously, but one that I found worked well. Few books on expressive culture help the reader understand pan-national cultural...


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