- Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas
Europeans and Africans made quite an impression on one other upon initial contact. An enlightened European worldview prized vision as the most rational sense for evaluating the world. Martin Munro suggests that the rational detachment associated with vision allowed Europeans to regard Africans, with their striking dark skin, less as fellow [End Page 118] men and more as objects to be conquered. As modern European culture collided with primitive African culture, Europeans defined aspects of their identities through the process of identifying difference in the black other. Rhythm almost immediately became an important signifier of difference. For rhythm, an experience that was at once aural, tactile, and visual, paid no heed to calls for rationality. Munro asserts that both Europeans and Africans have historically understood rhythm to be the defining feature of black culture and identity.
Munro demonstrates that rhythm is, and has been, a fundamental aspect of diasporic culture. Echoing historian William H. McNeill, Munro stresses the importance of rhythm and music, experienced collectively, for creating communities and strengthening connections within them. Munro argues that rhythm, drums, and music had important functions in West African societies, and that they retained relevance in the new world. Rhythm was injected into a range of creative pursuits, and was used in the Americas to forge relationships, build kinship networks, strengthen solidarity among rebels, and reclaim African and black identity. He examines uses of rhythm in black cultures across time and space in order to demonstrate that rhythm is indeed the defining element of black identity in the “circum-Caribbean world,” which he defines as the United States and the Caribbean. In particular, Munro examines the role of rhythm in Haiti, Martinique, Trinidad, and the United States at key moments in African diasporic history.
Munro finds rhythm in dance, martial arts, music, song, literature, and poetry. In revolutionary Saint-Domingue, rhythm was an essential part of vodou rituals that created a sense of community among ethnically diverse insurgent slaves. In twentieth-century French Martinique, poets associated with the Negritude movement embraced rhythm for different ends. Léopold Senghor used rhythm to identify with his African roots, while Aimé Césaire chose to engage rhythm’s palliative forces. Munro is particularly strong in his analysis of poetry, demonstrating that changes in form and style reflect shifting perceptions of black identity. In the United States, James Brown’s rhythm-driven soul music initiated a rhythm revolution that was bound up in the social revolution brought on by the civil rights movement.
Munro is keen to establish the connectedness of this circum-Caribbean world and the importance of rhythm throughout. Indeed, James Brown’s music helped push the limits of liberty in places other than the United States. The music of black America resonated with blacks in the French Caribbean and in Africa. The Negritude movement and the Black Power movement drew from one another’s philosophies. Refugees from Saint-Domingue transformed the New Orleans music scene at Congo Square in the nineteenth century, likely contributing to the development of jazz music.
Munro claims that “across the New World, rhythm has been at the heart of conceptions of race, culture and identity” (p. 183), but he has in fact engaged only with developments in the French Caribbean and the United States. Perhaps due to his focus on former French colonies, Munro presumes that all slaves experienced conditions akin to [End Page 119] those on French sugar plantations. He neglects the nuances that existed among different slave societies in the Americas, and indeed, in the circum-Caribbean area that he defines. Nonetheless, Munro successfully establishes the centrality of rhythm in black culture in the French Caribbean and the United States, as well as the importance of recognizing connections between the United States and the Caribbean. The history of rhythm and its connection to slavery undoubtedly deserve attention in the broader Atlantic World.
Columbia, South Carolina