- Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas by Martin Munro
Martin Munro's 2010 book Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas is a critical investigation into the ways in which the sonic concept of "rhythm" has been incorporated into different and sometimes contrasting conceptions of black culture and identity, helping shape histories, cultures, and societies across the Caribbean archipelago and North America (Munro 21).
Indeed, as the title and subtitle of the book suggest, Different Drummers dislodges "rhythm" from its technical areas of pertinence of music and musicology to use it as a conceptual tool to address wider historical, cultural, and political issues related to race. In fact, "rhythm"—a concept used in the book to refer, per extension, also to the music, dances, and work patterns of Afrodiasporic cultures in the Caribbean (Munro 3)—stands here for a major shifting cultural signifier, whose diverse and often conflicting articulations over space and time are able to reveal the whole net of practices of signification and processes of assignment of values that have discontinuously characterized the processes of becoming of circum-Caribbean cultures and the interplay of race relations in the Americas.
From this perspective, Munro's aim would be better qualified as an attempt to address not simply "rhythm," but "the discourse on rhythm." As the author himself clarifies, the relation between black culture and rhythm has been a political battleground for a long time: "rhythm has been one of the most persistent and malleable markers of race, both in racist white thought and in liberatory black counter-discourses" (Munro 4). What Munro unfolds in his study is therefore a detailed account of the "historical dynamism"—a term I borrow from Frantz Fanon's writings on Algeria—of rhythm. In fact, in his study the author sets forth to elucidate how accepting, denying, or disavowing the centrality of music in the diverse social and political articulations of Afrodiasporic cultures has never been a neutral question. On the contrary, it has always been a matter of (re)negotiating the lines of knowledge/power: [End Page 210]
The question of whether there is a natural, biological link between black peoples and rhythm is a . . . redundant one that has hindered discussion and clouded understanding of the diverse roles rhythm has played in diasporic New World cultures . . . How has [rhythm] been manipulated by various social, political, and cultural groups, and to what ends? How has rhythm shaped and defined history, societies, and cultures across the circum-Caribbean world? In each of the diverse though related and interconnected cases examined, rhythm is a contested concept that is sometimes vilified and repressed, sometimes glorified and valorized.(Munro 22-23)
Munro carefully picks up four key American geographical spaces and temporal spans: Haiti from the 1791 revolution to the mid-twentieth century; Trinidad from the early-nineteenth century to the 1940s; Martinique from the 1930s to the 1980s; and the United States in the era of the civil rights movement. Each of these geographies and moments in time is linked to a specific process of political mutation (revolutions, migrations, political upheaval); and each of them features striking examples of how the endorsement or dismissal of the centrality of rhythm in black cultures has had a central role in the playing out of social frictions as well as in the construction of political alliances across and within the lines of color.
As in Paul Gilory's The Black Atlantic (1993), in Munro's book sound is considered a depository of memory. Indeed, the book is a declared attempt to contribute to the field of "aural history": "the task of tuning in and listening to the past" (Munro 215). In this sense, it rubricates amongst the heterogeneous number of books which, from different disciplinary areas, have tried to provide a serious and punctual account of the emergence of cultural identities in the Caribbean from the perspective of the "ear," thus breaking the privilege of the "eye" which has been so central in the workings of epistemological violence underling the "Western" construction of history and identity...