- Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana by Geoffrey Baker
Geoffrey Baker’s new publication, Buena Vista in the Club, consists largely of four extended essays, several of which have appeared in earlier (and much shorter) versions in academic journals and books. The study draws from fieldwork in Havana conducted intermittently over seven years. It is well written, informed by diverse literatures, analytically sophisticated, and contributes in important ways to existing debates within ethnomusicology and other disciplines. The book is probably best used as a specialized text in graduate classes, or perhaps for advanced undergraduates in conjunction with background readings on Cuban and North American popular culture. [End Page 300]
In the introduction, Baker notes parallels between international fascination with the Wim Wenders film Buena Vista Social Club and academic interest in Cuban rap. In both cases, the attraction derived largely from the perceived authenticity or purity of the Cuban music scene, as well as nostalgia for earlier periods of music making within Cuba and/or abroad. Both projects resulted in substantial music tourism as well, and subsequent musical production based on external perceptions of Cuba and its music. Chapter 1 discusses the relationship of Cuban rap to the cultural initiatives of the Cuban government and explores exactly what the revolutionary “state” is, how it functions, and the extent to which it has supported or suppressed rap performance. Chapter 2 considers the current dominance of reggaetón in Cuba, a relatively understudied repertoire, and the implicit politics of its fun-loving, hedonistic, and apolitical lyrics and performance aesthetic. Baker underscores the close ties between performers of rap and reggaetón, genres often discussed in existing literature as diametrically opposed. Chapter 3 considers rap and reggaetón from the perspective of their presence in the urban spaces of Havana, analyzing the existence of formal or state-sanctioned versus informal performance venues, the extent and nature of the music’s circulation in the mass media, and narratives of urban experience found in rap and reggaetón lyrics. Chapter 4 considers the internationalization of Cuban rap and perceptions of it abroad, in contrast to its meanings, audiences, and forms of circulation within Cuba. A relatively brief concluding section documents the slow decline of the rap movement as of 2003 and discusses the reasons for its lack of mass appeal.
One of the primary strengths of the study is the extent to which it interrogates the assumptions and (mis)perceptions of many academics studying Cuban rap. In essence, Baker suggests that their pro-black political agendas have led to an inadvertent filtering or crafting of narratives about the music and thus present a distorted view of recent trends. Few academics have tackled this issue of “academic meddling” so directly, if at all. In addition, Baker examines the effects of rap scholarship on Cuban musical performance itself nationally and internationally, the ways in which academics have encouraged particular kinds of music making through invitations abroad, the creation of artistic exchanges, and so on. He notes a “symbiotic relationship between academia, activism, and hip-hop” (23) and explores various “academic mythologies” (27), primarily related to the links between rap and racial identity. The book was clearly not designed to flatter all colleagues; on the contrary, it relentlessly questions the work of several individuals who have published on Cuban rap, including Sujatha Fernandes, Marc Perry, Tanya Saunders, and Alan West-Durán. While Baker’s critiques are extended and frequently devastating, he is always professional and supports his assertions with substantial data. [End Page 301]
A related strength of the study is the extent to which it underscores transnational relationships affecting local practice and thus the importance of considering macrocontexts in any analysis of local music making. In chapter 1, Baker makes clear that the Cuban rap scene from its beginning in the late 1980s was fundamentally affected by the intervention of U.S. artists and cultural activists in addition to scholars. Indeed, the music’s primary audience seems to...