- Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music by Alejandra T. Vázquez
In Alejandra T. Vázquez’s own book review about Marta Savigliano’s Angora Matta (2005), she reflects on “the troubling conundrum for dance and music critics everywhere: what are the different ways in which our objects of study demand to be written?” This comment encapsulates Vázquez’s own long-time personal preoccupation with methodology and with the “failure of representation in and of itself”—the imperfect ways in which verbal language can (not) capture the semiotic complexities [End Page 670] of dance and music, of live performances. This conundrum translates, clearly, into explorations with methodology and interdisciplinarity, key sites for recognizing the originality of Listening in Detail.
In addition to recuperative readings of understudied Cuban musicians and artists, this book promises to offer, and clearly delivers, profound critiques of all fields the author touches, as well as poetic, self-reflective, incisively analytical discourses that trouble our sense of accomplishment as scholars. While one could categorize these interrogations as traces of postmodernist theories, I believe in the candid and sincere stance of a young scholar trained in Performance Studies who is searching for alternative modes of producing knowledge that refuse to be reified into categorical objectivity. This search is ironically embodied in the multiple discourses that she brings to this brilliant book. Not only does the author include historical facts, archival documents, biographies of the musicians she examines, moments of personal listening, transnational flows, and analysis of foreign policy, but she also engages in the intersections between popular music and other genres such as literary texts, documentary films, and even album covers. Even her frequent recourse to official definitions from dictionaries highlights her dilemmas with the failure of representation.
These tensions between her refusal to anchor herself in any particular discipline or methodology (Performance Studies itself has become framed as an ethnographic field) and her grounding in very traditional and even official discourses suggest that Vázquez is, like most interdisciplinary scholars, searching for the multiple methods and “recourses” that will help to answer the questions that guide her projects. The section titled “The Mystical Qualities” of Alfredo Rodríguez’s album Cuba Linda (pp. 76– 92), engages indeed in verbal translations of the musical items in the album, clearly illustrating the semiotic experimentations in Listening in Detail.
Beyond its multiple discursive textures, Listening in Detail offers a humble yet poetically profound and original analysis; as informed by Bola de Nieve’s music in the introduction, it does not pretend to be definitive. The author’s statement that the book is “decidedly indefinitive“ not only disavows the tourist guides and colonial appropriations of Cuban culture, music, and art by Empire but, most significantly, it acknowledges the intimate, the excess, the “details” that give social and personal meanings to music. If Vázquez has selected Cuban musicians who have been unacknowledged in scholarship and official musical histories—Bola de Nieve, Alfredo Rodríguez, Pérez Prado, and Graciela Pérez—she also offers new approaches to understanding by framing the chapters around details of their work, whether metaphoric or performative: Alfredo Rodríguez’s anthologizing impulse on Cuba Linda, Graciela Pérez’s asides, and Pérez Prado’s grunts.
Yet these details are meaningful only within the larger historical analyses that Vázquez offers her readers. For example, the closing of the University of Havana for understanding Graciela Pérez’s decision to sing; the United States/Cuba rupture of 1959 and its consequences in her reading of musical documentaries by Rogelio Paŕıs [End Page 671] and Sara Gómez; the historical segmentations that render Cuban jazz as derivative of African-American jazz, in the chapter on Alfredo Rodríguez; and the experiences of the children of Cold War refugees shared by Cubans, Vietnamese, and Koreans, all create meaningful contexts from which to understand the author’s claims regarding the social, racial, gendered, and (trans)national meanings of Cuban musical...