- Listening to Detail: Performances of Cuban Music by Alexandra Vazquez
How might we conceive of Cuban music and, by extension, Cuba, in ways that move us beyond the truisms that litter scholarly and popular representations? In Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music (2013), Alexandra Vazquez1 proposes that we do so by abandoning the idea of totality, focusing instead on the “details” around which she structures her critical practice. Her book moves us through a variety of “sonic” spaces to make a case for an “interaction” with Cuban music, premised on the “aesthetic” rather than the “ethnographic” feeling rather than ideology. (27) In dialogue with a venerable tradition of music criticism in and about Cuba, Vazquez reorients us to its suggestive details, some iconic and others unremarked, in order to stage a lively conversation with the music and the country it has sometimes been marshaled to represent. Though this work sometimes moves her down historical paths, she consistently eschews the paradigm of genealogy for the more energetic project of “listening.”
Fittingly, Vazquez’s analysis is less an extended argument than a series of improvisations. Noting that musical details are by nature fleeting and even “disorienting,” she resists the urge to fix them into a more “cohesive” analysis or storyline. Nevertheless, a few overarching motifs stand out. For one, Vazquez is writing against the tendency to freeze Cuba and its music into a tropical commodity, shipped off to listeners and consumers in colder climes. Throughout, she is particularly concerned with the relationship between Cuba and the United States in the area of culture, challenging scholars and critics of jazz, especially, who continue to exclude Cuba from foundational stories. She is also attuned to the “affinities” between Cuban and Afro-diasporic cultural traditions, and the kinds of transnational encounters that have transpired in the space of music. One might be tempted to group many of her broader concerns under the umbrella of cultural cosmopolitanism. Nevertheless, Vazquez opts for more indirect signifiers—“vitalizing potentialities” (55) and “sonic confrontation” (76)—in tracing the Cuban musical “undercommons” (following Fred Moten and Stefano Harney).2 To craft her readings, she draws not only on other contemporary scholars of culture and performance studies, but also a wide variety of interlocutors, canonical and non-canonical, including Bola de Nieve, James Weldon Johnson, and a Cuban-American high school student in the 1990s.
Chapter 1, for example, considers the project of anthology more broadly from the vantage point of Cuban jazz pianist Alfredo Rodríguez’s 1996 album, Cuba Linda. The bulk of the chapter, however, dwells in other areas: the history of anthology as a “racial compendia,” “Jazz Studies” and the restrictive nature of “disciplines,” musical performance as anthology, and finally the revue and the album. Vazquez mobilizes the symbol of the anthology to understand what it is about Cuba Linda that seems to frustrate the “touristic enterprise” and inspire her to write not only “about it” but also “alongside it.” (76) It is the album’s excess of inspiration, “[moving] through too many musical traditions to mention—marking too many spaces to count,” that, for her, resists the narrowing impulse that would shut off that dynamism in the interest of categorization (by genre and nationality). (76)
Chapter 2 passes through similar analytical territory as it reconstructs the story of Graciela Pérez, a member of Orquesta Anacaona, Cuba’s most storied all-female group, and half-sister to Frank “Machito” Grillo, in whose shadow she has long been forced to reside. The author’s account of a 1998 interview with the Oral History Program of the National Museum of American History makes too much, I think, of Graciela’s various “performances” over the space of the recording. Nevertheless, Vazquez’s closing analysis of Graciela’s “shameless shamelessness” as an undercommons stance (specifically in the transition from a timid performance of “Mi cerebro” in 1945 to her bravado, orgasmic turn in the 1956 recording of “Sí Sí, No No”), and the author’s own fleeting...