- Tropical Riffs: Latin America and the Politics of Jazz by Jason Borge
Jazz stands for a great many things in modern life: sex, race, freedom, even modernity itself. It rarely gets to be just music. At its peak, jazz was either an alienating and destructive art form or a way of life that promised an escape from the doldrums of conformity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jason Borge's Tropical Riffs: Latin America and the Politics of Jazz. Borge examines the ways that jazz has been variously received, assimilated, and rejected throughout Latin America. Borge relies on three in-depth case studies in Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba, although he also takes time to discuss and acknowledge the experience in other countries, such as Mexico. What emerges is a slippery vision of jazz that stands in for people's anxieties and hopes, particularly in national and racial terms, and that ultimately creates a transnational art form (11).
As Borge makes clear, jazz was never going to occupy a neutral space in the cultural life of Latin America because the music could not be separated from the political and cultural dominance of the United States. It occupied an unusual [End Page 429] space because it was filtered through elite and intellectual lenses before it was exposed to mass audiences in these countries. Some writers were bitterly opposed to jazz because it threatened indigenous music, such as tango in Argentina and samba in Brazil. These cultural forms were linked to nationalism and thus jazz was seen to threaten national identity. Unsurprisingly, jazz also raised uncomfortable questions about race in these countries. In Argentina, the association of jazz with blackness launched lively debates about the merits of primitivism and "irrationality" in art (58). While Brazil embraced a form of optimism about multiracialism that was absent in the United States, jazz and its American origins were treated as distinct from African influences on Brazilian samba. In Cuba, jazz assimilated with local music and became popular, in no small part because of the proximity of the island to the United States and the involvement of American luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie. However, the association between jazz and the United States proved to be dangerous after the 1959 revolution.
Despite much of the ambivalence about jazz in Latin America, there was both critical embrace and commercial success. The short story "El Perseguidor" by Argentine writer Julio Cortazar criticized notions of "racially intuitive" jazz by implicitly questioning the meaning of whiteness and blackness in music (77). For all of the discomfort with jazz in Brazil, it helped birth bossa nova, a musical style that was ironically most appreciated by white, middle-class Americans who rejected the difficulty of hard bop and free jazz. Moreover, as time has gone on and jazz has diminished in popularity as music for the masses, it has taken on symbolic qualities for many Latin American authors. Living in the wake of failed promises of prosperity and democratization proved appealing to a small but vocal class of writers and artists.
For anyone hoping that the book might take a firm stance on what jazz is, Borge will disappoint. However, a firm stylistic definition of jazz or a discussion of which forms of jazz (hot, sweet, or bebop) were purest would ultimately weaken his argument. That would further ground the work in the sorts of national themes that Borge has tried to avoid. At the same time, some discussion of musical style and theory might have been useful in considering the changes that were being made when jazz was assimilated into a Latin American form. Strikingly, for all of the attention paid to the fears of Yanqui imperialism in the form of jazz, the chapter that comes closest to addressing this does so rather weakly. Borge's fifth chapter begins by addressing the fact that by the [End Page 430] 1950s, the US government had embraced jazz as a uniquely American art form that could be used in the cultural propaganda war with the Soviet Union by sponsoring tours of jazz musicians...