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Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music by Alexandra T. Vazquez

Iván A. Ramos|University of California, Berkeley

Vazquez, Alexandra T. Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music. Duke University Press: 2013. $24.95 paper.

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Listening in Detail opens with two invitations. The first is from Cuban legend Ignacio Villa, otherwise known as “Bola de Nieve.” Villa’s tone is welcoming: “I am so glad to be with you all this evening/to present a set of songs/in my way,/and with my piano”(2). The second invitation mirrors and happens alongside the first. It comes in the form of Alexandra T. Vazquez’s own welcome, an offer for us to listen along with her to the crevices in these songs. Throughout the rest of this brilliant and deeply engrossing book, Vazquez uses Cuban music as the starting point to explore Cuba’s complex relationship to politics, race, and culture. She deftly intervenes into performance studies and sound studies through her book’s main methodological gamble: “listening in detail.” For Vazquez, details are essential to destabilizing prevailing narratives around Cuba through its music, particularly in the aftermath of the Buena Vista Social Club’s success on the world stage. This success resulted in Cuba re-emerging as a romantic subject of nostalgic remembrance, a national project interrupted by the Cuban revolution and Castro’s regime. Vazquez encourages us to listen to “interruptions that catch your ear, musical tics that stubbornly refuse to go away”(19). Attending to these sonic details allows the author to revise prevailing narratives about Cuban music itself, as well as the many figures in the book’s rich archive, which includes not only performances, novels, historical accounts, but other kinds of objects, such as casual conversations, gossip, and musical outtakes. Along with the work of such scholars as Deborah R. Vargas and Licia-Fiol Matta, Listening in Detail helps set the foundation for an emerging and much needed field of Latina/o sound and performance studies.

As Vazquez demonstrates in her introduction, since the 1950s Cuba, in the American imaginary, has been reduced to a land lost to the Cold War, kept prisoner by Castro’s dictatorship. These accounts tend to ignore that in reality Cubanidad has been the site of multiple relational attachments in political discourses indebted to blackness, cosmopolitanism, and aesthetics, among others. Vazquez investigates throughout the book how music has often been the avenue through which Cuban identity has circulated beyond its politically visible understandings. She deftly sets up her temporal gamble by providing the reader with a concise yet comprehensive journey through the ways in which Cuban music has been presented as an object of musical and historical analysis, from a 1939 book commissioned by Cuba’s department of agriculture through contemporary guides that claim to be the definitive word on this music. But as Vazquez makes clear, “listening in detail” requires us to think beyond the conventions of genre. For Vazquez, “details” are the way in which the unwieldiness of Cuban music reveals itself against these attempts to locate it as a nostalgic object. The introduction also serves as an essential counterpoint to musicology’s disciplinary insistence on mastery as the methodological stance required for any musical analysis.  “Listening in detail” stages a performance studies intervention into sonic and musical interpretation. Throughout the book, details function as the guides to take us elsewhere by retraining the scope of our ear to follow various historical, political, cultural, and affective asides. This move, which has as one of its goals to “upend structures of power”(27) proposes the performance of Cuban music as a practice invested in finding Cubanidad across multiple registers that evade both political and identitarian demands. 

Listening in Detail’s first chapter, “Performing Anthology” begins with a consideration of Alfredo Rodríguez’s 1996 album Cuba Linda to stage a meeting point between Cuban music and American jazz. This nexus is also the expansive point in which African American history makes its relational claim to Cuban music. Through the details of this record, Vazquez examines the anthology in its many permutations—the literary collection, the performance revue, and the album itself—as a corrective attempt to the historical silences that would aim to unlink American and Cuban forms of racial blackness. Taking a cue from the album’s liner notes, Vazquez reads Cuba Linda as an active agent whose recording and afterlife interacts with historical grooves, joining Havana and New Orleans in ways that surpass the frame of US empire. She rethinks prevailing notions of the anthology as a source for archival silences and instead mines its history, particularly collections of African American literature through the 1920s, as corrective texts. These black anthologies allowed  the public to access documents otherwise ignored by the American literary canon and expanded the archive of black writing to highlight the significance of music to African American cultural production.  This attention to musical practice highlights how “Cuba and Cuban music form part of African American studies not as foreign comparatives, but as elemental part of their aesthetics”(63). Cuba Linda’s indebtedness to American jazz folds equally and negates the attempt to keep Afro-diasporic cultural production fragmented, distant from itself. Vazquez asks if performance could also be counted among the labors of anthologizing. To do so, she analyzes another form of anthology, the revue, as a way to both expand our conception of what it means to anthologize, as well as how this action intersects with liveness in performance. She closes the chapter on a virtuosic track-by-track reading of Cuba Linda that offers her own anthological musings.

Listening in Detail continues its intervention into predominant ideas around Cuban culture by next tracing its own feminist genealogy through Graciela Pérez, “the first lady of Latin jazz,” a renowned figure within the genre, but also widely unknown in her multifarious contributions to Cuba’s musical culture.  Vazquez expands her listening methodology to the interview which, she argues, can form the basis of an undercommons, a record as important as the record, that reveals information often left out of official biographies, recordings, and histories. Graciela forms a nodal point for feminist participation in Cuban music. Vazquez uses details in Graciela’s biography to challenge the silences enacted around her career. The chapter centers on an interview that Graciela performed for the Oral History Program of the National Museum of American History. Treating the interview as part of Graciela’s oeuvre rather than as an authoritative biographical document, Vazquez reaches back and forward in the great singer’s career. In the interview, Graciela recalls her first journey to perform at the Chez Florence cabaret in Paris, a legendary venue run by Florence Embry Jones, an African-American jazz singer who helped establish Paris’ well-known connection to American jazz. After performing, a French musician asks if she belongs to “a escuela rara,” a strange school. This question is meant by the French musician to discredit Graciela’s playing. She lacks the recognizable mastery over the bass, the instrument she was playing that night, but Graciela’s recounting of this event is retold playfully, proudly. Graciela’s musical accomplishments, which include her own life stories, are the opportunity to explore this “rareza” as an oppositional gesture, a sign of what Vazquez calls Graciela’s “shameless shamelessness.” This affective mode, this refusal to be shamed by musical mastery and historical knowledge, is produced by Graciela and read by Vazquez as a feminist gesture. Once again traversing geographical and temporal spans from one page to the next, Graciela Pérez emerges as a champion of the undercommons, the place in which Cuban music circulates beyond political boundaries. 

“Itinerant Outbursts,” the next chapter, seeks to recuperate one of Cuba’s most well known figures in the diaspora, the legendary bandleader Damaso Pérez Prado. Much has been written about Peréz Prado, who was essential in promulgating the mambo, Cuba’s most exported musical form, throughout the 1950s. Pérez Prado’s career is a lesson in diasporic travel. He left Cuba to help establish the sound of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema in the 1950s, and although his compositions did not reach New York’s crowds as easily as other musicians, his famous mambos helped kick-start and maintain the craze for decades. Pérez Prado was a virtuoso. Although classically trained he soon left the rarified world of elite music in favor of the Cuban musical mainstream. Foregoing a canonical investigation into Pérez Prado’s career, Vazquez points us instead to an all too easy to miss element of his performance, the grunt. Listening to any of Pérez Prado’s recordings with this detail to guide us certainly makes the grunt inescapable. But don’t be fooled by the singular use of the word here. Throughout the chapter, the grunt takes on a variety of forms, which Vazquez takes great care and joy in describing. Vazquez reads the grunt not as a prescriptive listening cue, but rather an alternative way in which Pérez Prado approaches his own creations. The “huhs” and “ughs” of these recordings shatter the official history of the mambo, finding its musical trajectory in Congolese drumming, taken up in Mexico City as the object of musical popularity. The grunt is an interruption within narrative itself, a nod that may mean different things at different times.  

The final two chapters engage with the ghostly traces of the Cuban Revolution. In a striking passage, Vazquez writes, “for Cuban youth brought up with the rupture, wherever they reside, we often don’t get a chance to know what our peers are doing, what they’re wearing, what they’re listening to, what the everyday feels like”(175). Cuba here emerges as the image of a place that is forced to exist in the past tense for the children of(f) the island. The fraught political relationship between the United States and Cuba takes center stage in chapter 4, “Visual Arrangements, Sonic Impressions.” Vazquez moves her listening practice beyond the record and into the realm of the visual. She analyzes two documentaries made in the aftermath of Cuba’s 1959 Revolution, Rogelio Paris’s Nosotros, la música, and Sara Gómez’s Y…tenemos sabor, released in 1963 and 1967, respectively. Vazquez’s turn here is significant: whereas her earlier chapters were invested in mining how musical productions and figures allowed us to understand the networks they participated in and often helped create, this chapter takes 1959 as the melancholic break of the diaspora. The visual-acoustic archive of the documentary and the photograph negotiates the distance and separation exerted by U.S. policies that cast Cuba as the perpetual enemy. Beginning in the 1950s, documentaries played a particularly important part in the representational schema of the Cold War world. They became the subject of propaganda, attempts to show how good life and culture were in one place or another. Although a vast number of these documentaries—whether produced in Cuba, the Soviet Union, the United States, and beyond—could not fail but become propagandistic tools, several radical filmmakers managed to emerge to create radical work beyond simple ideological scopes. Filmmakers including Paris, Gómez, and Santiago Álvarez, among others, managed to use the propagandistic form to create vibrant documents. Thus, Vazquez reads the “we” in Nosotros, la música as an attempt by the state to claim the “we” so crucial to convincing the Cuban populace of the viability of the revolutionary project. But once again, the details lead us elsewhere. She analyzes a moment toward the end of the film, in which Silvio and Ada, a couple crucial in the history of Cuban dance, are showcased. The film captures the couple dancing at an old yacht club, once the most exclusive social club in Havana, later maintained as a recreational space for members of the military. But the scene depicted in the film is neither. Silvio and Ada dance, at first for a crowd, and then in the newly emptied spaces of the club. For Vazquez, this moment represents a reprieve from the revolutionary “we” and instead forms the basis for a diasporic “us.” For a viewer of that diaspora, the dance along with the rest of the film indexes the possibility of a Cuba that was never left behind, or perhaps most presciently, it offers an acoustically infused image to a place that so many refused to even talk about. 

The book proceeds from this revolutionary moment to the present. “Cold War Kids in Concert,” the final chapter, returns to the exile to ask how music creates points of affiliation beyond the Cuban diaspora. Exile is not a monolithic experience; Vazquez makes that distinction as she reminds us that along with the official policies and waves of Cuban exile, there remain other children of these displacements. She repurposes the name of the rock band The Cold War Kids to thread a line between the many children of the Cold War. She utilizes the detail and finds the points that connect not only the children of Cuban exile, but also Korean and Vietnamese refugees and adoptees. For anyone thinking about the Cold War and its aftermath this is a particularly important methodological move. As Vazquez explains, to follow these strands one must avoid the comparative impulse and resort instead to “exchange a few stories and trade survival mechanisms”(213). She uses the Los Angeles-based exhibition transPOP: Korea Vietnam Remix (2008) as a site of exploration for these diasporic longings. Vazquez finishes the book by visiting two places that must necessarily bear the weight of the broken relationship between Cuba and the United States: Havana and Miami. Her analysis hinges on legendary Cuban band Los Van Van’s first performance in Miami in 1999. The concert, Vazquez shows, became a battleground between memory and negation; although it quickly sold out, protesters outside the venue urged concertgoers to boycott a band that was seen as being beholden to Castro’s regime. But the concert and its afterlife as an audio and video recording give an account instead of the numerous desires that structure even the most difficult exilic memories. By foregoing melancholia and instead focusing on the thrill of being with others who share similar histories of displacement, even when coming from different places, listening in detail allows displaced subjects to live in the pauses within songs, the gaps in the record’s grooves, and the empty spaces of memory where memory itself may be made anew.

A book that attempts to cover so much ground cannot help to produce its own sets of unexplored details. Vazquez at times seems to be unable to resist adding to her argument via short asides that beg further investigations. But this is hardly a criticism. These asides encourage the reader to search further, follow her own curiosity.  Listening in Detail is a book best read with headphones firmly in place. I often found myself searching for the songs and videos that Vazquez examines throughout the text. As soon as I hit play, I discovered that I was not listening to the music through Vazquez’s analysis, but alongside her. I began noticing my own details in the songs and videos. And that is one of the book’s greatest contributions. Listening in Detail lays out a methodology essential for those of us working at the intersection between sound and performance studies. 


Iván A. Ramos is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. His dissertation, "Sonic Negations: Sound, Affect, and Unbelonging Between Mexico and the United States" explores the use of sound across a range of cultural practices, including contemporary art, electronic music, punk, and fandom.