Fernando Ortiz Today

This week in North Philly Notes, Robin Moore, editor of Fernando Ortiz on Music, writes about the relevance and influence of Ortiz’s writing on Cuban music, history, and culture

Who is Fernando Ortiz, why should anyone care about what he wrote, and what does he have to offer to readers today? Those are important questions, especially given that Ortiz lived and wrote many years ago; that his writings focus primarily on black music in other countries; and that—as an author trained in late nineteenth-century Europe—he inherited many biases toward Afro-descendant expression. As such, some of his observations sound dated or even racist by the standards of the present day. The relevance of his writings in 2018 may not be immediately apparent to everyone.

I first became acquainted with a few of Ortiz’s books as a graduate student at the University of Texas in the early 1990s. I planned to write a dissertation on Cuban music, and Ortiz loomed large as an individual who undertook the first detailed studies of Afro-Cuban culture in that country, based in large part on ground-breaking ethnographic excursions and interviews. His work was impressive in many respects: he published tremendous amounts of material, many thousands of pages over the course his career, and on a wide array of topics. He read widely in half a dozen languages. His knowledge of Cuban history and access to primary and secondary sources supporting such work were extraordinary. Fernando Ortiz on MusicSMIt became clear to me that countless individuals interested in black history, African-influenced languages in the new world, drumming and dance traditions, Afro-descendant religions, the Atlantic slave trade, and other topics had drawn heavily on Ortiz as they pursued academic work in the US, the Caribbean, South America, and elsewhere. Those influenced by his work in the U.S., for example, include the dancer Katherine Dunham; the anthropologist and founder of black studies in the United States, Melville Herskovits; and the art historian Robert Farris Thompson. Simply put, Ortiz was very influential; and if his work had written in English rather than Spanish, I am certain that it would have met an even more enthusiastic reception internationally.

Cuba, along with a few other Latin American/Caribbean countries, has a unique cultural profile because of the large numbers of enslaved Africans brought the island, and the fact that many of them arrived rather late (clandestinely the slave trade continued there well into the 1870s). In broad strokes, Cuba and the United States share a history of European colonization, the decimation of local indigenous populations, and the use of slave labor. Yet the fact that free and enslaved Africans and their descendants have constituted a majority of the island’s population for most of the past two centuries, and that African-derived traditions have been re-created in overt ways there, means that Cuba looks and sounds very different from the United States. I find that the study of Cuban music and history suggests interesting points of comparison for those based in the U.S. It helps us recognize similar Afrodescendant cultural influences in our own country. Cuba’s music and dance traditions that blend influences from West Africa and Europe are quite similar to our own, providing insights into processes of cultural fusion and how Afro-descendant cultures manifest themselves in repertoire such as black gospel. Reading about Cuban and Caribbean history helps us situate US history within a broader framework and makes us realizes that our “unique” cultural forms — from rap to blues to jazz — emerged out of broader processes.

Not only do I find the ethnographic data in Ortiz’s work still broadly relevant, but I consider even his ideological flaws and limitations to be instructive. The post-WWII period, which represents the apex of Ortiz’s career, was one in which leading authors throughout Europe and the Americas began to seriously question racist beliefs about non-European people for the first time. Much of this soul-searching was inspired by the Nazis and their horrendously racist views of non-Arian people, of course, as well as political challenges to colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Ortiz’s struggles with entrenched Eurocentric points of view, notions of racial and cultural hierarchy, and the “proper place” of Afrodescendant culture within his country represent a corollary to similar debates taking place throughout the Western world and beyond. Including Ortiz in the study of racial debates of the era expands our understanding of such discourse beyond the spheres of U.S. and European academia. It helps “decenter” that literature by underscoring the important contributions and perspectives of those in developing countries. And it helps us better appreciate the true extent of slavery’s impact on politics, culture, and ideology throughout the Western hemisphere.

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