IASPM-US Interview Series: Alejandro L. Madrid and Robin D. Moore, “Danzón: Circum-Caribbean Dialogues in Music and Dance”

by Victor Szabo on June 15, 2015

Madrid Danzon Moore

In Danzón: Circum-Caribbean Dialogues in Music and Dance (Oxford UP, 2013), co-authors Alejandro L. Madrid and Robin D. Moore examine the danzón, a music and dance that originated in Cuba in the 19th century, became popular in Mexico and Cuba in the early 20thcentury, and has experienced a revival over the past 30 years. Winner of the 2014 Béla Bartók Award from the ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Awards, as well as the 2014 Robert M. Stevenson Award from the American Musicological Society, this book explores how danzón has circulated around Cuba, Mexico, and New Orleans over the last 150 years, engaging in dialogue with early jazz, becoming a symbol of Cuban and Mexican heritage, and influencing the development of the mambo and cha cha chá. In May, Aleysia K. Whitmore spoke with Madrid and Moore about the book.

Aleysia K. Whitmore: Can you introduce readers to danzón?

Robin Moore: I view danzón as one of a number of creolized Afro-diasporic musical forms that started to emerge at the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It is a music and dance style that was associated primarily with black and mixed-race performers, but that drew heavily on European repertoire and cultural practice also. So just like in the case of early jazz, or maxixe, or other musical styles you could talk about, [danzón] involved a localizing and blackening of a European form through ragging, the use of improvisation, rhythmic play, and the creation of a distinct form out of something that had been decidedly Western European.

Alejandro Madrid: The way we are looking at danzón in the book, it’s also very difficult to define because we don’t really conceive of it as a genre. We define it in the book more as a performance complex. In a performance complex the musical elements change through its history according to how [the music is] adopted by different people—how it’s discursively whitened, how it’s blackened in different circumstances and at different moments. So just like Robin is saying, musically it’s part of a larger Afro-diasporic moment of music, but also it’s about many other things that make it very difficult to define, and that have to do more with culture, with how people make it emotionally meaningful at different historical moments.

AKW: Could you talk about how you became interested in studying danzón?

AM: It was back in 2004 I believe; I was at UT Austin in the Center for Latin American Studies as a visiting scholar when the School of Music had a search and hired Robin; it was the second year I was there. …we became friends and started talking about our various projects and the possibility of doing something together. And it came out that I was interested in doing something about danzón in Mexico and how it had been claimed by Mexicans to be a Mexican music genre when it was clearly something that came from somewhere else. And I think Robin was interested in this also because it was maybe not a very difficult or problematic music in terms of what he had done right before. He had been working on his book Music and Revolution, which was very polemical in Cuba. So I think it was a confluence of those two interests. Doing something about Cuban music outside of Cuba and doing something that would not be that polemical for Robin, but maybe I’m putting words in his mouth…

RM: I suffered a bit with that revolutionary topic in terms of its reception within Cuba, so there was definitely that element…As I remember, there was a somewhat mercenary or pragmatic aspect to our decision also, in that we came across info about the NEH collaborative grant and we were wondering what kind of project we could pitch that would combine our expertise in various ways. The danzón came up as a topic because clearly it had roots in the Caribbean and was a much bigger deal in Mexico. So it worked in that sense and we could both bring something to the table in interesting ways. We applied for that grant and ended up not getting it. And a couple of years later, on a whim, we ended up applying for the ACLS version of the same grant and got it. So that’s what really gave life and space to the project and let us move forward with it.

AM: Yeah that’s right, after the NEH didn’t happen I think we both continued doing independent work. Later, we finished [that portion of the project] doing [research together] and then started writing the book, that was after receiving the ACLS award. So the writing was done in almost 6 or 7 months only.

AKW: Oh wow. That’s really short. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your methodology.

AM: One of the things that we wanted to do was to write in a collaborative fashion. Maybe this wasn’t perfectly clear when we started the project, especially after getting the ACLS grant, but I was concerned that if we were going to write individual chapters that the voices were going to be really different and that it wouldn’t be a very coherent book. So one of the things that we decided early on was to write in collaboration. What we were doing was basically… I would write something, I would send it to Robin. Robin would make edits, add more things, and then send it back to me. And it was really, literally a back and forth like that for most of the chapters. There were a couple of chapters that we wrote more individually, but in the end, they were also sent back and forth a lot. Basically my main concern was the voice, that there would be a unified voice throughout the book … in terms of writing… Also, in terms of methodology, we wanted to combine historical archival work with ethnography. And in some chapters, there are a few chapters that might be more historically oriented and some other chapters that are more ethnography oriented. There is even one chapter that is even music theory oriented, with a lot of analysis. But basically we felt that the methodologies we were using responded to the kinds of questions we were asking of the materials … So yeah. I think we ended up doing this hybrid thing that is ethnography and music history and music theory all together.

RM: In terms of writing, Alejandro had a lot better perspective on how to approach things than I did. When the ACLS give you this grant, they tell you to collaborate, but they definitely don’t tell you how to collaborate. You have to sit down at the beginning and think about what is appropriate collaboration and yeah, my initial idea was naïve, it was about chapters like Alejandro was suggesting. But I think the method we worked out, chunking chapters in terms of dialogues between what was going in Cuba and Mexico at any particular time, revising each others’ work constantly, and suggesting things, asking questions—all that worked pretty well. In terms of the theory, I think we were trying to be as eclectic as possible. Part of that is just a byproduct of danzón that has this 200-year history and all kinds of scores and permutations, so there are many ways to poke at it: traditionally/musically, and in terms of discrete historical moments. But it’s also quite vibrant today, so issues of nostalgia and memory [come up]. [It is] a music that’s a big deal now, that had its heyday in the past, and has changed radically. So there are a lot of different ways you could analyze it.

AM: I just want to emphasize that one of the important things, and one of the theoretical backbones of the book, is the notion of this dialogue between Cuba and Mexico. We didn’t want to do something that was about Cuba or something that was about Mexico or even something about New Orleans (in the chapter that we did with New Orleans), but instead something that was about constant dialogue. This also came up when we tried to define the project, when we tried to come up with a title for the book. We wanted to emphasize this notion of a musical practice that is defined in the flow of the practice.

RM: And of course Alejandro was just in the process of editing the Transnational Encounters book, so all those ideas were front and center in his mind.

AKW: So did you do ethnographic work together and historical archival work together? How did that work?

RM: Well, Alejandro definitely started things off. He did a lot of ethnographic and archival work in Mexico and went to various festivals and what have you in Havana and Matanzas at various moments. My wife and I had had a child just as we were gearing up to do all this so that clipped my wings in terms of extensive travel. The extent of my work was with archival sources based in New Orleans like the Tulane Jazz archive and the New Orleans historic collection, and a two-week trip to Oaxaca. We did spend two weeks traveling together in Cuba to compare danzón practice in Havana, Matanzas, and Santiago late in 2011. And we took dance lessons and conducted interviews.

AKW: So you guys are dancers?

AM: Oh yeah. Robin is the dancer…

AKW. This is interesting to me because a lot of ethnographic work is so individual and I’m wondering what you learned doing ethnographic work with someone else.

RM: Yeah you know it wasn’t even just us. We had a little equipo, a little team of Cuban musicologists who were opening a lot of doors for us. Cuba may be a little different from some places in that you need an introduction or somebody that kind of knows people and all to get you in the door and get you access to what you want. And also our time was so limited, right? I mean usually you go there for a month and expect a bunch of “dead days” in which doors would close in your face and you’d finally figure out how to get in. But we didn’t have that luxury, we were on a tight schedule. Anyways, the Cuban musicologists planned a whole itinerary for us, helped set up interviews, helped arrange drivers to get from one place to the other, had contacts for us in different cities. One of the musicologists, Liliana González Moreno, was actually from Matanzas and knew collections there and individuals we could speak with. The other individual, Adita Oviedo, had worked a lot with danzón groups based in historical performance practice that were trying to recreate the sound of the turn-of-the-century wind bands. So [she] also connected us with particular individuals and what have you. We definitely learned a lot working with them. In terms of the two of us doing research together, I think it was great doing things with somebody else because it was like two interviewees sitting and asking questions. Things would occur to one of us that didn’t to the other. We would collectively evaluate how to use our time and whether it would be better to go look for this score, or talk to this individual, or listen to this performance and this sort of thing. Yeah, it just helped to have somebody to talk to about all that.

AM: Another thing that I wanted to mention is that doing work with Robin, or having someone else who would remain calm during moments of frustration was actually very good. There was a moment when I was really frustrated with the intransigence of the people in the hotel where we were having an interview. I really went crazy and so the fact that Robin was there and remained calm was very good.

RM: Yeah, you may know there are all kinds of restrictions surrounding interactions between Cubans and foreigners, and the spaces that both can inhabit. So we were trying to set up interviews with particular performers in a hotel and I guess managers are always concerned about theft and prostitution in their hotel or god knows what illicit dealings of various sorts—selling of contraband or something –so despite the fact that Alejandro had just won this international musicology prize in Cuba and that we had all kinds of local backing to support our project, they didn’t want to let musicians in so we could do an interview with them even in the lobby, let alone our room. We had a big kerfuffle about that. I guess I had just experienced so many of those problems before that I had a more fatalistic attitude about it.

AKW: How does this project connect to your previous work (or not)?

AM: At the center of the research project was the idea of transnationality and the flow of culture and how it changes and is continuously transformed. That is something I had been concerned with for a long time. Like Robin mentioned, my book about transnational encounters at the Mexican-American border had just come out and this is an issue that I had also been dealing with in my previous work. I foregrounded the idea of the nation state as a unit of interpretation, of moving beyond the nation state as a unit of interpretation. This project was a perfect way of extending the same concept it because it did not focus on the nation state as a unit. We were dealing with two different countries and how the cultural dialogue between these two countries was shaped, how the music was received and then appropriated and how it developed. In that sense it had a lot to do with what I had been doing before. In terms of the historical issues of race, [in terms of the] questions of race and questions of nationalism too, I think this is also something that we have been concerned with and is clear in the work of Robin. He can say more about that.

RM: Yeah I would say the project represented an ideal next step for me because on some level it benefitted from past work on the revolution, past work on issues related to musical nationalism and racialized discourses surrounding music. All that made background preparation for the project go a lot faster and of course exposed me to a lot of the important secondary literature that had to be processed as we geared up to the project. But I would say that Alejandro’s influence was important in having us actively question, critique, deconstruct particular national discourses surrounding a given musical form, and to really think about the phenomenon regionally both in terms of related musical styles happening at the same time and in terms of the actual movement of the same form across spaces to different people, different scenes and its transformations. All that was a very productive space to work in.

AM: Also in terms of the archive, Robin had been working in Cuba for decades. And at some point we actually made use of the archive that he had gathered all those years, [as well as] interviews with figures such as Antonio Arcaño that he had done way before we thought about this project. So in that way it was also very helpful that this was something in dialogue with something that we had done in the past too.

AKW: I think that something that’s really interesting about the project is this idea that something so transnational has come to represent something so local and national…I was wondering if you could speak a little more to that idea.

RM: One of Alejandro’s main beefs with musicology and its discourses in recent publications has been that they really tend to confine themselves to national boundaries and artists working in particular national spaces to the exclusion of a broader understanding of what’s going on. Just as one example I got interested in the musical similarities between early jazz and contemporary performances of danzón in a stylistic sense. And all of that led me, in conjunction with all of the readings Alejandro had exposed me to regarding transnationalism, to really to think about jazz in a new way in addition to danzón in a new way. I have been doing a little writing this week about the rather straightjacketed and nationalist/exceptionalist modes of inquiry within jazz historiography. [It’s] interesting there were some early figures like Marshall Stearns who actually travelled in the gulf of Mexico region and had a very broad understanding of what was going on and the significance of new Orleans as a Caribbean city, but as we move forward into the Gunther Schuller era of the 1960s and beyond, you see either a focus on virtuosity or an exclusive consideration of North American performers, and an excising of the early history of the music and the extremely cosmopolitan and international scene—culturally and really in terms of expatriates and all—that gave rise to the jazz phenomenon. So yeah, thinking about music in that way does seem extremely important and gives us a unique perspective on musicology at home in addition to other places.

AM: Something that was quite interesting to me in doing the project, while writing and doing the research, is that, yeah, we were interested transnational dialogues, but at some point were reminded that this music has very important local ties and that people define themselves and their locality through these musics. So there’s an importance in the discourse of the practitioners in which the local is really central. One of the things that reminded me of that is when we were doing the research and someone in Cuba found out that were writing about danzón in Mexico, and they got concerned because someone in Mexico had applied to this UNESCO commission on [intangible heritage], requesting that danzón be considered a [part of] Mexican heritage. People in Cuba people were very concerned with this; they said, “well no, this is our music.” So this was quite an interesting moment to reconsider the fact that these musics are made meaningful through very local connections and networks.

RM: Yeah it’s very true, even within a single country. The little bit of time I spent in Oaxaca checking out the danzón scene there, you know a lot of it was based on the incorporation of the marimba and other local instruments into the repertoire. They have their own historical experts and figures that they consider extremely important with certain ties to the capital and Veracruz. But people were interested primarily in Oaxaca and everything that had happened in that city since 1915 or so when danzón started getting popular. Fascinating.

AKW: I enjoyed your chapter on jazz. Are you planning on following up on that at all? You were talking about your research on jazz earlier. I’m curious what you’re thinking.

RM: At LASA the year after we published the book I got asked to take part in a Latin jazz panel… This was organized by somebody in the Spanish and Portuguese department at [the University of] Texas, Jason Borge, who was also writing on Latin jazz. He encouraged all of us to contribute articles to a themed issue on Latin jazz for the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, so my contribution is to be on the implications for jazz historiography of danzón research. All those essasys are due this month which is one reason I’ve been [reading] a lot more about jazz than I usually do and thinking about it in terms of these local and regional discourses and how they intersect and are dismissive of one another—where the frame of analysis is drawn in jazz historiography and what’s included and excluded. That sort of thing.

AKW: A lot of your chapter on jazz gives a musical analysis of danzón and orquesta típica elements of danzón and early jazz. I’m curious if you’ve found more as you’ve continued your research.

RM: Well I haven’t continued to work with those digitized Edison cylinders so far. I do have quite a collection of that stuff from the Cristóbal Díaz Ayala Music Collection at Florida International University. Some of the earliest danzón recordings have been lost. But we have some starting about 1905, 1906. So yes there’s definitely space to kind of keep going there and think about particular styles of improvisation and varied polyphony and the use of different particular instruments. All that definitely would be a fruitful way to go in the future. But for purposes of this project, I was just talking about my experiences at the Hogan Jazz Archive and the fact that I was stunned at the abysmal state of research on first-generation jazzers born before 1900. Most of them have a little file there that sometimes doesn’t even have a birth certificate, has no information about their family, or where they traveled, or the dates that they were living in the United States or other places. I just assumed that a form like jazz that has received so much attention over the last 50 years would have exhaustively explored the early history of performers. But in fact it has not been a concern of jazz researchers and there’s very little known about it. Just basic work with the census, with newspapers, et cetera has never been done…Most of the essay is talking about that and about perhaps why it happened based on the incorporation of jazz into particular discourses about race and blackness that already existed in the United States in the early 20th century. Or [discourses] that involved a nationalizing and “artification” of jazz as of the ‘60s and ‘70s as it was incorporated into university music programs and Lincoln Center events, publications of the American Musicological Society, that kind of thing. My argument is that the cultural work that [jazz scholarship] is doing in presenting America’s culture in a positive light internationally and symbolically incorporating what’s perceived of as African American expression has necessarily left behind some important aspects of the history. In particular, it has downplayed the contributions of Hispanics and others who were very involved in the music’s formation. It [has also downplayed jazz’s] relationship to region.

AM: And I think one of the reasons why the scholarship is so small when dealing with those issues has to do with the fact that American musicology, as we mentioned before, has been centered on the nation-state and jazz had been one of the central musical practices that has defined the field as well as American music in particular. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that some of the elements that we discuss in that chapter might not be of interest to people who are concerned with looking at these musical practices from the lens of the nation-state [what we argue] doesn’t support that fantasy.

AKW: You talk a little in the book about how the French Caribbean ties into danzón as a genre and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that.

RM: That’s another aspect of research that I think really needs to happen. The French Caribbean lies a little bit out of my area of expertise and Alejandro’s too I guess. But essentially, the most direct international ties New Orleans has are to the Francophone Caribbean, since large numbers of French-speaking émigrés came after the revolution in Saint Domingue. Some of them settled in eastern Cuba for a while, then kept going, and eventually arrived in Louisiana. So for many years, large segments—I’m not sure exactly what percentage—but a large percent of the New Orleans population was French-speaking rather than English-speaking. One of the early important horn players like Emile Manuel Perez was actually known as “the Frenchman” and spoke French at home. Clearly even though one could [examine]… relationships between the music and the Hispanic Caribbean and Mexico, one of the main strands of connection is to the francophone Caribbean. The French quadrille was a prominent part of repertoire in early jazz bands too. So in terms of repertoire also there was quite a tie. I don’t know anybody [who has] actually explored that in a serious way, but it did occur to me to wonder whether French quadrille had the same kind of improvisatory or stylistic elements that would tie it to this conversation that we initiated in the book.

AKW: Right. Always room for more research.

AM: It also has implications for how Cubans talk about their own music…Haiti, and the influence of rhythmic patterns [in] the music that came from Haiti such as the cinquillo is strong in the fabric of Cuban music. Again, this sort of regional influence disrupts this notion of national fantasy that we’ve been talking about.

AKW: Maybe we can talk a little bit about where you see room for more research in this area and maybe generally the transnational study of music.

AM: One of the things that we deal with in the book that is in dialogue with scholarship coming out of dance studies is dance style. We have a chapter about dance that tries to look at the development of the different regional styles of dancing the danzón in Cuba and in Mexico in a dialogic way. And I think that’s something that I would like to see more of in the future. Especially this question [of pleasure] that we played with a little bit… the role of pleasure, the role of enjoyment in dancing in terms of transnational settings [and] the development of style. But I think that’s an important question, of enjoyment and emotion, the emotion of the dancer. Which is really what attracts people to music and to dancing—an emotional element. I think it will be more and more important to deal with those issues in a less cognitive way [than] has been done. In some way, emotion has become an important question [within musicology] but it has usually channeled through music cognition. To me, that sort of work doesn’t really provide the kind of answers that make music important to people—the reason why emotion is such an important thing in their lives. So we need to tackle emotion from a different angle. Not from the cognitive side.

RM: Pleasure is certainly important. One thing that really struck me about danzón was the distinct material forms that pleasurable activities took and the varied readings of those material forms. In Mexico, the danzón tends to be about discipline…there is a lot of counting as one dances, people maintain a strictly erect upper body, a really tight frame, particular kinds of hand grips, dance steps, sequences, that kind of thing. And in Cuba it’s mostly about, by contrast, looseness, spontaneity, lack of proscribed ways of doing things, rather quick segue into a chachachá or slow son groove that is even more improvisatory. [There the music is a] kind of free-for-all with all body movements that would probably make peoples’ jaw drop in Mexico. So the different ways pleasure are understood or misunderstood in particular ways feed into perceptions of national character. It’s interesting in the first place that those kinds of expression would have developed the way they did–so differently. But then of course they get read and misperceived in ways that feed into international discourses and stereotypes.



Some examples of danzón from Cuba and Mexico:

A video featuring a Cuban band that plays danzón in a wind ensemble format typical of the turn of the 20th century: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrrxEhloQn4

Cuban couple, Gladys and Antonio, dancing a ritmo style: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLvUx_oGwPM

Mexican couple, Karla Amparo and Armando Sánchez “El Suavecito,” dancing floreado style: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2rGwk_xSqU&feature=related


Robin Moore (PhD, The University of Texas at Austin, 1995), Professor of Ethnomusicology, has received awards including fellowships from the Rockfeller Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the National Humanities Center, and the American Council of Learned Societies. His primary research interests include music and nationalism, music and race relations, popular music study, socialist art aesthetics, and music curriculum reform. His publications include Nationalizing Blackness: afrocubanismo and artistic revolution in Havana, 1920-1940 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), Music and Revolution Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba (The University of California Press, 2006), Music in the Hispanic Caribbean (Oxford University Press, 2010), Musics of Latin America (W.W. Norton, 2012), and articles on Cuban music in the Latin American Music Review, Cuban Studies, Ethnomusicology, Encuentro de la cultura cubana, and other journals and book anthologies. Since 2005, he has served as editor of the Latin American Music Review.

Alejandro L. Madrid (PhD, The Ohio State University, 2003) is a music scholar and cultural theorist whose research focuses on the intersection of modernity, tradition, globalization, and ethnic identity in popular and art music, dance, and expressive culture from Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the circum-Caribbean. He has published more than half a dozen books that have received prizes such as the Ruth A. Solie Award from the American Musicological Society; the Woody Guthrie Book Award from the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch; the Casa de las Américas Musicology Award; the Samuel Claro Valdés Musicology Award; as well as fellowships and subventions from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Fulbright Program, the Ford Foundation, and the American Musicological Society. He is frequently invited as an expert commentator to national and international media outlets and most recently acted as advisor for the use of Mexican music to acclaimed filmmaker Peter Greenaway, whose latest film, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, is set in 1930s Mexico. Since 2013 he is associate professor in the Department of Music at Cornell University.

Aleysia K. Whitmore is visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Miami Frost School of Music. She holds a BM from the University of Toronto and AM and PhD degrees in ethnomusicology from Brown University. Her dissertation was a multi-sited ethnographic study of the contemporary world music industry across Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. It shows how musicians in two Cuban-African bands, world music industry personnel, and their audiences collaboratively produce, circulate, and consume music in a specific era of globalization. She is currently researching cultural policy and the world music industry in France.

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